Mark Radcliffe was once an elite cyclist who looked up to Lance Armstrong as a role model. Now he knows what a dirty sport it’s always been.
As has been widely reported the last few weeks, 20th-century cycling messiah Lance Armstrong is being brought up on multiple doping charges by USADA, and it’s possible that, though he’s dodged doping accusations many times before, this time, he might truly go down, and not only lose his 7 Tour de France titles, but his superhero legacy in general if found guilty.
And I have to admit, as a former racer myself, I’m a little heartbroken over it all.
I’m old enough now (and well-read enough) to know that cycling has been a dirty sport for years, and certainly Lance wouldn’t be the only cycling big-shot to be found guilty of performance- enhancing drugs. Hell, the sport had riders doing cocaine back in the late 1800s.
But I wasn’t always so enlightened, and following the growing charges against Lance over the years has been a little bit like slowly realizing maybe Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. That the world is a more corrupt and illusory place than I thought. And as a man (and athlete) who looked up to Lance for many years, it feels like the final, reluctant acknowledgement that maybe not all heroes are who they truly appear.
I’m certainly not the first person to write about Lance’s complicated status as an (alleged) doper, but it has unique meaning to me because I was a top cyclist myself once, many years ago. As an elite junior cyclist, I was the Maine State Champion at 16, a top New England racer, and even beat future Tour de France star Tyler Hamilton once back in the day. But I gave it all up before I got to college, simply overwhelmed by how much sacrifice the sport took. I loved cycling–for a couple hours. But not 4, 5 or 6 hours a day, which is what it takes to be a top talent.
So I got out of the sport before I would learn about any of its darker side. I never even knew about the small “performance enhancements” like caffeine pills that college racers took, or diet pills and amphetamines. Much less the full-scale commitments of blood doping, testosterone and EPO that my countless competitive cycling friends swear all top pros are (probably) doing.
I went off to my life as a writer, teacher and musician and simply stayed a recreational cyclist. I was a huge fan of Greg Lemond when I was a rider in the late 80’s, and first heard of Lance when he won the World Championships at an unheard-of 21. I was a senior in college at the time–it was unthinkable that someone so young was so good. So when years later he came out of his death sentence of testicular/ brain/ lung cancer and won his first Tour, I was a born-again cycling fan. And finally for his 5th & 6th victories, I’d gotten back in top cycling shape, dropped 20 pounds and traveled to France for the summers and cycled around the country following the Tour. I blogged about it on a site I called Chasing Lance. I was one of the countless Lance disciples, wearing my yellow bracelet and spreading the Gospel of Livestrong far and wide.
My admiration for Lance went beyond the fact that he stared cancer in the eye and came back stronger than ever—a living, athletic personification of kicking ass and taking names. It was for what seemed like his overall embodiment of the male ideal—a true renaissance man who was an athlete, a humanitarian, a stylish charmer in TV interviews, a casanova with the ladies, a fierce and articulate debater when confronted, and the kind of roguish guy you certainly wanted to have a beer with. His efforts to fight cancer (which to date have raised over $325 million for the cause) made him seem beyond reproach.
Surely, if ever there was a perfect embodiment of manhood, Lance was it.
And an endless array of corporate sponsors, innumerable women (his ex-wife, Sheryl Crow, Kate Hudson, an Olsen Twin, who knows how many others), and countless celebs seemed to agree, Lance was the guy you wanted to be seen beside. He made us all believe that just when you think you’ve been knocked down for the count, maybe that’s when you’re about to become your best self.
But slowly, out came the accusations.
“Dopée!” screamed the French. (We could ignore them; we’d been doing it for years. Besides, it was just sour grapes—he’d embarrassed them at their own sport, right?) But more accusations came. From doping agencies, former competitors, his own sponsors, journalists publishing books. He batted them away with righteous indignation. A Nike spot even defended him: “What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass 6 hours a day. What are you on?” Lance decried.
And we all bought it.
We had to.
This was a story we couldn’t do without. Not in the pale aftermath of 9/11. At a time like this, we needed heroes, and needed them badly. His devotion to cancer alone made him a saint to us.
Over the years, countless other cyclists that had ridden with Lance—and been beaten by him—had been found guilty of cheating or at least bounced out of the sport on suspicion alone: David Millar, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Gilberto Simoni, Danila di Luca, Roberto Heras, and then the big one: Floyd Landis. But to me, it wasn’t until my former childhood friend Tyler Hamilton came forward on “60 Minutes” (after 2 positive tests) and admitted they’d all been doping for years, that I finally had to accept that the whole sport was probably a deceitful mess, just as I’d been told, but didn’t want to hear. Tyler was the last bastion of hope in cycling—a truly honest man, it seemed, always humble in interviews, never one to brag, always sacrificing him for the team, battling through countless injuries to ride on. If he said he was doped, and that Lance sure as hell was too, well now I was convinced. And if you believe nothing else, perhaps this is the most damaging evidence of all: Lance’s average speed in his final Tour victory was the highest of all time—25.9 mph. Even now, six years later with better equipment, they’re 1.2 mph slower.
But I still clung tough to the simple notion that “Hey, it was a corrupt time, and they all were doing it, so still it was a level playing field for the most part, right?” I contented myself with the notion that, when the doping tests are so incompetent that most of the riders can dodge them, how do you not do it, too, just to not be at a disadvantage?
Lance was just another innocent born into a corrupt era, trying not to be at a disadvantage, I believed. In a culture where everyone doped, he was still was the best of all of them.
But the problem, of course, has become that no one has proclaimed his innocence as loudly as Lance, or profited so by proclaiming his integrity. Chanting his campaign line of “I’m the most tested athlete of all time, and never tested positive” has convinced most of the masses that this case is still just a witch hunt. But those who truly study all the data and cases and interviews can’t help but conclude: Crap, he’s probably guilty as hell.
And unfortunately, Lance has been a pretty self-righteous A-hole over the years, bashing those who defied him. He’s been known to be ruthlessly vengeful to those who haven’t stayed loyal (ex trainers and assistants are some of many who’ve given testimony against him), and it appears his final comeuppance might now only be weeks away.
And I’ll be sad as hell if he’s finally found guilty.
Not because Lance was a truly nice guy (you can’t go that far without being ruthlessly selfish), but because Goddammit, most of his story is still true. He did beat cancer in a heroic way and rededicate himself to his sport and drop another 10 pounds and change his technique become a more efficient rider and emerge a new man. But it won’t be seen that way. (Not to mention his devotion to his cancer cause.) The drugs maybe gave him an extra 2%, but the world will dismiss everything he achieved as something he never actually earned.
The problem I’m reluctantly accepting is that for the sport of cyling—and hell, for me—it’s probably best if Lance goes down. Like Bonds. Like other public heroes who’ve been caught in a lie, so that perhaps the future achievers of tomorrow can have a better crack at living with virtue. Because in the end, while we love a big dramatic story, we have to care about the truth more.
The one thing that I can’t help but ponder is the simple fact that Lance never had a father. His biological father split when he was two, and though he had a step-father when his mother remarried, one wonders what that might have done to a young Lance: filled him with an intense desire to prove his worth to the world when his own father didn’t care enough to stick around? What might that do to a man? What lengths might that drive him to? Would it make him stop at nothing to assuage some hole left in his heart from his youth?
Of course, that’s all conjecture. And regardless of how you judge Lance, you have to admit his positive influence on the cancer community and the worldwide interest in cycling. But in the big discussion of what it truly is to be a man, we have to ask: if in the course of inspiring the world, you also completely lie to it, does it still count?
Who knows, maybe Lance will surprise us with one final, unexpected act of honor and confess everything. I’d honestly smile if he gave us one last, big, defiant, Jack Nicholson-esque “You can’t handle the truth” harangue of what it takes to truly compete at that level. And to help him get there, I’ll add this: You don’t have to lie for me anymore, Lance. I can take it. As you’ve always said, bring it on.
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Photos courtesy of the author