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
A bicycle-less vacation. An intractable stomach virus. An ultra-marathoner’s autobiography. And a fellow who cut his own arm off. These are the things that have me thinking about endurance.
It started in Florida, where my wife took us for a week of warmth and sunlight. We lumbered off the plane into the Fort Lauderdale sunshine, a bedraggled crew of New Englanders, pale and hunched from months spent under winter’s thumb.
I had seen this trip as a good opportunity to ride my bicycle in a warm, flat place, spinning out oodles of base miles in a suffering-free environment. But traveling with a bike was out of the question. My two young sons and their car seats and various electronic accoutrement ate our entire packing budget, so I resolved to rent a bike. As it turns out, none of the local shops would rent me anything that wasn’t a moose-antlered cruiser.
So a week off the bike then. OK. No problem. I’ll read a book.
By now, you’ve probably heard of Aron Ralston, the mountaineer/maniac who, by freak chance, pulled a boulder onto his right hand, while hiking, alone, in an isolated canyon in Utah. Eventually, he cut the arm off and hiked out, then wrote a book, Between a Rock and Hard Place, which became the movie 127 Hours, starring James Franco. I had met Ralston a year or so before his accident (in fact, I shook the hand he eventually lost). He worked at my office for a few weeks, while in Boston visiting some friends, but I’d not gotten around to reading his book, because I thought I knew the story.
Or at least I didn’t know the important parts, the parts about the bending and warping of the human brain as its resources become more and more depleted, the emotional bits and ups and downs of straining for survival and accepting impending death.
Ralston isn’t just some idiot who got himself into a bad situation. He’s a serious mountaineer with vast back country experience. The story of his accident is as much about the way that experience helped him live as it is about the durability of the human spirit under extreme circumstances. That he knew, ultimately, how to survive, allowed him access to the experience of enduring the suffering that survival required.
Ralston’s story got me thinking about the things we do to test our abilities, which brought me to another book in the sports section, Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes. You may have seen this guy in the Road ID commercials with Levi Leipheimer. His schtick is that he runs. And runs. And runs. 50 mile races? Yes. 100 mile races? Yes. 135 miles through Death Valley in summer? Yes. 200 miles without stopping? Sure. 50 marathons in 50 days? Yeah. That, too.
The point of Karnazes’ book is two-fold. First, Dean Karnazes is a complete freak. Humans don’t run 200 miles at a time. They don’t. Only freaks do that. Second, despite the fact that Dean Karnazes is an alien from Planet Freak, we are all capable of more than we think. The limits we impose on ourselves are arbitrary. Sure, most of them have their root in physical or mental pain, but still they are not hard and fast. There is a land beyond those limits, and there are interesting things to discover therein.
In cycling, the closest analogue to Karnazes is probably the recently deceased Jure Robic, multiple winner of the Race Across America, and widely acknowledged freak of physical ability and endurance. If you take the time to read the New York Times interview linked there, you will learn some of what lies beyond the limits we normal humans impose upon ourselves. Hint: there’s a generous dose of madness out there.
All of this brings me to my post-vacation mindset and a stomach bug that emptied me out and gave me a sneak peek at the wilds beyond my own normal limits.
Since reading the aforementioned books, I had resolved to find new ways to confront my limits and also to question them. Too often, I think, I have accepted the messages coming from brain, messages that say, “back off,” or even “stop.” If any of the evidence on offer holds, then those are just messages. Their truth is a thing to be questioned, not blindly accepted. I began to believe that I could expand my experience of cycling by confronting some of these limits, by pushing on when my brain told me I was done.
It is, after all, just pain.
Then, last Wednesday my youngest son turned four. We took him out for pizza, because that’s his favorite. He ate a lot of it, really much more than you would expect a four-year-old could put away. That’s why, when he woke up later in the night projectile vomiting in his bed, I was so shocked by the volume of no-longer-pizza. It looked like a collaboration between Charles Manson and Hieronymus Bosch.
Next I did what parents do. I cleaned up.
Having danced this dance before, I was also fastidious about washing my hands every time I encountered my young son’s vomitas, which was many times, over the ensuing day-and-a-half. Apparently, it didn’t help.
By the following Monday I was wracked with stomach cramps. My insides turned to hot sand. I was rent asunder by everything I tried to put into my system. More seemed to come out than went in. I was afraid that I was actually, somehow, creating matter. It was an affront to Einstein. And Newton.
And each time I thought, “Oh, Jesus, this is the worst thing ever in the history of things, ” I remembered Aron Ralston and Dean Karnazes and the possible unreliability of the messages coming from my cerebral cortex. I was able to step back from what was going on and say to myself, “This is just suffering. It will pass.” And that turned out to be a pretty effective strategy for enduring my illness.
In the week between vacation and illness, I had only began to test the waters of my new approach. I rode all the miles I normally ride, but I added some distance running and weight training to the mix. I stayed with the pain of fatigue a bit longer than I might otherwise, and I pushed through it a couple of times to discover further reserves of energy and will.
This was but a short trial. I have not yet discovered the cure for human frailty, but the early returns are encouraging, not just for my ability to ride ten more miles or climb one higher grade at the bouldering crag, but also for my ability to endure the everyday shit that life dishes out, all those little things you have to do but don’t particularly care for, like cleaning vomit or working for a living,
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International