Friday Group Ride #345

Friday Group Ride #345

This Group Ride is about Lance Armstrong, sort of. I’m telling you now, so you can unplug, log-off, go rider your bike if that topic turns you off.

I’m writing about Lance, because an odd thought occurred to me the other day, and I thought we might just be far away from the Reasoned Decision now to consider it without descending into froth-mouthed, howling fantods.

The quixotic Texan popped onto my radar again while making my daily stroll through the cycling news. Apparently, he’s been out training with Lawson Craddock of the Cannondale – Drapac team. Really, without even thinking about Lance, I was gobsmacked that any current pro would be seen riding with the Vader/Voldemort of the modern peloton. How could ANY good come of that for Craddock?

If you were his team manager or a sponsor’s liason or his agent, this is the sort of thoughtless, self-destructive move that sends you into apoplectic fits. This is the kind of crap that requires a phone call, not a text, to straighten out. A young, ambitious pro doesn’t ride with a disgraced former legend, the guy who wrecked the sport. It’s like having lunch with mobsters. It doesn’t mean you’re in the mob, but do you really want people to wonder?

It was only then, after I’d rolled my eyes and chuckled at the naivete of youth, that I began to think about Lance. Poor, old Lance. The boogie man. The pariah. Chris Froome said he has “no legacy.” But is that right?

Here’s what I think: Lance Armstrong had a net positive impact on cycling.

And here’s why I think so: 1) Through his brash and unabashed lying, his simple, dumb, devotion to doing things the wrong way, he became the one face we came to associate with modern blood-doping. Classical villains aren’t a little bit bad. They’re thoroughly bad, and Armstrong is a classic. This is a good thing, in the final analysis, because it allowed us to perform the sacrifice (lifetime ban) necessary to convince ourselves that era was over. It wasn’t/isn’t completely, and maybe can never be, but cycling performance had been on a collision course with morality for decades, and I think Lance crystallized the essence of cycling’s dark side so that we, the fans, finally had to see, acknowledge and condemn it.

2) At the zenith of his popularity, no other rider was responsible for getting so many butts onto saddles. The middle-aged, middle manager verging on life crisis bought himself a Trek, inspired by the all-conquering American. Most, if not all, of those guys and gals are still riding, and the miles they’ve ridden have led to better bikes being made, better infrastructure being installed, and a better place at the table for cycling in the nation’s transportation policy meetings.

3) He was the cancer angel. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. This isn’t an end to justify the means. But, it is undeniable that many cancer patients took hope and inspiration from Armstrong’s story. It’s hard to put a value on hope and inspiration, even if you discover later, once you’re in remission, that your faith in the prophet has been misplaced.

To be sure, there is a long list on the debit side of the ledger. Today’s pro teams are finding it harder to sign sponsors. They ride under constant suspicion. That isn’t wholly Armstrong’s fault, but he remains the poster boy for cheating. He let so many people down. Hurt so many through both malice and carelessness. I am not arguing for even a second that we should let him back into the club, such as it is, or diminish our revulsion at his behavior.

But, forgetting the person, the individual named Lance Armstrong, just looking at the net impacts, most of them unintended and unforeseen, and with the benefit of considerable hindsight now, I think more good came of his actions than bad.

This week’s Group Ride asks, am I crazy? Is the scope and reach of his moral transgression too big to consider a possible upside? Or, acknowledging the injuries, is it fair to say that the good might possibly outweigh the bad, you know, in an actuarial sense?

Image: Jarret Campbell



  1. Les.B.

    I tend to agree, since it was lax enforcement by the UCI that laid the groundwork for cheaters. Lax enforcement was the root cause of the woes of pro cycling.

    If Armstrong went into auto mechanics instead of cycling, would the world of pro cycling be any better off on this day?

    >>Things were going to blow up one way or another.<<

    Too bad we never will know how good he would have been without the juice.

  2. Scott M

    We tore down the statues (or posters). Watched the fall, the mea culpa, the potential bankruptcy. Like a train wreck, we couldn’t help but watch.

    Time buys perspective and hindsight that is less encumbered by emotion. And yet, five years on from the Reasoned Decision may still not be enough time to forget. The reality is I now see “the smoking man” in almost every amazing cycling performance. On the surface they’re beautiful, amazing, almost inspirational. But in the back of my mind, I almost always say, “yeah but…”

    The continued drip of occasional positive tests, the talk of TUEs, the double talk – it all smacks of a sport that is still not fixed. Regrettably, I still view it all with a jaundiced eye. I’m not sure any amount of market upside will solve that. Once bitten, twice shy.

    Perhaps I just need a little more time.

  3. Tom

    Ask Greg Lemons for his opinion and I will follow suit.
    L.A. destroyed people specifically to cover his own wrongdoing, that’s what stopps me from even starting the net positive calculations.
    Plus non-sustainable growth is worse than no growth…Cause the first often disenfranchises the core and heart of something and then you’re stuck with all trend and no movement..

  4. DMo

    Does the disillusionment undo everything we got out of the illusion? For me, personally, no. I came to cycling late, attracted by LA’s story to become a fan of the sport — the winning, the cancer, the braggadocio. (See Robot’s bullet #2) It drew me in to the mysteries, beauty, drama, and frivolity of world tour, and I’ve taken great joy from that over the last 15 years. I’m still there as a fan. I love it.. As a rider, I mark my WT fandom as the beginning of my more serious interest in fitness, which has launched me into a community of cyclists and new friends. None of that flickered a bit when the great comeuppance occurred.

    More broadly, I think the sport is still reeling from LA fall out and the dozens of others who have been disgraced. I would think an economist could hash out the sponsorship dollars, attendance at events, economic impact in the communities that host races, the fate of the LBS, etc., and find/describe linkages to the LA phenomenon. The sport exists to advertise its sponsors. And many sponsorships remain rather fluid. I wonder if the continuing waves of scandal that still flood the cycling news inform that financial fickleness. Another metric would be whether new talent is still attracted to the sport. Are exceptional young athletes steered away from cycling? Sad to think so, and I suppose we’ll never know.

    I certainly don’t revere LA. He, the phenomenon, happened. My experience of the that phenomenon was net positive. The disillusionment and disappointment in individuals along the way are just bits (episodes, stories) in my fuller history of being a fan and that have been supplanted/overshadowed by new stories of mystery, beauty, drama and frivolity — a new generation of illusion, perhaps — from a sport that still stirs the heart.

  5. Brian

    Lance is like a gold mine. Full of value which a few prosper from. Out comes shiny stuff that makes folks feel good. Ultimately the mine runs dry, the earth is scoured and poisoned and 99% off us are worse off because of the damage. Eventually things grow over and time lets us forget so we can do it all over again.

    I don’t feel the need to make Lance responsible for the whole mess. Instead I remember who he really is, a narcissistic con man, and filter it all through that.

  6. Chris

    It’s like baseball in the steroid era, fans filled stadiums to watch jacked dudes hit home runs! Baseball was exciting! Everyone knew those guys were on the sauce, but nobody cared. Look at baseball today, pitchers dominate and 20 home runs a year is about as good as it gets.
    As a long time Lance fan, I’ve been on the bike since 1994, so I’ve followed his epic journey. I don’t hardly even watch the your anymore because it isn’t like it used to be. Once, Maori, Banesto, USPS, etc..
    Doping in cycling was like the housing bubble, it was bound to burst and when it did, everyone and anyone pointed the finger at Lance!! Hard to believe after all that the man still has the energy to smile. I’m glad to still see him on the bike and doing will though.
    Hell, I still have a Lance Nike poster hanging in my office!!

  7. Pat O'Brien

    In 1991 my best friend, and best man, died of lung cancer. During his battle with the disease, he used the Livestrong Guidebook to navigate the treatment and financial decisions he and his wife made during his treatment. I know it helped, as it did for thousands of others who survived or at least had their lives extended with some measure of quality and personal control. Lance didn’t put my butt on a saddle, but I spent more time riding because of him. I just hope him and his contemporaries who doped don’t suffer any long term health consequences from doing so. Net positive? Yes.

  8. Marius

    My perspective is that of a person who raced in the US prior to Armstrong. I view his legacy as destructive in balance, while acknowledging the good that was done. I vividly remember the bitter arguments with other cyclists about his conduct during his active racing career. It may be too soon to be able to discuss his legacy with the USPS lawsuit still pending.

    The fraud that he perpetrated on the sport of cycling has hurt the sport more than any other event and it may never recover fully. As a consequence – I and many others can never watch the Tour de France without doubting the performance of the riders. While the argument can be made (as in point 1 above) that Armstrong exposed the prevailing corrupt practices in the sport of cycling, I see it differently. Armstrong was uniquely positioned, through his cancer experience, to have an exceptional influence. He affected the UCI and other governing bodies to suppress test results leading to a betrayal of trust. On this point I cannot see any good at all.

    Without any doubt, Armstrong did inspire people and motive a large number to take up the sport of cycling as stated in point 2 above. So while the sport was severely damaged, the recreational aspect prospered. Given that we are discussing both moral and material issues – I do not see that this “unintended” consequence can be used to counter the hurtful actions referred to above.

    Finally, the good that Armstrong performed in his work in fighting cancer has to be acknowledged as in point 3 above. How does this play out in the balance? As noted above, Armstrong’s cancer experience was a crucial part of his story. When he started his comeback after cancer – I and most fans could not believe he would then even consider doping. So the cancer part of his story and his use of it gave him a substantial moral credibility. Let’s assume he did not intentionally use this to “shield” his doping activities. Overall, I calculate this point as having the good equal to the bad

    Summing up – I agree with Froome. There is no legacy. Even taking into account the good that has resulted from Armstrong’s actions the consequences to the sport of cycling are, on the balance, negative.

  9. JohnK

    Does anyone have any knowledge of viewership/ratings race attendance/hotel occupancy before and after the Lance scandal? Everyone is quick to hang the burden of lack of sponsorship on Lance’s shoulders, but I wonder if there are greater forces at play. If it’s a simple cost benefit calculation and advertisers would rather put their money elsewhere because they get more eyeballs. I think there’s a reason Pepsi will spend millions for 30 seconds of Super Bowl time but we don’t see Pepsi emblazoned on anyone’s kit. And I don’t think that is because pro football is full of saints and cycling is full of sinners. My guess is that the cost of running a professional cycling team simply outweighs sponsors willingness to pump in money. Would love to be enlightened by someone who knows more about the business side than I.

  10. Lyford

    I can appreciate the argument that on a broad scale, Lance was good for cycling in the US. And after reading Tyler Hamilton’s book, I think I have a better feely for the choices riders made in the worst of the doping era. But Lance was such an agressive jerk — going far past simply defending himself — that it’s hard to think of him kindly.

  11. EvoDavo

    I believe many, if not all, of us had our public and private impressions of Lance. It is wrong to assume everyone wanted to be on the USPS bandwagon and wave a LIVESTRONG band. I’ve always found my heroes elsewhere. Eddie was and is The King- but Lance was the Beatles of cycling. We can’t deny it and rewriting history may be easy but it always betrays the truth. Lance inspired a lot of people. He doped as did everyone who was competitive at the time. Judging people based on an evolved set of values years after the event always gives us that warm self-righteous feeling doesn’t it? Why did he get the lifetime ban when others got their hands slapped or like Riis, nothing? Well, Lance was a dick. Should that be the deciding factor? It is a question we should consider. Who gets to decide who is a dick?

    As I get older and my race categories now all end in “plus” I find myself more willing to forgive others as the hard line of absolutes only serves to divide us.

  12. Brad Burgess

    It is so satisfying to see the depth of these dialogue we’re having about,a person who single handedly,popularize this sport in America yet he’s not a hero,when also ,the businesses that benefited have little or nothing to say.I guess there will always be a reason to drive another in his coffin,huh,I personally enjoyed watching the Tours more when he was in it,sorry😂

  13. JeffW

    Pretty much sums up my view. If not for Lance building on LeMond, few in the US would have even cared enough about cycling to know there was a doping problem. Lance didn’t create doping. Lance’s victories were not won against a peloton of Boy Scouts. We can condemn him and what he did and still appreciate the thrills and the good and the non-cycling effects of his time in the sport.

  14. Ken Warren

    I’m like a lot of people. I rode bikes constantly as a kid but put them aside sometime around getting my driver’s license. Armstrong brought me back to the bike. I’m a unapologetic cyclist with four bikes looking for an excuse to by another. I know he’s a fraud and has been heartless and cruel to too many to name. I wish I would have seen Lamond in his prime. I didn’t. I watched Lance. And though I know it was an illusion I still remember how I felt and some part of that memory still shapes my love of the sport.

  15. CGradeCyclist

    Did he do some tremendously positive things? Yes.
    Did he do some tremendously awful and horrendous things? Yes.

    Not sure why we need to try and balance them out and work out a ‘net effect’. They both exist simultaneously. The wonderful cancer-related activity does not make-up for the terrible things he did to people. And the terrible things he did does not diminish the great cancer-related stuff.

    He did great things. He did terribly bad things. You don’t get to attribute relative value to them and come up with a ‘final score’…

  16. KG

    You are right.
    If only every issue of our day received this kind of widened view, we’d have a much nicer and pleasant discourse in our world.
    Robot should be in politics.

  17. TomInAlbany

    As much lemonade was made as was possible. When a crop goes to shit, you get as much as you can out of it and toss the rest. I think that’s what’s happened with cycling.

    Now, where are we on the balance sheet, I can’t speak to that. I was a total fanboy in my younger days. Until I learned that Lance was, indeed, the second coming of Lord Vader or the predecessor to Lord Voldemort (or, as LUG likes to say HWSNBN)

    Then again, I’ve never had to deal directly with the man himself. And, frankly, I don’t want to. That much is true. In the end, cycling’s popularity will continue to ebb and flow. But, it will never be like it was at the turn of the last century (1800s to 1900s), the number one sport on the planet, because the logistics don’t allow it and the business model doesn’t either.

  18. Geoffrey Knobl

    I agree, though I loved cycling for myself when younger and only got back into it for real in College during which time he was inspiring. Heck, he even won a stage of the Tour DuPont into my town, Blacksburg. But even though he didn’t have anyone killed, he did use violent words so I think of other horrible individuals and the silver lining. You can say there were good results, maybe not net good results, from Hitler’s rise and fall. Not the same I know but did we really have to go through that horribleness to get some of that good? Maybe. That won’t make the dead come back though. But, they teach children in Germany how to prevent such political control of their nation; that’s good. Ironic that we haven’t learned that lesson, here in the U.S.. However, I ride much more now and enjoy much more consistent health, at least in part from Armstrong’s inspiring success. My friends are much more cycling aware and our little community is getting a lot of commuting goodness from others inspired into cycling like me.

    So, it seems to me though the goods and the bads are to a way lesser degree than my other example, they are very noticeable and mostly, now, good. But that won’t give any stage wins to the real deserving riders.

  19. Jack

    I give Lance props for moving the US towards becoming a cycling nation, he was certainly the largest motivation for the uptick in recreational, competitive and pro cycling we have seen since he rode. It is no longer an oddity to see a Yank in the pro peloton and I still get a little chuckle / tingle whenever I see a USPS Trek on the road .

    Like Barry Bonds. he was the best of the worst, and they both suckered me , gave me some thrills and lied to my face. I don’t miss them, I can’t deny they had a big impact on the sport, but I’m glad they are gone.

    As for pros & neo-pros riding with them, I like your line about lunch with Mobsters. We have a similar debate here in Boulder, where you can still come across Tyler Hamilton, Tom Danielson and other less disgraced pros. They probably have something to teach people and can still set KOM’s – but it’s weird. Riding with a busted doper is like sex with an ex-wife, it may feel good while you’re doing, but you’ll regret it the next day and not want to talk about it…

  20. RJ

    I am going to begrudgingly admit that I am one of those middle-aged wannabes that got into road biking inspired by Lance. And I know I’m not the only one, not by a long century. Yeah, so as much as I would like to deny it, I think you are right.

    That said, it is still stupid for Craddock to ride with the guy.

  21. MJ

    Lance still loves cycling, but I don’t think cycling loves Lance anymore. This news of Lawson Craddock riding with him is disturbing on a several levels. Why would the team allow it? Is Lance really the best training partner for a young impressionable pro?
    Outside of this, the news that Lance has brought the gang back together to ride a mountain bike race has also raised a cloud over what I thought was the permanent past. Hincapie is back on Lance’s team (as well as others according to the report). I read the “Loyal Lieutenant” and even praised the book for the honest look at the dirty days of those 7 “victories.” Now I want to throw up in my mouth. My naive belief that George had realized that he had bedded down with a monster, was just a bullshit notion. He just wanted me (and many others) to put money in his pocket while reading more lies. Good luck George, you should race with Lance, he’s still your kind of teammate.

  22. Michael

    LA was hired to do the job. The job description was winning bike races and that way to provide exposure to team sponsors. Did he do his job? Very well indeed. USPS got the exposure, more than they ever bargained for. Did they hired LA because he was a nice man? No, he was hired because he was a promising rider even after cancer. He was hired into a mediocre team that he propelled to be the team dominating the world. He did not do it along of course, but he was the name and the engine. In the sport where doping was the accepted way of employees (racers) to do their job (promoting their sponsors) he was good, maybe better than others. He lied.
    OK. Now let’s get real.
    Our politicians that are suppose to run this country lie every step of the way and this is normal. The #1 lier is our “president” and he still runs (or ruins) the country.
    A bike racer lied about doping he did to do his job at the time when the whole sport did just that and we all up in arms about it.
    A “president of the United States ” an alleged Putin’s puppet lies non stop every day about everything and we are just watching.
    Lance did what he was hired to do – win races. Now we do not like the way he did it.

  23. Eric

    He received his due, although where the cycling world went wrong was to stop once they had him. They didn’t chase down all the others. They got their scapegoat. I also think there wast a little bit of anger that Europe’s sport was infiltrated by an American. To think that something that is so quintessentially European was conquered (7 times) was just too much to accept. Have they ever gone after any other riders nearly as hard or as long with less evidence? (remember Lance never popped hot) If they TRUELY wanted to root out the doping there should have been a slew of heads rolling down the aisles.

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