News that cyclist Lance Armstrong, a man who inspired millions with his drive and dedication, was a drugs cheat, shook the sporting world. Ben Stanley relives the astonishing fall from grace.
He took to the podium in Paris before screaming crowds, astonished journalists and the constant, admiring click of photographers' lenses. July 24, 2005, and the perennially yellow-jerseyed Lance Armstrong had just secured his record seventh straight Tour de France title.
Starting in 1999, he had gone past all the legends - Eddie Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain - now he was the most celebrated, the best.
Armstrong looked down at the crowd with a half-grin, offering a taunt to all those who had doubted him: "I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles."
What a story Armstrong had. He was the ultimate hard nut, a Texan who had survived testicular cancer, and brought that grit to road racing. A bloke who once finished a race swinging his fists at another rider. A man who'd swear in interviews, never hold back when talking to the press, but use his newfound fame to promote cancer awareness.
Seven and a half years later, and Armstrong's words seem hollow, and haunting.
There had been rumours for a while. That many in the Tour peloton had experimented with performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) through the early 2000s.
Years passed and others fell. Former Tour champion, and former Armstrong team-mate, Floyd Landis got done for doping - but told cycling officials he wasn't alone. That the legend of the sport, the great untouchable Armstrong, was involved. And as it unravelled, the chorus of voices that the Texan was guilty grew louder and louder.
Emma O'Reilly, Armstrong's masseuse in his glory days, recalled: "I once used concealer to cover up syringe marks on Lance before he had a photo call. The two of us had a laugh putting it on. It was just part of your everyday life, and it was funny."
Armstrong panicked. Like any alpha male caught in a bind, he used tactics he had always used. Bullying people, threatening them. He did it to O'Reilly, to former team-mates.
This year began with good news for Armstrong and his supporters. In early February, federal prosecutors dropped a two-year investigation into Armstrong's alleged doping.
Yet the cyclone of rumours continued, reaching ultimate landfall on June 12. Then, the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong and five others in a broad doping conspiracy, claiming that the Texan had cheated for most of his career.
Armstrong would sue USADA until a federal judge tossed his suit out in late August.
USADA would release a damning 1000-page report on the whole matter.
This was it. Armstrong's seven Tour titles, a career's worth of winnings and the legacy of a legend hung in the balance - with the UCI the only ones who could save their former pin-up boy, with an appeal.
When former Armstrong team-mate Tyler Hamilton published his book The Secret Race in mid-September, the cycling public had its evidence. For years Hamilton, a 2004 Olympic gold medallist, had been one of the Texan's most trusted lieutenants. But then he was done for doping, and axed from his sport.
In The Secret Race, Hamilton detailed the entire process, admitting to his own guilt while laying out Armstrong for the world to see.
At a press conference on October 22 in Geneva, Switzerland, the world got the final word from UCI.
That Armstrong and his cronies were responsible for "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".
UCI president Pat McQuaid said Armstrong, banned forever from the sport, had "no place in cycling".
He was toast. The titles were gone; the legend a mere lie.
He has since lost the majority of his loyal big-name sponsors - and is now battling with the IOC to hang on to the bronze he won in the road race at the 2000 Olympics; a battle he will ultimately lose.
In October, the disgraced legend posted a photo on Twitter showing him on a couch at his Austin home, surrounded by his seven Tour yellow jerseys.
The photo sums Armstrong up. Still the arrogant alpha male, still stubborn despite having been unveiled as the biggest liar cycling, and perhaps sport, will ever see.
I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles, Armstrong told them in Paris that day.
No Lance, the sporting public say back now: We're sorry we did.
- © Fairfax NZ News