When Lance Armstrong came back to cycling in 2009, it was as though a tidal wave of mixed messages, mixed feelings and mixed blessings crashed on pro cycling. Immediately, Alberto Contador, cycling’s next big thing, had his program turned upside down and shaken. A cycling press that had watched its readership ebb away slowly during the retirement years, suddenly found itself in high demand again. And race promoters salivated as record crowds thronged the roadside to cheer and/or jeer the return of the king.
(To be completely and entirely clear about my own stance on Lance, I will say that I am almost completely agnostic and ambivalent as regards the Texan. To be sure, he’s done a lot, both for the sport and for cancer survivors, but his methods and manner don’t appeal to me much. He’s done amazing things, but he’s been ungracious, immature, bullying, etc. in doing them. Perhaps like Contador, I feel respect, but not admiration.)
To me the oddest aspect of Lance’s return to the peloton is the shadow he seems to cast over all those who come near him. We have written recently in these digital pages about both Contador and Greg LeMond, two great champions in their own rights. And yet, in writing critically (or even neutrally) of each of them, there has been some assumption that that criticism equates to tacit support of Armstrong.
There was the issue of Contador’s wheels, and whether or not he had been denied the use of wheels that Armstrong had been given. In trying to parse the rider’s statements, corroborate them with quotes from his mechanic and looking through dozens of photos, we tried to see if the underlying controversy was real. What we came up with was inconclusive. Contador’s story is completely plausible, however the causes and behind the scenes machinations are unclear. Was there a misunderstanding? Was there malice? All possible, and yet circumstantial evidence doesn’t equal truth, and perhaps in this case finding the truth isn’t all that important in light of a larger truth. Contador fell out with Armstrong and Bruyneel but still won the race.
To examine the situation, to call into question the various stories and sub-stories circulating as regards a pair of bicycle wheels does not entail either endorsing or condemning the behavior of the parties involved. To say that Contador’s mechanic may have gotten it wrong is not to say that Amstrong and Bruyneel behaved correctly.
Simultaneous to the summer saga at Team Astana, was the slowly unwinding legal dispute between Greg LeMond and Trek Bicycles. LeMond felt Trek had done a crappy job of selling his bikes. Trek felt LeMond had done damage to the brand himself. There was evidence to suggest that both sides had legitimate arguments to make, and yet, somehow, Armstrong’s shadow fell over this proceeding too. Did Lance tell Trek to can LeMond for the perceived insinuation that Amstrong doped? Did LeMond intend to leverage his beef with Trek into an inquisition into Armstrong’s alleged doping practices?
To say that LeMond ought not go after the prized asset (Armstrong) of his primary business partner (Trek) in this way is not tantamount to asserting that Armstrong is clean or nice or better than LeMond in any way. The two issues CAN be mutually exclusive of one another.
The unfortunate part about Lance Armstrong’s return to bike racing is that the shadow he casts is very long. You can’t take the publicity he brings, the dollars, without also taking the drama. Everything becomes polarized. If you are not for Contador, you must be for Armstrong. If you comment on a rider that once road with Armstrong being suspended for doping, you are required to suggest that Armstrong is probably also guilty. Logic goes out the window. Feeling comes to the fore.
And yet, not everyone views cycling through these prisms. Lance Armstrong is not cycling. He is not Alberto Contador. He is not Greg LeMond. He is not Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish or Ivan Basso or Tom Boonen. He is not the UCI or WADA. He is not the entire history of the sport.
They say that power corrupts. At the top of the sport, where the real money changes hands and the real decisions get made, that corrupting influence must be profound. It leads people to say and do things that the rest of us view with mouths agape. We watch it like a soap opera, like gladiatorial combat.
We are fortunate here at RKP that no one pays us to say things we do not believe. There is no power that accrues to a web site like this one that allows us to dictate the behavior of top racers or industry players. When Lance Armstrong’s shadow falls across what we do, we can simply get up, throw our legs over our bikes and ride away into the sun.
Now, some will interpret what I’ve written here as some defense of the work we’ve done, a riposte to the uncivil comments and calls for I’m-not-sure-what. And to a degree, I suppose, that’s what it is. More than anything, really, it’s an attempt to stop talking about Lance Armstrong. It is perhaps ironic that to do so, in the end, requires so much talking about Lance Armstrong.