Before Lance Armstrong
Americans felt road bike racing was something done exclusively by effete European anorexics
in spandex. Some of us American types took up mountain biking
. Mountain bikers hurtled boulders and forded white water. Our bikes had thick tubes and wide tires. We had upper body strength and we spoke English. We did our best to feel superior.
But we were not.
By 1995 I had participated in a couple bike races and I knew first hand what it meant to be a 6'1" guy trying to beat a bunch of short wiry guys up a 12% grade for five miles on loose dirt. What it means is that you have to develop a strong foundation of intestinal fortitude and an impenetrable system of self-deception.
Bike riders lie to themselves continuously. This is how one endures hours of bone shattering jolts, torn ligaments, lacerations, abrasions, contusions, cartilage erosions, and muscles that burn so badly you're sure you can smell the hamburger. You lie to yourself over and over. You tell yourself that making it to the top opens doors to money, luck, and everlasting sex. Your career will blossom. The very fabric of the social network will explode with the intensity of your fame if only you pedal the last 1000 strokes to the top and get there ahead of "that guy" whose butt you see in front of you. You simply must beat that guy. Then everything you have ever wanted will be yours.
You are God's chosen. An angel. And so you must win.
When you get to the top you see a bunch of other people in sweaty Lycra chanting the same mantra to themselves standing astride their bikes, sucking on water bottles, wondering where to go for lunch.
Reality penetrates your mental fiction.
Nature always wins. And you are just a guy on a bike on a hill who now understands that cycling is a sport full of lies.
On July 23rd 1995 I stood at the curb of the Place du Carrousel, in front of the Louvre, snapping photos with my Nikon N90 and a 200mm lens. I have nearly 20 rolls of film of the peloton circling Paris. There were only 2 faces in the group I recognized. Miguel Indurain, riding for team Banesto, and Lance Armstrong, riding for team Motorola.
Lance was way back in that race. Big Mig took his fifth title. At the time, I knew so little about the race that I did not recognize Richard Virenque when he went past me in the polka-dot jersey. I didn't recognize Marco Pantani.
I have them in my pictures.
My poor wife had to give up a precious vacation day touring the City of Light to assuage my cycling mania. After the awards presentation we roamed the streets of Paris and I bought us a couple of commemorative t-shirts and hats.
Vacation be damned! Le Tour, Le Tour! I had with my own eyes witnessed the last stage of Le Tour.
It was only two years later that Marco Pantani was found dead in a cheap hotel room in Italy. Richard Virenque and his entire team was ejected from the race after their team soigneur was apprehended at the French border in a Fiat loaded with drugs.
What the hell were we seeing?
When Armstrong won Le Tour de France in 1999 I felt comfortable to come out of the cycling closet. Suddenly it was ok for me to be a bike racing fan surrounded by football fans. It was ok for me to be a straight guy rooting for a bunch of skinny guys in spandex. In fact, nobody made fun of me in my bike shorts anymore.
This Texan had won the crown jewel of cycling. Took it right out from under the Europeans's collective nostrils. He flaunted the race's brutality by blasting uphill at remarkable speeds. The pavement nearly melted under his bike tires. His challengers were bested into humiliation. The podium girls who handed him his trophies swooned at his embrace.
Armstrong - what an American. What an American name. What an American guy. A winner. The winner of winners.
Even better, he's just recovered from cancer. Unbelievably he is a faster and better rider AFTER facing the grim reaper than before.
Our own bionic man represents, of all things, the U.S. Government's favorite branch - the Post Office. What could be more American as someone who is part of the infrastructure and fabric of holy family life since the inception of the nation - the mails. The post. Letters to grandma. Letters to Santa. Letters from home.
And so representing the mail, the man we all wish we could be. Our hero in yellow. We should add yellow to the American flag.
Here is one of us who does not have to lie to himself to climb impossible hills at impossible speeds. Here is one who does not have to convince himself to persevere against adversity because adversity is runs in fear of him.
Sponsors flock to him. Celebrities want to be seen with him.
And he wins again, and again, and again (and again (and again)). Seven times. What a winner.
His girlfriends are rock stars. He wins races the way people grocery shop for toilet paper. You just pick it off the shelf, put it in your basket.
Enter the race. Just win it. That's all there is to our superiority. Cower in the glare of our magnificence.
Yes those Europeans are sour grapes. Their race has been dominated. Ah ha! Go find another race and we will win that one. In fact, we will ride our bikes from Los Angeles to New York on unfinished single track dirt trails, fighting off wolves and grizzly bears, and then we will ride across the floor of the Atlantic Ocean without oxygen and we'll make it by July 1st and still beat everyone.
You can't beat us. God is on our side. To quote another winner, Jeffrey Skilling of Enron - we are the GOOD guys! We are on the side of the angels!
The very idea of "Le Tour" bore weight to us mountain bikers. Just to be able to withstand the 21 days of that athletic madness would be enough of a prize to secure any of us for life. To endure the miles at that speed, and the gradients, and the attacks - that was the very definition of what it meant to be "super human". While America was largely deaf and blind to bike racing, we were certain that if Americans knew what it took to compete in "Le Tour" they would adopt it the way we absorbed cage fighting and monster truck racing.
To finish was super human. To win - well winning Le Tour put one within the rarefied air of the archangels. Unimaginable in any detail by the common man.
I believed that Lance Armstrong was racing clean because I was a sports fan, not a lawyer. The entertainment value I got from watching the TdF and following the riders provided a welcome distraction to the stresses of silicon valley life. And that's it. You could have told me the guys had replaced their bones and muscle with aluminum and pneumatic jacks, and I'd have been amazed, and then I'd go back to real life.
In our western world we are all utterly numbed by synthesized entertainment. Our kids want to be Spiderman. Giant percentages of the population think zombies and vampires could be real.
It was a great story. Kid from a broken home rises up in the ranks to become a great bike racer. Beats cancer and then comes back even stronger. You couldn't make a believable movie with that plot - and it was a true American reality. Here we had a guy playing the part of a flesh and blood hero and they just didn't come around that often. Nobody wanted to admit the possibility that Lance could be a make-believe vampire.
Just as soon as Lance started winning there were detractors. The easiest thing to suggest was that Lance was enhancing his performance through extraordinary medical means. Either he was injecting various drug cocktails, or he was removing his own blood and transfusing it back in later during the race. Why? Apparently anyone who was an insider knew this was going on all over the racing circuit. Apparently everyone knew some racer, somewhere, who was in Le Grande Tour and other major races, and who was doping, and who was performing very well. And Lance beat all of them.
Lance wasn't only beating all the dopers, he was annihilating them. Therefore - something was up. Other than the hand of God himself, what else could it be?
Before his cancer - when he was younger and more vital and maybe not doping, he had a certain performance level. This could be measured accurately. Docs knew his VOx max. Observers could watch him on the straights and climbs. His former trainers could be interviewed.
So everyone knew what his baseline was as a younger guy.
After cancer, he's older, and he's just endured the insult of chemotherapy and radiation. And he's faster than his prior baselines. By a lot.
If you are a bike racing insider, and you know lots of guys are doping, and Lance shows up somehow even better than he was before he had cancer and he wipes the streets of France with the broken hides of his doping competition - then what does your logic tell you should you choose to apply it?
Either he's doping, or he's Superman.
As far as we were concerned in the US, the "Superman" option was much more palatable. And Nike agreed. And Trek bikes agreed. And Giro helmets. And shoe companies, and athletic food companies, and so did Lance's cancer foundation, which was giving hope to thousands of people with a cancer diagnosis that they to could not only survive, but come back stronger.
Where's the harm in any of that? And isn't it actually good?
Define goodness. Define harm.
Understand that there are people in this world who don't believe your bullshit, and can save you from suffocating in your own flatulence.
As much as you hate them, as much as you fight it, nature wins.
Last July I recorded and watched all the stages of Le Tour de France and followed it thoroughly. At work one of our French engineering managers was in town and during a lunch break I decided to strike up a conversation with him about the details of the previous day's race. After all, as an American I knew that all Frenchmen loved the Tour.
"Le dopage," he said. Then, "Pfffft..." He flicked his fingers as if he'd just wiped some snot from his nose and decided to fling it over to an adjoining table.
I said, "Come on. That's got to be over by now. With all this publicity."
"They are all dopers. It's not an honest sport. Sorry, I know you like it, but it's the truth. I don't bother with it."
"Well," I said, "I'm a doper. I usually down four ibuprofens before I head off on my mountain bike ride. Sometimes naprocen."
"You're a fifty-year old guy on a bike. You're not trying to be a symbol, eh?"
"So you think the race is still tainted?"
"Certainement. Sans doute. For sure it is. Don't waste your time."
By the time Lance admitted doping I was already on the "Lance is a doper" bandwagon.
I sold 1000 yellow rubber Livestrong wristbands I was saving to one of my neighbors for $5 in a garage sale. I only wear my Lance Armstrong commemorative TDF t-shirt when I'm painting.
This is anger. This is what comes from the humiliation of believing what should not be believed.
Now I know how brutal he was to his detractors, and then like all paranoid public figures, to preserve the image that had become larger than himself, he was a beast to those who loved him most. So now I track the Google News feed on Lance Armstrong hoping to hear he will suffer another tragic defeat in the courts. I wish for him to go groveling on his hands and knees to his former teammates and beg for forgiveness.
Truthfully, I want to purge Le Tour from my very existence. I want to forget it. I am the child who has discovered the Muppets aren't real and that now I have to become an adult and do my best to preserve the mystery of Santa Claus and that rabbit character people mention in the same breath but who couldn't possibly be in the same league.
Last weekend I had dinner with a friend who has been similarly enamored with cycling as a long lived passtime. We have both maintain a degree of physical aptitude by riding bikes several times per week. My friend is a roadie, and he does 25 to 50 mile rides every time he goes out. I stick to the dirt and the hills.
Inevitably the topic of Lance Armstrong came up. I told him that this year I might not even follow the race.
He said, "What's the difference? What is sport, anyway? This whole doping thing is absolutely arbitrary. Just get rid of the anti-doping rule and let the race go on."
I said, "Ok, so say it's fine to chemically enhance your performance. Where does it end, though? Suppose we can implant microscopic pneumatic devices in your legs. Would that be ok?"
"No, machinery is not ok."
"But chemicals are ok? Where do you draw the line? Or maybe there isn't a line. Maybe we could just send out robots to race the humans."
"That's ridiculous. You have to be human, with no mechanical parts."
"So suppose doping is okay. You're going to have guys O.D.ing on EPO, turning their blood to sludge, and dropping dead on the first leg of the course."
"People get killed every so many years in the tour. It's a dangerous sport. But, look can you imagine - racing a century and a half every day for three weeks? I can barely walk for a couple days after one century. And the whole field was doping. He beat all the dopers."
"Yes, his doping kung fu was more powerful than the other guys's. What's actually racing, then? The humans or the pharmacists? You're saying that no athlete can compete if they don't dope?"
"Look. The guy is also one of the best athletes the world has ever seen, in any sport, doping or not."
"I know. And he wrecked it. You realize if he never tried to come back to the race after his seventh victory, he would have got away with it and he would still be our hero."
"And what does that say about us?"
Since Lance came forward to admit his doping there have been a number of books released by major U.S. and European sports reporters. The latest as of this date (April 17, 2014), "Cycle of Lies" by Juliet Macur, is perhaps the most revealing.
The ethos of Macur's book is that Armstrong's doping program was well funded, well orchestrated, and reached mafioso-intensity in its self-protection. But it was more than just the egotistical machinations of a single flawed man.
Lance had become an entire industry. Through him, cycling grew in stature and wealth as it opened the previously dormant American market. Trek bicycles went from being a $500 million dollar per year concern, to several billion. The French tourism industry flourished as did all of the peripheral business touched by visitors to Le Tour. The UCI, which was tasked to maintain standards in cycling may have accepted bribes funded not only by Lance himself, but by Nike and other corporate sponsors. At the minimum whatever happened led to the resignation of it's chief, Hein Verbruggen who was chairman of the International Olympic Committed before moving into cycling proper and who has repeatedly denied any malfeasance.
Despite the fluff and bluster - it is clear to the most casual observer that it was in absolutely noone's best business interest to bring down Lance. From the other cycling teams who went from a Europe-only to a North American stage, to the sports equipment vendors selling Armstrong signature gear, to the personal athletic trainers promising Armstrong-like results, to the holiday services companies offering an opportunity to cycle along parts of Lance's race routes across the French countryside, to Lance Armstrong Incorporated himself - every business touched by the tour was positively impacted by Lance's victories. And not one of them was bothered by the collateral damage in terms of individual careers or ruined businesses left in the wake of the Armstrong image protection machine.
As the Godfather said, "Nothing personal. It's just business."
Like the characters in the mafia movies of the 70's, he would have got away with it had his ego not driven him to ruin.
The story of Lance Armstrong follows the arc of a true Greek tragedy. Hubris is the epic flaw. The idea of a second comeback was too powerful for him to resist. Perhaps the very idea that someone of his age and background could even endure another twenty-one hundred mile race and finish in any position at all was enough of an enticement. Most mortals would shrink at the challenge, and Lance, doped or not, is hardly mortal. If only he would have faded into the background, Trek Bicycles would have continued to rake in millions selling Lance Armstrong signature cycles. The investigations would have all become old news. And the world would have grown weary of the army of his detractors trying to bring him down.
But he wouldn't stop. Maybe there wouldn't have been any energy left in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency to pursue the case had he not come back. Maybe USADA wouldn't have encouraged the F.B.I to get involved. But they did. Then faced with federal charges, one of his former broken teammates was imminently ready to break the code of silence spill his guts. Once that happened, the flood gates opened. The "omerta" of the cycling world was broken. And everyone wearing Lycra was more afraid of jail than what Lance would do them.
Thus collapsed the Lance Armstrong image factory. Now the French tourism industry will suffer a reduction in July bookings from Americans. Now Nike will sell less yellow running shoes to American cycling fans. Countless bicycle parts manufacturers will lose business as Americans follow the lead of many French citizens who realized all along that Le Tour was rife with Le Dopage.
Perhaps worst of all, like many legitimate concerns set up to hide criminal activity Lance's non-profit "Livestrong" has suffered a terrific blow. Lance's name is firmly embedded in their name and existence. The people running the organization are committed to helping cancer victims become cancer survivors by following the path of Lance's storied recovery. It is tragic that their efforts are tainted by the Lance's subterfuge. They are suffering a great reduction in donations in the halo of Lance's nose dive irrespective of the truth that cancer is no less a blight on society than it ever was. The fact that Lance's victories were fraudulent doesn't invalidate the great work Livestrong does to help people in need. But the people donating dollars don't see it that way. Giving money to Livestrong equates to giving money to the liar, and that is fundamentally unpalatable.
While Lance is settling many of the industrial lawsuits out-of-court, there is one howitzer aimed squarely at Lance's head that he cannot dodge. His former teammate Floyd Landis had won Le Tour but was caught doping. After first denying it and mounting an expensive defense, he broke down and admitted it. His tour victory was stripped and he sunk to near anonymity, raising his head now and then to feebly pester Lance with impotent accusations. And then the F.B.I. found Floyd living in the woods in near squalor, his strong Mennonite conscience driving him to madness.
They offered him immunity. Finally, Floyd had a platform.
Macur's reportage says that now with visibility from Floyd, Lance will be indicted for the felony offense of defrauding the federal government during the sponsorship of the cycling team by the U.S. Post Office. The U.S.P.S. put forward millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars to sponsor the team under the notion that Lance was fairly winning the Tour De France. The star witness for the prosecution is Floyd Landis.
These charges have yet to be made and Floyd is saying little about the case as the position is still being developed by the F.B.I. As the individual bringing forth the data to support the charges, Floyd not only has immunity but he would stand to gain for himself a percentage of the overall funds for which the government will sue Lance.
All of this leaves me with a great hole in my cycling heart.
I still ride my mountain bike every chance I get. I started before I knew about Lance and I'll keep going till my legs give out.
But my dreams of an American cycling hero have gone down in flames. I agree with my French colleague - the sport is contaminated. It will take nearly forever for it to recover for me.
It's a pity, because there are seemingly righteous champions emerging. The British Team Sky have put forward a magnificent front, and they seem to be heading for the cycling clean dynasty that team USPS/Discovery/Radio Shack was supposed to be. Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome certainly appear to be the genuine articles. But how can we say for sure? These poor guys now suffer because as far as we know everyone who has won that race for the ten years before them was dishonest. Armstrong, Contador, Landis, Ullrich, all have gone down (though I don't think Ullrich was ever "caught"). So they need to somehow win Le Tour at slower speeds than the dopers, which may be more difficult than doping and winning.
And what about the television commentators? French television does a terrific job of covering the race from the sky with helicopters and from the road with videographers perched precariously on the backs of motor bikes. I've been following the U.S. feed of this coverage for years. Every July the familiar voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin fill my living room with cycling banter for hours on end. A stage of the tour is worse than a U.S. baseball game in terms of need for idle commentary - most of the time absolutely nothing is happening. It doesn't get exciting until the last half hour or so. So the commentators have to be really creative to spend three to five hours per day for three straight weeks jabbering on and on while the peloton cruises through hundreds of miles with nothing but pace-cadence pedaling going on.
While Paul has been somewhat silent on the matter over the years (except to disparage exposed dopers), Phil actively and quite verbally supported Lance's claims that he didn't dope. Phil is in our shoes now, left looking silly for believing what so many thought was obvious.
I don't know what I'll do this year. I suppose I'll program my DVR to record the stages of the tour, all of which occur in the French afternoon which translate to the early hours of the California morning.
But can I watch it? Will I believe the winners? Will I still marvel at mortal humans propelling themselves over tens of thousands of feet in elevation and thousands of miles of two-lane roads over three weeks of pure exertion?
As an aficionado of UFOs and the old TV series, "The X-Files," I'm reminded of a poster in Fox Mulder's office in the basement of the F.B.I. building. Maybe it's my flaw. My hubris. You see, I really like biking.
I want to believe.