With the release of the book “Wheelmen” by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell of the Wall Street Journal, Lance Armstrong, the US Postal Service, EPO and Greg LeMond are all back in the news. While I’m enjoying the book so far—Albergotti and O’Connell are fine writers and I’m hoping to pick up a few new details in their narrative—what cycling needs going into the off season isn’t more play on Armstrong. Rather, we would do well to focus on the way forward and what the new president of the UCI, Brian Cookson, is working on.
The trouble is, neither LeMond nor Armstrong are willing call it a day and just move forward. Armstrong is still holding out hope that he can sit down with WADA and weave a tale of doping that will rehabilitate his standing with them such that he’ll be able to compete before President Obama leaves office. Supposing for a second that he’s actually able to get his ban reduced to time served, that misses the larger point. The spell has been broken. No one wants to see Armstrong compete. No one.
I respect that Lance’s plan is get the ban cut, then go to Nike, et al, and secure new sponsorship. Maybe not at the rate he used to get, but get a positive cash flow going. What he doesn’t seem to fathom is that right now he is a guaranteed PR black eye. For anyone, but especially Nike.
It’s fair to wonder why Armstrong won’t just curl up in a corner to lick his wounds. Maybe that speaks to why he won the Tour seven times. And for those who are talking to the screen right now, screaming that he didn’t win the Tour, he did. Maybe not fair—or square—but the top of those fields was dirty. One doper beat all the other dopers. That was the game for those years.
The release of “Wheelmen” has served as the perfect opportunity to quote Greg LeMond on all things Lance. In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN LeMond opined that Armstrong would barely have cracked the top 30 as a clean rider. I’m not sure that anyone is in a position to make such a sweeping statement about him or the riders from that era. Armstrong dropped a lot of weight ahead of his fourth place at the ’98 Vuelta—and we have every reason to believe he was on EPO before the cancer. He only got better after the ’98 Vuelta, so what changed? Dutch estimates hold that 80 percent of the peloton was on EPO. Honestly, no one can say that had the entire peloton been clean that Armstrong wouldn’t have finished in the top ten.
LeMond went on to volunteer that he thought Armstrong ought to be in jail. There’s no doubt that Big Tex wronged a great many people. What he did to Emma O’Reilly and the Andreus has not ceased to trouble me. Losing a job for sticking with the truth under oath (as Frankie Andreu did) must qualify you as a martyr. But of Armstrong’s many sins none currently seem to hold the potential for sending him on an all-expense-paid trip to the big house. So why offer the opinion that he ought to be in jail? Certainly that’s not analysis, not the way his assertion that Armstrong wasn’t capable of winning the Tour clean was.
From the earliest days of the LeMond/Armstrong conflict there has been an unseemly, jealous and petty sense to LeMond’s dislike of Arrmstrong. What has always bugged me about LeMond’s ire for Armstrong was the same thing that disturbed me about David Walsh’s pursuit of him, that it seemed personal, blind to the other dopers. Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins” traces his path and demonstrates the circumstances why Walsh was so focused on Armstrong. Without putting words in his mouth, I think it’s fair to summarize Walsh’s Armstrong quest as synecdoche, wherein one small part serves to stand for the whole—referring to your car as your wheels. For Walsh, Armstrong seems to have been (rightly) the tip of the iceberg.
It’s harder for LeMond to claim that he had an overarching concern for doping unless he’s more naive than anyone else who ever raced the Tour. We know that Miguel Indurain, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci would never have taken the podium at the ’91 Tour without the aid of EPO. Why has he never called them out?
It’s interesting that when LeMond retired three years later that he didn’t reveal that he understand what had hit him. The reason he gave for his retirement was a pathology, mitochondrial myopathy, which he related to his brother-in-law mistaking him for a turkey. At the time, blaming his inability to kick Miguel Indurain’s ass on lead in his chest seemed the most graceful explanation. It was, however, wrong. The real explanation was simpler. LeMond was getting beat because there were dozens of guys on EPO. He was being forced to race well into the red zone for far longer than he had in previous tours. So why didn’t he say anything then?
Armstrong’s problem with LeMond was that he needed to believe LeMond doped in order to think that he was no worse. Armstrong may never let go of his belief that LeMond doped. There’s still a certain amount of derisive snorting about LeMond’s B12 miracle shot, administered near the end of the ’89 Giro. The stupid thing here is that the obvious doping alternative would be anabolic steroids, which were very easy to catch in the 1980s.
The value to the book Albergotti and O’Connell have written is that it is likely to serve as the functional narrative for the EPO era. Because there are people who dismiss everything Tyler Hamilton says, because he previously lied, and because the USADA Reasoned Decision isn’t packaged as a single story, “Wheelmen” may prove to be the definitive version of this story.
The upshot to this is that any further attempt by Armstrong to confess as a means to rehabilitate his image, which will really only be a pretext to getting back to competition, will have to meet a very high bar of revelation. Not only will he need to reveal the juiciest of details behind everything everyone else has documented, but the days of him denying eyewitness accounts are over. Sure, he can deny all he wants, but the problem he faces is that the days of giving him the benefit of the doubt are over. In a he said/she said, we used to award him the point. What he doesn’t seem to follow is that we no longer give his word any weight. This is a point that can’t be exaggerated. If Charles Manson said he watched Armstrong eat babies, no matter what Armstrong said, any reasonable person would send his toothbrush to the lab.
The problem isn’t that Armstrong doesn’t know what the truth is, it’s that he doesn’t understand that he doesn’t have the ability to shape the story anymore. Until he understands that, there’s no reason for him to speak. Until he really understands what “the full truth” means, he’s useless to cycling.
But what of LeMond? He has all of American cycling at his feet. Oakley and Giro have apologized to him. Who knows how many others have quietly made amends. He’s won three Tours, beaten Bernard Hinault into submission, had a bike line developed, distributed and sold by Trek. He is now working with Time to produce his bikes, while he has taken on the distributorship of Time here in the U.S.
By any measure, it’s a charmed existence. Yet, the feature most common to all his dealings is conflict, most often exemplified by lawsuits.
Game, set, match. They are all his. When will he find peace, happiness?
[Ed. note: We reached out to LeMond with a request for an interview but got no response.]
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International