I ride bicycles. Not particularly well, but I ride in competitive events. And I’ve spent the last fifteen years or so arguing with friends of mine about whether or not Lance is a cheat. Obviously I was right.
A million fat Texans with ten thousand dollar bikes wearing yellow wristbands and Postal/Discovery/Radio Shack jerseys were wrong. They thought him innocent mostly because of two factors. First, he’d never tested positive, and second he was an American/Texan. Of course it’s human nature to do that. He was one of ours, and when ours cheat, we either insist it didn’t happen or explain it away, as baseball fans have done for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. We tell ourselves cheating was part of the times, that everyone did it, and in cycling, that is undeniably true. We tell ourselves they were only hurting themselves, which is a transparent lie, since they took prize money and jobs from someone else.
In the case of Lance though, we also tell ourselves, “but look how much good he did with the Livestrong charity.” And I know people who have met Lance, been affected by him, and they have told me about him riding all day, and then exhausted, touring hospitals at night. Whether he did it because he really cared or because dying kids with shaved heads are great photo ops is something we will never know. The little we know about Lance Armstrong the person suggests it could be either. Is he a manipulative, obsessive, narcissistic bully or a thoughtful and sincere man who cares deeply about those affected by cancer and worked tirelessly to help them? Yes.
The real point of this though, is that we didn’t need the USADA report or Lance’s confession. (Oprah? Really?) Anyone with half a brain knew he was cheating. He had to be. One of the signature mountains in the Tour de France is the Alpe d’Huez. It’s been climbed 27 times since it was first included in the tour in 1952. Here are the fastest times for the climb.
What is immediately obvious is that riders during the period Lance was competing, 1993 to 2010, climbed the mountain faster than anyone has before…or since. It’s the “or since” that should get you. Because equipment is better, training is better, nutrition is better and yet riders are slowing down.
Your grandmother was right, you are known by the company you keep, and Lance kept company with an entire generation of cheats. Of the fifteen fastest times, every single one was set by a rider who was caught, implicated in, or later confessed to doping. Two of those belong to Lance.
One of the slower times belongs to Greg Lemond, an American rider who is just as unlikable as Lance, but who is physiologically superior in those measures that matter in cycling, like oxygen uptake and lung capacity. He’s the 48 on the graphic above. That’s how much of a difference cheating could make–eight minutes on one day. The TDF lasts three weeks and is usually decided by a handful of minutes. Those that cheated would have obliterated Lemond, arguably the best cyclist of all time. There may have been another great cyclist during those years that was riding clean, but we will never know, because he would have been at the back of the pack.
We all want to believe in heroes. We all want to believe in transcendent moments when a human being does something that gravity and math say he or she should not be able to do, like Wilt scoring a hundred points or Bob Beamon jumping out of the stadium. But once-in-a-lifetime moments are just that. When they happen with casual regularity, say seven times, we need to hold our applause. And our noses (this includes you, Jamaican sprint team.)
Believing in great performances just because we want to doesn’t make us true fans—it makes us true chumps.