Winning in an Age of Liars

Lance Armstrong TDF 2010

Lance Armstrong climbs up from Morzine, TDF 2010 | © VeloDramatic

I wrote the following in 2008.

Frankly I cannot imagine that if he had doped that he would come back to the sport with so much on the line; his legacy; his endorsements; his charity; and most importantly the hundreds of thousands of cancer survivors that continue the fight because of his inspiration. No one with that much spiritual responsibility would risk destroying so many hearts.

When Lance Armstrong announced his comeback to an excited interbike press conference in September 2008 I was sitting front row center. It was the first time I’d been in proximity to the rider who’d got me out of bed at 5:30 am each July while he ran the table in France.

At the time I wrote about how Neal Rogers from Velonews had left the seat near to me to charge his laptop. With my camera focused on the stage I’d not noticed Greg Lemond take his place, and so when Greg was recognized by Armstrong for the first question, I was as surprised as anyone in the room.

A nervous Lemond struggled to structure his question. His hands fidgeted with a phone apparently recording the exchange.

Freeze frame. I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize the general mood of the room. In those first few seconds when all attention swung to Lemond there seemed to be a collective inhalation, and the adrenalin rush that comes with a confrontation. How was this going to play out?

It didn’t take long to find out. Relatively quickly Armstrong took charge, deflected the technical grounds for Lemond’s doping question, and shut the whole thing down with “Greg we’re not going to go negative here” I suspect most felt Lemond had lost the exchange and wanted to get back to the scheduled second coming of the sport’s biggest attraction. I know I did, and I was wrong.

Analysis with Hindsight

The question had ostensibly been asked of Don Catlin, the testing specialist retained by Armstrong to ensure the highest level of doping scrutiny for his comeback. When I spoke to Catlin after the news conference he hadn’t been able to hear the full question. Catlin asked me to reconstruct the question as I understood it, and I went through Lemond’s assertion that V02max was the baseline predictor of athletic performance and conversely performance enhancement. Catlin acknowledged it was a legitimate question (but I didn’t report that) because he really hadn’t answered the question he didn’t hear. For my part I was not aware of the question’s subtext.

I didn’t know that Greg’s wife Kathy had alleged a conversation between Lance and Greg in her 2006 SCA deposition. Essentially Lance had claimed Greg must have doped with EPO to win his tours… Greg countered that the difference between the two men was Lance had a VO2max of 82, Greg’s was 95, and Lance “didn’t know what he was talking about”

A month later in October 2009 Armstrong spokesperson Mark Higgins responded to Pierre Bordry's (then head of the French Anti-Doping Agency) proposal to retest samples from the 1999 Tour de France, claiming all sorts of procedural and technical impediments to any retesting.

Five months later the total transparency promised by Armstrong’s Catlin testing program was gone, ended I believe when Armstrong felt he didn’t need the cover story, and possibly because Catlin wasn’t prepared to spin his limited access into the indisputable validation Armstrong wanted.

Call it smoke and mirrors or spin, whatever looking back it was cold and calculated politics from the Armstrong camp.

In the aftermath of USADA’s chainshot volley the good ship Armstrong has lost it’s mast, the brand’s rigging and sails are in tatters, and a once loyal crew of sponsors has abandoned ship. His defending public have fought a brave if deluded retreat to increasingly awkward positions: the level playing field; government waste; and moral equivalency between a positive (Livestrong) and a negative (doping).

The Age of Liars

It’s now quite clear that Lance Armstrong has been lying about his own behavior and character for more than a decade. Worse still the USADA report makes absolutely clear that he went on the offensive to pull others into the doping conspiracy, influence them to commit perjury, encourage them to smuggle drugs across international borders, hide from anti-doping tests, and collaborate with a heretical doctor running a highly lucrative and sophisticated doping program.

To perpetuate the fiction of innocence he aggressively worked to destroy the reputations of original whistleblowers, Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly. Investigative journalism from David Walsh and Paul Kimmage was attacked and the writers ostracized. He sued and won lawsuits to benefit financially and may have bribed UCI officials to make doping problems go away.

Reading the 200-page Reasoned Decision I was struck by many of the small details. Selling team bikes to pay for dope. Levi and Floyd renting a French apartment to cover their tracks, the Hincapie Affidavit’s rather insipid closing points defending Lance but most of all I was offended by Armstrong’s enduring belligerence. All those years, all those denials, denigrations and defamations to what purpose, but narcissism and greed.

We have it seems found the bottom of the barrel. It’s no coincidence at the precise historical moment that Armstrong has fallen we’ve seen the ascendancy of a new mendacity in American politics. In Mitt Romney we have a cipher willing to say and do anything to win. After all no principle is worth losing for.

Armstrong and Romney are two sides of the same coin that sadly has become the devalued currency of contemporary American life. Leave integrity at the door, win at all costs, cheat to get what you want, and when challenged or caught, lie some more.

I’m not sure where cycling goes next. Perhaps there is room for truth and reconciliation, but I’m adamant that whether Armstrong comes clean or not, he shouldn’t find personal redemption having had so many opportunities to tell the truth before and crushing anyone brave enough to stand in opposition.

I'm dismayed that riders like Indurain and Contador continue to miss the point of these revelations. Armstrong has been calling the tune for more than a decade, and now the music has stopped. If you want to be fair, send a thank you note to Betsy Andreu or make a donation to the Kimmage defense fund, and as strongly and clearly as possible join the voices calling for McQuaid to resign.

5 Responses to Winning in an Age of Liars

  1. David says:

    When all the other riders went down for doping I kept saying, “Well, that doesn’t surprise me. It wouldn’t surprise me if Armstrong doped.” But when the evidence against Armstrong grew to undeniable proportions, my sentiments were a bit more complex. I despise cheating and doping but, at the same time, Armstrong was an inspiration. My ambivalence felt like a compromise of values.

    Honestly, I’ve still not reconciled my feelings on the matter but I’m glad you’ve seemed to reach a decision.

    On that note, some may the connections between Armstrong and Romney are tenuous but I, a proud bleeding-heart liberal, love it. The big difference is that Romney would like to take charge of a country and Armstrong only wanted to conquer some mountains. The consequences of the former are far more impactful.

  2. BR says:

    Great presentation Michael and I am in agreement with all of your points. I used to think/assume that the top 15 pro’s were just gifted with great numbers and supported to victories by team mates that just fell below the threshold of these magic genetic combinations I assumed that the ~16 – ~250 or so riders doped proportionately to keep up and remain useful to the super gene holders and fulfill there duties. It really wasn’t until I read “Dog in a Hat” by Joe Parkin, “Racing in the Dark” by David Millar, and Tylers book “The Secret Race” that I had my a ha moment. It was sad and also refreshing to see these riders as men with faults like the rest of us. I still hold resentment to any rider that confesses only when they are caught because they cheated to succeed and that is understandable.

    I know that cycling is driven by masses of people like you and I as a ground up activity and like most amateur sports the fans will continue to ride and participate in events despite this season’s revelations. I will still wake up at 5:30am to catch the drama of the TdF and I will also continue to ride for my own joy and love of the sport. I wouldn’t cross the street to greet a doper.

    And as proof of my dope free style in the face of genes from non cyclists I placed 2nd to last in my age group at Levi’s. Not only did I sleep well that night…OK I passed out… but I managed to extract twice as much value as the guys that finished 1-2 hours before me. As I arrived to the finish at Levi’s it was certainly challenging to weave through the crews breaking down tables and equipment. I could’t even find an ambulance!…and I looked!

    • As usual Brendan you blended humor and passion in your response. I’m proud of you knocking off Levi’s Granfondo this year and proud to have you as a friend.

  3. Bikehound says:

    I always thought that Greg was given a special chair but Lance right up the front of the press conference and the situation presented for Greg’s ADHD to kick in and for him to come off as a nutjob in front of the assembled world media.

    How times have changed!

    I think Greg is one of the few stars left in the cycling world, you can forget Indurain and Merckx now we’ve seen their responses to all this.

    Hein should be worried tonight.

  4. BR says:

    Michael – now that the evil elements of pro cycling are exposed and identified it’s time to move on to the other menaces of cycling. These are not listed in order of their threat:

    1 – Meticulously tattooed men with backwards facing Volcom baseball hats and bright white sunglasses that ride cruiser bikes with white walled tires and pin striped fenders.

    2 – Women that wear helmets like bonnets thus exposing their foreheads to to earth.

    3 – Collect and destroy every one of those useless Camelback bottles with the crinkly liners that seem to pop out of bottle cages and litter the road. Each person with one will be required to write on an actual chalk board 100 times “contents of my bottle must be consumed within 30 minutes thus rendering my expensive and trendy bottle useless. I will drink ambient temp water for hours if need be” There is no room for high maintenance beverages on a bike ride.

    4 – Somehow arrange an intervention for the Garmin kitted guy that rides by my house at 15mph in a 52×13 and I am guessing 100bpm. I live on a flat street in suburbia and does as well.