Rantcast #13 – The Lance Problem

Aug 2 2013


(not verbatim, contains typos, and sometimes I go off-book)

Yeah, so breaking news last week—did you know cyclists were doping in the 1998 Tour de France? I know, right? Didn’t see that one coming, despite the fact that during that year a Team Festina car got caught at the French Boarder with 250 vials of EPO, six teams dropped out, everyone on the podium had already admitted to doping anyway, and the Festina Affair is like, the model against which every successive doping scandal is assessed, but beyond that—COMPLETE SURPRISE.

But hey, French Senate, you do what you gotta do. As Anglophone, I’m dangerously low on Jacky Durand news, so I’m psyched to read his no-BS mea culpa. Stuart O’Grady, I wish I could believe more, but with so many of his Gan teammates still relying on clean-ish images (and who are missing samples from ‘98), the I-only-doped-once-did-it-alone thing is too pert and convenient, 15 years after the fact. And Zabel—well, consensus seems to be that you were always an [expletive].

Oh, and Kevin Livingston. Don’t even know what to make of that guy. Part of me despises him for not talking more other parts of me kinda respect the fact that he hasn’t taken to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, with no ulterior motive whatsoever I’m sure, to tell us all he doped.

Anyway, in the fallout from this, Cyclingnews has, for some reason or other, decided to ask Lance Armstrong for comment which is just like—I mean, c’mon it’s [expletive] Lance. Obviously the—how old is he now?—obviously the guy doing his hardest to “win” being the most disgraced drug cheat in history. A sample quote: “Bikes, beer, and 18 holes of golf every afternoon. I wasn't exactly curled up in the foetal position…thousands of supportive people…I’m the whipping boy”.

He’s like a petulant child sent to his room, being like “oh hey, just here in my room, playing with all my awesome toys. I’m here because I’m a scapegoat, not because I did anything wrong, but whatever, it is what it is. Did I mention how awesome all these toys are? Especially this 22 year old Barbie doll?”

But whatever—Lance is Lance, like it or not, and he’s still been the dominant figure in the sport for the past two decades. Although, if you’d come out of a 16-year-coma earlier this year, you’d be hard-pressed to know that.  For some reason, NBC Cycling’s Tour coverage was utterly and completely devoid of Lance Armstrong footage—a laughably stark turnaround from a year ago, when their commentator Phil Liggett couldn’t stop talking about how innocent Armstrong was.

This to my mind, is the wrong approach. Don’t get me wrong, I dislike Armstrong about as anyone he didn’t directly blackmail, harass, impugne, sue, insult or otherwise make miserable—which is actually puts me in a surprisingly small group. But that doesn’t make

never mentioning anything he did—and by extension, nearly ever Tour de France for the past 14 years—somehow justifiable.

Cycling, you may have heard, has a problem with “omertas”—the aforementioned Kevin Livingston might be presented as a good example. This propensity toward the powerfully undiscussable in and of itself is reason not to put anything on a Do Not Mention list, in the same way that one might hesitate to prescribe oxycodone to a recovering heroin addict.

But more specifically, not mentioning Lance prevents anyone from the sullen discomfort of  reflecting on what actually happened during the Lance Era. On the Champs Elysees last weekend, we had Miguel Indurain, Eddy Merckx, and Greg Lemond being awarded ceremonial yellow jerseys…for some reason or other. Notably absent was Lance Armstrong, of course—or anyone else from his years in the sport. Nice, and tidy, really—let’s just forget that any of it has ever happened.

Of course, this is Miguel Indurain who, based on his his contemporaries and coaches, was almost certainly as doped as Armstrong, Eddy Merckx, who at the very least tested positive during the ‘69 Giro, and Greg Lemond, who…well, insert your rumor here. But hey—we solved the problem of the “dirty years” by agreeing to pretending they never happened.

Take this interview Velonews did with USAC figurehead Steve Johnson, who said quote “It’s the entire cycling industry…who got pulled along by that vortex of the Lance Armstrong story. And nobody has to apologize for that. It just happened.” Which, frankly, is about as horrific a denial of responsibility as anyone could possibly offer. “Well, we were all part of the mob, so let’s just agree it’s no one’s fault”.

Aside from being morally reprehensible—as if anyone cares about that—it’s also factually inaccurate. I mean, the entire Lance Armstrong Saga is rife with skeptics, detractors and doubting Thomases nearly all of whom suffered unduly, and who all deserve an apology from USAC, if for no other reason than Armstrong hasn’t offered one.

Then there are a bevy of self-motivated researchers and writers—“wankers”, I suppose Brad Wiggins might term them—who did the footwork on numbers of drug tests, the UCI’s unwillingness to enforce its own rules, pulling back the curtains on the the 1999 samples, among a host of other details that lead to Armstrong’s downfall. This is a matter of record—the Times, as they say, was on it—and since USAC effectively turned a blind eye to all these people before Armstrong was persona non grata, I think this another group to whom Steve Johnson owes an apology.

But most concerningly of all, is this rank unwillingness on Johnson’s part—and indeed, among most of those involved in the public face of the sport during the period of Armstrong Hagiography—to recognize that there are other people involved in cycling now who both didn’t reap direct Lance benefits, and who weren’t in a position to challenge the general Let-it-Ride attitude. Johnson’s interviewer Matthew Beaudin, for example, wasn’t hired by Velonews until well after the federal investigation against Armstrong—the information that later became the USADA case—was collected.

Let’s go back to that NBC commentary team and their unwillingness to mention Lance. Among that group, you’ve got Phil, as I said one of Lance’s staunchest and most self-deluded supporters, Paul, his commentary partner who worked with Armstrong on the Motorola squad, and Bob Roll, who famously accompanied Armstrong on his comeback training camp and has some pretty [expletive] crazy ideas about doping and the French generally.

Now, I’m sure there was some sort of pre-show instruction not to mention Lance—who wants to be reminded that maybe what they’re watching isn’t pure, or true, or believable, or whatever corny aphorism you want to use to ascribe to shirking intellectual burden of uncertainty. But as in the case of the USAC, it also lets a group of people who are very much culpable in Armstrong’s subterfuge stand before the world without offering a proper, long-delayed apology.

I’m not saying we need to put them in the stocks and pelt them with expired FRS samples. A simple statement during the opening or closing features for the Tour would have sufficed. Something along the lines of  “hey—we’re sorry about what Lance did. We’re sorry we helped propagate the myth, and we’re sorry that we didn’t apply a more critical eye to his performances, even after legitimate, meaningful doubts were raised. We failed you as an audience, and we’ll try to do better in the future”.

As a fan, it’s something I’d sure like to hear, and frankly, it’s just not that hard to do. Why, just last week, I got unnecessarily mad at Team Belkin on the internet, realized my error, and apologized. It’s good to acknowledge when you’re wrong about something, becuase it shows people you care about being right, and that you honestly would like to avoid making similar mistakes down the line.

And really, for all the drugs and doping and everything that’s come to light since, the Lance Tours did occasionally provide some pretty good racing—especially in 2003. To have essentially none of it mentioned by the exclusive US rights holder to save face or present a “safer” package—except obviously and awkwardly during one paid placement feature for Orbea, is a disservice to fans—past is prologue, especially at the Tour. That’s kind of what I was getting at with the “banned word list” in the Tour How The Race Was Wons—ignoring the past will only bring up uncomfortable questions that make eventually revealing the facts of record more awkward.

Finally, addressing the cheating and ambiguity of the EPO Era like mature adults opens the door for real, cutting-edge analysis—things like what Science of Sport blog and various archivists are doing comparing VAMs and historical times. The idea isn’t, as Antoine Vayer or Frankie Andreu seem to think, to “prove” doping, but to draw parallels, to see how performance is evolving, and to keep the lines of conversation open lest we be once again limited to codewords like extra-terrestrial and not normal. Not to mention the fact that all this data is also pretty cool. If you’re listening to me now, you probably agree that the niftiest aspects of road cycling come from sussing out exactly how the the race was won. If one rider’s superpower is a steady 20 minute effort, while another thrives on tempo changes, that’s a pretty cool thing to know as they slug it out on the side of a mountain.

And in the end, this decision ignore rather than address The Lance Problem is just another example of what I mentioned after last years Tour—the best analysis and the most compelling coverage in the sport of cycling comes from fans, not broadcasters. With alleged professionals like Wilcockson and Liggett and Abt still unapologetically mired in “complex characters”, “jealousy”, and “rip Lance time”, and their more serious colleagues often reporting on stories that come out of social media, it’s not something I see getting better anytime soon.

The Cyclocosm rantcast is written, read, recorded and produced by me, Cosmo Catala

no, to expose the rank artificiality of the firewall between production and talent. It’s recorded on the 2nd floor of a sloppily-renovated apartment in Hartford CT, to drive home the point that tremendous up-front costs are no harbinger of a quality product. I blog and put all of my cool cycling stuff on the web at Cyclocosm.com, I tweet about cycling using the handle @Cyclocosm, there’s a Tumblr at cyclocosm.tumblr.com, and if you search for Cyclocosm on facebook, Google Plus you will probably eventually run across my page.

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