Mark Radcliffe reports from the France on the fall of Lance Armstrong, ascendance of Bradley Wiggins as “patron” of the Tour.
For many of us, we knew this day was probably coming.
Lance has chosen not to contest USADA’s charges, and will likely be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.
The athlete who inspired the world with his dominance will now join the ranks of other sporting superstars whose results all are accompanied by asterisks.
Another sporting hero takes a fall. But Lance’s is different: he’s “willingly” declining to fight.
USADA’s Travis Tygart stated, “It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and athletes. It’s a heartbreaking example of win at all costs overtaking the fair and safe option. There’s no success in cheating to win.”
Some will take Lance’s side in this, sympathetic to the claims in his public statement that this case is an “unconstitutional witch hunt” that can’t be won, and believe he is wrongly accused.
Others who have followed the countless stories over the years of other cyclists who’ve been convicted of doping or have confessed to it (and were all beaten by Lance) will read between the lines and reach a simple conclusion: Lance knew damn well that had the case gone to arbitration, the mountain of testimony from as many as ten of his former teammates would publicly stain his image far more than his voluntary surrender of his titles, so he took the avenue that caused the least damage to his public image. This way, he can still play the martyr, the noble hero who got screwed by the system, and continue his work for the cancer community, which has always been admirable.
In a sense, forfeiting the seven titles now might not hurt him as much (though it’s certainly a dark day for cycling). He already has the benefits from the wins: the international fame, the money (some of which he may have to return), the legions of followers. You want the trophies? Sure, take ‘em.
It’s honor he’ll lose most, though he’ll tell us he hasn’t lost it at all. Maybe he even believes it.
As for me, I’m torn as to whether to cheer for what might finally be “justice” in cycling.
Because the ultimate difficulty with Lance is that it’s hard to separate his alleged doping from his work as an philanthropist.
I viewed him as a hero for years, followed him around the Alps, and even bought the “What am I on? I’m on my bike six hours a day” mantra from his Nike spot years ago. But eventually I came to believe he doped just like the rest, and simply fooled the drug test one more time than the other guys around him who all lost their careers after one failed test.
It’s a shame to convict someone who was simply doing what (most of) the other riders were doing—blood transfusions, EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone, whatever it took to get through 2100 miles of racing in 21 days, averaging an inhuman 26.1 mph the whole way.
And how can you say it’s “cheating” if everyone’s doing it and the playing field is (mostly) still level?
And beyond that, I genuinely believe he’s gone above and beyond the call of duty to raise cancer awareness and fight for those suffering from the disease, providing inspiration for people who are gravely ill and raising $500 million through his yellow bracelets and Livestrong Foundation.
So I half don’t blame him for doing it, too, but I still fault him for continuing to allege the inconceivable: that he beat countless other admitted dopers and wasn’t doing it himself. It’s a shame; I almost blame the inadequate testing of the era for leaving the temptation to cheat so open. But of course, most of the other “doped” cyclists have paid their price: losing their titles, their fans, their dignity and their money. Only Lance still got to hold on to all of his. So it seems if the rest had to pay, Lance should have to pay up, too. That day is now here.
I still think Lance is a great humanitarian. I just also think he was an extremely driven competitor who chose to do whatever it took to win, including taking advantage of a weak anti-doping system. We’ll see if he’s true to his claim that he will keep up his cancer efforts as he “turns the page” and focuses on the rest of his life. We’ll also see if the cancer world still wants him to.
As a former racer and still-devoted cycling fan, I was over in France last month to watch the Tour, and noted it had a decidedly different tenor from when I first followed it in 2003 as Lance took his 5th win. This year a new “patron” of the peloton (cycling’s term for the “boss” or “father figure” of the pack) was rising in the form of the more humble, less domineering Bradley Wiggins. During Lance’s regime, his teammates sacrificed themselves endlessly to propel Lance to greater heights. It worked flawlessly, for seven years straight. But it didn’t leave much room for his teammates to get any glory for themselves. Wiggins actually helped his teammates win stages for themselves: he wasn’t greedy. As long as he was in yellow, he didn’t need to win by seven minutes. He was a gentleman about it—no need to rub it in.
Perhaps the clearest distinction between the “patron” of Lance and the “patron” of Wiggins is illustrated in this simple clip of the final minute of this year’s final sprint into Paris. Watch as Bradley Wiggins selflessly buries himself in an effort to deliver his fellow teammate (World Champion sprinter Mark Cavendish) to the line (a sprint which Cavendish easily won, thanks to Wiggins’ efforts). In Lance’s years, this was the point of the race where he would safely hang in the back of the pack, his work done, avoiding the hassles of the final sprint, and just enjoying the pleasures of yet another Tour won. But Bradley Wiggins? Hell, no. He had a sprinter on his team who’d won the final sprint to Paris three times before and counts on his team for a tow to the front so he could properly contest the sprint with rested legs. So who took the final, brutal, heartrate-crushing sprint to set up Cavendish? None other than the yellow-jersey winner who would normally be relaxing at the back with his victory already secured—Bradley Wiggins. And what made me love him even more? The fact that none of the other teams could even get around him. Usually a yellow jersey winner is best over a long distance. Not over just a few hundred meters. It was generous. It was powerful. It was beautiful. It was selfless.
It was the kind of thing Lance would never have never done.
Maybe that’s why so perhaps so many of Lance’s former teammates gave testimony against him in his doping case—they never felt they got a fair return for what they sacrificed for him.
So now we have to say goodbye to the image we once had of Lance, and hope a new hero will take his place in our hearts. Here’s to a new kind of Patron in the cycling world–one who might not ever rack up seven consecutive titles or become a global celebrity, but one whom his fellow teammates are proud to stand beside.
As long as we want such a larger-than-life hero—a generous leader as well as an elite athlete—we’ll have to take the flaws and hubris that come with it. Maybe it was our collective admiration and worship that led to such a twisting of the rules. Maybe if we become more content with a more “human” form of hero, we won’t have to one day forfeit the false idol we’ve helped to create.
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Image courtesy of the author