I guess you could say that I knew Lance Armstrong ever since I got interested in pro cycling. Knew him as a fan knows a star—or even a “hero.” My cycling interest began when I met Jane about 25 years ago. Her kids Andrew and Matt were into bike riding, and the reigning American hero was Greg LeMond, then in the process of winning his three Tours. They even cut school once to see the racers of the Tour de Trump (whatever else you may say about the guy, he sponsored a major American bike race for a while). When Lance came along a few years later I was developing my recreational cycling interest, and the rider in me meshed with the fan. In winter on the indoor bike I was a member of the peloton, witnessing the heroic exploits of the top racers, especially Lance, as he regularly left the others behind with unbelievable power and endurance in the hardest road race in the world, the Tour de France.
By then Lance was a cancer survivor. His overcoming of metastacized testicular cancer and subsequent return to racing was news in 1998, right along with the growing number of EPO violations in cycling. In that year’s Tour the entire Festina team was dismissed from the peloton during the race for systematic doping. Other teams threatened to pull out, angry at the tactic of unannounced police searches, and claiming a lack of “respect” for honest cyclists. The following year, Lance won his first Tour against a field thinned by doping suspensions to most of the top GC riders. Only Alex Zülle was on hand, and he’d just come off suspension. Starting almost immediately, there were charges launched by the French sport magazine L’Équipe (owned by the management organization that runs the Tour) that Lance was using drugs. Such charges were easily dismissible as nationalistic jealousy (an American winning a French race; most top French riders on drug suspension), disbelief that a rider who had been at death’s door could achieve such stunning results, or just plain self-serving journalistic scandal-mongering. Lance never tested positive, always deflected the charges, but almost never flatly denied them. He pled the disease, saying that whatever “drugs” were found were medical leftovers from cancer treatment, and asking rhetorically why anybody in his position would ever think of taking drugs for performance when they had suffered such dramatic side effects from cancer chemotherapy. It was said that the disease had allowed him to cut down on his muscle mass yet retain his considerable power, creating a great power-to-weight ratio. Lance went along with that, saying that he was amazed and humbled by his abilities and that he “believed in miracles.”
Even when a few skeptical sportswriters like Paul Kimmage weren’t so sure, we cycling fans believed it. Why shouldn’t we? Lance was a clean-cut American, and clearly he was a medical victim of an awful disease, one that gravely threatened his life. Who can resist a compelling feel-good story? And so it went over the years. Lance never tested positive, though most of the leaders of the peloton did (13 of the 14 2nd and 3rd place finishers in Lance’s seven victory years were later confirmed to have been doping), Lance won seven Tours, then retired to watch a number of his former teammates, men who had worked brilliantly for his success, founder on new teams and come up with positive drug tests. Most notorious was Floyd Landis’ 2006 Tour victory, swept away by a massive result for testosterone at the end of an incredible breakaway stage win (LeMond has noted that when cycling results can only be described as “fantastic,” “unreal,” “unbelievable,” and/or “incredible,” they usually are).
Lance also had a lot going for him. He was clearly a highly motivated, intense competitor, who did not put on weight or get out of shape over the off-season, who scouted with meticulous care every route to be covered in the upcoming race, who wanted to win so much that he came out of retirement after the lackluster results of the 2008 Tour and finished third, on the podium, behind Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, in 2009. He continues to compete in marathons, triathlons, and other events, despite the inexorable decline in power that comes with age. He was the consummate Tour de France champion of his time, and no decisions by the USADA or the UCI or the WADA or even the CAS are going to change that.
But the bottom line for me, the fan, is that Lance lied to me for at least 14 years. Chances are he lied for longer. In Seattle last Friday, after he announced that he will not contest the USADA charges (about like pleading nolo contendere in court), the main editorial was entitled “Say It Ain’t So, Lance” (see note below). That is the cry of every caring, idealizing sports fan, we who live vicariously to a degree on the successes of our idols. Lance later said that we need not worry about him, that he is at peace, that he will be fine. But it’s not about him, his loss of the veneer of innocence, the debunking of the claim that he did it all on “hay and oats”, as John Saul, the Seattle Times editorialist, put it. It’s about my loss of innocence, the loss of innocence on the part of everybody who believed that Armstrong could be believed, that his passion, hard work, and focus could and did suffice. He lied. The truth makes me wonder if any extraordinary achievement is genuine, or if we are all, and always, so insecure that we cannot trust the occasional triumph of the exceptional. I am still naïve and innocent enough to believe in that triumph, but Lance has made it much harder. His poster is not on my office wall any more. I have lost that much innocence.
[Note: the plea “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” from which the editorial title came, was (fill in the blanks):
Addressed by a ______________________________ to ______________________ of the __________________team, nicknamed _____________________, when it was announced that he _____________________________ to give the victory in the ___________ World Series to the __________________________. If you score less than 100% on this quiz, proceed immediately to the Baseball Fans of America headquarters. You will have to forfeit your membership card until you complete a remedial course in essential baseball history and watch a screening of Eight Men Out.]
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.