Lance Armstrong, arguably the greatest cyclist in human history, was cleared of all doping allegations last week when the U.S. federal investigation on him and his former teammates came to a close. These investigations, when they end without conviction, are never declarations of innocence. The fact is, the government prosecutor never found proof that Lance used performance enhancing drugs, beyond a reasonable doubt. After extensive testimony from teammates, coaches, trainers and those closest to him during his time racing, the government couldn’t make a case that Lance doped. Fans of cycling and interested Americans now are left with their own subjective evaluations of Armstrong. It’s a question of benefit of the doubt. And for more than a few reasons, I give Lance the benefit of the doubt.
I’m an avid cyclist. I don’t remember which Tour de France I first saw as a young teenager, maybe the 2003 Tour where he only led by 15 seconds going into the penultimate stage, a climb up Luz Ardiden. Lance not only broke away for a dominant stage victory, he overcame a crash mid-climb and nearly lost his manhood at a critical moment when he jerked out of one of his pedal clips. One way or another, just as Tiger Woods made me a golfer when I watched him dominate the 1997 Masters, Lance made me a cyclist that day.
Lance captivated me, he still does. He’s a Texan who speaks French and Spanish. He’s right at home doing brunch in the Basque villages where the separatist movement still lives — their fiery spirit amplified by child prodigy riders who sometimes get all the way to the Pro Tour and don orange, the Basque color of solidarity, on their jerseys. Following him on Twitter is akin to following a travel magazine. He’ll be rooting for the Texas Longhorns as any good UT fan and Austin resident would. But, then he’ll fly to Australia where he’s attending a global health conference. Sooner or later, a TwitPic will show up of a ride Lance went on between breakout sessions.
Lance’s story is so well known, and filled with so many triumphs of enduring struggle, that I won’t attempt to recap and analyze them all. He’s a true, modern American hero. He’s not a hero in the cultural sense of mid-20th century America, when TV still omitted the flaws of idols like Joe Namath and President Kennedy. No, Lance is a 21st century American hero. His YouTube tributes are venue for fervent argument regarding his true nature: good man with a bad rap, or bad man covering his deceit with good deeds.
Lance is Don Draper on two wheels, a figure one can never really get a complete handle on. What makes him tick, really? What got him to get back on a bike, during chemo? After one Tour de France victory, an historic thing given his illness, why go for more, why go for 7 straight — a record no cyclist in history had achieved? Why come out of retirement for the Tour de France in 2009 and 2010, the former finishing an impressive third place, the latter a crash-ridden fiasco. One wonders these things for many athletes. Does the 4th Super Bowl ring mean much after the first three? We wonder about actors too; after several Oscar nominations and awards, why not write a memoir and retire to a tropical wonderland? These are great questions, but I don’t have the answers — as a marathoner who tries to get faster every race and wants to finish 100 of them in my life, I could be posed a similar question.
No matter the truth of history, Lance is now free. He has done wonderfully positive things to the world by using his success, if ill-gotten. There are few cheaters in world history who decide to turn the resulting fame and fortune into a retirement of continued amateur competition used to promote unparalleled advocacy for public policy. The Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) is more than those LIVESTRONG wristbands. A symbol of strength, hope and support, LAF is a world-renowned organization promoting cancer research and patient advocacy. I have and will continue to raise money for LAF’s efforts.
I made peace with my doubts when Lance was being investigated. Doper or not, Lance did and will do amazing things — inspiring things that create positive change in the world. As someone who grinds away on the saddle, gasping for air and spinning with as much power as my legs can generate, I know few challenges in life that demand more physical and emotional honesty than a bike race. I haven’t even gotten close to the level where I can climb a French mountain road with 12 percent grade and 180 degree switchbacks, but I understand the mental difficulty. Haters will hate, cynics with criticize and his contemporaries can discredit him, but Lance rides on from here a free man. LIVESTRONG, forever!