You changed my life. Your success on the bike proved one could have a career that mixed thrilling physical exertion and dedication. I ate it up. I fantasized about being a pro like you and going out to have fun—I mean train for eight hours at a time—and calling it work.
When you won the Tour in ’89 I struggled to choke back tears I was so overcome with emotion at your incredible resurgence. I felt as if I had won, too.
Your win in the 1990 Tour de France couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly—even if written by Hollywood. We had drama (the Stage 1 breakaway), the adversary (Claudio Chiapucci) and the triumph of the good guy (your TT win on the way to overall victory). It was thrilling in a way that Disneyland can only hope to emulate.
In the early 1990s, before we knew EPO was sweeping the peloton, I sensed your frustration and disappointment. I was depressed not to be able to cheer my hero’s victories. Your retirement was the worst news I received that year.
So try to understand when I say this to you, I say it as a fan, a fan who still has a poster of you on my wall:
Lay off Armstrong.
Had I been robbed of years of my career the way you were, I don’t know how I’d deal with the frustration. Maybe I’d be bitter. I can imagine you are.
But attacking Armstrong won’t fix this. So you think he’s a doper. Here’s a newsflash: You’re not alone. Many people close to cycling think he doped during his career. Even if you could unmask him, you would only reveal something many people already think.
But you, of all people should understand this: He wasn’t alone. He was neither the first or last word on doping or denials. And you ought to understand what it means to allow a man his dignity. We’re in America—yeah, that whole innocent until proven guilty thing.
When you talk about Armstrong all we hear is your bitterness. We see shades of your own unhappiness. None of us believe you know anything about his past that would make you a valid witness in a court proceeding, which makes you just another gossip. That’s too unseemly a position for so exalted a champion to occupy.
We’ll not soon forget that you were the best rider of 1983 as the winner of the Super Prestige Pernod series. You were the last Tour de France Champion to even line up for Paris-Roubaix, let alone get a top-10 there. You are our idea (and Merckx’s) of a complete rider.
We want to revere you. We want to know that your retirement is fulfilling. We want you to be happy. But nothing will change the score: You 3, him 7.
It doesn’t matter.
Even if Armstrong comes back and wins the Tour again, nothing will change the fact that you were the first American to win the Tour. Won again. Scored a third. For each of us who followed you, those were hallowed days. Nothing will take away our elation at your success.
And there is no changing Armstrong’s record. Not by you, anyway.
By trying to take him down, you’ve robbed us of one great champion, only not the one you hoped. Your actions seem petulant. It’s a quality we don’t associate with greatness.
Allow us each our own chance to judge Armstrong’s record. We should be free to decide if he inspires us and to what degree.
You’ve each given American something great, something to savor. Allow us to keep what’s ours.
(Image by Yuzuru Sunada)
Padraig writes for www.belgiumkneewarmers.com