Q&A: David Walsh on changing cycling, Lance Armstrong and his own fan days

As part of the Change Cycling Now (CCN) panel, author David Walsh was in London on Monday for the launch of the organisation's bid to bring about reform within cycling. Walsh has been a long time advocate for clean cycling but in this Q&A he admits that his own early days as a cycling journalist were based on being a fan with a typewriter.

That all changed in the late 1980s and became prominent a decade later Walsh became one of Lance Armstrong's strongest critics, penning LA Confidential and From Lance to Landis. His new book, Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong (opens in new tab), is out this month.

Cyclingnews: What have you made of today’s press conference?

David Walsh: It’s definitely not a bad thing. There is a desperate need for change within cycling. I think that the people who love cycling want change badly and I think that there’s a huge silent majority out there. Anyone who goes on twitter or on forums, they just have this sense that people who love the sport but don’t like the way the sport is run. And I was thinking about it over the weekend and I was thinking, what would be better than winning the Tour de France, and the thing that would be better would be winning the Tour and everyone is convinced you did it cleanly. That you did it clean. That’s not the situation now and I’m not saying Bradley Wiggins doped but Wiggins has had to live with a sense that many people believe him, but some don’t, and for the all the people who believe, some of those have a caveat that says ‘and I hope I’m right.'

CN: Is that a bad thing though, that we ask the question 'Are you clean?'

DW: What about getting to a time when we don’t have to ask the question? Can we not dream? One of the things that Lance Armstrong always said was, ‘of course people suspect me, I’m a cyclist.’ Why should we accept that? Why should we have to say cycling will always be suspect? Why cant we dream about being in a situation, where we forget all the other sports, there may be doping in many of others but we don’t care about them, that's their business. We have a sport that we believe is the number one sport in the world for anti-doping and we believe that our winners our clean. We totally believe it and we’re not asking questions at all now because we, the sport, are going way beyond what other sports do.'

This desire has never been apparent from the leadership of the UCI. It’s never been apparent and people are sick of it. The thing I’ve always said about this Tour is that we have the greatest race in cycling, where for a number of years in the two world wars we had no winner. Now we have no winners for seven years because of doping. It’s remarkable that doping can achieve what only the world wars achieved. And we must never be in this situation again. Better than that we must be in a situation where that question doesn’t exist. If Bradley Wiggins is clean, and I think that there’s very good reasons that he is, there shouldn’t be any questions. He should be able to enjoy the moment without feeling that there’s anybody out there that questions him and Mike Ashenden has talked today about his belief that next year if the riders bought into his idea and committed to the plan that he’s got, at the end of the Tour we know categorically that the winner did not blood dope and that’s a big thing to say because that’s the biggest way to dope now and it’s still undetectable of course.

CN: I agree there’s a growing sense that change is needed but is this (CCN) the organisation to bring it about? Can the UCI not reform itself based on the Independent Commission and do you think that the UCI will listen to what CCN even has to say?

DW: I don’t think they’ll listen. They’ll see CCN as the enemy which is remarkable that the guys who were clean in cycling are considered the enemy. That’s how Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen will see them. They’ll see this group as a rabble rousing group just intent on causing trouble. When you hear Eric Boyer, say what he said just now, that he rings the UCI on Lance Armstrong’s return, if I heard him correctly and says I have a problem as head of the teams, with a guy coming back who has not been part of our biological scheme who can come back when we don’t know what his blood values are for the last three months. And for asking that question he gets bullied by the head of the UCI. That’s frightening. Can you see the UCI reforming? Of course it can. Can it reform with Pat McQuaid as the President? The reform will have no credibility.

CN: Well who do you want in charge? Greg LeMond can’t be the president of the UCI. The next guy in line might be someone like Igor Makarov or Tchmil, potentially. If you look at the balance of power and the governance, is that a better solution?

DW: I’m not sure who the replacement should be. I don’t know. I do know that the current leadership is discredited. I would love to appeal to Pat on a more human level and say ‘look you’ve presided over the organisation when the greatest treachery was perpetrated. And whether or not you think you did your best to overt that crisis you were actually in charge.’ He’ll say that he was in charge in 2005 but we could have known about Armstrong in 2006. I’d love to think that Pat McQuaid would do the honourable thing and resign and say 'I don’t know who is fit to lead this organisation but after what’s happened over the last decade, I’m not.'

CN: You’ve been critical, understandably so, of the media compliancy within the Armstrong era. Do you think that’s now changed and I’m going back to that because you said that we should have a position in the future where we shouldn’t question whether the Tour winner is clean but to me you should always question…

DW: You should always ask that question but in terms of the level of doubt you have, we want to diminish that level of doubt to the smallest level possible where you’re still going to ask the right questions but I’m actually convinced I’m asking a clean rider hard questions.

CN: But has the media changed? I remember reading a story in the British press a few weeks ago that stated ‘Bradley Wiggins is universally accepted as clean’. I don’t believe that’s a true statement for a second.

DW: No, that’s not true but I do think that the media has improved a lot in that sense. There’s obviously some guys who haven’t been great journalists even at the current time but most of the guys who are covering the races now are more sceptical back in 1999 and 2000.

CN: I watched a documentary, I think it was on RTE, an old interview with you and Stephen Roche. It struck me during the interview that you wrote a book about Sean Kelly where there was very little mention of doping at the time. While Sean has never admitted to doping you never really cover that.

DW: Well I did, and it’s mentioned in the new the book, Seven Deadly Sins. In the very first chapter actually. At the time of writing the book I was three years a journalist when I started. I was in my mid 20s and I went off to France to live and to follow professional cycling. I was a fan with a typewriter. No question, when I followed Kelly I was a fan. When he tested positive at Paris-Brussels in 1984 I wanted to believe that there was some legitimate excuse for it and I wrote about it in the book, almost an entire chapter called the sting in the tail but at that time the UCI was still complicit. The Belgian federation said this guy is positive. The Irish secretary came over to defend Kelly. The Belgian federation sent the case to the UCI and said, this was a positive, the UCI sent it back and told them to look at it again. This was for no reason other than they didn’t want Kelly to go positive. They gave him a one month suspended sentence and a fine. Because at that time I was a fan with a typewriter I said well the small sanctions prove it was nothing. I was a fan with a typewriter at that time.

When did it change? Well four years later Delgado tested positive for probenecid and I spoke to Steven Rooks at the Tour de France and I said you are the moral winner and he said he wasn’t. I said that the other guy has used a masking agent to cover up drug taking. He said, no Delgado was the best rider in the race. I started to change then. Then we had swimmer Michele Smith in 1996 when I was very much on the side that she wasn’t a credible story. So a lot of things changed my mind. Then Festina came along in 1998 and when I went to the Tour in 1999 I went with a huge amount of scepticism. The remarkable thing was that there wasn’t that many people with scepticism among the English speaking journalists, Americans, British. There wasn’t much scepticism at the time for Armstrong. Maybe the fact that I was older, I’d been through stuff,  but guys were on their first or second Tours and Armstrong wins, what a story and they were blown away by it. Maybe I was lucky that Armstrong came along in the right time in my journalistic life. If Armstrong had been there in 1984 would I have asked questions? Probably not.

CN: What about Armstrong now, he could legitimately raise a point saying why aren’t people going after Gianni Bugno or Laurent Jalabert. Or even certain members of the CCN panel and asking them the same tough questions. Is there not still a hypocrisy there? Do you think that it’s fair that riders that doped, and who did cooperate with USADA, were only given 6 months over a spell of time that run through the winter. Is that fair?

DW: To me it is because the riders who cooperated with USADA, that was voluntary. Pat McQuaid has said at different times that they only gave evidence because they were compelled to. That’s wrong. Kevin Livingston was not compelled to and he chose not to cooperate with USADA and he was right at the heart of Postal. The other guys didn’t test positive so of course they deserve leniency. Anyone who voluntarily comes forward with useful information deserves to be treated differently to a guy who has tested positive and hasn’t willingly coming forward so I have no difficult with the leniency. Lance Armstrong if he talks about whether it’s fair that the focus is on him, I’d say look in the mirror. Look at what you did, the lies you told and the encouragement you offered teammates to dope, look at the amount of doping you did, the way you mislead the cancer community. The point is, when Lance looks at himself he won’t feel like blaming anyone else. He only has himself to blame.

CN: In his own mind he perhaps thinks he’s still the legitimate winner. And so do many of the riders he raced with him.

DW: He was the best doped rider.

CN: He was the best product from a system.

DW: But he wasn’t the best at anything really. To me the best guys in those races were the guys who didn’t dope. Christophe Bassons rode a better Tour for half the race than Lance did in winning it because at least he played by the rules and he could leave the race and say I may have abandoned but at least I didn’t cheat. Lance Armstrong won nothing.

You say that Armstrong may see himself as still the legitimate winner but here’s the guy who changed his twitter profile, who took down his seven time winner photo. He can photograph himself with his jerseys all he wants but if he believes that then why does his twitter profile still say seven time tour de France winner. There is no winner for those Tours. He can think it in his own mind but history is going to tell a different story.

CN: Should cycling therefore say, lets take Ullrich’s titles away from him and Riis, and Pantani. Lets look again at Indurain, too. Lets go back as far as we can and lets also go forward and look at Contador’s wins in more detail, Schleck and Cadel Evans too. Should cycling not do the same and have the same scrutiny?

DW: Well, I don’t know if it should. I know the question you’re asking is legitimate and I know there’s a good reason for believing that Greg LeMond might have been the last clean winner for the Tour de France until Bradley Wiggins maybe. Cadel Evans maybe, I don’t know. What we’ve got to go beyond is the I don’t know. We’ve got to get to a situation where we do know. That’s why we need change in cycling because the people who have been running cycling haven’t been as determined enough to find out.

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