Monday, October 22, 2012

Now It's Official -- Bye Bye L.A.

Today the International Cycling Union officially stripped Lance Armstrong of his seven Tour de France victories, thus rendering the era of my pro cycling fandom to be a lie built on transfusions and blood products.

I'll warn you in advance that this will be a long, rambling post. I've had a lot of thoughts over the years that I'm gathering together here...

Unlike many Americans, I can't say that Lance made me a cyclist or a pro cycling fan. I didn't even know who he was when I started riding again in 2000, such was pro cycling's limited U.S. appeal at the time (plus I didn't follow sports in general for most of the 1990s). Not long after I got really into riding, I became a full-on obsessive pro racing fan. I would check in at several times a day year-round, and during the Tour I would augment their coverage with several other websites. I subscribed to Cycle Sport and anxiously awaited its arrival in my mailbox. I bought the 8-hour and 10-hour editions of Tour coverage to watch as I cycled on the trainer in the basement.* Even then I considered myself more of a cycling fan in general than an Armstrong fan. But I have to admit it felt good to see an American rider smack down those Europeans time and again on the roads of France. I was one of the millions who bought, read, and found inspiration in his memoir It's Not About the Bike.

Once Armstrong began winning Tours, other American racers rose in prominence, especially from his U.S. Postal Service team. Tyler Hamilton showed so much promise guiding Armstrong through the mountains and providing target data in the time trials that he signed to lead another team and take his own shot at glory (Floyd Landis and Levi Leipheimer were others).

Hamilton was a guy I could identify with better than the brash Texan. Even when I rooted for Armstrong, I thought he was kind of an arrogant jerk. But Hamilton seemed more humble. While Armstrong was somewhat of a freak of nature with off-the-charts performance, Hamilton presented himself as a guy who just worked hard (not to say that Armstrong didn't). And he was tough, legendarily so. He broke his shoulder in the 2002 Giro d'Italia and still managed to finish second. The next year he broke a collarbone at the start of the Tour and still finished the race. Can you imagine racing almost every day for three weeks with a broken collarbone? And he finished fourth! Hamilton also wrote online about his experiences with humility and humanity. We sent the Hamiltons a card after he wrote about the death of his golden retriever, Tugboat.

Hamilton won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics, and his fall from grace came shortly after. That was the beginning of the end for me. By the time his two-year suspension was finished, I was finished with pro cycling. I couldn't even tell you who won the Tour after 2007 (well, at least until I Googled it this morning).

Although Armstrong never tested positive in the gazillion times he was tested (pro cyclists' blood is tested ridiculously frequently due to a long history of doping scandals), there was one thing that didn't make sense to me. I could understand Armstrong working hard and being the best rider in the Tour. But if almost everyone else was cheating, how was he so much better that he could beat them handily while riding clean? We were led to believe that it was all hard work and focused training methods. Now we know it was all bullshit. Armstrong deserves credit not as the world's greatest cyclist but as the world's greatest lying bastard.** Can you imagine what it takes to live that lie, to embrace that lie so fully for over a decade? I wonder whether at some point he even began to believe that he earned those seven Tour victories honestly. No doubt he felt he deserved them.

I found it odd that a cyclist who supposedly rode clean showed so much animosity toward cyclists who exposed the widespread doping in the sport. Armstrong claimed such allegations weren't good for cycling, but wouldn't a clean rider support efforts to root out the dopers and their unfair advantage?

I also found it odd that Armstrong's former teammates seemed to get caught once they left his team. I can't remember all the names now, but Roberto Heras was another prominent one in addition to Hamilton and Landis. Now we know that those riders' new teams merely lacked the savvy of Armstrong's team.

A lot of Europeans made accusations over the years, but it was hard to tell whether they were against Armstrong or America in general. I sensed an insular "this is our sport, stay out of it" vibe, plus this was during the George W. Bush years when Europeans -- particularly the French -- disagreed with our foreign policy. The latest revelations seem to show that the U.S. Postal Service team, and by extension the United States, merely had the best doctors or scientists who could dance around the rules. Perhaps one day someone will write a book about how arrogant Texans Bush and Armstrong sullied the reputation of the United States abroad in the early 21st century.***

To me, it became somewhat irrelevant whether Armstrong doped once his teammates began to confess. Cycling is a team sport, and being supported by dopers tainted his victories nearly as much as if he personally had doped.

Part of me wonders if Armstrong's Tour career was all just a charade. At times he charged hard, but at times he held back. Was Armstrong merely trying to present some semblance of abiding by the rules by winning "just enough" without making the results look suspicious? Was he just playing us all along? Now that he's been exposed as a doper, it's hard to believe anything was honest anymore.

Hamilton and Daniel Coyle recently published a book about the whole sordid mess called The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs. I was going to wait for the paperback, but I can't. Barnes & Noble offered a coupon this past weekend so I ordered the book for only $13.65. I'm looking forward to reading it. As I said, I enjoyed Hamilton's online journal years ago, and Daniel Coyle's book about Lance Armstrong was one of the best (and it was not negative, so I do not believe he has a bias against Armstrong). After all these years I've forgiven Hamilton, though I still feel a bit cheated for believing in him. As for Armstrong, I don't know. He made so many millions in winnings and especially sponsorships that he may go down in history as the greatest fraud in all of professional sports. I don't know if I can forgive that. Fortunately, he surely doesn't give a shit.

* Come to think of it, is anyone interested in my VHS cycling tapes? I have at least half a dozen Tours de France plus a few Giros d'Italia, some of the one-day classics, plus videos about old-timers like Jacques Anquetil. All are in excellent condition. I don't think I watched any of them more than five times (I only watched while I rode, and that would have been a lot of hours on the trainer). Seriously, I can give a full inventory to anyone who wants to buy some or all of them. I haven't watched them in years, and now everybody has DVDs anyway.

** He even lied to his girlfriend, Anna Hansen, assuring her she wouldn't get pregnant because chemotherapy had supposedly made him sterile. One assumes she wasn't so surprised by their second child. Some lies can only work once. But other lies can work seven times!

*** Wait, there has to be one more arrogant Texan to make it work. Those books are almost always about trios.

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