It took me a long time to learn how to ride a bicycle. So long in fact that it was only out of embarrassment, not necessity, that my training wheels were removed. Because of this mechanical amputation, I wasn’t easily lulled into what I believed to be the false sense of stability that other children embraced in two wheels. I would get going on my bicycle, and then like the boy trying to drink a glass of milk in My Life As A Dog, I would become acutely aware of what most would take for granted. I would grow nervous at how unnatural it seemed. I would wobble. I would crash. I would lose my balance.
Balance is a fascinating word. It can refer to both the abstract and the concrete, but no matter what’s being balanced – a bankbook, your diet, or your body – we understand that an effort is underway
to ensure equilibrium. Just as I struggled as a youngster to keep my bicycle from teetering too far right or too far left, I’ve throughout my life to find an improved balance between cynicism and naivety.
I’m more prone to falling on the cynical side, but there are elements in my life to which I choose to remain naive. For many years, I believed in Lance Armstrong. In fact, my defense of the cyclist was so ardent as to diverge from several personal principles to which I ascribe. In this sense, Armstrong made me a hypocrite who speaks and writes of open-minded analysis, and yet remained closed to the idea that a personal hero in his sport and outside of it might be something more (and also less, definitely less) than the construct of him that I had created.
My delusion extended so far as to accept my own uninformed theory as to how a young, slightly above-average cyclist in the early nineties would transform into the sport’s elite after eradicating the cancer that was found in his testicles, lungs, abdomen and brain. I imagined him to be too muscular during his early career, a by-product of his earlier days spent as a triathlete. I told myself and anyone who questioned his makeover that the sixteen month layoff from training reduced the muscle mass, and therefore body weight, that had actually hindered his abilities to climb and compete in the most illustrious of stage races.
It’s funny to use the verb compete in association with Lance Armstrong because his peak performance left little in the way of opposition. He competed with his rivals in the same way a petulant child competes with his or her toys. He played with them until they were used up. He was a master. My favorite display of his dominance occurred during the 2004 Tour de France, when whispers suggested that organizers thought they had created a course that could defeat the American.
The odd route of the race featured three vicious mountain stages on consecutive days, including a rare individual time trial up Alpe d’Huez, a stage typically reserved for the best climbers. The thinking was that Armstrong would only survive such a grueling expense of energy with the help of his strong U.S. Postal Service team. If that advantage was removed with a time trial on a mountain stage, not only would Armstrong’s resolve weaken, but there was a good chance that an elite climber like Ivan Basso would gain valuable seconds with three days in the mountains.
Armstrong proceeded to win all three mountain stages, most memorably passing Basso during the individual time trial on the Alpe d’Huez ascent, despite the Italian racer starting two minutes before Armstrong on the 15.5 kilometer all-uphill climb.
He went on to win the overall classification by more than six minutes, overcoming all competitors once again, often riding past them as though they were still. It was his sixth of seven Tour De France championships.
The only racer to come close to offering anything resembling a challenge to Armstrong during his days of dominance was Jan Ullrich, whose career was also tainted by doping allegations while he was riding and the subsequent confirmation of these suspicions after he had retired. I could believe that Ullrich was involved in blood doping because he had finished only a minute behind Armstrong during the 2003 Tour De France. However, I maintained that Armstrong’s use of the same available techniques to find optimum performance was unrealistic.
I continued to use my earlier justification of decreased muscle mass because I wanted to believe in Lance Armstrong. I wanted to remain naive to the possibilities that someone could beat cancer, beat his athletic opposition, and beat those who would attempt to discredit him for it. Whenever this resolve wavered, Armstrong seemed to pop up to vehemently defend himself against any and all accusations from a seemingly ever increasing cadre of detractors. He was militant in his defense, and this only served to strengthen belief in his innocence, or at least wilful ignorance to his guilt.
Never was this more evident than in Armstrong’s libel lawsuit against The Sunday Times for the reprinting of allegations from Pierre Ballester and David Walsh’s book L.A. Confidentiel, which included claims from Emma O’Reilly, the U.S. Postal Service’s team masseuse. The newspaper settled out of court. Armstrong, it seemed, wasn’t merely convincing to his followers. He convinced judges and lawyers as well.
When L’Equipe, a French sports daily, printed a cover story about six –year-old urine samples from Armstrong testing positive, the American cyclist issued the following statement, the day before it was published:
Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues and tomorrow’s article is nothing short of tabloid journalism. The paper even admits in its own article that the science in question here is faulty and that I have no way to defend myself. They state: ‘There will therefore be no counter-exam nor regulatory prosecutions, in a strict sense, since defendant’s rights cannot be respected.’ I will simply restate what I have said many times: I have never taken performance enhancing drugs.
Armstrong, like the most manipulative of boyfriends, placed allegations against him in an “us-against-the-world” context to his supporters. He was an admittedly brash, but also earnest American who found success in a sport dominated by the arrogant Europeans. This, we were told implicitly, drove them mad, especially the arrogant French, who had their sport taken from them by a conquering New World athlete.
Then, the accusations became overwhelming. American riders, scurrying to avoid their own impending disgraces, began turning on Armstrong. First Frankie Andreu, then Floyd Landis, then Tyler Hamilton, and eventually George Hincapie all claimed that Armstrong used erythropoietin to fuel his success or at least had it distributed to him. It appeared as though an indictment from U.S. federal prosecutors was inevitable. Then, just as the peloton of the American justice system was ready to swallow the breakaway rider whole, it gave up its counter attack, officially and controversially dropping the case against Armstrong less than a year ago.
Through it all, Armstrong remained resolute in his own unlikely innocence, repeatedly stating that he had nothing to do with any illegal performance enhancers. This past summer, new allegations emerged, this time from the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Armstrong again attempted his litigious counter measures, asking a Texas Court to “bar the USADA from pursuing its case or issuing any sanctions against him.” The suit went to trial, and the USADA won the case, despite the judge referring to the organization’s “single-minded determination to force Armstrong to arbitrate.” It appeared as though the determined Armstrong had finally met his equal.
In October, the USADA released a 200 page report with more than 1,000 pages of supporting documentation. The organization recommended to the Union Cycliste Internationale that Armstrong be banned for life and stripped of all of his Tour De France titles. The UCI concurred, and when Armstrong failed to appeal the decisions to Court of Arbitration for Sport, he was purported in the public eye to be the cheat that the USADA claimed.
Now, on the cusp of the broadcast of Lance Armstrong’s much-publicized admission to Oprah Winfrey, the community that championed Armstrong is vilifying him. It’s understandable. It’s a natural reaction to being deceived. It’s even a justifiable response to the way in which Armstrong so vehemently defended himself, to the point of ruin for his accusers.
However, there’s a lesson to be learned in my mistaken lack of balance that I attached to taking stock of Armstrong’s achievements. He isn’t the hero that I imagined him to be, perhaps not even the one that he imagined himself to be, but that doesn’t make him the villain that he’s being portrayed as now. With his lies and reckless defense of his cheating, he hurt people and enjoyed not only the benefits of achievements, but also a saintly reputation.
Certainly, we can now claim that those personal benefits were undeserved, but through his cheating, he inspired hundreds of thousands and earned millions more for cancer research and providing information for those affected by cancer. Since 1997, his foundation, now referred to as the Livestrong Foundation, has raised more than $325 million and an inestimable amount of awareness through the sale of 72 million yellow bracelets. Along with the bad, he did good.
It would be a shame for us, in our eagerness to understand things in a binary manner, to take this away with the records and achievements that have already been dismissed. The good that Armstrong did deserves to be remembered, as do his moments of excellence, tainted as they may be.
Aside: Even ignorantly understanding the use of banned substances to be akin to swallowing large doses of Gummy Bear juice doesn’t completely account for his incredible victory in the time trial climb up Alpe d’Huez
It takes balance to ride a bicycle. It takes balance to navigate your life. And certainly, it takes balance to judge the lives of others. Even as he has teetered here, and teetered here categorically, no matter what the motivation is for Lance Armstrong finally admitting the truths he’s kept hidden for so long – to selflessly help the Livestrong brand recuperate or to selfishly be allowed to compete in triathlons again – I’ll be the first in line to help him get back up and attempt to find his balance again.