Lance Armstrong. The name is synonymous with modern cycling. The man who won 7 consecutive Tour de France titles and started the Livestrong Foundation to provide support to cancer victims the world over has built a legacy around the strength of his body and of his character.
Armstrong won the Tour de France 7 times during an era when many of his competitors and even a few teammates including Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton were convicted of using illegal substances and other performance enhancement methods to ride to the front of the peloton.
The fact that so many in the sport of cycling got caught while Armstrong did not has been the subject of some speculation. Is he just a better doper with better scientists on his side? The other big question is whether his closest allies and even officials in the sport have been protecting Armstrong because of his stature in the sport.
The big push toward “clean” racing arrived about the time of Armstrong’s first retirement from cycling. Several pro teams even developed their own anti-doping programs, to protect the health and investment in their riders over the long term.
A 2011 performance analysis of Tour de France finishes as published in the cycling magazine VELO have shown that the gap in overall finish times between GC (General Category) riders at the Tour has been shrinking. These results seem to suggest that doping controls may be helping to eliminate the unfair advantage in which juiced up riders can literally pedal away from their competitors. So there is tremendous incentive for the cycling world to enforce clean races if that is the case. Getting "real results" is vital to the credibility of the sport. That may be part of the motivation as to why some want to go back and strip Armstrong of his titles if they were truly undeserved.
The attraction to pin doping charges on Lance Armstrong as the biggest name in the sport would effectively conclude an era where doping occurred with much frequency and public exposure of the worst offenders. That is why the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) has in 2012 decided to try to prove that Lance Armstrong has used performance-enhancing drugs, starting with the point when he returned to the sport following cancer treatment. The USADA also claims Armstrong was doping during his comeback Tour de France races in 2009 and 2010. That first race back in 2009 went well for Lance, when he finished 3rd. The second try in 2010 did not go so well, as crashes and injuries in advance and during the Tour hampered his efforts. So Armstrong retired again.
Yet still the doping accusations followed Armstrong into retirement. It does not seem to matter that a Grand Jury investigation into Armstrong's cycling career was dropped at the end of 2011, for there were legal ramifications to his possible doping beyond the competitive advantages it would ostensibly deliver.
In 2012, the USADA proceeded to send Armstrong a warning letter that they planned to pursue with inquiries that if proven true would result in Armstrong being stripped of all 7 of his Tour de France titled. In other words, pretty serious stuff.
The cycling community seems split on the subject of Lance Armstrong. Some love to hate the man who made a habit of winning the Tour with superior will, tactical genius and characteristically devastating attacks on the famous mountainsides of France. Supporters of Lance Armstrong stand by the fact that Lance has, to paraphrase, been “the most tested athlete on the planet.”
So where does that leave us when it comes to believing in the legacy of Lance Armstrong?
It really comes down to a personal decision in many respects. If one believes in the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” then Armstrong remains emphatically innocent. People who give Lance the benefit of the doubt believe in him and his cause because of what he’s accomplished in cycling and through his foundation Livestrong. The rest is still technically just speculation, yet the list of former teammates claiming that Armstrong led and participated in illegal doping has grown the last few years. The faithful have been sorely tested.
Of course if Lance is found to have been a doper all those years, believers will be forced to make a complex choice in continuing to believe in the legacy of the man. Were Armstrong’s inspiring victories and legendary determination strictly the product of performance-enhancing drugs? The degree to which that might be true is impossible to determine. 7 years and nearly 20,000 miles of racing in the Tour de France leave room for plenty of mistakes, physical failures and a collapse of will. Those figures are also a testament to the very brand of inspiring determination people need most when faced with their own challenges in life. It comes down to this: Even blood doping can’t help you achieve that kind of profound success. But believers will face a watershed as concise as the razor edge of a mountain in the Pyrenees. And how fitting.
Armstrong’s stirring story of success in cycling after cancer treatment still might negate the doping accusation if it were to be proven positive. Armstrong’s ability to face almost certain death and later climb to the top of the literal mountain is a metaphor not easily forgotten.
Nor should it be.
Even Armstrong’s long list of legal battles and public rows with accusers may even provide some measure of inspiration to his most loyal fans. Many cancer victims run afoul of public policy and law while trying to get access to treatment and stay alive, to keep their jobs and to protect their families. Those who believe in Lance must certainly empathize when the stoic hero stands forth against public accusations and possible injustice.
Fellow cyclists banned from the sport for doping will no doubt be forever bitter toward Armstrong if they think he has gotten off without the punishment other dopers have had to face. Still more will be spiteful toward the man because he leveraged his success into international fame and fortune.
We all know Lance Armstrong is not perfect. His relationships have broken up several times. His reputation for finicky, controlling behavior has leaked out into the public and his nasty feud with Astana teammate Alberto Contador during the 2009 Tour was hard to watch. Even Lance’s fans wondered why he behaved so petulantly. Well, the fact is that Contador proved too strong for even Armstrong to beat. So we saw the face of a hero that had met his match. Interestingly, the sentiment toward Lance in the grudging world of France turned in his favor during his comeback, driven along by the fact that Lance was now the underdog, the older cyclist trying to fight off his younger rival. Yet another story of struggle that resulted in a victory of sorts, even if it wasn't the top step of the podium. For all his transcendent fame, somehow Armstrong still stands for the little guy, the bulldog who won't quit and the cancer victims whose fight through the haze of poisonous drugs, surgeries and uphill battles demands a representative.
But in 2012 even Contador is banned from the Tour for a supposed (and still suspect) drug violation and the world of cycling seems not to miss either Armstrong or Contador that much. New transcendent faces have begun to emerge, as they should. The peloton must roll on.
Those who still believe in Lance now will not lose much belief in their hero even if he endures a slap from the USADA. Any finding would likely lead to appeals that might take years in the courts to prove or disapprove. Given that Armstrong is officially retired from the sport of cycling the near term effect on his career record would be nil. Only his triathlon career might be eclipsed by the legal troubles, so it will simply be more difficult for Lance to add to his legacy.
What does seem likely is that the Livestrong Foundation will outlive any short-term effects of the investigation. Believers in Lance will keep on believing even if the drug investigations do succeed in their accusations. Lance will no doubt maintain innocence until the day he dies. His defiant example will continue to inspire many who have long admired his fighting spirit. Given the enormous scope of the Armstrong commitment to world-class racing and foundation work, there doesn’t seem to be much harm believing in that.