Armstrong’s Shadow

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.

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  1. Henry

    I don’t think there is a chance in hell you or anyone else will stop talking about Armstrong. He’s an outsized presence that comes with a media juggernaut that sweeps up everything in it’s path. Season has barely begun and the LA AC war is already right back at def con 11.

    Sports fans are emotional about their sports and although they might deny it, the bigger the soap opera the more they like it. Walk into a South Boston bar with Yankees hat on and see what happens. Kinda like suggesting that Lance may not be the anti-Christ or Contador might be a decent guy in some quarters.

    Maybe this is exactly what US cycling needs. I’ve got my popcorn ready.

  2. Sophrosune

    First, let me say that the stance of so-called objectivity, which it seems is your position about the blogs you’re referencing, is a silly little construct that makes people feel comfortable about gibberish. For example, there’s the old joke about the NY Times headline: President Says World is Flat, Opinions Differ. The world is not flat and the headline should read: President Goes Insane, Insists World is Flat.

    So, I don’t want to read or even bother myself with anyone who claims they are trying to be objective. Be biased, be subjective, but understand that that’s what you are.

    I suggest you read Chris Hedges’ recent column here, which has this wonderful quote from Molly Ivins:

    “There is no such thing as objectivity, and the truth, that slippery little bugger, has the oddest habit of being way to hell off on one side or the other: it seldom nestles neatly halfway between any two opposing points of view. The smug complacency of much of the press—I have heard many an editor say, ‘Well, we’re being attacked by both sides so we must be right’—stems from the curious notion that if you get a quote from both sides, preferably in an official position, you’ve done the job. In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place, it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying, ‘Cat,’ and the other side saying ‘Dog,’ while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”

    Think about it.

  3. Author
    Da Robot

    @Sophrosune At no point exactly did I claim to be either objective or unbiased. What I claimed is not to have the biases you insist I have, and I’m going to go ahead and insist that I still don’t. When I have a bias, I try to name it, as I did in the second paragraph. That you disagree with me does not mean I am stupid, petty, vain, dishonest, etc. (through I probably am those things), it merely means that we disagree. That you continue to come here and express yourself must mean that you get something out of it, and I’m glad for that, but I have a hard time understanding quite what it is.

    I just think you continue to try to frame the debate in terms that make no sense. For example, the piece above isn’t about not having bias. It’s about the possibility of separating various biases from one another. It’s about clearing away the obfuscations and the undue influence of outside forces.

    We’re probably not going to find common ground on this stuff, because we come from essentially different (though not diametrically opposed) points-of-view. I am able to praise those I often criticize, and I am able to criticize those I often praise. I’m slippery like that.

  4. Sophrosune

    I was not saying that you laid claim to objectivity, but it seemed that you were contending that the LeMond blogs and the Contador blogs were only written in the relentless pursuit of the objective truth.

    You are correct that you did manage to say what your perspective is. I was not denying that you did. I have never contended that you are stupid, petty, vain or dishonest. I suppose you are refering to my characterization of Padraig’s blogs as strange with distortions and obfuscations. But I don’t think Padraig is stupid, petty or vain either, but I think he may be being dishonest at least with himself.

    I am capable as well of criticizing those I admire and praising those I don’t like. I’m waiting for RKP to do it, but I’m sure it is capable of it as well. But when we do let’s do it in an a rigorous way with a smidgen of intellectual honesty.

    It seems my comments have upset you in a very personal way for you to conclude that I have made these personal attacks on you. That’s regretable. But I think that reflects more upon you than anything I have said to either you or Padraig. If you or Padraig would really prefer me to not make comments on here, feel free to cut me off.

  5. Author
    Da Robot

    @Sophrosune You should keep commenting, but yes, I have taken some of your comments very personally. As a writer, I take it very seriously when someone impugns my motives or calls into question my “intellectual honesty.” Believe it or not, I work hard at this.

    And while I also try to remain open to constructive criticism, I find nearly nothing constructive in your comments. You admit to fairly stark prejudices (against Armstrong for one) and then talk about intellectual rigor. You demand integrity, while prejudging outcomes and pretending to knowledge that no one possesses.

    In short, you’re insulting AND you make no sense.

  6. Big Mikey

    Boys, boys…..

    Thanks for the article. The attempt that RKP makes at avoiding, or at least admitting bias are commended, and is a major reason that most of us keep coming back to what is one of the finest cycling blogs around.

    Armstrong is part of cycling, a big part, and discussions of cycling often lead to discussions of Armstrong. And a lot of people feel very strongly about the man and his legitimacy. Which leads to interesting, if aggressive, displays of opinion in the comments.

    Keep up the good work, and realize that if you’r not inspiring emotion, you’re probably not doing a good job.

    1. Padraig

      Everyone: Thanks for reading and responding with such lively comments.

      The first, biggest, most important thing I have to say is that I really don’t want to cut anyone off from commenting. As long as things stay civil and at least PG-rated, I want to hear what everyone out there has to say.

      I keep trying, unsuccessfully, to dispel the notion that I’m a Lance fanboy. The reality is that this time last year I had suggested in a feature for Road Bike Action that Bruyneel faced the opportunity to sweep the podium at the ’09 Tour de France. In that I have a bias in Armstrong/Contador scuffle, it is for Bruyneel. I do see him as a kingmaker and I would love to have seen Astana sweep the podium, even if Lance had been second or third. Bill McGann has had some great insights into the justice of winning—that winning, ultimately, proves you right—and in that regard, I’ve rethought my position to some extent. So to the degree that it has appeared that I favor Armstrong, my real belief has been that I do think Bruyneel knows what’s best. His was an especially difficult job last year and he wasn’t as successful at defusing the tension and egos as maybe Phil Jackson could have. Or not. I don’t know.

      So why don’t I go after Armstrong? I haven’t seen the opportunities for content concerning him as I have for others. Had the wheel issue concerned claims about what he did or did not use as opposed to Contador, I would have written the post just the same. A few readers have insisted that I investigate LiveStrong which isn’t something I see a need for, nor do I have any interest in personally. When there’s an opportunity to write a post about Armstrong that does something novel, I’ll chase it. That said, yet another story about Armstrong’s scorched earth tactics in business has all the novelty of Neopolitan ice cream. The most interesting stories about Armstrong, as I see it, would need significant resources to chase, and frankly, I’m not sure I’d have the stomach for the legal battle that would ensue, even if I did have the wherewithall for the defense.

      If that makes me a fanboy, so be it.

      And as an addendum: I have used the term “objective” in referring to facts that I try to work from.

      Sophrosune: Your assertion that in reviewing photos of Contador I reviewed no photos of him in time trials is just plain wrong. It bears no further remark than that.

  7. Souleur

    I for one think Da Robots kahoona’s must be made of copper and clang when he walks to post such a bold review. Kudo’s man and nice pull.

    Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, well, except for those I disagree with.

    Is that what this comes down to?? I for one hope not, and hope that we can agree to disagree.

    Da Robot never said he was objective, neither has Padraig in fact. They are entitled their opinion, as well as everyone else who posts here. Let it fly.

    anyway, i still hold to July, it will all get sorted out then for sure. In the humblest opinion of this rider.

  8. dave1949

    Armstrong is to cycling what Tiger was to golf till recently.
    No matter how well or poorly he was doing every story about any tournament he was in led off with him. You know Tiger comes 4th oh yeah someone else actually won. This is luckily a peculiarly American slant on superstars which is not nearly so feverishly followed in the rest f the world.
    Lance has won more TD than anyone else.
    Lance has raised a whole whack of money for cancer cure.
    Lance did or did not cheat in a sport where everyone around him did or did not cheat.
    Big deal bring on the races and let me see if someone, cheating or not can attack and make an interesting race.

  9. Sophrosune

    @Da Robot when I discuss rigor I refer specifically to a blog that impugns Contador based on thorough look through of photos of Contador’s wheels…wait for it…except for the time trials. I mean we could go on with that one. It was just bizarre.

    You may find this disagreeable but every human endeavor, every action has to be based on not knowing. So if you want to limit what we can comment upon to those things that we have absolute knowledge of we can all remain mute.

    Now you think I am impugning your reputation by saying you or Padraig are bias? Hardly, I congratulate you if you are. Just find it within yourselves to admit it.

  10. Sophrosune

    @Padraig & Da Robot BRAVO! BTW, Padraig, I stand corrected you did look at the time trial wheel photos, you just dismissed them to focus your blog instead on the road wheels. You may not believe this but I do think very highly of your blog. Da Robot, you are usually way over my head, but I can tell your entries are always well written. And Padraig you know how highly I regard your equipment reviews. I disagree with people but I usually try to remain respectful. I am sorry that you feel that I was not, Da Robot.

  11. Jeff Bean

    Armstrong = lightning rod. Always. I wonder how professional road cycling would be in the U.S. today had he never appeared on the scene and so dominated Le Tour.

  12. travis

    This seemed appropriate given the back and forth from this post.

    “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”.


    P.S. Keep up the great work!

    1. Padraig

      Travis: Thanks for that. Keats called that “negative capability.” It can be a challenge to consider an idea you are opposed to without having an emotional reaction. Here’s to winning that struggle.

  13. wvcycling

    I’ve been holding this is in for so long that I have to finally let the world know.

    I started cycling in 2006/7 when I was 21. With Armstrong ‘retired’, I thought that people would finally get over cycling in America, and I wouldn’t be pegged as some kind of TdF hopeful. After a few months, I never really thought about it again.

    Then in late 2008 eveyone found out that LA was coming back… I was secretly SO EXCITED; giddy like a schoolgirl, even. My skills increased ever-so-much in those two years, and the addition of a carbon bike really had me feel like I was a representative of my cyclosportive hobby in the rural area of West Virginia that I live in. Floods of thoughts of more and more people getting into cycling rushed into my head. There were delusional ideas of a cycling renaissance. I really thought this trigger the golden age of cycling (all over again?).

    WIth his publicity, the tweeting, and his Drama-Llama activities with Astana team members, I grew ambivalent to his activities. He came, he did, he conquered the media.

    I still ride. I still enjoy riding. I try not to let the pro peloton influence me, but we all know that is easier said than done.

  14. Rick Vosper

    As you almost said. “Lance has done a lot for the sport. And to it.”

    But I do think that perhaps “nonpartisan” would be a better word than “objective.” I’m not sure there is such a thing as objectivity in waters this murky, at least not until all the parties are deceased and someone puts together a thousand-page, three-volume tome on the subject.

    One sign that you’re succeeding is the ongoing barrage of scathing denouncements from both camps. Shows you’re on the right track.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Padraig

      Rick: Thanks for joining the conversation. For my part, I can’t claim to be nonpartisan. At least with the wheel debacle photos demonstrated what wheels Contador was on. Objective. While there are a great many people who think I’ve erected an altar to Lance, the fact is, I’m a fan of Bruyneel’s. For some folks that smells like the same thing, but to the careful reader such as yourself, there’s a big difference, no?

  15. Henry

    “I’m a fan of Bruyneel’s”

    Bruyneel works for Armstrong and it’s Lance who calls the shots not Bruyneel. There is only one alpha dog on the Armstrong team (Contador has said he thinks with his talents he deserves the same arrangement as Lance so I’m not saying AC would behave differently).

    This was clearly demonstrated when Armstrong contradicted Bruyneel publicly after the Monaco press conference before the tour and Bruyneel rather then acting like the boss and setting Armstrong straight put his tail between his legs and changed his position to line up with the the guy he ultimately answers to. So for most, at least most who found Armstrong’s conduct at the Tour kind of sleezy Bruyneel and Armstrong are inseparable.

  16. Doug

    Some years ago LA was quoted as responding to the question, “Do you see yourself as the next Greg Lemond?” by saying “No- I see myself as the first Lance Armstrong.” I didn’t like him then, and nothing that has happened since then has changed my opinion. Respect for his intelligence and drive notwithstanding, he has been the epitome of the big ego sport star so wrapped up in himself he is incapable of giving props to anyone else. Bernard Hinault shows the same style, arrogance wrapped around megalomania. So. I am not objective. These two are world-class jerks regardless of their athletic accomplishments. Keep the excellent posts coming Mr Robot, and we’ll see what July brings!

  17. Reid Rothchild

    To the first poster, who cited Hedges, well done!

    I do enjoy the reviews on this site, but for anyone to claim there is no evidence, or inconclusive evidence, of LA being a jerk and extraordinarily vindictive, strains credulity.

    Most lay people have no idea of what constitutes evidence which can be used to send a person to prison. The many kinds of “stories” which have arisen re LA, do in fact constitute evidence which is admissable in both civil and criminal proceedings.

    The whole idea of Robot’s take on the situation, being “logical” is way off base too.

    To separate LeMond’s doping allegations against Armstrong, from the reason for the Trek dispute is absolutely “Alice in Wonderland” thinking.

    LeMond has every right to speak his opinion on doping regarding anyone, he will continue to do so, and Trek settled the case because they realized this.

    Parsing or compartmentalizing the issues re LeMond v Trek and involving Armstrong, is completely intellectually dishonest, at worst, or illogical, at best.

  18. Rono

    The LA machine went seriously south in July of 2004, anyone remember TdF Stage 18 and Filippo Simeoni? A lot can happen in six years. The sport has made great progress in finding and busting Those Who Dope, and we can only hope as time goes on, all things will come to light. I remember very well the VeloNews coverage that afternoon, like the guys from T-Mobile applauding LA and saying how all Simeoni ever did was lie. At the time, these people were running probably the best doping racket around, and nearly everyone who defended LA then was either busted or implicated for doping in the years to come. I believe in due process and presume people are innocent until proven guilty, but in retrospect you really have to wonder what Lance has to hide?

  19. Robot

    @ Reid Rothchild No one ever said that there isn’t evidence that Armstrong isn’t an asshat. The man is pretty demonstrably an impulsive, egotistical prima donna. What we’ve tried to say is that regardless of what one ego-maniac does, it is still possible to say that the other ego-maniac isn’t blameless.

    Let’s put it this way, if everything LeMond and Contador and Kimmage and L’Equipe and Marca have said about Armstrong is true, some of those folks have still behaved badly themselves. That’s not a defense of Armstrong.

    Constantly using Armstrong’s apparent bad faith as an excuse for making out of context allegations or passing on rumors is poor all on its own. That’s the point.

    Further, writing about Armstrong being an ego-maniac is boring, cause it’s just probably true.

    Those are my opinions anyway. Logical or not.

  20. Alex

    Like every personality the size of Armstrong´s, his character and importance will be judged more correctly in the future, with some distance. Right now we only have this endless debate about his ego, as it was of any importance to anyone who´s not personally involved with him in one way or another. But he is still around and playing the game.

    I can only immagine that for those who deal/have dealt with him at any level, if we really seek and count, for every detractor of his manners and behavior we´re also sure to find someone singing praises and telling honestly about his generosity and humanity. For every LeMond and Contador we´ll find a Bruyneel and Levi.

    In my opinion he is probably both. Depends on which side you are, no one is only saint or only evil, I´m with Robot on that. Besides, some personalities just don´t go along fine. Some people won´t ever match, that´s life.

    1. Padraig

      I should probably not open my mouth (or tap the keyboard) as this will almost inevitably cause someone to decide I’m Lance’s biggest fanboy ever.

      That said, I’ll wade in. The guy has been one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve done. Some guys are as easily provoked by questions as a tree is by the Internet. Interviews with them bear all the excitement of stale popcorn during church. Lance could alternately be quick and flip (entertaining) or discretely introspective (surprising). Ultimately, my experiences with him I’d classify much the way I would an evening with an exotic dancer: Very entertaining if you go in for that sort of thing, but not someone you’d want to take home with you.

  21. Sophrosune

    @Da Robot I so much wanted to agree with everything that you said, and if I didn’t just to ignore it. But I guess I am the one who is stupid, vain and petty. I am just not clear on what it is that we are supposed to be condemning LeMond and Contador and Kimmage and L’Equipe and Marca for. Apparently it’s for: “making out of context allegations or passing on rumors”.

    I am not sure I can tie those two transgressions to the agents you have identified, but if I could, or you can, I am not really sure how it becomes so important to write exposes on these while Armstrong is who he is. You seem to be drawing an equivalency between the alleged crimes that I think is unfair and inaccurate. And in the case of the Contador blog (which you did not write) overlooked some pretty clear evidence and as a result came to a conclusion that at the very least was not supported by the evidence.

    I am sure that fiction is far more entertaining than the boring old truth, but just because it’s boring doesn’t mean we can’t defend it.

  22. Robot

    @Sophrosune Trying to get the two of us to agree is probably equivalent to trying to put a man on Jupiter. It’s a really neat idea, but the math is just too complicated to make it feasible at this juncture.

    BUT…because I’m high on endorphins and chocolate protein shake:

    LeMond – Rather than working through the UCI to close the testing loopholes that he thinks will ensnare the cheaters, LeMond chooses to bully Armstrong at a Livestrong press conference. This is a situation where everything he says is valuable, but the form is entirely poor, and ineffective.

    Contador – Won the race. Didn’t need to say anything about LA and JB, even if entirely true and fair and correct.

    Kimmage – Called Armstrong a “cancer” on the sport. True or not, it’s not the sort of thing a journalist does without documentation of exactly how Armstrong is a cancer on the sport. Really, he should just leave language like that to hacks like you and me.

    L’Equipe – Prints allegations of test samples at French lab that show Armstrong has doped. In the end, completely unable to back up allegations with physical proof. Fail.

    Marca – Willing to print anything Contador or his entourage say attacking Armstrong without calling equipment makers or corroborating story with anyone else involved. Again, this is the province of armchair nerds like you and me, not major newspapers.

    You know it’s odd. As I’ve said, I am not a fan of Armstrong the person or the racer. While he’s given us some excellent moments and raised the profile of the sport, I almost wish someone would make an accusation that they can back up with something other than circumstantial evidence, just so we could put the whole thing to bed.

    Instead we live in this middle space where guys like you and me bicker back and forth over what constitutes bias and proof. I would so much rather talk about who has the better climbing team Saxo or Astana.

    I think it’s Saxo, but that’s another post entirely.

  23. Sophrosune

    @Da Robot You know you probably won’t believe this, but I bet you and I would have a great talks on group rides and by the end would be patting each other on the back. Peace.

  24. i have a lot to learn

    sometimes i wonder if all of the people who have opinions about Armstrong, whatever they my be, have actually met the guy and made up their own mind from their own experiences, as opposed to others. I have no opinion either way of his personality. But he IS one hell of a bike racer.

  25. Hautacam

    One of the things I really appreciate about RKP and a few other blogs (e.g. BKW) is the way that you guys so often take the time to craft a few really thoughtful, really insightful paragraphs about aspects of the sport OTHER THAN the headline-grabbing antics of the obvious prima donnas. Let the print mags, news aggregators, and mass media report breathlessly on the latest soap opera between the bandwidth-hogging hotshots. I can get that dreck anywhere. Instead, give me the quiet, polished appreciation of the details, the history, the tradition, the culture — give me prose on the PRO, not the “pros,” if you see what I mean. Take me behind the scenes, during the offseason, and show me something deep and truthful about the guys on the squad who suffer for a living in near-anonymity. Help me to see aspects of the sport I might otherwise miss. Give me your Yo-Yo Ma, not your Lady Gaga.

    Thanks for a great read.

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