Is Lance Still a Champion?

By David Ward

Okay. Let’s just agree that Lance was, as they say in the vernacular, juicing. It does seem from what we as the public have available that he probably was. But, I am not wading into that debate. Rather, for me the question is, where does that leave me as a big fan of professional bike racing?

Those who know me also know that I am an attorney and that I am big into cycling. So, since Armstrong announced he was not going to contest USADA’s (United States Anti-Doping Agency) allegations, I am frequently asked what my take is on all this.

First, it is unclear to me if Armstrong has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. That is what the American mainstream media, which often shows its lack of understanding of professional cycling, was reporting. Indeed, it appears that is what USADA was claiming. But, close observer’s noted there was a turf war going on between the UCI (Union Cycliste International) and USADA due to USADA’s refusing to share information with the UCI and to allow the UCI to step in and take over the proceedings.

So, Armstrong has not yet been stripped of his Tour titles. Only the UCI can do that, and at last word they were still awaiting information from USADA. While it seems likely that might happen, it has not happened yet. As a side note, the case of Johan Bruyneel is still pending, and he has requested arbitration. So it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

But again, assume Lance is stripped of his titles. Where does that leave me as a fan? I determined long ago that Armstrong was egotistical and not necessarily a very nice person all the time, particularly if one got cross-wise with him. He was certainly brutal with former friends Tyler Hamilton, who may have saved Armstrong’s Tour in 2003 when he urged fellow riders to await Armstrong after his famous fall on the climb to Luz Ardiden, Floyd Landis and Frankie Andreu. But I learned long ago to not put my sports heroes on anything but an athletic pedestal. As a kid, I idolized Mickey Mantle, and remember being dismayed to learn he was alcoholic and participated in some fairly egregious behavior during those years I adored him. I learned then to keep my idolization appropriately circumscribed. Great athletes are just that: Great athletes, and not necessarily paragons of personal virtue.

So is Lance a great athlete, or does his cheating topple him off that pedestal? I remember a debate once about the use of bribery to accomplish reasonable ends in countries where corruption is rampant and bribery is the key to getting something done. There were those who claimed bribery was wrong and could never be justified. Others who said that is how life is: You sometimes have to do things you don’t like or approve of in order to do good.

While winning Tours de France, or any bike race for that matter, is neither right nor wrong, the parallel is appropriate. Jonathan Vaughters, the directeur sportif of the USA based professional cycling team, Team Garmin-Sharp-Barracuda, eloquently put this into focus when he admitted a couple of weeks ago to cheating as a rider. As he explained, if you wanted to be competitive and play on a level playing field, you had to make a choice whether or not to use banned means to improve your performance. To not do so, your career as a professional bike racer was either short-lived or failed to materialize at all, or you were a rider with extraordinary talent getting very ordinary or sub-par results.

Frankly, I think we can all accept that the use of PEDs (performance enhancing drugs) and other performance boosting means and methods was common during the 1990s and through Armstrong’s string of Tour victories. In a sense, the top riders were competing on a level playing field.

Considering all this brings me to this conclusion: Lance Armstrong was a great athlete and, had there been no cheating at all, would have still won those seven Tours. I admit this is very speculative, but as I followed Armstrong’s career, several things became apparent to me. He was intense and driven. He seemed to put more into his race preparation than other riders. He understood what it took to win. He would identify all areas where he could gain some advantage through equipment, support, intimidation, etc. He was intelligent. It was apparent in listening to interviews, reading his books, listening to him speak and just generally following him through the years, that he was very bright. I have often observed this in most top athletes. They study their trade and understand it better than most. He was a bright tactician. He rode races smartly, identifying the key parts of a race, and knew when to attack, when to chase and who to follow. He combined these qualities better than any other racer of his time.

For me, Armstrong’s achievements will always be marred by his likely use of performance enhancement methods. It will be impossible to compare his achievements with those of other cycling greats such as Merckx, Hinault, Anquetil and, for us Americans, Lemond. But then, as anyone who has studied any amount of cycling history knows, performance enhancement through artificial means has long been a part of cycling. Think Tom Simpson. Besides, historical comparisons are, at best, subjective and highly questionable.

And where does this leave his record of seven Tour victories? Harking back to baseball, I still deem Roger Maris’s 61 home runs as the home run record. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were all steroid juiced and I do not recognize their besting of Maris’s achievement. Is the same true of Armstrong’s Tour record?

I think not. If steroids are taken out of the picture, it is nearly indisputable that no one would have hit 61 home runs. But if artificial performance enhancement could be taken out of the picture, I believe Armstrong still would have won those seven Tours.

In the end, I can only take the period in which Armstrong raced and look at him, as an athlete and his Tour victories, in that context. And based on that, and for all the reasons explained above, I believe he was the best professional bike racer of the period, and a legitimate winner of those seven Tours.

 

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