The problem with believing that Lance Armstrong was innocent of the doping charges laid against him was that it meant you also had to believe he was the victim of a huge conspiracy. How else could you explain the fact that so many people were prepared to testify against him?
Last year an investigative article in Sports Illustrated magazine claimed Armstrong had admitted doping to team-mate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy; had gotten hold of a drug named Hemassist which did the same job as EPO without the side-effects; had been discovered with drugs and syringes in his luggage by Swiss customs officials; had lied about cutting ties with Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor implicated in doping scandals who has been banned from sport for life; had shown abnormally high testosterone levels in several tests and had pushed his team-mates to take EPO.
These allegations came on top of testimony from Armstrong's former team-mates Tyler Hamilton, who said they'd doped together, and Floyd Landis, who detailed a systematic doping programme by the seven-time Tour de France winner's US Postal team.
Armstrong denied the allegations and pointed out that he'd never tested positive for drugs. Except for during the 1999 Tour when his excuse that a positive test for steroids was caused by a skin cream was accepted by the cycling authorities. But while, singly, the allegations might conceivably have been explained away, their combined weight tipped the scales towards guilty in most people's minds despite Armstrong's ongoing protestations of innocence.
Last month came the news that four former team-mates of Armstrong were about to testify against him as part of the United States Anti Doping Agency investigation into the cyclist. This may well have been the straw that broke the camel's back, not least because one of the quartet was George Hincapie, Armstrong's faithful domestique who rode by his side in all seven Tour wins. Unlike Hamilton and Landis, who'd both been caught for doping, Hincapie was about to retire from the sport with a clean record. He could not be portrayed as a drug cheat who wanted to take the great man down along with him out of spite.
But it was reported last year that he'd told a federal investigation into doping at US Postal that he and Armstrong had taken EPO together. That investigation was shut down back in February without charges being laid against Armstrong. But with Hincapie presumably about to repeat the same allegations to the USADA, Armstrong did what he had never done in his battles against cancer and his opponents in the Tour de France. He chickened out.
By stating that he won't co-operate with the investigation, he would appear to have tacitly conceded the truth of the allegations against him. The USADA have banned him for life and stripped him of his seven Tour de France victories. In the end, there was just too much stuff to explain away. Even the most hardened conspiracy theorist could see that there was something rotten at the heart of the Lance Armstrong story.
Right now it seems Lance Armstrong may well go down in history not as one of the world's greatest athletes but as one of its greatest cheats. Maybe he was the greatest of them all because none of his fellow miscreants protested their innocence so loud and so long.
There's an Irish connection to the story. The two journalists who've been most insistent that Lance Armstrong has a case to answer are David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, both of whom have crusaded against doping in cycling for many a long day. Armstrong's surrender is a vindication of both men and the often lonely battle they waged.
Irish sports, Irish journalism and any Irish person who believes that truth and honesty matter should be proud of Kimmage and Walsh. There's not a lot of prestige attached to chasing down the facts about drug use in sport. They've been accused of jealousy and bitterness and monomania. Kimmage, who competed three times in the Tour de France, has been a hate figure for his doping fellow cyclists ever since the publication of his great book Rough Ride, which really lifted the lid on cheating within the sport. He was the whistleblower who broke cycling's code of omerta on drugs and he became convinced that Armstrong was "the cancer in this sport".
Three years ago, at a press conference, Armstrong decided to put the boot in when Kimmage posed a question about drugs in cycling. In his utter conviction of his own power and righteousness, the Texan resembled nothing so much as a parish priest of the old school reading a recalcitrant parishioner from the altar. Kimmage didn't look all that fazed but the encounter showed just how tough it was for him to take on someone like Armstrong. The star had fame on his side, he had the stage and used it to berate a journalist.
And that's why I have no sympathy for the emperor of cycling now that he stands revealed in all his sordid nakedness. When he was on top of the world, he used his stature to snipe incessantly on Twitter at anyone who suggested there might be more to the Lance Armstrong Story than met the eye. He wasn't half as brave when it came to answering the case compiled against him by the USADA.
It's easy for a sports journalist to be a cheerleader. But you have to be tough to speak truth to power as Paul Kimmage has done. And he is tough. I cherish the memory of him on TV a few months back demolishing Ian O'Riordan of The Irish Times, who was making excuses for a drug cheat on the grounds that the man was depressed at the time. By the time Kimmage finished, O'Riordan's protestations had been reduced to an incoherent high-pitched whine. Paul Kimmage has zero tolerance for drugs in sport. And we should all follow his lead.
But there's more than one Irish connection to the Armstrong story. UCI president Pat McQuaid is a Dubliner. Two years ago when Floyd Landis made his allegations
against Lance Armstrong, McQuaid was very concerned. About Landis. "These guys coming out now with things from the past is only damaging the sport. If they've any love for the sport they wouldn't do it," said McQuaid, before adding, "Armstrong has been accused many times in the past but nothing has been proved against him."
Last month, McQuaid claimed that "historically over the past 10 or 15 years there has been a political campaign against cycling by senior people within the World Anti Doping Agency and I don't think that's acceptable." He has also claimed that the USADA's case against Armstrong was "a trial in the court of public opinion and that's not fair or just," and suggested that they didn't have any jurisdiction to try the case, the same argument used by Armstrong when he wanted the charges dropped.
WADA director David Howman hit back. "By adopting its current position, UCI is sadly destroying the credibility it has been slowly regaining in the past years in the fight against doping." Now that Armstrong's reputation lies in tatters, McQuaid doesn't look too clever either. During his broadside against the doping organisations, he commented, "I'm not trying to save Lance Armstrong's skin by the way." Just as well, Pat. Just as well.
Perhaps there are a few deluded souls out there who'll seek solace in the fact that Lance Armstrong never tested positive. Well, neither did Marion Jones.
It's not about the bike. It's not even about the drugs. It's about the truth.