Late Thursday night, I was in the middle of writing my weekly peloton column, this one explaining the complicated racing tactics at the Vuelta and USA Pro Challenge. That’s when I logged on and read Lance Armstrong’s statement issued to the Associated Press that effectively ended his fight with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in saying he refused “to participate in a process” that he said was “so one-sided and unfair.”
Among the deluge of tweets, e-mails, official statements and opinion pieces that followed, one item caught my eye. It was an instant poll conducted by ESPN sports business insider Darren Rovell that asked respondents: “How do you feel about Lance Armstrong’s brand?” There were three possible answers: It’s tarnished; the good outweighs the bad; or I’m conflicted. I would have checked all three boxes.
Whether or not he is stripped of his seven Tour de France titles—and that still has to be decided, perhaps after a verdict from the Court of Arbitration for Sport—the names of Lance Armstrong and his eponymous cancer foundation have clearly been tarnished by the years of his defending himself against the constant allegations that he used illicit performance-enhancing drugs and methods during his racing career. Without those accusations, the Livestrong foundation would have gained even more prestige and effectiveness than it has already achieved. And Armstrong’s status as a super-champion and cancer advocate would have been permanently etched in posterity.
Instead, whether it’s fair or not, the authenticity of his athletic performances will always be questioned. What cannot be denied is that Armstrong has been what some have called “a freak of nature” since his years as a budding triathlete who took on the best in that sport when he was a young teenager—and sometimes beat them. The young Texan did so well that he earned Triathlete magazine’s Rookie of the Year award when he was still in high school. And that was just the start.
For the 2009 book I wrote about Armstrong, published by Da Capo Press, I interviewed dozens of people, including Armstrong, his family members, friends, athletes and coaches. One interviewee was Dede Demet, who won the 1989 world junior women’s road championship in Moscow, where she watched Armstrong compete in the junior men’s race. “He attacked only a kilometer or two into the race and rode off the front all day with one Russian guy. Lance got caught in the last kilometer, but he was the workhorse of the duo,” Demet remembered. “I think he’d done only five bike races before that, and that made it all the more impressive.”
It was shortly after that performance that I was contacted by some Dallas friends of Armstrong who asked if I could find a European team that could really teach him how to race. I faxed the respected Swiss coach Paul Köchli, who guided Greg LeMond to his first Tour de France victory in 1986, writing: “What can you do for this young guy from Texas. He’s not built like Greg, but he could well be America’s next Tour winner. Can you help?” Köchli said he could put Armstrong on his feeder club team in France, but the young phenom went in a different direction, first signing as an amateur with Eddie Borysewicz’s Subaru team and then, prior to the amateurs-only 1992 Olympic road race, moving to the Motorola squad of Jim Ochowicz. Only a year after turning pro, Armstrong won a stage of the Tour and took the world pro road title in Oslo at age 21.
Indeed, he was (and remains) a freak of nature, even if his legacy has been tarnished by the developments of the past few days, months and years. As for the good outweighing the bad in respect to his brand, that’s a debate that will probably continue until Armstrong is gone from this world. He is a complex character. I’ve interviewed him dozens of times over the past quarter-century, including one earlier this year when he spoke excitedly about his plans to win the Ironman world championship at age 41—a project that is now on permanent hold.
At different times, I’ve encountered an Armstrong who can be belligerent or soft, deadly serious or light-hearted, impatient or calm, manipulating or straight-up. He always swore to me he never took banned drugs. At the time, I believed him.
As a young man, he wanted to win all the time and was angry when he lost. His attitude was interpreted as cocky by most, or feisty by others. I always found him to be an intelligent person who had a thirst for knowledge. Associates have called him the smartest guy that never went to college.
The use of the blood-boosting drug EPO became rampant in European cycling at a time when Armstrong was climbing the pro rankings with outstanding rides in the one-day races, including victories in the Clasica San Sebastian and Flèche Wallonne. But there was no drug test for EPO, and Armstrong and his Motorola teammates started asking around to see what was happening to their sport.
Things came to a head in April 1994, when Armstrong was strong enough to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but was beaten by a runaway rider from the suspect Italian team, Gewiss. “The sport changed a lot in one year,” Armstrong told me at the time. “I’m not going to say why it changed or how I think it changed, but I will say that it changed a lot—and a lot of guys got a lot stronger and a lot faster.”
His Motorola teammate Andy Hampsten was more explicit. “We were all concerned,” Hampsten said. “Collectively, we believed that a lot of riders on other teams—it wasn’t everyone—were doing EPO, testosterone, growth hormones, and other things, because that’s what we were hearing…from pretty reliable reports within the peloton.”
It would be another six years before a reliable test existed to catch riders using EPO, but no one outside the peloton suspected that its use was as widespread as it was until the Festina team was busted in July 1998. At that point, Armstrong had just recovered from battling stage 4 testicular cancer that he was diagnosed with in October 1996. He survived that near death sentence, and because he’d found the best possible chemotherapy, he preserved his cardio-respiratory system as an elite athlete.
Before returning to the sport, he founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation to help other cancer survivors; the organization has since assisted 2.5 million patients after raising some half a billion dollars in funding. That’s the best side of the Armstrong story and one that deserves to endure whatever the final verdict on his legitimacy as a Tour-winning cyclist. When he did return to elite cycling, he built the second-division U.S. Postal Service squad into the most powerful squad in the world, along with help from people such as sports director Johan Bruyneel, his longtime coach Chris Carmichael, his attorney-cum-agent Bill Stapleton, and sponsors that included investor Thom Weisel and the Nike corporation.
By going on to win seven consecutive Tours, Armstrong not only inspired millions of cancer patients, he gave a huge boost to cycling in this country. Those positive developments cannot be taken away by USADA or any other body; but since the dominant years, when Postal became a tightly drawn organization, both Armstrong and Bruyneel have told me they regret not having given more access to the media. More transparency could have quelled some of the doping rumors and may even have prevented some of the practices alleged in testimonies given to USADA after the past couple of years. Yes, Armstrong became a multi-millionaire from his success as an athlete, but he also became the subject of vicious personal attacks that would hurt the most optimistic of people.
In the past 15 years virtually all of Armstrong’s closest rivals have been discredited for being involved in doping scandals or been suspended for positive tests. Despite that, doping continued. So stripping Armstrong of his titles, as USADA has said it is doing, would do nothing to help clean up the sport—which the USADA claims as its mission. As five-time Tour champion Eddy Merckx said on Friday: “It is really an unfortunate affair. It’s bad for cycling, and bad for everyone.”
What’s good is that the sport has been cleaning itself up with the kind of testing and suspensions that far exceed those existing in any other sport. I feel hopeful that cycling has now gotten through the darkest period in its history and that a new generation is one we can trust.
There was another tweet that caught my eye as I was completing this column. It came from a 20-year-old on the Bontrager-Livestrong development squad, Lawson Craddock, who was born the same year that Armstrong turned pro! In his Friday afternoon tweet, Craddock posted a photo he took in a doctor’s office of a framed Discovery Channel racing jersey that came from Armstrong after he won the 2005 Tour. Craddock wrote: “Nothing can take that away from the greatest athlete of all time.”
Craddock is one of the great hopes of U.S. cycling, along with a host of young men who have been inspired by Armstrong. No wonder I, like 20 percent of the respondents on the ESPN poll, am conflicted. There are two things, though, of which I feel certain:
(1) On an even field, where no one was enhancing his performance in any way, Armstrong would have likely won all seven of his Tour titles. This is sadly ironic.
(2) There will never be another Lance Armstrong.
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