Lance Armstrong is a hero in the cancer community. That is not to be debated. For many, nothing else matters. I completely understand. My yellow wristband will remain where it is in honor of those who wake up each day with the hopes of pounding the beast into submission.
If you feel that he should be placed beyond reproach when it comes to his cycling career, you have that right.
This is purely about Lance and me — or more accurately, Lance, The Boy, and me. It involves about a dozen years of buying into his story and ultimately feeding it to my son.
That’s why this hurts.
I’m probably in the 1 percent of hardcore professional cycling fans reading this column. If The Badger, La Vie Clair, The Professor, Tesh, LeMond, and Team 7-11 mean nothing to you, you’ve been a pro cycling fan for about ten minutes.
Cycling history didn’t begin for me with Lance Armstrong. His career, however, ran parallel to The Boy’s love affair with the bike. There were times when he refused to take his U.S. Postal Service cycling shorts off for days at a time.
The Boy (at age 4): “Marco Pantani (pro cyclist suspected of blood doping who would later die from a cocaine OD) is BAD because he uses DRUGS! Does he still use drugs Daddy? Why does he use drugs?”
Me: “Some people need to win so bad that they break the rules to have a better chance. Just practice hard. Work hard. Ride hard. And play fair. Always do your very best buddy. That can never be taken away from you.”
The Boy (pedaling as fast as chubby little legs can spin): “Daddy I’m Lance Armstrong. Daddy say, ‘There goes Lance, he’s beating Jan Ullrich. (Former Tour de France winner eventually found guilty of doping).’”
When Lance won his first Tour de France and accepted the ESPY for Comeback of the Year, I wept in front of my TV like a child whose mother was stolen by cancer. I took vacation time from work for seven years to watch the Tour live. I bought into everything Lance.
I knew about the dopers, the cheaters. But not Lance, he looked us in the eye and said he was clean. I defended him. Why would a cancer survivor put anything illegal into his body? His words. We loved Lance because he said, “What am I on? I’m on my bike…” And a 4- and 38-year-old believed it. Lance was our hero before most of you ever heard of him. He was our special secret — pure — and we kept it that way for as long as we could.
That’s why this hurts more than Bonds, ARod, or McGuire. I had nothing invested in them. I didn’t watch them beat cancer. I didn’t watch them pedal to a mountaintop finish and point to the sky for a dead teammate. I didn’t think of my mom when they hit homeruns. I didn’t suffer with them.
Lance never “failed” a drug test. But folks, don’t be so naïve as to think there are not ways to fool the test if you know what you are doing. Don’t be so naïve as to think that a multi-millionaire cannot buy and bully his way out of a jam. And don’t be so naïve as to think that Lance did not use cancer as a shield and his command of his surroundings to fly in just under the radar.
Most of you don’t know about the 2001 drug test. Most of you don’t know Hincapie, Hamilton, or Michele Ferrari. And most of you don’t remember when the “blood collectors” showed up at Lance’s home and had to wait.
Cycling is a rare combination of team and individual performance. One does not survive without the other. Take a look at Lance’s former teammates and friends. They either followed his protocol or got squeezed out the back end. Lance was a cycling bully. He demanded respect and only gave it back if he benefited.
And now it seems as though we were duped by his magic on the bike. It now seems that seven Julys on the roads of France were a cruel illusion. The risk behind having a childhood hero is the chance of being let down and lied to.
If Lance is eventually stripped of his seven Tours de France victories, it will be a colossal blow to the sport, one that could take a generation to recover from.
If Lance is a phony on the bike, he needs to come out from behind the cloak of cancer and admit it was a hoax. Admit that he lied because it was more important to win dirty than to lose cleanly.
If it’s true, he lied to our faces.