The Lance Factor: End of Innocence

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.

4 thoughts on “The Lance Factor: End of Innocence

  1. I had found it relatively easy to dismiss the rumors and root for him while he was still racing but in the years since the whiff of smoke had become a bit hard to ignore. While I still feel that the authorities pursuing him were perhaps unjustly advantaged themselves (their reach seems limitless and accountability barely existent) it does look like they finally broke him and he decided against allowing the sordid details to be aired. I don’t know that I’m happy with stripping all his results and handing the victories over to his equally filthy rivals.

    Btw, Landis’s “win” was 2006, not 1996.

  2. Understand that I only follow the TdF casually. I don’t have an particular TdF rider favourite since I don’t follow competitive cycling. I’ve just been cycling regularily for the past 21 yrs.

    I knew someone who commented on Lance’s behaviour to his fans for Livestrong sponsored rides. This was in Toronto:

    “Most recently, a local area in southern Ontario no longer wants Lance to be there:

    would you pay $20,000 to ride with lance?

    guys i know paid that much and more.. to raise money for a cancer charity.. a ride with about18-22 guys( all local businessmen) pay lance 400,000 to do this..
    this year he was not asked to come.. not because of the allegations.. he is a superstar of cycling no matter what..
    but as i was told , because the first years he would arrive the night before and have a dinner with the guys, be put in a big hotel.. etc. all expected..
    and he would ride the first 20 or so kms with the guys at a good pace.. but it was after that he would say.. who can keep up with me? and buzz off..
    so the next 80 kms were trying to catch him
    this is not the tour de france, it was a charity ride.
    then he would leave to go to montreal for a bigger charity ride.. for 600,000.
    over the years he would start arriving in the am of the ride.. and then say i am only signing two articles, you have to add another charity( livestrong ) to the ride, and then he screwed off on them … it got to be too much and the guys lost the shine they had for lance.
    so this year they had steve bauer, freaking awesome cyclist who i have had an opportunity to ride with. steve will even have a beer with you.. but then.. he is canadian”.

    Another woman, a co-bike store owner in the U.S. said this of Lance at his appearance at an Interbike show, a major bike manufacturers’ trade show:

    ” I was an Interbike one year many years ago, and of course, Lance was at a booth. He was being paid like many athletes to sign posters etc… There was a shop owner in front of me that wanted Lance to sign an older TRek poster that he had framed and hung in his shop. Lance threw an absolute fit, started yelling at the guy and continued ranting that he was only signing the new posters….ummm both were Trek posters?? At any rate, even though the shop owner was polite and simply explained what he wanted, Lance had him removed with security from the line. When I saw that happen, I and some others simply moved to another line by choice… I don’t need or want to have a poster signed by someone with such a large ego and throwing a fit for no apparent reason other than to throw his ego around. The ironic thing was that Eddy Merckx was in the area, saw what was happening, and had a strange look on his face like the rest of us. I got a poster signed by him and his son Axel, and it still hangs in the shop.

    I would NEVER pay to ride with Lance, nor buy his book(s) etc… but that’s up to everyone else as well.

    What I will say that bothers me is Nike has chosen to stand by many athletes that have been in trouble… Lance, Michael Vick etc… it just goes to show that money is worth more than credibility. And even bigger than that since I work in the bike industry is TREK! But again, choices for people to make… “

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