In Defense of Cycling – Not Lance

I can’t say for sure, but I’m pretty sure that the multitude of journalists, “experts” on this or that, and various TV talking heads all spewing their take on Le Affaire Lance have never ridden through the throngs of fans on Alpe d’Huez just hours before the riders in the Tour de France rode through, have never sat shivering on the start line of Levi’s Gran Fondo among a sea of participants and spectators, and, have never sat mesmerized at the artistry of a Colnago Master frame while drawing their hands along the shaped steel tubes.

  Is this Colnago any less beautiful, or less worthy to celebrate just because of so much doping? This is “the sport” of cycling.

Now, none of  those things in and of themselves are any guarantor that whoever has experienced them is any more an authority on the sport of cycling than those who haven’t, but I bet they are. In the last few days I have sat astounded as one “leading authority on sports” after another has used the most over-the-top, headline grabbing, and negative language in discussing Lance’s doping and its impact on the sport. From USA Today’s Christine Brennan who said, “He also all but destroyed the entire sport…” to Sports Illustrated senior writer, David Epstein who alleged that Lance’s doping had “crushed” the sport in America while also “devastating” it in Europe, and on and on. What are these people talking about?

Yes, true, rightful damage has been felt by all those who have been a part of the doping culture. And yes, plenty of people have been gutted to find out that Lance doped to win his seven Tour crowns. But I can guarantee you that in July, there will nonetheless be huge crowds in Corsica for the start of the 100th running of the Tour de France. Peter Sagan will be just as full of life, cheer and two-wheeled antics as ever. The  dust or mud of the French cobbles will be just as alive as ever when Tom Boonen looks for a repeat victory this Spring. The RBA staff will still be thrilled to see what SRAM is unveiling just before the Sea Otter. New bikes will keep all of us excited. And most important, and telling, of all…I can guarantee that the day after the Oprah tell-all this week, the bike paths and group rides will be just as full of smiling, enthusiastic and energetic cyclists as ever before.

One hundred years in the making, with plenty of scandals throughout, former Tour rider and current Tour announcer Bob Roll says the 2013 Tour de France will be one of the best ever. What do the non-cycling naysayers know about “the sport” that Bobke is clearly missing?

What irks me here is how so many people, who I will presume know very little about what the sport is really about, so easily conflate the doping issue with what “the sport” is and how it is defined. As I sit here writing this, I’m looking out my window and counting the minutes until I can get out, clip in my pedals, feel the wind in my face, the burn in my legs, take a swig of some day old Cyto in my bottle and not only celebrate how great and alive the sport is, but how great and alive cycling makes me feel.

I know I’m 110% biased, but the sport of cycling is neither “crushed” or “devastated” because “the sport” is NOT defined by the illicit activity of either the Pro riders, money-grubbers, egomaniacs and/or power brokers who now sit squarely in the headlights of a destiny of their own making.

    Zapata Espinoza @rbazap
16 Jan

        @SIDavidEpstein Just watched you w/ Charlie Rose, you are 100% wrong that Lance has “crushed” the sport of cycling in America.


    David Epstein


@rbazap in this country, for the general sports viewing public, he has.


(Note: just to add more fuel to the fire, I’m posting (below) my column about Lance and doping that was printed in the February 2013 issue.)

In the same week that the cycling world was rocked by USADA’s release of transcripts pertaining to the ongoing doping investigation of Lance Armstrong, I read a story in the newspaper about a former American Airlines baggage handler who was headed to jail for life for overseeing a vast drug smuggling ring. Victor Bourne was never caught outright with any drugs, but with the confessions of six of his co-horts, in addition to a mountain of other evidence, his deal was sealed.

For as long as I have cheered the exploits of Lance Armstrong, I have also heard the rumors about him not being clean.  Despite his repeated assurances that he’d never been tested positive, I also knew that track star Marion Jones had never tested positive ? and eventually she was jailed for lying about her doping. Yes, despite the whispers, despite the French headlines, and despite Greg LeMond’s rants, lacking any actionable amount of proof, I have defended Lance over the years.

But no more. In light of the USADA evidence released, and there is certainly a preponderance of it, it’s clear that after those years of denials, Lance Armstrong (as well as many others) were using performance enhancing drugs.  In the days following all the evidence being made public, there has been much soul searching and hand wringing within the industry about who knew what, who could’ve or should’ve said more, and where we go from here. Here’s my take.

?    Regular readers will know that I have previously spoken in defense of Lance on a personal level because in the days when my late wife was sick with cancer, he offered kind words that raised her spirits. For that I will always be grateful.

?    About a week after the USADA report was made public, someone asked why I was still wearing a yellow LiveStrong bracelet. See above.

?    Does that mean I applaud Lance’s doping? Of course not. And I’m sure there are those who found themselves in a similar situation as I did who have since ripped the yellow band from their wrist, but the evil of cancer had a way of leveling my judgments about who is good and who is bad. I have always considered what Lance did on and off the bike as two separate things. Many people seem to forget that there were dark days when Lance himself was on death’s door. The most disheartening accusations I’ve heard are from those who suspect LiveStrong of existing as just a cover for his doping. Absurd.

?    Just two days after the USADA report was released, I was on my way to Maine to participate in the Dempsey Challenge ride. On the way, I met a guy named Casey at the airport in Detroit. He was bald with a big scar on his head. He too wore a LiveStrong bracelet. Casey wasn’t a cyclist and hoped the rumors about Lance weren’t true. When I asked him what the bracelet meant to him, he replied with an air of certainty, ‘To never give up hope and have the attitude that Lance did. I had a brain tumor, but I kept a sense of hope, I kept fighting and now I’m alive now and will get to see my daughters grow up. Lance proved that you can fight cancer and win.’ The Tour de France is a bike race, cancer is life and death. To me, what Lance has done for cancer patients and survivors transcends all he did on the bike.

?    During the first week of this year’s Tour de France I had a running battle with a friend about Lance’s guilt. They would ask, ‘How can you possibly not say he is guilty?!’ I would reply, ‘How can you possibly prove that he is guilty?’ They couldn’t of course.  And without any clear and actionable proof, the kind we should all insist be required, I never felt comfortable to publicly pass judgment.

No, in all my years as journo, I never once saw Lance inject himself with EPO or transfuse blood. However, what I did have irrefutable evidence of was that he worked harder at winning the Tour than anyone else. The stories of him training for hours are legion. The pressure he put on equipment sponsors to do better are the stuff of legend. As we now know, it was all done in addition to doping and that’s a bummer. Lance cheated. Still, although there have been plenty of riders caught doping in the last decade, none of them ever matched Lance’s level of intensity, determination or talent.

?    I mean really, just measure the effort. Look at many of the French riders who have competed in the Tour in the last decade. Except for a handful at best, those guys were puffy croissants compared to Lance. You are sadly mistaken if you think Euro teams like AG2R, T-Mobile or Cofidis ever poured as much effort and technology into winning as did Postal/Discovery. It was the Texan after all who, in an unprecedented move, pressured his main sponsors to coalesce into what became known as the Formula One Team. The result of Lance’s insistence on this was that the engineers from Trek began talking to their co-horts at Nike and Shimano. Nothing was left to chance.  Sadly, the evidence now shows that the same attention to detail was also put into a widespread doping program.

?    Hey, how about those Green Bay Packers?

?    I hate that Lance and all the other recently implicated Americans (George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Dave Zabriske, Christian Van Develde, Michael Barry, Jonathan Vaughters and Tom Danielson), cheated. While not close friends with them, I am friendly with each of them. I regret the awkwardness I now feel in their company.

?    Equally irksome is seeing people who hate Lance so much that they’re downright gleeful over his fall from grace.  People, this is not something to celebrate like the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Yeah, forget about any damage that all this is doing to the sport, what’s most important is your state of euphoria over Lance’s reckoning eh?

?    As the picture is portrayed by all the testimony and affidavits, both Lance and team director Johan Bruyneel pushed the doping program hard on all the team riders. Still, and not to deflect their blame, when I broke down the scenario to my daughter when she met Leipheimer and  Danielson at  the Dempsey Challenge, she couldn’t help but ask, ‘But they’re grown-ups right, they made the decision to use drugs.’ Across the board, every Pro rider had the freedom to say no to the needle and they chose not to.

?    It’s also curious to hear so many people saying that the cycling mags are somehow complicit in the fraud because over the years we touted Lance’s accomplishments. That’s silly. People, doping is a big deal, but it, like racing, is still just one facet of the whole sport. RBA is not a racing journal. We are big fans of racing, but we have never seen it as our mission to look at the sport of cycling solely and completely through the prism of racing. We cover racing, but our main objective has always been to review new products and highlight the broader culture of cycling. There is no special investigative unit at RBA. As such, I don’t feel any guilt for never sending Neil and Michael to Girona, Spain to rummage though trash dumpsters looking for used syringes.

At the end of the day, I continue to argue that the whole sport of cycling is far larger than what 400 or so Pro cyclists are doing around the globe. I understand the hurt feelings of fans who believed that Lance, George and Levi were clean, but the doping had virtually no impact on the cyclists at the Dempsey Challenge. Pro riders have been doping for years, but does that take anything away from the fantastic bikes, people and stories found at the annual North American Handmade Bike Show? Nope.

?    And then there’s the idea that we have profited from Lance by portraying him in the mag. Yes, in as much as there was a public desire to read about him, we’ve put Lance on the cover to help sell mags.  However, at the end of the day all we do is work on this magazine. With a staff of just three, having the luxury to avoid print and web deadlines (which includes writing bike tests, travel stories and interviews with bike builders) is not one we enjoy. If it’s culpability you want, maybe ask some of the journos who jumped on the profit wagon to write books about Lance, who stuck on him like Velcro and boasted of having the ‘inside story’, but who still missed the doping angle.

?    I find it curious to see some people demonize Lance for doping while simultaneously regaling over the race winning exploits of many past champions who have been deemed ‘dirty’ in their own careers. I hate double standards.

?    I also hate it when people paint the sport with the broad swath of guilt by saying ‘they all do it’. No, I don’t think ‘they all’ dope. Many, maybe even most, do, but not all.

?    I know two wrongs don’t make a right, but at the same time, my anger is diffused knowing that so many others were doping too. However, if there’s one thing that deeply bothers me about the whole scandal it’s the stories about how the Lance Army beat down the innocents (early team masseuse Emma O’Reilly for one) in pursuit of winning and maintaining the fa‡ade of innocence. Such bully tactics are nothing short of shameful and make me madder than the doping. Win your races and make your millions, but don’t kick people around.

?    Without a doubt, the best thing I heard in relation to the doping revelations were from those who, though greatly disappointed, saw but one immediate and steadfast remedy ? they went out and rode their bikes. That my friends is what I encourage all of you to do. Giving up on cycling because some of our champions cheat is like giving up on democracy due to the variety of crooked politicians out there.

The act of cycling is bigger and better than the business of racing. Like I said before, RBA is not a magazine dedicated to racing. If it’s inside reports on doping you’re looking for, I promise to disappoint. Committed as we are to reporting on all aspects of the sport, we don’t fancy ourselves as doping sleuths. We like racing, and we race ourselves, but we also recognize that competition makes up but one colorful stripe of the rainbow that is the world of cycling.

Photos: Bettini

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