From 1999 through 2005 Lance Armstrong was the most dominant force in sports, winning the Tour de France an unprecedented seven times. Now the International Cycling Union (UCI) wants you to believe it never happened.
The UCI, after reading the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's report on Armstrong's systematic doping, have stripped him of his Tour titles, and may vacate the results entirely.
How do you leave blank the pages where the history of the sport's greatest champion were once recorded? Even people who believe in time travel say you can’t change the past.
"That's a good question," admits Niko Triantafillou, an amateur racer in New York City and a "big bike racing junkie" since the '80s. "The Tour de France and its history, which is a hundred years--it only stopped for the World Wars--is way bigger than Lance Armstrong. His story, when we thought it was true, was compelling, but there's always a story that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stick out."
In the past, when Tour winners were found to have cheated, they simply declared the second-place finisher the champion. But the results for 1999 to 2005 may be completely erased.
"This way it's a little vague," says Triantafillou. "They can say, 'This is a whole era, we knew it about it, you knew about it, let's just agree to put this aside.'"
Curiously, Armstrong, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence throughout the investigation, has already scrubbed the Tour from his Twitter bio, while the Tour's official website still had him listed as of Tuesday.
Jonah Keri of Grantland has had ample opportunity to consider the ramifications of a sport reconsidering its history. He's been covering major league baseball as the sport has gone through of its own drug scandal, and his wife was a grad student at USC in 2004 when the school's football team won a national championship that was later voided because of recruiting violations.
"Vacating records goes back to well before Lance. College football is pretty notorious for it. I get the symbolic nature of it. But I think if you are a diehard fan of whatever sport or athlete, and Lance Armstrong is stripped of this or USC doesn’t win the national championship, you could say that, but it doesn't mean that it's true."
That said, Keri recognizes the bind the UCI found itself in.
"There is no elegant way to do it. I honestly think it's a best effort by the commissioner of any sport," says Keri who suspects that the stripping of the titles was both an ends and a means.
"I honestly believe a lot of it had to do with him physically losing the hardware, at least symbolically, that kind of played into the endorsements dropping out. So if you wanted to cause this guy hardship, I thin that you helped facilitate that."
Bill James, who works as a consultant for the Boston Red Sox and has written more than a dozen books about baseball, says that vacating the results of team sports is a far stickier issue.
"Voiding INDIVIDUAL accomplishments in a team sport is problematic, because there is a 'result' beyond the result, if that makes any sense," wrote James, via email. "Let's say there is a result 1 and a result 2. Result 1 is, Barry Bonds hits a home run. Result 2 is, the Giants win. If you start voiding a lot of result-1s, what do you do about the Result-2s? Did the Giants win the National League championship in 2002, or not? It's an issue."
So might it not make sense to just wipe out Armstrong's accomplishments and crown the highest-ranking finisher believed to be clean? James says no.
Triantafillou says crowning the best clean rider could mean even more embarrassment for the UCI.
"It would make them look much worse to know that 30 guys from 15 teams (were using drugs), and they were the governing body and doing the testing, and they didn't know a damn thing about it."
With so much money and fame on the line, bicycling—and other sports—will always have to confront cheating. But an equally troubling systemic issue dogs cycling, says Triantafillou.
"Until the people responsible for cleaning up the sport and testing are separate from the people who are promoting the sport, you probably will never have full confidence that the tour is clean."