Note from Karl Lindholm, whose column normally appears in this space: I intended to write this month about Lance Armstrong and his disgrace, exploring the issues of sin, confession, forgiveness, and redemption. My son David was a great admirer of Armstrong some years ago, so I wrote to him and asked for a comment I could use in my column.
Some comment. Here’s what he wrote back to me.
When I read “It’s Not About the Bike,” almost a dozen years ago, I came away liking Lance Armstrong. The book made clear that he was arrogant and uncompromising in his pursuit of winning, and I found it refreshing to hear an athlete attribute his success to hard work, dedication, and a ruthless competitive instinct rather than God, fate, or luck. He didn’t seem like a fun guy to be around, but I admired his talent and accomplishments.
Even then, rumors were flying about his doping, but I looked past them: He was the most tested athlete in history, and no definitive proof ever came out. That was his narrative: He was David standing up to Goliath; in races, in drug testing, against cancer.
I defended him, disregarding the circumstantial and anecdotal evidence against him. It wasn’t enough. What about the sport being so dirty? I thought if guys get caught all the time, and Lance doesn’t, he must be clean. And what about his superhuman performances? He’s like Jordan, I’d respond, a once-in-a-generation athlete who is so dominant that he redefines the idea of a champion.
A few years later, as evidence mounted, my defenses crumbled. Three friends of mine, all professional cyclists, told me that I’d be absolutely crazy to believe that Lance was clean. So I turned down the volume on my arguments. If asked, I’d say that I was reserving judgment, that people should be innocent until proven guilty.
Over the last few years, I completed my full turnaround on the issue. It was simple to look at those same attributes that I’d once respected — the egotism, the competitive drive — and see how they’d run amok. I saw other great cyclists — some seemingly genuine and honest people — come out and detail their drug use (as well as Lance’s). Cycling teams started up that had more rigorous testing procedures than were mandated by the authorities, and it seemed those athletes were truly committed to turning over a new leaf. I was with them, and left Lance behind.
I don’t regret being duped by Lance. So many others were too, and he was a pretty good salesman. I love cycling, and I hope his admission can help the sport move forward. It’s sad that any great performance in cycling will never be seen without a suspicious eye, but we’ll have to put up with that and hope the guys are honest and the testing is rigorous enough.
As for Lance’s legacy, that’s a more complicated issue. For decades, cycling was so rife with doping that none of the athletes really thought of it as cheating. Everyone was doing it, they knew they were breaking the rules, and they just didn’t (or couldn’t) care. I don’t say that as a defense of Lance, just as a statement of fact.
Lance has already been stripped of his titles, but it’s impossible to hand his trophies to the next in line, because (almost without exception) the second (and third, and fourth, and fifth, and sixth, and…) were also implicated in doping investigations or failed drug tests during their careers. This makes cycling a nearly indefensible sport.
Except that I love cycling, for so many reasons. I love that the athletes push themselves to physical limits beyond comprehension, dealing with excruciating pain in their legs, lungs, arms and heads. They defy death and dismemberment by careening down epic mountains at over 60 miles per hour. The tactics are beautiful and complicated: drafting in the peloton, a strong lead-out for a sprint, a breakaway being pulled back in the final minutes. In cycling, the psychological battle is more important than the physical battle. It’s the only sport where in order to win, you must work simultaneously with and against your biggest rivals. If you go alone, you lose.
Lance, it seemed, insisted on going alone, and he lost. In the history of athletics, Lance ranks at the top in the list of true jerks. He’s devastated people’s enjoyment of a sport, he tainted a massive charitable organization, and he made his inspirational story of beating cancer essentially irrelevant. He even ruined people’s lives. It’s infuriating, it’s pathetic, and more than anything else, it’s sad.
But even after everything, I still see him as a phenomenal athlete, almost without equal. It’s too bad that in his book he claimed it wasn’t about the bike, because he did amazing things while riding. It’s just a shame what he did when he got off the bike.
David Lindholm graduated from Middlebury College in 2005. He is the Director of Media Relations for the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer and an avid cyclist.