Lance Armstrong wasn’t on my radar when he started winning the Tour de France in 1999. Even after the 5th win I hadn’t taken much notice. Professional road cycling wasn’t something that really interested me at the time. But, the Lance Armstrong machine was difficult for almost anyone to ignore and he grabbed my attention in 2009 when he conquered the Leadville 100 mountain bike race – 2009 News Story and Results. As a mountain biker, I was riveted when I watched the documentary Race Across The Sky. It recounted his epic race against David Weins and led to a flock of new mountain bikers. It also cemented the Leadville 100’s reputation as the premiere mountain bike race in North America. The movie was so inspirational that I tuned in to watch Armstrong’s comeback in the Tour de France. I began to learn words like peloton and drafting, terms that are almost non-existent on singletrack. Lance Armstrong had become a hero to me and I followed his career – as much as possible given that cycling does not have a huge television presence in the U.S.. In 2009, my heart even broke a little bit when he lost to Alberto Contador in his attempted Tour de France comeback. I guess you could say I had a serious bicycle man-crush on him by this point. But those pesky rumors always made you wonder…
Trailer for Race Across The Sky
For years there was evidence that Lance had used performance enhancing drugs, but I, like most Americans, was reluctant to believe it. He was so good at defending his record that you really wondered if it really was all just a big conspiracy. Were so many people really out to get Lance Armstrong?
I just finished reading the book Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour De France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, two reporters at the The Wall Street Journal. Lance Armstrong has confessed his use of outlawed performance enhancing drugs but if you still have any doubts then this book should squash those. In fact, the book doesn’t just make the case that Lance cheated in cycling, it also makes him seem like a self-centered jerk who is not afraid to crush anybody that threatens his empire. Wheelmen does a great job of laying out the whole story from beginning to end. You get a better understanding of the forces that drove Lance to be a great endurance athlete. Before he was a cyclist, Lance was a swimmer, a runner and a triathlete. These are not team sports and Lance was definitely not a team player. Even in the peloton it was clear that these guys may have been wearing jerseys from the US Postal Team or Team Astana, but they were all riding for Team Armstrong. He required total deference from his domestiques – and that meant that formerly clean riders were pressured to dope to support Armstrong’s winning streak. Reading Wheelmen reminded me of reading All the President’s Men, the story of the Watergate scandal. There are so many characters tangled up in Lance’s coverup that the beginning of the book has a “Cast of Characters” for reference. The authors make it very clear that this isn’t just a tale about about doping. It’s about money, power and corruption. Huge sponsors like Nike and Trek were making millions of dollars by building up Lance’s legend and all those dollars made it easy to look the other way. Anybody who thought about blowing the whistle on it was immediately destroyed. So many athletes, coaches, sponsors and associates knew about the doping that it is amazing that the coverup was able to last for so long. As a fan, it was obvious in 2012 and 2013 that the evidence against him was really starting to build up, but it was still hard to believe. Lance was so good at shielding attacks that it was a relief when he finally admitted “everything” to Oprah and left little room for doubt.
Lance Armstrong Admits “Everything” to Oprah
If you can’t get enough of the Armstrong story then you might also want to check out a recent theatrical release. The Armstrong Lie is directed by Alex Gibney. It started out as a feel-good documentary about Armstrong’s comeback in cycling, but the tone of the final film changed dramatically when Armstrong’s lies started to fall apart in 2012. I have not seen this film yet, but the potentially cool aspect is that Gibney had an insider’s view of Armstrong as the allegations mounted. Here is the trailer…
Trailer for The Armstrong Lie
So now my dreams have been officially crushed and cycling has proven to be a very dirty sport (mountain biking is probably cleaner because the stakes aren’t quite as high). Is there any hope? As long as there are mountains to climb, there will be cheaters ready to figure out how to get up them faster. Testing technology is progressing at a rapid rate, but will it ever be able to keep up. The first step to resolving all of this is a clear zero-tolerance policy against doping.
What does it mean to cheat? Is caffeine cheating? If caffeine, why not human growth hormone? The line needs to be clearly drawn, updated regularly and strictly enforced. The punishment needs to be so severe and obvious to the athletes that they wouldn’t think about cheating for a moment. There is a lot of money at stake, but there is even more money when everyone feels like the playing field is level. People like to see a fair fight. My guess is that they care less about whether drugs are involved and more about seeing athletes tested to their personal extremes. I would prefer a drug-free sport where people derived their abilities from good training and a “normal” diet. However, I don’t care too much if they dope if it’s proven that it’s not harmful to the athletes and no one has an unfair advantage. Best case scenario: the best trained and most talented athlete wins. Period. What do you think? Let me know in the comment section. Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour De France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy is available on Amazon.com. What do you think about this book? Does anyone out there still feel sympathetic for Lance Armstrong? Also make sure you look up Quickdirt on Facebook and Twitter for more great cycling content.
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