Is Eddie Merckx an idiot or is he delusional?
Merckx reserved particular anger for Armstrong’s comment that it would have been impossible to win the Tour de France without doping, opining that it cast a pall over Armstrong’s contemporaries and Tour winners over the past 110 years.
“It’s a scandal for the other riders, the other winners, to affirm that. It’s so easy and hypocritical,” Merckx said. “The Armstrong era was hard for cycling, it came after the Festina Affair, there was EPO etc. but that’s no reason to say that you can’t win the Tour without doping.
Armstrong won in an era when there was no test for EPO. The three Tour winners immediately before Armstrong are convicted or admitted dopers and the two immediately after him are convicted dopers. Here's how Jonathan Vaughters put it:
"My first two years racing (1994 and 1995), I raced clean and there was no testing whatsoever for (the blood-boosting hormone) EPO in Europe. I would be barely hanging on the back of the peloton, finishing 130th. You were stuck sitting on someone's wheel just praying the race would slow down at some point. Then I'd come back to race in the U.S. and win -- it was amazing the difference when it was all 180 guys on EPO in those European races. The race is just faster and faster and faster because everyone always has the energy for a counterattack.
"It's against the law of nature in the pack that the guy spending 30 percent more energy pulling in the wind for kilometers on end for his team leader can suddenly somehow still hang in there for third or 13th place. Fleche Wallonne in 1994 [when riders from the same team finished 1-2-3] was the seminal moment, when it went from individuals to team-based doping. So you had an en masse decision, with doctors and managers and riders saying, OK, gig's up; we've gotta do this. And the attitude among the riders was: This is medication given to me by the team doctor. He told me I need to take it.
"With EPO in the 1990s, that was the first time in the history of sport where you had a totally undetectable drug that definitively gave a performance gain to everyone, and there wasn't a downside. By 1996, in big races like the Tour de France, I think doping was very close to 100 percent prevalent. Then came the Festina scandal in 1998 [when Alex Zulle and his Festina teammates were ousted from the Tour de France for using EPO]. Even calling it the Festina scandal compartmentalized it, and for the governing body, by blaming a few brazen individuals as opposed to recognizing it was a systemic problem, it slowed down the process of producing a test immensely. That's why there was a 12-year lag between when EPO started to be used and an EPO test.