In the fall of 1993, I was working at KRLD radio in Dallas, hosting a weekend talk show. Lance Armstrong had just won the professional World Championship road race at the age of 22. He agreed to do my show–a Saturday evening at 6pm with probably only a handful of people listening–but he was from Dallas and remembered listening to Cowboys games on KRLD, so he was up for it. He was on the show for an hour, an unheard of amount of time for a guest to agree to these days.
This was a big deal to me. A Texan had won the world title! A guy who grew up in Plano, racing the same races that I raced, had made cycling history. If Lance could go from winning the Tuesday Night Crit in Richardson to winning the world title in Oslo, then anything was possible.
The Armstrong story is well documented. He beat cancer, then beat the best cyclists in the world seven straight times at the Tour de France. For the first time in our sport’s history, we had a global icon. Lance was rock-star famous, and made cycling cool. He was Hollywood. He was friends with Bono. He dated Sheryl Crow. Everyone knew Lance, and because of that, everyone was forced to learn at least a little bit about the sport of cycling. It was incredible exposure in this country for a sport that was Euro-centric. Greg LeMond was a Sports Illustrated cover boy when he won the Tour, but Lance took it to a new level. Finally, cycling was mainstream. Not football or baseball mainstream, but still mainstream in a way it had never before been. And nobody else could have done this except Lance. He had a big personality and a catchy name and he embraced his celebrity.
That’s why the events of the last few weeks are so stunning. The same guy that put cycling on the map in this country has now made cycling a laughing stock. In 1999, we all wanted to believe the incredible comeback story, and so we did. As the years went by, and as more and more of Lance’s peers tested positive for or admitted to doping, we grew skeptical. As more and more ugly stories came out, we knew deep down that Lance had doped, too. We got to the point of hoping it would all go away. Then came the Federal investigation, which begat the USADA investigation, which led to the events of the last week: the findings released, sponsors bailing on Lance, and the UCI (cycling’s international governing body) officially stripping Lance of every victory from 1998 through 2010–including his seven straight Tour wins.
There are dozens of conversations to have in the wake of these recent events, but I’m going to concentrate on what I believe to be the three most pressing questions of the Lance case:
1) Did He Dope?
When Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton accused Lance of doping, it was easy to dismiss their claims based on the fact that each of them had lied repeatedly about Lance and about their own very dirty doping histories. But when USADA released their findings, which included the sworn testimony of George Hincapie, everything changed. Hincapie, a highly respected figure in the world of American cycling and a trusted friend and teammate of Lance, admitted that both he and Lance had been a part of the systematic doping program of the US Postal Service team. Hincapie is someone that Lance can’t discredit. Hincapie has no axe to grind with Lance–no reason to lie and throw Lance under the bus. This was the most damaging blow to the Armstrong camp–in other words, once Hincapie spilled the beans about the USPS doping program, it erased all doubt.
Now, we not only have sworn testimony from Hincapie and many, many other former teammates, but we also have a book. Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race, was released a few weeks ago. I’ve read it, and it’s shocking. Is Hamilton telling the truth now? I think so. If he’s not, then Lance will have to sue him, because the book describes in painful detail how Lance and the rest of the team doped their way through those Tours (and it also paints Lance to be a ruthless person). What makes the book more believable is the fact that all of the recently released sworn testimony from former Armstrong teammates corroborates everything that Hamilton talks about. It’s incredibly damaging.
But he’s never failed a drug test, right? True, but as Hamilton said in his book, “Beating the drug tests were so easy it wasn’t even funny. The UCI would spend 3 years and millions of dollars to come up with a new test for EPO, and in five minutes our team doctor would find a way to beat it. It was like playing hide and seek in a giant forest with a million places to hide–the drug testers had no chance.”
So here is the evidence, albeit circumstantial, that we have: testimony from dozens of riders, coaches, trainers, etc, that Lance doped, with all of the stories verifying each other; it’s common knowledge that the pro peloton was rife with drugs from the early 90’s through the 00’s; 20 of the 21 riders who finished on the podium with Lance during his seven year win streak have all tested positive or admitted to doping (and the 21st is highly suspicious); and Lance’s too-close relationship with the dirtiest doctor in the sport of cycling, Michele Ferrari. It’s enough to lead any reasonable-thinking adult to conclude that, yes, it appears that Lance Armstrong was using various types of PED’s and forms of blood doping for practically his entire career. Even a big cycling homer like me finds it impossible to see it any other way.
There is no smoking gun, but at this point, do we really need one?
2) Was He The Best, Regardless?
If just about everyone in the sport was doping during Lance’s reign, then was the playing field level? Was he the strongest? Would he have won seven Tours if nobody had used PED’s? I can’t say with certainty that he would have, but I do believe that he would have won a few. The same thing that drove Lance to run the USPS team doping program in mob-boss fashion would have been the same thing that would have driven him to succeed in a drug-free sport: the fact that he’s a crazy SOB. He’s tyrannical and maniacal about everything, and if nobody had doped I could see him still out-working and out-training his competition. If dope didn’t exist, he would look for other ways to be the best. That’s his personality.
He had enough genetically to win the Tour. As a 15 year old, Lance was beating professional triathletes, and I can’t imagine he was doping at age 15. Greg LeMond likes to say that Lance didn’t have enough natural ability to do what he did, and LeMond is right, but only to a point. It’s insane that Lance should be able to climb Alpe D’Huez 11 minutes faster than LeMond and Hinault–that’s where the drugs come in and make guys like Lance and Pantani and Riis and their exploits hard to believe. But Lance still had a VO2max of 84%, which is a plenty big natural number to be able to win the Tour de France, as long as you have drive, determination and a great work ethic–all of which Lance has. The sad part is that Lance channelled that drive and work ethic into doping as much as he did into every other aspect of the sport.
Was the playing field level in the 00’s, since everyone was doping? At the top of the sport, yes. Ullrich and Pantani and Basso–all of Lance’s rivals–had the best doctors and the best drugs. Lance may have had more resources and the best doping doctor, but for the most part they were all taking the same stuff and using the same methods. So, the playing field was level, and therefore Lance was the best–it just feels like a really dirty argument to make.
3) Will He Confess?
When Nike bailed on Lance, they cited “insurmountable evidence” that he doped as the reason. It would seem that, with insurmountable evidence, now would be a good time for Lance to hold a tearful press conference, saying something like “I doped, but it was the way of the sport at the time and I got caught up in it because it was always my dream to be a pro cyclist…I’m sorry, but that’s in the past now and my crusade to fight cancer is what my life is about today.” But I have a hard time picturing Lance ever doing that.
Athletes who have cheated are always viewed better by the public when they admit to it. A-Rod and Andy Pettitte have basically been forgiven, but Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are still vilified. Lance could improve his perception tenfold by admitting to cheating, but he won’t. He’s too dogmatic. He’s too stubborn. He’s egomaniacal, and he’s lied about it for so long that he probably truly believes that he’s not guilty of anything. He’s also worth about $120 million and has (still) an army of supporters who don’t care that he cheated. So why confess?
Many of his supporters are those who spent months in the chemo wards and who have Lance to thank for being an inspiration. Many of those people don’t care that he doped, they just know his story helped them through the toughest time of their life. Should the fact that he cheated diminish his work in the cancer community? As Jason Garrett might say, “I don’t have a good answer for that.”
Maybe he’ll one day decided that his kids need to know the truth. Or that we all need to know the truth. Then again, maybe he’s got a team of lawyers telling him that if he ever confesses he’s going to open himself to a lot of lawsuits. Lance can always fall back on two things: he never officially failed a drug test (bogus, but true), and he was never convicted in a court of law for cheating. Those two facts alone are more than enough for a guy like Lance to deny until the day he dies. I’m not one of those who demands a confession from Lance. It’s his life, he can do what he wants. I do, however, think it would be the best thing for him (legal concerns aside) and for the sport if he were to come clean.
The UCI had to uphold the USADA decisions. The UCI is under great scrutiny following rumors that Lance (or Nike, or someone else) paid the UCI to cover up a positive Lance drug test. The UCI was always seen as being in bed with Lance, so, in the shadow of the mountain of evidence, they couldn’t side with him. The Tour will now list “no champion” in it’s official record books from ’99 through ’05. Hypocritical, perhaps, since other known dopers like Riis, Pantani, Ullrich, and Contador are still listed, but their race’s history is their concern.
In the end, the Lance Armstrong story, and the story of pro cycling for the past 20 years, makes me sad. It’s sad the the sport forced those who participated in it to make a choice: either dope and succeed, or don’t dope and get blown away. It’s a beautiful sport, but it’s also the hardest sport in the world–too hard, perhaps, given its long history of riders always looking for a way to make the pain a little more bearable.
Most of us in the cycling community who knew Lance here in his home state had the same opinion of him: he’s a prick, but he’s our prick. What’s disturbing is just how big of a prick it appears that he was. It turns out that the guy who was nice enough to be my guest on a spare radio show for an hour was also the guy who was treating teammates, teammates wives, friends, business partners and others in ways that ranged from callous to vindictive to downright cruel. Stories of mob-boss Lance are what disturbed me the most–even more than the stories of his doping. In the few times that I spent with Lance over the years, or in the few emails we exchanged, he was always really nice to me. I always liked Lance, and it’s tough to see someone I once liked, as well as my favorite sport, destroyed. But it’s karma–you can’t cheat for such a long time and treat so many people as poorly as he did without it eventually coming back to haunt you.