I love what Nicole Cooke wrote, that last line!
I left school. There was no UK Lottery funding available to me. The 12 year old inside me with a dream of riding the Tour de France and collecting a few tee-shirts, knew exactly what I had to do I had to get across to the continent and join a team. Going there was great. It was one of my dreams coming true for me. Women's Road cycling was huge at that time; both the women's Tour de France and Giro (Tour of Italy) were 2 week events and looking like they would expand to 3 weeks to match the stage races for men. The World Cup visited more parts of the World than the men's and had 160 rider fields and I was now going to be part of it.
I feel really privileged. I have not had to work, I have been able to travel the World and do something that really excites me and gives me great pleasure. That I was able to satisfy that inner 12 year old's desire for collecting coloured clothes was another delight!
I have ridden professionally on the Road from 2002 to 2012. Those 11 years of my adult life I have given to the sport have been the very best I could give. It has been an incredibly turbulent time for the sport and it has not come out of it well. So many competitors have abused the sport by taking performance enhancing drugs and generated a travesty.
After the Festina tour in 1998 it was obvious to everyone who followed the sport that drugs were endemic. Like many, I hoped I could win races clean and that things would improve in that dark world as my career progressed.
We were all told in 1999 that testing was now improved and the show had been cleaned up. After all we now had a new, brighter than bright, clean tour Champion in Lance.
I did not have long to wait before encountering suspicious circumstances. In the fridge [in a team house] were various bottles and vials with diaphragms on top for extracting the contents via syringes. I rang dad and asked what I should do. We chatted it through and came to the conclusion that even condoning the presence of 'medicines' in the house I was staying, could lead to pressure being put on me, or in the worst case, if there was a raid on the house, it was highly unlikely that any of the "professionals " I was sharing the house with were going to say "it's a fair cop guv, That gear is all mine." So, I emptied the fridge and put the lot out in the front garden and [said] either it went or I went. It went.
I have had days where temptation to start onto the slippery slope was brought in front of me. [In one race] I was asked what "medicines" I would like to take to help me, and was reminded that the team had certain expectations of me during the race and I was not living up to them with my performance over the last couple of stages. I said I would do my best until I had to drop out of the race, but I was not taking anything.
Pressure was put on me but I was determined, and fortunate. I had a very good team-mate who was in a similar predicament and she took the same stance I did. Team-mates that say "NO" are priceless. I would have been very naive to think that I would not encounter moments, like this. I am appalled that so many men bleat on about the fact that the pressures were too great. Too great for what? This is not doing 71 mph on the motorway when the legal limit is 70. This is stealing somebody else's livelihood. It is theft just as much as putting your hand in a purse or wallet and taking money is theft. Theft has gone on since the dawn of time but because somebody, somewhere else, does it, does not mean it is right for you to do it. There can be no excuse.
In all this furore, the women's scene has been hit twice.
Every scandal on the men's side has caused sponsors to leave on the Women's side. And with such thin budgets, the losses have a greater relative impact on what survives. In areas where there was unique female development and growth, such as in Canada, which hosted a major Tour, a World Cup and the World Championships, all geared to supporting their number one rider — Genevieve Jeanson, there has been calamity. Perhaps Jeanson will not be a name familiar to you. She was the Canadian superstar, a national icon. She never tested positive. She missed a drugs test when she beat me and received a meaningless fine as a consequence. She exceeded the 50% Hematocrit level and the authorities acted in line with their legislation and imposed a "health rest" on her.
Second fiddle to Jeanson during this time in Canada was a rider with morals called Lyne Bessette. Nobody can give back to Lyne Bessette or I the wins Jeanson stole from us. Throughout her career Jeanson repeatedly lied, just like Lance and yet now, she confesses that she had been on an extensive doping program since she was 16. The full story only came out, via quality investigative journalism.
Jeanson states, like all the others, she is "repentant" and all that is behind her. All these "born again" champions of a clean sport. They could be more accurately described as criminals who stole other's livelihoods who are only ever genuinely sorry about one thing — they are very sorry they were caught.
I do despair that the sport will ever clean itself up when the rewards of stealing are greater than riding clean. If that remains the case, the temptation for those with no morals will always be too great. Lyne summed it up quite nicely with a statement that won her few plaudits but was entirely right. I can't help thinking that the cheats win on the way up and the way down.
Tyler Hamilton will make more money from his book describing how he cheated than Bessette or I will make in all our years of our honest labour.
The situation requires the very basics of morality. Please don't reward people like Hamilton with money. That is the last thing he needs. Donate his literary prize and subsequent earnings from such publications to a charity. There are many places infinitely more deserving than the filthy hands of Hamilton. I am happy to offer some ideas!
It is obvious that this issue is wider than the remit of the sporting governing bodies. It is no modest "sporting fraud". Wider society has to act.
I have ridden through some of the darkest days of the sport in terms of corruption by the cheats and liars. I cannot change the era or time that I am born into. I am very proud that I have met the temptations head on and have not wavered in my honesty or sold my ideals. I have always ridden true to myself and placed my morals beyond a need to win. I have ridden clean throughout my career. In a sport so tainted, this has generated many negative consequences. From the single example above; my team-mate and myself not getting paid for the rest of the year, after the Tour de France, being simple evidence. I am so very fortunate to have been able to have won clean.
Perhaps a major factor is that the races are short – only 3 hours long! This is perhaps a hard and unpopular fact that the male side may need to embrace if it is genuine about wanting to clean itself up.
I have been robbed by drug cheats, but I am fortunate, I am here before you with more in my basket than the 12 year old dreamed of. But for many genuine people out there who do ride clean; people with morals, many of these people have had to leave the sport with nothing after a lifetime of hard work — some going through horrific financial turmoil. When Lance "cries" on Oprah later this week and she passes him a tissue, spare a thought for all of those genuine people who walked away with no reward – just shattered dreams. Each one of them is worth a thousand Lances.