Lance Armstrong: one more fallen hero

by Raymond Parker on January 9, 2013

in Cycling, News, Racing, Randonneuring

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Protest banner against doping at Tour de France, 2006

Though I once embarked on a bicycle holiday enhanced and financed by hashish, outside of caffeine and ibuprofen, I’ve never doped for, or during, a race or randonnée.

Neither have I been in the unfortunate position where millions of dollars hinged on the optimal performance of my body, though there have been occasions where my mortal coil depended on it, memorably on climbing expeditions.

Last Friday, the New York Times reported that Lance Armstrong is at last considering admitting his role in the doping scandal that has swirled like a Texas twister around his record 7-time Tour de France wins, sweeping up the governing bodies of European cycle racing, many of the world’s top stars, and the US Anti-Doping Agency, who have doggedly pursued the case. The latest revelation charges that Armstrong offered the agency a $250,000 “donation,” in 2004.

Armstrong is reportedly weighing his options. If he admits cheating, he risks multi-million-dollar lawsuits, reclaiming monies awarded him in cases he won denying he doped, not to mention related perjury charges that may follow.

Armstrong’s supporters and detractors have argued the case in public forums, populating the comments section of every online update with invective and speculation.

I was never an Armstrong fan, indifferent to his departure in 2010. But I was not quick to judge, even as the case against him built with damning statements from his closest teammates. Apparently, those in his orbit found it easier to spill the beans than live with their own part in the unfolding scandal.

I read Armstrong’s book detailing his fight against cancer, It’s Not About The Bike, in 2002, the year before I was diagnosed. During the treatment ordeal, well-meaning friends suggested I read the book, believing I’d find it inspiring. I replied tactfully that I’d already done so.

Truth is, I didn’t enjoy the book. Without going into detail, I didn’t appreciate the glimpses into Armstrong’s caustic personality, the arrogance that had not endeared him to the European peloton when he first burst onto the scene, in the early ‘90s. I found little in it that might help my condition, opting instead for daily meditation.

Not that the American racer was the first to bring an oversized ego, or drugs, to the peloton. When it came to doping, it’s not as if I’d been blind to the dark side of cycle racing. Any illusion of white knights on velocipedes, jousting on the high passes of the Alps, was banished in my teens, just after I moved from the UK to Canada, when my childhood hero Tommy Simpson expired on the sun-scorched flanks of Mount Ventoux under the influence of amphetamines, the preferred endurance-enhancing drug of the ’60s.

The great stage races of cycling are perhaps second only to expeditionary mountaineering (another pointless endeavor that once held me in its thrall) in their demands on the human organism. It’s painful.

In the early days of bike racing (when over-zealous fans were known to attack and sabotage their hero’s rivals) mountain passes were avoided, until cyclotourists shamed organizers into including alpine stages. Improved technology, training methods, and maybe better drugs, have increased speeds to extraordinary levels attainable only by the gifted and the augmented.

I recall a conversation a few years ago, on a group ride with an ex-racer and former Olympic cycling coach, who opined that we’ll know doping has stopped when speeds noticeably decrease.

No one doubts Lance Armstrong could have competed at the top without drugs. No man comes back from cancer, crashes, bad days and repeated attacks on mountain stages without fortitude.

“Kim was our medical officer. Although not a doctor, he had a strongly developed historical sense of medication for mountaineering. He knew of a drug that had been developed precisely for this purpose by native people who found it necessary to carry tremendous loads at high elevations with low caloric intakes …
Kim and I were tentmates and we decided that our medical experiment needed a valid control group. Ned and Dan, unlike us, were not verbal complainers … we thought it fitting that non-complainers should continue unaware ….
At noon that day we waited an hour and a half for them.” ~ Galen Rowel*

Humans have taken advantage of naturally occurring stimulants since time immemorial. Andean tribes have traditionally employed the coca leaf to help them endure hard labour in the high mountains.

In 1980, members of an expedition led by the late American mountaineer Galen Rowell used the extract in perhaps more concentrated form, bought from a dealer on the Khyber Pass, to weather the extreme privations encountered on an arduous ski traverse in the Karakorum Mountains of Pakistan.

The comparison between mountaineering and bike racing may seem a stretch. After all, a bike racer who is injured or quits from exhaustion is never far away from help; the sag wagon or ambulance will soon arrive; no chance of disappearing into a Himalayan crevasse (though it should be said that modern electronics have lessened the “remoteness” of many modern climbing expeditions). Yet big climbs in faraway places are expensive, relying on corporate sponsorship. Sponsors expect a return on their investment, usually in the form of product endorsement, and a certain amount of decorum from the logo-emblazoned hero. (One is left to wonder why the same moral rectitude is not demanded in the executive boardroom).

Going on testimony supplied by Armstrong’s former teammates, the Armstrong camp was a tour de force of doping, supplied by the best damn pharmaceutical experts in the business, overseen by the steely-eyed Texan.

It looks like the public circus, which I’ve avoided adding to until now, may yet have room for another ring, including a soap Oprah scheduled for Thursday, January 17 (9:00 – 10:30 p.m. ET/PT) on OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, also to be simultaneously streamed LIVE worldwide on Oprah.com.

Zealotry in sport is not unlike the frenzy excited by single-minded (or simple-minded) religion, a kind of Puritanism to avoid examining personal sin (Oprah embraces every shade of feel-good quasi-religion).

Ignorant of history, many fans have hoisted Armstrong above all the great heroes of the cycling pantheon. Like any tragic hero archetype, he has proven to have an Achilles heel. Hubris is not an uncommon failing. The faithful will now choose to either martyr or crucify the fallen gladiator.

But there is another course open to the hero at his nadir: confession. Stripped of all his yellow jerseys, the hair shirt, fashion statement of the penitent from St. John the Baptist to Tiger Woods, may be Armstrong’s final laurel.

*Galen A. Rowel, “Skiing The Karakorum High Route,” The American Alpine Journal. 1981, P67.

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