“When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This is the most quotable phrase from, in my opinion, perhaps the best western movie ever made. It’s quotable, hence memorable and, ultimately, important because of the insight it reflects. Within the context of the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it represents the inexorable struggle with change, the conflict between history and modernity, the closing of the American Frontier. In a larger sense, it represents a sometimes primal need to create and believe in legends and myths, to make public figures bigger than life. After all, the myth is always more compelling than the prosaic of everyday living. Heroes belie the fact that, at root, we are all, in varying proportions, a combination of virtue and vice. No one better represents the fallen hero.
Unfortunately for Lance, he no longer has a media complicit in printing the legend. His is an object lesson in how quickly the media feeds on the critical mass of scandal. In this case, however, it is performing a public service. For too long, Lance successfully used lawsuit, press releases, fawning reporters, paid biographers and corporations eager to profit from his story to, in his own words, “control the narrative.” The phrase itself is one of those trendy additions to modern nomenclature that gets repeated because it makes the user sound smart. It sounds nice. More than that, its obfuscatory purpose is to make more antiseptic sounding and more innocuous those behaviors our grandparents would deem unsavory if not unethical. It means to deceive and manipulate. In the last decade, we called this spin.
I admit it. I was deceived and manipulated. I was a cycling racing fan. I still am, though perhaps to a lesser degree. Ever-present doping scandals tend to make a person jaded. Back then, though, I was hooked. Cycling has been my passion for most of my adult life, and Armstrong’s reign came just at about the peak of my cycling aspirations. I was touring down the Pacific Coast on my bike loaded down with panniers when Lance won his first tour. Though I didn’t have access to a TV, every time I’d come to some town or city with a coffee house, I’d find a newspaper and try to follow how he did on that day’s stage. Alone and a thousand miles from home and alone with my thoughts all day on a bike, I imagined myself in Lance’s place, answering questions from the media, formulating in my head conciliatory responses to second place finisher, and doper, Alex Zulle hitting the deck and losing a couple of minutes. I was glued to the set in 2000, and would start conversations with other cyclists I didn’t even know. “Did you see Lance and Pantani on Sestriere? Did you see Pantani (Mr. 60%-major doper) shake his head when he tried to respond to Lance’s attack? He was just saying, ‘I don’t have it.’” I didn’t even pay attention that Virenque (doper) won the KOM, or that Zabel (doper) won the green jersey.
In 2001, I watched “The Look” as Armstrong played possum for the entire stage, then blew by Jan Ullrich and win emphatically on the top of Alpe D’Huez. For me, and I’m sure to a lot of other American cycling fans, this year had special significance coming after 9/11. It reflected my patriotism as well as my fandom. I laughed at cartoon caricatures of giant Texas boots crushing little French guys. I liked that their kit was red, white and blue. I watched the drama unfold in 2002 and 2003, when Lance, barely avoiding poor doping Joseba Beloki as his front tubular came unglued in that freakishly hot year and he crashed into a heap, miraculously rode across an empty field and rejoined with the lead group in pursuit of a doping Vinokourov, who was initiating one of his characteristically futile and stupid attacks. I was riveted when he got caught on the musette bag, got back on his bike with blood dripping from his elbows and chased down doper Iban Mayo with help along the way by doper Tyler Hamilton, who, sporting a broken collarbone and in a display of traditional sportsmanship unique to cycling, held up the lead group until Lance rejoined. I saw the pain evident in that thousand yard stare on his face as he rode away from Hamilton, Mayo, Ullrich and the rest (all dopers) and finally caught Sylvain Chavanel (probably a doper), who had been on a solo break for most of the stage, and as he passed, in a gesture of acknowledgement of the mutual suffering those two cyclists endured that day, gently placed his hand on Chavanel’s back.
I watched the penultimate time trial, when, with the outcome still in doubt, Ullrich, who by the way, was doped to the gills, and who had beaten Armstrong in the first time trial, slid on the rainy course and saw his chances at beating his rival slip away with him. I taped for posterity, and still have that VHS, of the ‘04 time trial up the Alpe D’Huez, where he rode through a seething mass of inebriated fandom in a scene you’ll never see in any other sport to pass and beat his rival that year, a seriously doped up Ivan Basso. With or without dope, these were astonishing acts of competitive drama in a sport that is, at its root – as in all sports, simply spectacle.
These are very personal memories to me, as a cycling enthusiast, that sports talk radio, news columns or Oprah cannot quite fully comprehend. To them, Armstrong’s fall is just another passing narrative, a transient story about scandal and dirty laundry that will pass as they become enamored next with made-up Facebook girlfriends or Super Bowl coaches who share the same name. To cyclists, he still polarizes, as he has from the beginning. There are those that still support him and still see him as inspirational, and those that never liked him. Either way, we still talk about him. For me, it is a struggle to find a deeper meaning in all of it. As someone connected to him through my passion for cycling, it is not enough to file him away as a villain when he was formerly lionized. To make him a person and not a caricature, I have to find that balance between virtue and vice.