An alarm clock rings at 7:00 a.m. in the room of a 13-year-old boy on a July morning that is already impenetrably humid. The boy hastily dashes out of his room and down to the basement, where he flips on the television.
He will sit there for the next two and a half hours, watching men ride their bikes up and down the winding slopes of the French Alps and Pyrenees. Although many of those around him disparage the sport that he has grown to love, the boy never misses a television broadcast, and always has his eye on the shifty man from Texas who he has claimed as his childhood idol. The Michael Jordan of cycling. A Gibraltar on wheels. Lance Armstrong.
That little boy would me, circa 2005. That was the last year that I watched Lance Armstrong ride his bicycle over the famed peaks of France in one of the most storied sporting events in the world, doing so with a domination and systematic destruction of his competition that I had never previously beheld. That summer marked the seventh straight summer that I had religiously followed professional cycling.
My father introduced me to the sport way back in 1999, when Lance Armstrong mania first began. I may have only been six years old at the time, but I was completely hooked on cycling. I knew all of the riders. I knew all of the teams. Hell, I even had a subscription to Cycle Sport magazine. To say I was a cycling fan would be like saying that Seinfeld was a solid show. Understatement.
And at the center of this strange passion of mine was Lance Armstrong. He was my hero, in every sense of the word. I was enthralled by the story of a man who achieved unprecedented athletic dominion after he chased death off of his doorstep when all he had left was a paper clip and a book of matches. I owned a Team U.S. Postal jersey. Much to the chagrin of my mother, I read his book. I pored over magazine and newspaper articles that were written about him. I rode my Trek mountain bike around the little hills in the cemetery next to my house, pretending to be chasing down Jan Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez, all while doing my best frantic Phil Liggett play-by-play imitation in my head. Most kids my age would have listed Superman, Spiderman, or Batman as their superheroes. I had Lance.
Lance left cycling for the first time in 2005. Just over a year later, the accusations began. I steadfastly refused to believe the doubters, accusers, and finger-pointers. I refused to believe Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. I had them as envious ex-teammates with whom Lance’s fame and glory didn’t sit well. They were both admitted liars, giving them no credibility. The French media, who hounded Lance and wanted nothing more than to see him fall from grace, annoyed me the most. To me, they were nothing more than a group of people who couldn’t stand that an American was dominating a renowned, high-profile French sporting event, and sought to poke holes in him. I was surrounded by people who pointed to cycling as being a sport of “cheats, crooks, and phonies,” muddled in controversy and scandal, and, therefore, illegitimate. All the while, I believed Lance was clean.
I’m 20 now and I had the carpet ripped out from under my feet. I watched my former hero tell me that it was all a lie. That all of the wins were fraudulent. That his homicidal defense of himself and his innocence was a hoax. That my homicidal defense of him was foolish. That the reputation of the man that I once looked up to and admired was built on nothing more than sand and falsehoods. Those two nights last week culminated what have been a tough couple of months during which time Lance has gone from my idol to somebody that I could only characterize as a sociopath. It’s a tough thing to admit you’ve been suckered.
I don’t blame Lance for doping. Not one bit. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that I think he won all of those races fairly. Throughout Lance’s whole career, he had simple a choice: he could dope and be competitive, or he could be clean and get dropped. Those were his only two options. I think that a lot of people miss this. We’re not talking about baseball in the 1980s or 1990s where maybe 40 percent of the sport was using PED’s. Literally every big name in cycling in the last 20 years has been busted or implicated in some way with banned substances, including all of Lance’s top competitors and fiercest rivals.
Unfortunately for Lance, he is cycling to most Americans. Ninety-seven percent of America couldn’t tell you who Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani or Erik Zabel are. And this is one of the reasons why Lance, unlike the Roger Clemens’ and Barry Bonds’ of the world, will not eventually receive a pass. Just because everybody was doing it certainly doesn’t make it right. But doping wasn’t a problem in cycling in Lance’s career, doping was cycling. And all of them got six-month suspensions. Lance, as he said, got a death penalty.
The penalty, in Lance’s case, is one that fits the crime. He got that death penalty because of how long he kept the lie up. He got it because he ruthlessly attacked anybody who accused him. He repeatedly and fervently denied his wrongdoing every step of the way. He was as arrogant and in-your-face about it as you could possibly be. He ruined people’s lives, ruined them financially, and destroyed their reputations. He got it because he couldn’t stay away from the sport after winning seven times in a row. He had to come back in 2009. Mark my words, if he was right about anything in his interview with Oprah, it was this: he would have gotten away with all of it if he hadn’t come back. So, no, he doesn’t deserve to compete again. I’m all for reconciliation and second chances, but not in this case. Lance will be lucky if he’s allowed to play shuffleboard at the old folks home twenty years from now.
Lance has quite a road in front of him. I’m going to say that this interview was probably the last we see of Lance for quite some time outside of a courtroom. There are going to be a lot of people coming after him, and I think he knows this. Sponsors. Teammates. People he has ruined. Realistically, he’s probably going to lose everything that he hasn’t already lost, and he’s already lost quite a bit. It’s only going to get rougher for him, and it could start relatively quickly. Only time will tell what will happen to him and if he has indeed learn his lesson. Who knows how history will look at Lance Armstrong.
As for me, I’ll try my best to remember those mornings with my dad when we watched him blow the pack away as he tore up the mountains of France. I’ll try and remember the man on a bike who inspired me to do great things, to work hard, and to always believe in myself. I just don’t know if I’ll be able to completely forgive him, and I know I won’t forget the lies. He was right. It’s not about the bike.