Lance Armstrong Cleared, Controversy Remains

Lance Armstrong Cleared, Controversy Remains
Courtesy of Chicago Tribune

I'm not a professional journalist, but I do understand the significance of a news story being released on a Friday afternoon.  There is a hope that the story will go unnoticed and quietly fade away over the weekend.

I'm pretty sure this was the rationale for announcing late yesterday that Lance Armstrong had been cleared of any wrong doing in the eighteen month-long Federal doping investigation.

For a few hours following the announcement by Lance's lawyer, my Facebook news feed and Twitter cycling list streamed the story.  A writer for Bicycling even cranked out an opinion piece in what seemed to be less than an hour.

Predictably, people are falling into the same two camps they always do; I knew he didn't do it and I can't believe he got away with it again.

Me, I have a different perspective.  I went back to a post I had written in May of last year on my Heart Of A Cyclist blog.  I'll share an updated version now:

Everyone has an opinion on this hot topic.  Everyone is entitled to express that opinion.  I will gladly discuss and debate this issue like everyone else.  Doping.  Cheating.  Lying.  Denying.  These allegations all have far-reaching consequences and deserve to see the light of day.

Honesty.  Ethics.  Morals.  Values.  Advocacy.  Philanthropy.  Greed.  Fame.  Power.  Wealth.  If you substituted Lance Armstrong’s name with Bernie Madoff’s (or Mitt Romney's), would the story sound any different?

Let’s be clear about one thing; this has nothing to do with bicycling.  No one needs to consume elicit performance enhancement substances or undergo a blood transfusion to ride a bicycle.  I’ve witnessed people operate a bicycle after consuming a grande latte and a plate of eggs, bacon, sausage, and hash browns.  I’ve watched cyclists down a beer, a brat, and a slice of pie before heading on down the bike path.  Come to think of it, I’ve seen a lot of people using questionable  substances to fuel a bike ride.  None of them were illegal.

This also has nothing to do with bicycle racing.  Just as no one needs EPO or steroids to ride a bicycle, no rider needs illegal substances to compete in a bicycle race.  Hundreds of thousands of amateur athletes around the world are involved in bicycle racing.  Whether they choose a criterium, time trial, triathlon, track, or any other type of bike race, they don’t need anything more than a banana, a bagel, or a bowl of cereal to juice them up.  It’s the love of the sport and the thrill of competition that releases their endorphins and fuels their high.  Talent.  Pride.  Training.  Self-discipline.  Motivation.  Courage.  Notice the difference between these words and the words mentioned above.

This has everything to do with cheating. Professional bicycle racing is very competitive.  I’m not talking about the head-to-head competition among racers.  I’m not even talking about the competition to make the roster of the very limited number of Pro Tour teams.  I’m talking about the competition the sport faces from other forms of athletic entertainment.

If you’ve ever watched the Tour De France on television, you’ve probably noticed that there is no stadium for the spectators to gather in.  There are no concessions to buy beer and brats.  There are no souvenir stands.  People line up on the side of the road and pay absolutely nothing to watch the racers whiz past in a matter of seconds.

In Europe, the TDF is not only the Super Bowl or World Series of cycling, it’s every playoff game and practically every regular season game rolled up into a single, three week long event.  Corporate sponsorships, television broadcast rights, advertising revenues, licensing agreements, and all merchandising opportunities arise from this single, perpetually-hyped grand tour.  The other major tours like the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana are lucky to garner a fraction of the TDF’s treasure to fund their expenses and reward their winners.

“The Tour” is the whole enchilada (or maybe that should be crepe).  The winner can write his own ticket for product endorsements and book deals.  The supporting riders on the winning team can receive bonuses and endorsement opportunities of their own.  There are bragging rights and limitless publicity for team sponsors and equipment suppliers.  Fielding a winning Tour team is a win-win-win.

While not quite as bad as professional swimming (can you name the guy who came in second to Michael Phelps?), the opportunities for the second and third place riders and their teams are nearly non-existent.  I can prove this easily.   Do you know who was awarded the win in the 2006 Tour after Floyd Landis was stripped of his victory?  I’m sure Oscar Pereiro Sio received some recognition when he returned to his home country, but I don’t recall seeing his picture on a box of Wheaties despite moving from number two to champion.

I don’t think any more needs to be said about what’s at stake or the temptation to cheat.  With drug testing always a step behind the latest drugs, the reward certainly outweighs the perceived risk.  It’s the classic example of motive and opportunity.  You can’t have a good crime story without both.

You also can’t have a crime without a victim.  The purported victim in this case (and the reason for the investigation in the first place) is our Federal government and the US Postal Service, the sponsor of Lance’s winning team.  How, exactly, the reputation of the US could be sullied by a group of young men wearing Lycra still remains fuzzy to me.  I believe a group of somewhat older men wearing suits not only beat them to it, but inflicted far more harm to our exceptional reputation, but I digress…

I would have to say that the victim in this case is bicycling.  There is no doubt that Lance’s continued domination of the greatest event in cycling rekindled an interest in riding bikes.  It not only elevated the status of Trek Bicycles, it reminded a whole generation of men just how much they missed commanding a road bike on a smooth strip of pavement.  I can’t offer statistics, but I’m sure Lance encouraged a woman or two to ride, as well.  His international celebrity, his heart-warming cancer survival story, and his All-American persona provided bicycling exactly what it needed to return to its former glory.

Despite his assistance, bicycling is still bigger than Lance Armstrong.  It’s bigger than Greg LeMond or any racer that ever clipped into a pair of pedals.  It’s bigger than all the groups that ride together on evenings and weekends.  It’s bigger than the guy who commutes to work and the gal who rides the bike path pulling her toddler in a trailer.  It’s bigger than any single cyclist.  It belongs to every single cyclist.

We can’t let the witch hunt du jour sully or demean bicycling.  We can’t allow ourselves or our fellow cyclists to be implicated in the media’s rush to judgment.  There is no guilt by association.  Bicycling cannot be indicted.  Bicycling has done nothing wrong.

Whether we believe in Lance’s innocence or are convinced of his guilt, we each have an obligation, a duty, and an honor to set the record straight.  It’s not about the bike – it’s about cheating.

After the week bicycling has had with the GOP Congress stripping it of all Federal transportation funding, the last thing we cyclists need is to defend against more negative perceptions about our passion.  I'm glad this story dropped on a Friday evening.  I hope it will go unnoticed.

But just in case it doesn't I'm here, once again, to defend bicycling.  Thanks for joining me!

Keep riding and be safe.

More Lance Armstrong Posts:  Public Perception and the Cost of Keeping Cycling Clean, Lance Armstrong Seeks Day in Actual CourtLance Armstrong Seeks GOP Congressman's AssistanceDefending Cycling: Lance Armstrong EditionLance Armstrong Will Not Fight SanctionsWill Amnesty Save Lance ArmstrongEntire Era of US Cycling Erased from HistoryTime for Lance Armstrong to Come CleanLance Armstrong, Mitt Romney, and the Piftalls of Trusting a WinnerLance Armstrong Goes Down, Greg LeMond Steps UpGreg LeMond Wants to Take Over International CyclingLast Chance for Lance ArmstrongWill It Really Matter If Lance Armstrong Confesses

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