New Lance Armstrong Documentary Post 1: We Did This Already - Why Can't He Let Me Move On?
As we have all had to adjust to working from home, one of the noticeable things about my desk at home vs my desk in work is the trinkets which I can see. Those who do come into the office at work are subjected to these various pieces of flotsam and jetsam strewn around the place, and what normally catches the eye is the Taylor Swift paraphernalia. However, one thing which visitors don’t tend to spot/remark upon is a photo in plain view of my screen of Chris Froome, running up Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France, in a stage which is honestly as close to the race has come to being a live action version of Wacky Races.
One of the highlights of my year is spending time watching the Tour de France for 3 weeks in July. I’ll be honest, I come into work with the best of intentions to get things done, but my productivity reaches rock bottom, as I try and follow what is happening, with the race on in the background. Without meaning to sound too hipster, though, I was following/watching cycling before the early 2010s boom period. It is, for me, one of the most fascinating and interesting sports there is (well, road cycling, anyway). Part of the appeal for me is the simplicity of being able to empathise with how difficult stages are. I can’t play football at Hampden Park. I’m never going to know what that is like. However, I can jump on a bike, and ride the same roads as the iconic races (well, in theory. Those in my tort law lectures this year may have noticed me hobbling around with an injury).
Firstly, there’s the sheer physical toll that the race takes on competitors. 3 weeks, 21 stages, about 3,500km, only a handful of rest days (they still go cycling, otherwise the body goes into recovery mode). And this is at a pace which I can only really reach going downhill. Secondly, there are multiple races going on at the same time – time trial specialists, sprinters trying to get a victory on flat stages, plucky underdogs spending hours riding out front in a breakaway in hero or (more frequently) zero charges to name but a few. Meanwhile, you have sprinters trying desperately to make the time limit on mountain stages. One of the most chaotic/enjoyable circumstances is where there are crosswinds on the flat stages – panic sets in, and major splits/time gaps develop as riders hesitate for a second, fall out of a slipstream, and try desperately to chase back.
Of course, though, the most iconic/most decisive moments happen in the mountains, with daring attacks to try and ‘crack’ opposition riders. I distinctly remember back in my summer call centre days following the controversy of Alberto Contador continuing to attack when his major rival, Andy Schleck, dropped his chain on a climb (the unwritten rule of you beat the yellow jersey on merit, not through misfortune - explained very well here).
However, there is an, understandable, response that you frequently hear if you tell people that you are a fan of the sport – “they’re all on drugs, though, aren’t they?”. I then launch into some of my explanation (which I’m sure I’ll do later in these posts) about how this isn’t a black or white issue and explain the nuances of new testing protocols, which I hope ensure that the sport is as clean as it can be, for the integrity of the race, and the welfare of the riders. I really do just want to sit and enjoy it for what it is, and whilst I often understand the question’s origins, it feels a way to outright take my enjoyment away from me. I do understand, though, that when an athlete does something seen as superhuman, there is natural cynicism as to why. I’m also the first to admit that if, from the current crop of riders, Peter Sagan, or Julian Alaphilippe had a doping violation, it would probably lead to a full day of crying under a duvet, whilst stuffing my face.
The trouble is, though, I have to recognise, that my interest in the sport is predominantly as a result of a drug cheat, Lance Armstrong. Being entirely honest, he used to be my idol, for a significant period of my life (we’ll say teenage years in particular). My frame of reference would be catching the sports news on the way to school, and hearing the same name appearing again, and again, about this mysterious event across the channel. We were fortunate enough to have family holidays in the Alps and the Pyrenees, where ‘Lance is God’ would be painted on the road. In my defence, in retrospect, I wanted to believe the story – I wanted to be duped, and would swear blindly he hadn’t failed a test (unless we count the one at the Tour de Suisse, where he got a ‘backdated prescription for saddle sores’). I wanted to believe that when he fell after his brake lever got caught in a spectator’s bag and he came back to win the stage, that it was all down to adrenaline and grit.
However, now I am older and wiser, I actually see him for what he was: a manipulative, arrogant bully, with a lack of contrition. I will admit that some will instead focus on his exploits in raising funds for cancer research through his Livestrong foundation, and many people going through treatment had a positive story to focus on, which saw them through. I’ve seen his autobiography ‘It’s Not About the Bike’ in charity shops, and I’m told that it was a go to book for anyone undergoing cancer treatment. The chances of that appearing in a bookcase of mine any time soon, though, is very slim.
Instead of the inspirational cancer survivor, who has raised the profile/awareness and treatment of horrible illnesses, what I have is a situation where the thing that brought me into the sport is the thing that has, for want of a better way of saying this, hurt me the most. Doping/cheating in sport, in itself, isn’t new. In cycling, it isn’t confined solely to Armstrong – in the Contador example I mentioned above, he finished first in the Tour, but tested positive for a trace amount of a fat burning drug, clenbuterol, and the tour was retrospectively awarded to Schleck. I can also mention Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, Tyler Hamilton, Jan Ulrich, Operatión Puerto and the Festina team. Froome also had to address the use of his asthma inhaler at one stage. The response, however, is crucial, both from the governing body and the competitors.
This leads me to do a very brief comparison between two riders. Firstly, Armstrong, who (in spite of Oprah Winfrey’s best efforts) shows about as much contrition as a toddler who scribbled on the walls. He’s only sorry he got caught, not for the actual conduct. The second rider is the British rider (and former world time trial champion/yellow jersey of the Tour de France), David Millar. Millar has been very open about his reasons for why he started doping. He’s been incredibly candid about the pressures placed on him, and how he became increasingly worn down. He’s also worked hard to rehabilitate his image, and to try and change the overall culture to dissuade younger riders from making the same mistakes he did.
As much as I get frustrated with someone who, not necessarily realising, asks about doping in cycling not letting me move on, it’s often someone who follows the sport less, and could possibly phrase the question a little bit differently. The worst offender, by far, in not letting me move on, is bloody Lance Armstrong himself, who should know better. Which brings me to the reason for posting this ‘introduction’, as such.
There is a new two-part documentary on ESPN/BT Sport in which Lance has now declared he will tell ‘the whole truth’ (I assume now statue of limitations has expired for certain claims), which he explains is 'his truth', meaning how he 'remembers' events. After the Oprah Winfrey interview*, the one with the BBC where he came across a bit “I’d have got away with it, if it weren’t for them pesky kids”, The Armstrong Lie documentary, and the 2015 film The Program, I feel a bit like Milhouse in the Simpsons, when he gets told that they have to re-shoot the "Jiminy Jillickers" scene again – “but we already did it”. We’ve already been through it. Don’t make me do it again. Please?
(*sidebar, I once invigilated an exam which was from the speech and language department, where the Armstrong interview was the exam case study, with the class lead breaking down how much his body language indicated he wasn’t saying before the students were admitted to the venue).
I want to move on, but unfortunately, my history with it means I kind of have to - it's like seeing what your best friend from primary school is up to now. You don't speak any more, but they pop up in a social media feed. You know you're going to be disappointed, but you still want them to turn things around.
So the likelihood is that there will be a few posts about this. Possibly one more. Maybe two. At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen it (I’m actually going to watch it this evening - 25th May). I think once I do, I’ll have to take some time to go away and digest it, for fear of this post being a series of swear words. I hope he shows contrition. I hope he doesn’t say “I still won those Tours”. I hope he comes forward candidly about the alleged conversation he had with a doctor in front of Frankie and Betsy Andreu, where they claim he confessed to using performance enhancing drugs. I’ve learned not to get my hopes up, though.