Of all the iconic moments, “The Look” might be my favorite. In 2001 while ascending L’Alpe d’Huez, one of the most feared perennial features of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong pulled past German rival Jan Ullrich and then looked back to see if Ullrich would match his move. Ullrich couldn’t, and Armstrong accelerated again, going on to win his third of an eventual record seven consecutive Tour de France victories. Growing up, Lance Armstrong was among the greatest of my sports heroes. You know that game where you invite five people, living or dead, to dinner? Armstrong was invariably on my list. I’ve read his autobiography, It’s Not About the Bike, multiple times. He wasn’t just the miraculous survivor of cancer and champion of research. He wasn’t just the most dominant figure sport has ever known, the rider who made cycling relevant to Americans if only for one month a year. He was like me, a kid from north Texas. I played soccer in his hometown.
Maybe that’s why, until now, I never really listened to the allegations against him. It mounted slowly. Individually, witnesses were easy to dismiss. Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis? They were just throwing dirt after they’d been caught themselves. It was self aggrandizing, as if they were saying, “Well if we couldn’t do it without cheating, he certainly couldn’t either.” Maybe it was willful ignorance on my part. I don’t know. Probably.
I wanted Armstrong to be the Texan giant, the pure athlete, the untarnished champion he claimed to be. Look at all he’d accomplished outside of cycling – cancer survivor against the odds, inspirational figure who raised millions for treatment. Certainly this was a good guy. I could ignore the divorce of his wife who in his book he’d so recently claimed was his rock. I could ignore reports of his foul mouthed, petulant nature.
But as sad as it makes me to throw off that old conception of Lance Armstrong, it’s an ignorant conception that I can no longer attempt to maintain. Let me say this clearly: I no longer have any doubt that Lance Armstrong was complicit in the use of illegal performance enhancers, and not only for himself, but for those who helped him achieve those lofty feats of athletic prowess. He doped, and he encouraged teammates to dope. I’ve read the entirety of the USADA’s Reasoned Decision against Armstrong, and the case is very clear.
Look, think what you will of Hamilton and Landis. But even if if you completely ignore their testimony in the USADA’s Reasoned Decision, in which the agency holds Armstrong guilty of systematic an conspiratorial blood doping throughout his professional career and invalidates all of his results from 1998-2010, it’s impossible to doubt that Armstrong was dirty. The Reasoned Decision was publicly released this past Wednesday and includes testimony from a number of witnesses who, to this point, had not provided testimony against Armstrong, including most importantly former teammates Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, and George Hincapie, the only teammate to have been with Armstrong for all seven of his Tour de France victories. Theirs is the testimony that does it for me. These four riders, all of whom still ride professionally, received suspensions and had past results invalidated based on their testimony, yet they chose to testify anyways. Hincapie, in particular, has had a long relationship with Armstrong both professionally and personally. The two are close, and as the USADA points out Armstrong has never publicly attacked Hincapie’s virtue as he has Hamilton’s, Landis’s, or that of other witnesses against him.
Clearly, professional cycling was and likely still is a sport dominated by cheats, even more so than professional baseball in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Armstrong is unquestionably an athlete with extreme physical gifts, but maybe he felt he had to dope just to keep up with the field. I don’t know. That in no way excuses him. He cheated, and for that, the invalidation of his titles and lifetime ban from the sport is wholly justified.
Honestly, I don’t know how to deal with this. My faith in Armstrong has waned through the years as the evidence has mounted against him, but until now I never quite allowed myself to believe it wholesale. I nearly cried reading the USADA’s Reasoned Decision as I watched the career and accomplishments of one of my heroes crumble before my very eyes. Make no mistake: Whatever you’ve though of Armstrong in the past, this is a sad time for both cycling and sport as a whole. The last fifteen years or more are a period dominated by those who’ve forgotten the freedom of a kid’s first bicycle, or the simple satisfaction of squaring up a pitch, or the childlike joy of just running. Running for the thrill of grass under your feet and wind in your face and the exhilaration of having your own body propel you forward. Sports are child’s play that a few talented and lucky individuals get to make a living from.
I feel like I’ll start straying from the point if I go on much more, so I’ll just end with this: I’m sad. I’m sad because a man, Lance Armstrong, and many other men beside him, thought they were above fair and equitable competition. They made us to look with wonder upon their super-human feats only to have the illusion come crashing down around us as we discovered that what they did was indeed beyond any natural human capacity.