It wasn’t about the Bike after all

I admit I was a fan of Lance, getting on the bandwagon in 2003 when he and Jan Ullrich were battling down to the wire for the Tour de France.  After watching Armstrong win that Tour I got back into cycling after twenty years away from the sport, a love affair that started in the late 7os with the movie “Breaking Away”, kicked off with  the purchase of a Raleigh 10-speed with some college graduation money from my grandmother, racing around eastern Massachusetts in my early 20s (and crashing), grinding up the hills of San Francisco and illegally across the Golden Gate at 2 am after tending bar  in the city, and on and on — a feeling like no other, a true love for what has been called man’s noblest invention.

I turned off the Tour and went out and built up an awesome bike that summer in ’03, bought a classic Colnago steel frame off of eBay, and found myself riding obsessively around Cape Cod by myself and with my cycling buddies Dan and Marta.  Drafting, fighting headwinds, racking up major miles every week, 12 months out of the year. All the while the Lance legend kept growing. The book (I have an autographed copy of “It’s Not About the Bike”), the helmet, the yellow jersey replica. I owned it all, including the yellow Livestrong wrist band. I drank the Lance Kool-Aid.

I believed and kept believing, even as his lieutenants and competition all got caught and fell by the wayside, were stripped of their trophies and eligibility: Landis, Ullrich, Hamilton …. after a while it was obvious that the sport was completely dirty, but I still managed to keep a small shred of belief smoldering inside that Armstrong was different, that he had been superman, that somehow he was the exception to the rule, the one who really made it up those hills and cranked through those time trials like a man driven by the fire inside.

Marta knew from the beginning that he was a fraud. Her conspiracy theory tied in Thomas Wiesel (co-owner of Lance’s US Postal team) as the money man and uber-connected benefactor with the ties in Silicon Valley to keep the most-drug tested athlete in history from failing. I tried to argue, then I tried to shrug off the doping as just part of the sport  …. but the romance of the peloton, the simple mechanical grace of an Italian steel bicycle outfitted with Campagnolo parts was gone, dashed under a mess of pharmaceuticals, conspiracies and carbon fiber soul-less cycles.  The sport I fell in love with in 1978 pre-Lance was now a cesspool. Not that it was ever a clean sport to begin with. If it was EPO in the last decade it was amphetamines in the 1960s … one of the world’s most grueling sports seems impossible to survive without drugs, let alone win.

I crashed and gave up the bike in 2006. I haven’t looked back. Yes I miss it, I miss it a lot, but the close-call, the nasty recovery from a head injury, the perils and remembered close calls on the road just made the benefits dim in comparison to the risks. Wear your helmet. They work.

So this is one of those “say it ain’t so Joe” moments, kind of a pitiful one for a man in his 50s to have t confess, a sad day for idealism and a happy one for skepticism and cynicism. Let the circus begin as Oprah airs her interview. I suppose I’d still shake his hand if I ever met him, more out of pity for a life ruined so spectacularly than admiration for a truly tragic and completely fallen hero.

Update Jan 18

I watched the first half of Armstrong’s interview with Oprah Winfrey last night and remain semi-sympathetic to the guy and fascinated by the utter scale of his epic tragic hero’s fall-from-grace.  I had Twitter open throughout to see what rest of the mob was saying and none of it was worth  wasting my time on, just banal babble and snark.

My opinion is worth squat as well, but here it is anyway.  Good interview. Oprah prepared herself, hit him hard right from the first question, but frankly lost her edge thanks to the commercial breaks for Swiffer,  deodorant and promos for her bizarre OWN network.  Armstrong’s handlers picked Oprah for a reason and it was the right way to go.  It will have to suffice as the court room for public opinion, although I suspect Lance is going to be spending a lot of time in courtrooms and in front of lawyers given the perjury, the messed up lawsuits, and the complete disregard for jurisprudence and decency he displayed over the past decade.

All the venom and disgust over his lies and hypocrisy are deserved, but this is still the guy who sat on the bike and suffered up one mountain stage after another, a very competitive athlete with the stamina and the mindset to win at all costs, no matter what wreckage he left in his wake. The cancer, the broken home, the hard won success and carefully crafted myth …. it was the result of hard work, lots of lying, cheating and bullying, and played into what we all wanted: a handsome Texan hero on his mighty carbon fiber steed showing the louche Europeans how we can get up from the floor, nearly dead, and do the impossible.

Well, it was impossible. But if the mob on Twitter with their fingers all orange from Cheetos expects him to perform a believable act of contrition, forget it: he’s not going to break down in tears. He’s not going to rehabilitate his image, regain his sponsors, limp back into our good graces like Tiger …. he’s just another Type A asshole who flamed out spectacularly, in prime time like so many before him and so many to follow.

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