Reconsidering Lance Armstrong
Published on July 23, 2012 by guest author: Steven Reeves

For American cycling fans such as myself, the moment is indelibly etched in memory. Lance Armstrong, the upstart, launching a vicious attack on the steep climb up to the ski resort of Sestriere, shedding his rivals with each forceful, almost angry, pedal stroke, his jaw clenched as he ignored the pain building in his legs. Armstrong had been riding strong the entire 1999 Tour de France, but many wondered how he would fare in his first real test against men who excelled in the high alpine mountain passes.

Armstrong had found success early in his cycling career, though mostly in one-day races where his seemingly boundless energy and fierce determination allowed him to beat more seasoned competitors. Despite his obvious talent on the bike, his earlier attempts at the three-week-long Tour had ended with but a few hints at the legend Armstrong would one day become.

But his explosive, dominating climb up the mountain that day in 1999 not only stunned his rivals – some of the best professionals in the sport – it sent a clear message that the then 27-year-old Armstrong was not only a force to be reckoned with in cycling, he had also beaten the cancer that nearly killed him several years earlier and derailed his career. The Sestriere climb showed he had returned to the bike better – much, much better - than before.

It was a story that captured the imaginations of many people who never gave bicycle racing a second thought before Armstrong stepped onto the podium in Paris on the last day of the Tour in July of 1999 and accepted the yellow jersey that signified him as the winner of cycling’s greatest and most prestigious race. It was only the first step in a remarkable run that would see Armstrong win a historic seven Tours de France in a row and along the way build a name brand that was synonymous with the fight against cancer.

Even from the beginning, questions about the use of performance-enhancing drugs dogged Armstrong. Professional cycling has a history of tainted champions. Why would Armstrong, who so completely dominated his rivals, many of whom had left the sport after being busted for drug use, be any different?

Six years after winning his first Tour, Armstrong would once again step onto the podium in Paris and don the yellow jersey, this time for the last time. As he ended his reign as the king of the peleton, Armstrong had some strong words for the critics who dared to question not only whether his victories had come without the aid of performance-enhancing drugs, but whether any professional cyclist was racing clean.

"I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles,” Armstrong said. “But this is a hell of a race. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I'll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets — this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it."

Those words were good enough for his legion of fans back in the United States. And they were good enough for me.

But those words, spoken in 2005, have worn thin since. The rumors that drugs fueled Armstrong’s record-setting career began building even before he retired the first time, and have only increased since. Worse still, as many as 10 of his former teammates have reportedly testified that Armstrong used drugs. The most damaging of these witnesses is George Hincapie, a former trusted lieutenant of Armstrong’s and one of the most respected men in the pro peleton. For me personally, if Hincapie says Armstrong doped, I’m inclined to believe him.

Even the most trotted out defense by Armstrong, that he never tested positive despite hundreds of tests, is starting to crumble. Armstrong very well may have tested positive more than once, a fact many observers believe will come out if he takes the case brought against him by the United State Anti-Doping Agency to arbitration.

Armstrong, obviously, has been fighting like hell against the USADA. And he has good reason. If the USADA finds that he doped, and the agency’s head has said more than once that the evidence against Armstrong is overwhelming, he could be stripped of all seven of his Tour titles. Even worse, his image as a cancer fighter will undoubtedly take a major beating in the court of public opinion.

If Armstrong does end up beating the USADA charges, it will likely be because of a prodigious amount of legal wrangling. Already he has unleashed his army of lawyers against the agency in what so far has been a vain effort to have the case against him dismissed. It looks as if the day of reckoning is fast arriving for America’s biggest cycling star.

“I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.” Those words, uttered by Armstrong as he exited professional cycling in triumph, are beginning to sound more and more empty by the day.

But for the time being, as the USADA case grinds inexorably forward, I prefer to remember Armstrong as he was on that July day in 1999, jaw clenched, legs pumping, pedaling as hard as he could as he pedaled up that impossibly steep mountain road into sporting history. That history will likely be rewritten soon enough.

Steven Reeves is a former newspaper reporter and military contractor who lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

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