Back in 2003 or so, in the summer between school semesters, I used to enjoy going on morning bike rides with my mom. These weren't casual rides; we liked to push ourselves up and over the many nearby hills, with the gusty Spanish Fork wind as a constant obstacle. It was around then that I became a fan of the Tour de France. The timing was perfect -- we'd come home from our 5-15 mile rides exhausted, then flip on the television and watch the professionals do it for hundred of miles over steep mountains.
Cycling as as spectator sport is about as different from popular American sports as you can imagine. American sports have a manic, staccato rhythm, characterized by bursts of frenetic action and short breaks for equally energetic analysis. On television, the screen is filled with graphics, statistics, and advertisements, and the live events entertain with with loud music, cheerleaders, and Kiss Cams. Our sports are loud and raucous. Even baseball has the same play-pause-analyze-distract dynamic, albeit at a more methodical pace, like Pink Floyd to football's AC/DC.
Cycling is closer to soccer in its rhythm. If football and basketball are rock n' roll (maybe basketball is rap), then soccer is a concerto, always moving, flowing, and developing. Cycling is that, to an extreme -- the sports equivalent to Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are incredibly long periods devoid of any action, and the television coverage is placid and laid-back, often focusing on geography and local points of interest as the riders pass through picturesque villages and countryside. To a non-fan it can seem boring, but beneath the surface cycling has a way of building excitement over hours and days that few sports can match.
Any Mad Men viewer will attest that slow-burning development can lead to enthralling drama, and the Tour de France is full of stories and subplots. A few top riders, generally aided by strong teammates, compete for the overall win, while lesser riders try to snatch individual stage wins, especially if a stage happens to go through their hometown. Other riders focus on accruing points for sprinting and climbing sub-competitions. There are triumphs every day, and there are many, many more failures. It's very French in that way.
As I watched the Tour I began appreciating the tactical nuances of the sport, but the initial draw was much simpler: An American named Lance Armstrong.
It's hard to describe how incredible Armstrong was at his peak. Possessing an indomitable will, unsurpassed stamina, and an icy demeanor, he simply crushed all competitors. He was a superhero. He wasn't exactly invincible -- like all superheroes he had fierce rivals and bad days (not to mention a good origin story), but in critical moments Lance always prevailed. You could see it in his eyes: after being put in some difficulty, Armstrong would become locked in, a cold intensity in his gaze as if he saw through every other rider to a first-place finish that would be his. While others struggled and gasped for air, Armstrong's powerful frame was almost metronomic. Graceful, but thoroughly intimidating, like a Cylon on a bike. Armstrong reached the pinnacle of the messy world of cycling through hard work, incredible strength, and superhuman endurance.
And messy hardly begins to describe cycling. It's an open secret that the sport has long been dirty. Most top riders have been accused of or linked to doping. Several past champions have confessed to cheating, and two recent Tour de France winners have been stripped of their titles for it. Every year dozens of riders are booted from various races for drugs or doping, and even more are punished for violations discovered afterword. Like baseball in the Steroid Era, every success story is inevitably clouded by suspicion.
Armstrong, of course, was dogged by accusations of cheating from moment he ascended to the top of the sport, but to his fans he seemed to transcend all that. We reminded ourselves that he had never failed a single drug test. We assured ourselves that the occasional suspicious blood sample had obviously been handled improperly and tainted-- that's not a technicality, that's critical! Besides, some of the tabloid-like accusations in the French press were obviously motivated by petty jealousy. Weren't superheroes like Spiderman, Batman, and the X-Men hated too?
The Tour de France is always filled with tragedy, and this story cannot escape it either. In the years since Armstrong's retirement, the clouds around his achievements have darkened, not dissipated. Many of his former teammates -- the men who formed the core of Armstrong's dominant US Postal team -- have been caught or confessed to cheating. Some have provided detailed accounts of Armstrong cheating and avoiding drug tests. Still, how can we trust the word of admitted liars?
Armstrong's long-time manager, Johan Bruyneel, has been accused of cheating, conspiracy, and bribery. Bruyneel managed many riders already known to be cheaters, including the two disgraced Tour winners stripped of their titles. Armstrong and Bruyneel have close connections with a doctor who also worked with and possibly assisted known cheaters. Still, this is circumstantial evidence, not proof.
Lance Armstrong is more than a person, he is a brand. As such, he has surrounded himself with teams of lawyers to protect that brand and aggressively counter all claims of cheating. That strategy does not really indicate guilt in itself, but the conspiratorial tone of Armstrong's defense is unsettling. Sure, French tabloids might have had it in for him, but what about anti-doping officials in the US and Europe? These are scientists and technicians, not spiteful journalists. Are other riders, former friends of Armstrong with no real reason to betray him, doing so out of sheer spite? Could there really be such a vast conspiracy against Lance?
Or is it possible, just possible, that the simplest explanation is that that amidst the mountain of accusations and circumstantial evidence..that some some of the charges might be true?
What if Lance Armstrong is not the superhero who rose above the rest on his own merits, but is actually another skillful con-artist in a thoroughly corrupt system? What if he's more Michael Corleone than Bruce Wayne? The US Anti-Doping Agency has leveled fresh charges against Armstrong and several associates, though at this point they haven't released their evidence. They may never prove conclusively that Lance cheated. It could be that Armstrong's dominance over the Tour was solely a product of his abilities, and that all the accusations against him are false. Many fans will continue to believe this regardless, aided by a sympathetic U.S. sports media. But given the corrupt nature of cycling and the weight of existing circumstantial evidence, Armstrong can never be truly exonerated. It's not fair, but it's the reality, and it's part of the tragedy.
With or without performance enhancers, nobody wins the Tour seven times without being an incredible and hard-working athlete, especially when so many others were cheating. Armstrong's intensity was not the product of a lab. If one accepts that he may have cheated -- as I suspect he probably did -- can he still be a superhero? What if we found that Batman murdered a few criminals, or that Spiderman robbed a jewelry store to make ends meet?
A few months back Brett addressed this issue in a different way, and the questions at the end of his post are still relevant. What do we do when our heroes might not be heroes at all? What actually makes someone a hero? On what grounds is it justified to admire someone when you know that on closer examination they might let you down? If they do let you down, can you still admire them? I don't know the answers, but just having to ask the questions is tough enough. At least nothing can diminish what it felt like to watch this as it happened. Or this: