He was the best of heroes, the worst of heroes.
Lance Armstrong battled and beat cancer, then battled and beat the best bike racers in the world to win an unprecedented, impossible seven Tours de France.
How many people around the globe owe thanks to Lance for the increased public awareness of cancer, funding for cancer research, and inspiration for the possibility of besting the odds, surviving cancer, and rebuilding a life?
And how many people around the globe did he inspire to start riding, to buy a Trek bicycle, to purchase their own U.S. Post Service or Discovery Channel jersey, to take road-racing classes, to take out a beginner’s Category 5 license, to start competing? The Great Bicycle Boom of the 1990s and early 2000s came thanks to Lance.
Yet there was always an inkling — then a lurking concern, then a growing fear — that perhaps Lance wasn’t playing by the rules. In winning the Tour and other single-day classics or multi-day stage races, he outsprinted and outclimbed bicycles foes who were almost all later disqualified, fined, or sanctioned for doping — Richard Virenque, Jan Ullrich, Floyd Landis, Ivan Basso, Alexander Vinokourov, the list is painfully long. As Greg Lemond, America’s first Tour de France winner, said about modern-day bicycle racing, with the drugs they have, “one could convert a mule into a stallion.” How could Lance possibly have done it if he was clean?
The suspicions grew, but our desire to believe in Lance was stronger.
As Lemond, again, succinctly summed up Lance’s reign as America’s greatest sporting hero of the times, “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
We now all know which one it is.
Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell chronicle the rise and fall of “Lance, Inc.” in Wheelmen (Gotham Books, 2013). The story they tell is alternately stirring, thrilling, disgusting, depressing, and revolting. It’s a thriller, a page-turner, a business exposé, at times practically a sci-fi romp. You go from rooting for the underdog to cheering for his disgrace. And when you’re finished with the book, you’ll want to wash your hands. And wash them well.
The story also follows the broader modern era of bicycle racing, getting behind the scenes into the Tour and other events, explaining things we all saw or heard about but didn’t know the backstory to. In chilling prose, the authors describe the whole U.S. Postal Team getting blood transfusions while lying down on the floor of their bus during a faked mechanical breakdown to put off the French police. They tell of team Trek bicycles sold in Belgium to buy EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs to keep the expenses under the table. And in equally thorough detail, they explain the bribes “Lance, Inc.” paid to cycling’s governing bodies to suppress positive drug tests. As they summarize,
“Lance Armstrong’s fourteen-year-long deception was an elaborate, many-tentacled enterprise requiring complicated logistics, scores of people to execute them, and an iron-willed determination to keep it going. Lance relied on his teammates, doctors, lawyers, financial backers, sponsors, assistants, and associates to help him cheat — or at the very least to ignore the evidence that he was doing so — and on the complacent, hero-worshipping media to celebrate his victories without looking into how he achieved them. The few who did raise questions were publicly attacked, sued for large sums of money, and generally vilified by Lance and his well-trained army of supporters. Some of the people in his network of allies directly aided and abetted him in his doping. And everyone from his ex-wife to his friends, sponsors, and former girlfriends turned a blind eye to it — until almost the end. Of course, once the USADA decision was released, the defections were virtually unanimous — the proverbial rats fleeing the sinking ship.”
Of course, cycling isn’t alone in its battle with drugging: think of Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and too many others. In fact, cycling should be praised for doing more publicly — and painfully — to fight performance-enhancing drug use than most other sports or sport-governing bodies.
And the money made from cycling and the attached endorsements is pennies compared to Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, or World Cup soccer.
But that’s not the point. As many of us suspected deep down, Lance was a false hero. In the end, he lost his seven Tour victories.
Yet more importantly, Lance stole our faith in our sport.
Why did we believe in him for so long? That’s one of the questions the authors struggle with. Their answer is profound:
“For a long time, Americans just couldn’t get enough of Lance. . . . Millions persisted in believing in him until it became impossible to do so. Why? That may be a question harder to answer than why his teammates and coaches, his sponsors and financial backers, collaborated in the lie. But society’s gullibility in the face of ever-mounting evidence probably has something to do with its need for a certain kind of hero. Looked at this way, Lance is the inevitable product of our celebrity-worshipping culture and the whole money-mad world of sports gone amok. This is the Golden Age of fraud, an era of general willingness to ignore and justify the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful, which makes every lie bigger and widens its destructive path.”
There have been recent calls for Armstrong — as well as Nike and Trek and others — to return some of what is now ill-gotten gain. But let Lance keep the money.
Instead, refund our faith in cycling.
As Lance’s first autobiography pointed out, it’s not about the bike. No, indeed: It was about the power and the glory, as well as all that money.
For the rest of us — the Cat. 3 racers, the gran fondo riders, the triathletes, the spinning-class exercisers, the bicycle commuters, the weekend riders — it is about the bike.
And the best response to all this madness is to simply get back on your bike and ride.
Tell Us: What’s your favorite way to ride bike?