Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Definitive Lance Armstrong Perspective, or Why Buzz Bissinger is an Idiot

It was the summer of 1995. I was between 8th and 9th grade. My family had just moved to Colorado from Vermont. We had cable for the first time and we were living in a townhouse as my parents searched fro something to buy. I would watch the Tour de France in the morning then spend hours upon hours riding my bike around the loop that made up the road in our neighborhood. Over and over again, reliving what I saw.

What I saw was the ultimate competition. Thousands of miles raced over all kinds of roads - and not just one big race, but individual races each day and multiple races over the course of the event. The yellow jersey, the white, the green, the polka dot. It was unreal.

I loved it.

In 1995 the big Spaniard Miguel Indurain won his fifth consecutive Tour, tying him with Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx, the giants of the sport. He was the first to win five in a row. He was not a specialist, performing well in the Time Trial and in the mountains, but dominating neither. He was simply a machine, willing his body to do things no man on the planet could do, and doing it in a monotonous, mechanical fashion. He destroyed people because of his consistency. Even on days when he lost ground, he was always lurking right behind, pounding away on the pedals and refusing to be dropped.

The next year was 1996. The end of one era and the beginning of another. Bjarne Riis won the event, almost gifted by his young protege, Jan Ullrich who seemingly was stronger (indeed in 1997 the defending champ waved Ullrich on to win in a gesture of ultimate grace that makes him more of a cycling legend than his 1996 win). Indurain appeared a shell of his former self. He looked pedestrian, finishing well down in the pack. He could just not keep up.

At the time I assumed that there was a cliff in cycling, a moment when great champions just dropped off the face of the Earth and that Indurain could not fight his moment off. Over time, over eighteen further Tours I learned that it's simply not true. That kind of physical gift does not just disappear if the training continues. There is a point where a champion can no longer be a champion, but in cycling, the demands on the body are so strong that genetics has as much to do with success as training. Some people are just better and they don't cease to be better because of age. In cycling, you fade away; you don't fall.

It was the memory of that moment, of watching Indurain slip back and become mediocre, that confirmed to me the truth I did not want to admit: Lance Armstrong was doping along with everyone else.

Before we go too far. LiveStrong is a tremendous success and a wonderful legacy. They do great work and I am glad to see that Armstrong's refusal to fight doping charges has not hurt (in fact helped greatly) the mission of the organization.

I also believe that Armstrong is one of those genetic freaks. A grand cycling champion, built for success in the sport - and one who also trained harder and more intentionally than anyone else (prior to Armstrong everyone ate pizza and drank beer all night because they burn 12,000 calories a day racing - now they have dietitians). I have no doubt in my mind that were the playing field level, Armstrong could win all seven of those Tours again. The playing field was level, but it was not clean.

From the outside, there were few real hints of a massive problem. The Tour raided the Festina HQ and threw the entire team out of the race one year. There were some failed tests here and there. We were OK. Lance was OK. Then the dominos began to get bigger and more frequent. Ullrich lost his title, as did Tyler Hamilton. Riis admitted to doping during his win in 1996. Guys, big name guys, were dropping like flies.

In the end, cycling came clean. The whole sport. Everyone fessed up and came forward. People admitted they were doping; the tests changed. The era was written off and the sport began to move forward. Well, for everyone but Lance Armstrong. He stubbornly refused. Even when it was more and more apparent that everyone in the sport was doping. He began to stand out like those few crackpot scientists who still claim the Earth is flat.

My brothers and my dad and I used to play online scrabble. Words with Friends before Words with Friends was a thing. At one point an email went out, "why are we still playing this, clearly we're all cheating." We were. The games ended.

That was cycling from 1996 through 2011. The final lost appeal from Alberto Contador spelled the end. The end, of course, for everyone but stubborn Lance. The guy who refused to give in to cancer, refuses the inevitable.

There's just no excuse anymore. He keeps claiming he never failed a test. He didn't. 75% of the doping racers didn't either. The tests have never been that great for the kind of doping most beneficial in cycling. In fact, Lance mysteriously retired about the time those tests started getting accurate. Barry Bonds never failed a test. "But MLB tests are a joke." Marion Jones never failed a test either - and she went to prison.

Armstrong gave up at the final hurdle of a defense that had lasted millions of dollars and thirteen years? Really? The guy who takes nothing from anyone, the most stubborn man in sports gives up right at the finish line? Really? Lance doesn't want the damning evidence and witnesses aired in open court. He wants this to go away, quickly. It should. There's no need to linger. He's forced us to linger long enough.

USADA has been accused of being on a witch hunt. USADA may be power hungry; I'll give you that, but Armstrong is not being treated any differently than anyone else. It's simply that everyone else who's been caught admitted it and moved on. Armstrong is the only cyclist with the kind of money to be able to fight it this far. If you want to know what a brutal witch hunt looks like, check out what Contador has gone through the last five years (and deservedly so).

Nearly a dozen former teammates, coaches, and doctors were set to testify against Armstrong. Sure, some of them were former dopers (but again, nearly every rider falls into this category). Some of the "disgraced former teammates" were caught on tips from Armstrong's camp after leaving his team or angering him in some way. It's tough to refute multiple doctors and friends who put Armstrong in the middle of a massive team wide doping plan, lasting almost a decade. They've got one doctor who says, "I injected him myself."

Buzz Bissinger, never one to shy away from press of any kind, wrote a piece for Newsweek defending Armstrong as a hero, "even if he did use something." The argument being that he was still better. In a sport where everyone was doping, he was still the best.

It's a legitimate argument, but it doesn't make him a hero. In Lance's statement, probably the last statement he'll ever give about cycling, he said he's quitting his fight because cycling doesn't need this. It's true. Cycling doesn't need this. Cycling needed their greatest champion to come clean five years ago, to take responsibility for his part in a rough era of the sport, apologize, and move on.

Almost every one of the dopers is back in the sport. They have to be. There would be no sport without them. Bjarne Riis manages a team. Jonathan Vaughters, a teammate of Armstrong's and one in the middle of the controversy, manages one as well. Even those riders who were never formally implicated, but assuredly were doping have made the transition to clean riding without any fanfare. Not a single rider has made any noise about "being clean the whole time" - that's a telling fact.

Everyone - the media, the riders, the teams, and the fans know what went down. The sport was rotten to the core. It has been fixed (we hope). The only ugly spot left is the refusal of Armstrong to participate in the resurrection of the sport he claims to love.

Remember, for all the good his cancer foundation has done in the world, Lance has always been a selfish person. He was a selfish teammate, both as a supporting rider before cancer and as a team leader afterwards. He dumped his wife and three young children when he got famous and didn't want to be held back from TV appearances and Hollywood parties. He dated Sheryl Crow until she wanted kids and dumped her about the same time she was diagnosed with cancer herself.

It shouldn't surprise us that his own reputation comes before anything else, even the good of his sport. This is who he is. Likely this stubbornness (along with his outrageous CO2 max) made him such a great champion, such an amazing rider. I will never forget the way he just dropped the best cyclists in the world on the most difficult mountains as if they were standing still (and despite their incredible doping - enough to kill a few of them, by the way). Ironically it's that reputation that is being tarnished by his refusal to just make things right.

This controversy is solely a US controversy. Here, where cycling is a fringe sport at best, where cycling is only in the news when Lance Armstrong is in the news, we get a media story crafted mostly by the NBC promotions department and Lance's own PR people.

In the real cycling world, in Europe where it is a way of life, this story was over well before any formal charges were leveled at Armstrong. The whole sport was dirty. Everyone was guilty by association. They've always hated Lance - not just because a brash American ruined their fun, but because they knew what was going on. This is a whole lot of nothing. People on Lance's side are those ignorant of context.

I love cycling. I love the Tour de France. I loved watching Lance Armstrong ride. Those memories are not tarnished. Those superhuman performances will always be with us. Those impossible feats of strength, the lack of human frailty, the dope-fueled records, they are forever a part of the sport.

This year's Tour was the first I got to watch with my daughter. She was about two months old as we watched Bradley Wiggins celebrate on the Champs Elysees. He beat defending champion Cadel Evans. In both of their Tours the drama was gone. Both men simply rode at the peak of disciplined performance. Neither one exhibited short bursts of superhuman strength, but an insane ability to put their body through torture every day for three weeks. They muscled through the event with machine-like consistency.

It was as if we'd come full circle. The champions of the near future will be more like Indurain than Armstrong. The races may be less exciting, but they will be no less impressive. Perhaps one day the mix of genetics, training, endurance, and pure stubbornness will coalesce again into a five-time champion to rest alongside Indurain, Hinault, Anquetil, and Merckx - but they will always be standing in the towering shadow of Armstrong.

The doping is forgivable, given the context. The stubbornness is understandable given the man. It just boggles the mind that he can't ever let it end. The only thing I hold against Lance Armstrong, the only thing most anyone holds against him, is simply a refusal to be human.

That's all we ask.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not CO2 Max