Forget Cycling: Lance Armstrong’s Complicated Legacy


Not to steal some thunder from Lance Armstrong before his big confession to Oprah is aired tonight–the Manti Te’o story has already done that–but I must make a confession of my own. I’ve got to get this monkey off my back. I’ve got to free myself of the burden I’ve been carrying around for so long.

Over the years I’ve written several pieces about Lance Armstrong for various publications. I swear, none of those stories were my idea. Each time it was the editor who contacted me. Okay, I did say yes and wrote the stories, and each time, just before I put pen to paper, I did a crash course in cycling and bike racing.

So here it comes: I knew absolutely nothing about cycling before I wrote about Lance Armstrong. I don’t give a rat’s butt about cycling when I’m not writing about Lance Armstrong. I never even thought about bicycle racing before Armstrong made it popular. (I don’t even know that he won a bronze medal in the 2000 Olympics until the IOC stripped him of it this morning.)

All of which is by way of saying that I don’t feel betrayed because Lance Armstrong was my hero. I am grateful for this because now I don’t have to write one of those gawd-awful “I got fooled” confessional pieces like Buzz Bissinger’s in Monday’s Daily Beast. (Headline: “I Was Deluded to Believe Lance Armstrong When He Denied Doping.”)

It doesn’t take much imagination for someone like me who never had cancer to understand how Armstrong could be a hero to someone who does or did have it. I don’t want to take that away from them. Despite the light industry of articles that have been written on the subject of Armstrong and doping, the principal fact is not that he won seven consecutive Tour de France titles or that he is now known to have used performance enhancing drugs, but that he had testicular cancer and beat it. Part of me–most of me, in fact–wants to believe that that says more about Lance Armstrong than anything he admitted to Oprah.

I’m also willing to believe that Armstrong’s involvement in the foundation he started to provide support to cancer patients, Livestrong, has been legitimate and that it expresses something he deeply cares about.

I’m aware how much good PR means to any celebrity and how much it matters to image making. Al Capone, after all, opened soup kitchens during the Depression. But it’s one thing to write a check for a charitable cause (and a tax deduction) and it’s quite another to put in the hours. It matters much more to me that Armstrong put in the hours than that he used PEDs.

That said, whatever penalties, whatever fines, whatever civil suits Armstrong now gets hit with are all fully deserved. I’m hearing from many that he is “The Barry Bonds of Cycling,” but that’s not quite true. Barry Bonds was a certified Hall of Famer years before he became a guinea pig for the state-of-the-art PED lab.

I don’t know what Armstrong was before he began juicing because I had never heard of him–he was apparently no better than the third best cyclist at the Sydney Olympics–and for all I know, he owes every success he’s ever had in cycling to PEDs. So, if he’s been doping since he first began racing professionally, it probably means that all of the money and fame he gained as a professional, and therefore everything he put into his foundation, is tainted.

Of course, to try and be fair. I keep reading that probably every great cyclist in the sport has juiced (In 2012 Alberto Contador of Spain was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France victory and banned from competition for two years for PEDs.) Well, if they’ve all juiced and Armstrong won the most races, then maybe he is the greatest cyclist of all time.

The thing is I don’t care anymore. My interest in Lance Armstrong began when he became world famous for winning in a sport that Americans had never excelled in. My interest in him ended when he left professional cycling. (And no matter what he says, to Oprah, let’s not kid ourselves–this guy is never racing again.)

I suspect that most people reading this story feel pretty much as I do, and if so much had not been made by the mainstream press–by Sixty Minutes, by Oprah, by everybody–about Armstrong and PEDs, the overwhelming majority of Americans wouldn’t care about Armstrong or cycling at all, and after the two-part broadcast of the interview is aired Thursday and Friday night, we’ll wake up Saturday morning and go right back to feeling the same thing about cycling we always felt, which is pretty much nothing at all.

But we’ will be hoping that hope Lance can figure out some other way to help cancer patients.