2019-09-15 11:10:02

Sheryl Crow's face tightened as she was asked on breakfast television this week about her feelings when she heard Lance Armstrong, her former boyfriend, . "I'm eight years past that," the singer said through a frozen smile. "That's very distinctly his story. It's nothing do with me." She had watched only part of the Winfrey programme. "I've got kids now," she declared. "I don't watch too much TV."

That's the way Armstrong can still affect people: you think the pain has gone but it's still lurking just below the surface, waiting to be prodded. With Crow, the memory is purely personal. For the rest of us it exists on quite a different level.

Armstrong is like a nasty smell that clings to the curtains, the carpet and the upholstery covers and that nothing will shift. It's there whenever a story breaks about the latest development in the battle to relieve him of some of the $125m (£76.5m) he is said to have made during the years when he was a Tour-winning, cancer-conquering superhero, or whenever there's a new film based on his story, such as , released in the UK last week, or Stephen Frears' forthcoming feature film, starring Ben Foster as the Texan.

But it's also there in every cycling story that makes reference to doping. It was the subtext beneath Marcel Kittel's remark on the eve of this week's Tour of Dubai that young riders need to be more vocal about the fight to clear the sport's name. "The most important thing for us is to show that we're different," the 25-year-old German sprinter told Gulf News. "We need to show that we do not want to be compared to those riders who have cheated or are cheating." Kittel, , has called for those caught doping to face criminal charges and life bans.

It was there more explicitly when Bradley Wiggins spoke at this week of how he . "They were asking if his dad had taken drugs, too," the 2012 Tour winner said.

Wiggins once had a friendly relationship with Armstrong and perhaps the bad smell will not be dispersed until the peloton no longer contains riders who rode with or against the American, and who were once accustomed to the way the law of omertà prevented the epidemic of doping from becoming general knowledge until it was painstakingly uncovered by a handful of dauntless journalists and dogged investigators. Most of that generation of riders still find it difficult to front up on the subject. And with them, sooner or later, must go the doctors and team bosses who spun the web in which so many became trapped.

If the future is straightforward, the past is necessarily less so. On Valentine's Day it will be exactly 10 years since . The man known as Il Pirata had , a year after the season in which he had won both the Giro and the Tour. Although Pantani never actually tested positive for EPO, there is little doubt that he took it on a regular basis. But tens of thousands visit his grave every year and it is a rare fan of road cycling who does not react to being reminded of his epic deeds on the great mountain stages with affection, admiration and even respect.

What does that say about cycling fans? It says that they are prepared to accept that, as with Jacques Anquetil or Tom Simpson, Pantani raced according to the customs of his time. No one demurred when Anquetil famously said it was impossible to win the Tour on mineral water. Simpson was a fully paid-up member of the amphetamine generation and Pantani was part of the EPO era. But none of them behaved in the way that characterised Armstrong, who made it his business to intimidate those – whether a rider, a soigneuse or a reporter – standing in his way, doing his best to ruin their lives and crush their careers.

While watching The Armstrong Lie in a London cinema this week, it was interesting to hear the audience laugh every time the subject was shown attacking his accusers in the years before he was finally exposed.

They were responding to his sheer effrontery in batting away every accusation. I couldn't join that laughter. At those moments, or during the sequence from the 18th stage of the 2004 Tour where he rides up to Filippo Simeoni – a hitherto anonymous domestique who had given evidence in a doping hearing against Dr Michele Ferrari, Armstrong's physician and coach – and orders him back into peloton in a grotesque (and probably the last) display of the influence exerted by an old-fashioned patron of the race, my flesh crawled.

In another unforgettable sequence, he sits in a hotel room one morning during the preparation for his comeback in 2009, watched by his small daughters as he screws the corks into the urine and blood sample flasks while complaining vigorously about the frequency of the dope testing imposed on a man who had won the race seven times (the two testers, the proximate victims of his diatribe, are the film's unsung heroes). It is small comfort to see how ridiculous that notorious photograph he defiantly tweeted round the world in November 2012, showing him , now makes him appear.

Attitudes may have changed but the debate, as Kittel so intelligently emphasised, is far from over. The film had been about to start when a man in the row behind me asked his companion: "What about the present lot? Do you think they're clean?" A perfectly natural enquiry, to which no sane observer would respond with a blanket affirmative. Only time – and extreme diligence on the part of the UCI's new president, Brian Cookson, – can provide an answer.

And I suppose that learning to laugh at , while absolutely denying him any place or voice in the future of the sport, might not be a bad place to start.