It was interesting being at ground zero; Austin Texas, home to Lance Armstrong and his shop, Mellow Johnny’s. I was there the day it all came crashing down.
I wasn’t in Austin for anything having to do with Lance; the National Bicycle Dealer Association had scheduled their forward-thinking “retreat” for Austin about 9 months ago, a time when, I’ll have to think back about this, probably not long after the initial Federal investigation into Lance had been killed, and many were thinking the background noise, even while gradually growing louder, was never going to reach the level where it was clear to one & all that Lance Armstrong had doped during his Tour de France years.
The end game: It was a piece in Cyclingnews on Tuesday, Oct 17, 2012, the day before the end, that I finally knew it was a matter of days, if not hours. I was reading a news story about the notorious Italian Doctor Michele Ferrari, who had once famously equated the doping agent EPO with orange juice in terms of safety and, by implication, routine administration, that triggered that feeling. In that article, Ferrari had presented an almost-plausible story explaining the large payments Lance had continued to make to him, long after Lance denied any association with him, and I believe after the Italian cycling federation equated any contact with him as immediate grounds for suspension. He told us those were “delayed” payments from “consulting” work he’d done for Lance earlier. The large number of Lance’s fellow team mates who had come forward to testify against him? That was “visual testimony” not to be trusted. After all, Lance had passed over 500 doping tests, failing none.
The moment of clarity. Reading that, yes, there was a ring of truth to what he claimed. It could happen. Just as Lance and others had said previously. A bunch of malcontents who had been maneuvered into a corner by prosecutors using tactics more distasteful than we’d subject an Al Qaeda suspect to, giving up Lance, whether true or not, in order to receive short suspensions that would allow them to get back to their own lives again. Screw over Lance because Lance was a nasty, vindictive guy who only cared about winning. Sure, maybe. That was my moment of clarity, a clarity caused when the abundance of truth finally approached the same critical mass as the abundance of lies and there wasn’t room in the world for both.
Let’s go back just a bit, to those “short” suspensions. Anyone reading the text of what Levi Leipheimer had to sign, the details in that text, will recognize that it’s not a 6-months & out scenario. Levi, in addition to losing all placings and records he earned over a 6 year period, would also, to be made whole again in the eyes of those in charge of cycling, have to pay back all his winnings during that same time period. An amount that could be substantial and well beyond his ability to pay. I don’t think Levi would agree to his own death sentence in cycling just to get back at Lance.
George Hincapie just another doper, not the hoped-for irrefutable witness. As things became increasingly muddy, many of us said George Hincapie was the only universally-believable witness. Rumors had come out that George had spoken with the various investigators, but George remained silent. We depended on George because he seemed like the one person who would tell the truth, or go to his grave saying nothing, but we did not expect him to lie. And if George, very good friend of Lance, threw Lance under the bus, that was it, game over. Only we never had the extreme clarity of that hoped-for scenario, because George got lumped in with the rest of the “conspirators” (against Lance) and people who should have known better, who did know better, thought George, too, had been manipulated.
But I never saw anything directed at George from Lance or his lawyers. I think it’s possible that was a line that even they would not cross. Still, it was strange to see, in the end, that George was a non-issue. I really thought he would end up being the key player and not just one of the 11 or 13 or however large the group of cyclists, past & present, who had testified against Lance.
When did I believe Lance was lying? I’m not naive, and, knowing full well that most of the peloton was doped during Lance’s TdF reign, seriously questioned whether it was possible to win, clean, against those taking performance enhancing drugs, in a game where the outcome was often decided by mere seconds out of hours on the bike. But his denials while racing were credible, and his detractors, frankly, did a very poor job of trying to make their cases. They let their convictions get ahead of their facts, likely impatient with the complete lack of physical evidence.
That continued throughout, increasing even in later years as the era of Floyd Landis intensified the scrutiny, especially after his wild stories about doping within Lance’s team, some of which were true, but so many that weren’t that it was easy to discredit him (Floyd) as a serial liar. Which he remains, to this day (and yes, I do have an axe to grind with Floyd because I was taken in by him early on, even contributing to the now-infamous Floyd Fairness Fund, obviously a nefarious plot to discover the gullible and most-stupid in our society). I’ve previously documented three times I was at team encampments, twice during the Tour de France, once in Santa Barbara, at which I was able to get up close & personal with the team’s bikes and verify that Floyd was riding the exact same equipment as everyone else, not 3rd-rate hand-me-downs as he alleged in a Sports Illustrated interview.
The never-ending web of lies led me astray. It was a world I wasn’t used to, and the inconsistency of the lies vs the firm consistency of Lance’s claims that he did not dope, daring anyone with greater intelligence than a gnat to explain how he could have (doped) and yet passed all those drug tests… it was a world that I did not have what I needed to say, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lance was innocent or guilty. I suspected guilt, but the lies and mis-steps of his accusers, and the cheerleading nature of those both for & against, created a need for me to step outside, to dispassionately observe the proceeding and take more interest in the process itself than anything else. Could I ever be convinced? I hoped so. I was really hoping someone would find a smoking gun, maybe a syringe with traces of EPO and Lance’s DNA, or a cell phone photo of doping products in a ‘fridge. There had to be something! How could there not be, with so many people involved? A question that remains unanswered.
But finally, that moment of clarity, as I read Doctor Ferrari’s (presumably final) absurd protestations. Prior to that, didn’t have what I needed if I had to try and convince one of Lance’s cheerleaders, just as I hadn’t previously had what I needed to convince a Lance hater that he was clean. On Tuesday, October 23rd, the tipping point was reached.
What does that do to my past? Not much. I’d already protected myself years ago, moving to that “safe” place where, as I said, I’d become dispassionate about it emotionally. Perhaps preparing myself for the eventual outcome (although never thinking it would take anything close to this many years to get there; it was going to be much sooner, or never, in my mind). I enjoyed watching the TdF the 6 times I was there during the Lance years, but no more than I have in the 4 or 5 times since. If there was a low point, it was the year Floyd won; that was the ‘Tour they ripped away from me, personally. Going from such an incredible high, having snuck through security at the end of the race and greeting Floyd just as he exited the Champ Elysees, celebrating with new friends I’d made, I left Paris on a very high note, only to come crashing down just a couple of days later when they announced Floyd failed a drug test. True or not didn’t matter; just the accusation was an injury to what I’d experienced. I’m sure it was the immediacy that made the difference; it’s been ages since I last saw Lance win at the TdF, and his humbling experience during his “comeback” made him human in a way that somehow bought credibility for his non-doping claims.
In the end I’m left with great memories of trips to a new world (France), discovering new friends, and grateful that I could be so completely out of my element and not only survive, but thrive. None of that would have happened if not for Lance; I seriously doubt I would have ever visited the Tour de France if not for getting caught up in the “fever” at just the right time. But I’ve also got to be sensitive to a large number of people, many of them customers, some of them very good friends, who feel that Lance has done a terrible injustice to the world, that he’s bullied people into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t have done, that he’s kept some from their dreams, and some would say defrauded the cancer community that reached out to him as much as he to them.
A swirling cesspool of evils and excesses. They’re right; he did all those things, but the very worst thing is that he brought out the very worst in others. Those who supported him, those who railed against him. A swirling cesspool of our evils and excesses that will not stop with his passing, because despite what some may claim, this was never about cleaning up cycling, this was about getting Lance. A task that had to be done, but it was done in a way that will maintain the “Omerta”, the secrets of the 80% or more of the racing peloton that was likely doping but have not been called up, nor given an opportunity for reconciliation. Without that, this is not behind us. I fear this could be Festina, the massive doping scandal of 1998, all over again. The war to end all wars has laid in place the framework for the next.
The doping problem remains. They haven’t fixed the doping issue, and I doubt they will. The governing bodies need to offer a nearly-unconditional amnesty & reconciliation offer to get everyone to come forward. We cannot expect a pack that’s riddled with riders who have doped in the past, and continue to hide from that past, living a lie, to not find it easy to go back to the old ways. There are too many of them to think we could ever have the resources to go after each and every one and convict them for their crimes. But the evidence shows there’s little chance of an amnesty, especially when you read what they did to Levi. Nobody in his right mind would come forward, voluntarily, after that.
So yes, we’ve dealt with the Lance issue, but we have not dealt with doping in Cycling. Anyone who believes otherwise, anyone who thinks that doping was dependent or even centered upon Lance, is fooling themselves. Lance lost, but clean cycling has not won.
We’ve taken down Lance. The pictures I’ve taken, on the walls of our stores, will likely soon be gone. I’ll probably need to take down the photo I like best, from my first trip to France (a dealer trip organized by Trek), that of George Hincapie and Freddie Rodriguez enjoying a casual pre-race moment on a park bench in Avignon. Because for some of my customers, they’d question why they were up. They’d want to read something more into it than exists, or they simply find it too painful to look at, just as my wife would turn away from any story on animal abuse because it offends her sensibilities so strongly. But my many pages of diary entries from France and the hundreds of photos I took will remain on the website, where Google will help remind the world that I was there and probably wrote some things about Lance that in retrospect will look foolish at best and who-knows-what at worst. Whether “enhanced” by performance enhancing drugs or not, bicycle racing remains an amazingly-engaging spectacle that isn’t entirely diminished by not being “pure.” I agree that it needs to be cleaned up, no question, but while the past may require an asterisk, it doesn’t demand eradication from history.