The 99th edition of the Tour de France starts today, and as I ride my own road bike through San Antonio’s historic Mission District, I wonder: How many of us would be committed cyclists today if it were not for Lance Armstrong?
Armstrong, the seven-time winner of the planet’s greatest road race, will not be in France as he surely deserves to be as the now-retired, greatest cycling champion of all time. That, in itself, tells you something about the sad state of the sport. While a new generation of riders in the peloton thrills cycling fans, day after day, in a race that lasts more than three weeks, Armstrong likely will be watching the race on television like the rest of us, and conferring with his lawyers as he prepares for what could prove to be the biggest battle of his life since he beat cancer.
After conducting a nearly two-year long investigation into Armstrong and his professional racing teams, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Los Angeles announced in February that it would close its case without filing criminal charges against Armstrong. But the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, whose primary mission is to keep U.S. Olympic athletes and competitions clean of drugs, has launched its own high profile prosecution of Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service team. If the USADA sanctions Armstrong, it could cost him his seven Tour titles and purses and lead to disqualification from any association with professional cycling. Dethroned and discredited Tour de France winner Floyd Landis, a former Armstrong teammate, continues to be his principle accuser as he pursues a federal whistleblower suit that could bring him the millions of dollars he coveted and was denied as a cyclist.
It’s all very ugly.
Armstrong took the European cycling establishment by surprise in 1995 when he won several stages of the Tour de France, only to be diagnosed one year later with testicular cancer that spread to his brain before treatment led to Armstrong’s recovery. One year later he established the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which has become a leading player in the global fight against cancer. Then in 1999 Armstrong won the first of seven consecutive tour titles. It’s almost impossible to overstate the inspiration he became for millions of cancer survivors, athletes and fans.
Biking was a lonely pursuit in San Antonio and many other cities 15-20 years ago when Armstrong first gained fame, but look now. Tens of millions of Americans own and ride bikes. Every city in the country has charity rides that collectively raise hundreds of millions of dollars for worthy causes while promoting wellness and fitness across the land. More and more people are saying yes to bikes and no to vehicles, long commutes from the suburbs and high gas prices.
Here in San Antonio, the city’s B-Cyle bike sharing program is a national model. The city will eventually feature 50 stations. Houston and Austin are launching their own bike sharing plans, and if San Antonio B-Cycle’s Cindi Snell has anything to say about it, members will be able to use their cards in all three cities.
I’m hardly objective. Eight years ago I helped found what quickly became one of the city’s leading independent cycling teams, the Third Street Grackles. We’ve fielded as many as 90-plus riders in the annual Valero MS Ride to the River charity event, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for MS research. We’ve also had a helluva good time. I know young professionals who have told me they would have left San Antonio by now but for the friendships and experiences they’ve enjoyed as Grackle riders.
The number of local bike shops has doubled and tripled during that time. More important, city streets are alive with people pedaling a bike instead of driving a car. A lot of factors account for that kind of fundamental social change, but any list of catalysts would have to start with the story of an intensely competitive cyclist from Plano, Texas named Lance. That’s due, in part, because Armstrong’s story is not just a cycling story. It’s a story about survival and the human spirit.
Armstrong now stands at a crossroads and could lose it all: the titles, the prize money, his reputation, and his global standing that has allowed him to help lead a foundation that spends more than $30 million annually to fight cancer and support survivors. Count on two hands the athletes who have transcended their sport to change the world and you’ll have fingers left over. Armstrong is one of the very few superstars who has done just that.
Two letters separate the words “prosecution” and “persecution”
If a handful of obscure USADA officials have it their way, all that Lance has accomplished on and off the bike could come to a crashing end. That thought came to me last Sunday while cycling in the South Texas heat and sorting through the arguments for and against Armstrong, a figure who has proven as polarizing in life as he was on the bike. You don’t win seven consecutive Tour titles without making a lot of friends and a lot of enemies. Everybody loves a winner? Not really.
Why, I asked myself about mile 40, am I so deeply bothered by the latest news the USADA has targeted Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service cycling team he led for alleged systematic doping. One bothersome detail is that Lance is charged with directing a massive conspiracy, yet no other riders are targeted, presumably because they have cut deals with the UADA, each for their own reasons.
The answer, I believe, is simple: the USADA’s case has deteriorated into a witch hunt, spurred by anger over the U.S. Attorney’s decision to close the case. It’s become personal. The anti-doping agency’s Ahab-like pursuit of Armstrong stands in strong contrast to the record authorities have massed over the decades turning a blind eye to drug use in professional sports, including football, baseball, track and field. The targets always seem to be aging high profile athletes, while the institutional entities that have looked the other way at rule infringements escape real scrutiny.
Retired football players drop dead before they turn 50, but has an NFL commissioner ever been indicted? The roll call of super sluggers in baseball who face accusations of steroid use is a long one, but when has an MLB executive or team owner ever been put under the hot light?
It’s an easy, cynical play for an ambitious prosecutor, or in this instance, anti-doping agency executives, to target a big name athlete. In the case of Lance, the charges stem from events that allegedly occurred a decade or more ago. The media, knowing that drugs and sports go hand in hand, play a big role in this guilty until proven innocent melodrama. Chasing Lance makes for a sensational story, but where are the stories about why sports leagues, franchises and their owners and administrators never get targeted? The leagues, it seems, are like Wall Street banks, too big to fail. They get a bye.
That brings us back to Armstrong. The Justice Department spent millions of tax dollars and 20 months conducting its investigation before declining to bring charges. The Justice Department spent far more prosecuting former New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens, who recently was found not guilty of lying to Congress. Before Clemens, the Justice Department spent millions prosecuting San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who ultimately was sentenced to 30 days in jail for lying to a grand jury.
Is this what we want the federal government doing with our tax dollars?
The history of professional cycling is one of riders and their teams seeking every advantage they can find, including cheating. Go back to the early years and you’ll find star riders who swallowed amphetamines to gain an edge. The real choice, it seems to me, is to disqualify many through the years or disqualify none.
Modern science raised doping to an an endless hi tech, cat-and-mouse game between teams and the authorities. At some point, professional sports started to take the charges seriously and began enforcing bans, suspending athletes and marginalizing doctors and other co-conspirators. What’s missing is an amnesty for times gone by and a decision to stop prosecuting the past in favor of rebuilding cycling and its future.
The USADA should abandon its Armstrong fixation and stick to its mission, which is keeping U.S. Olympic athletes and competitions drug free and clean. The USADA isn’t the Justice Department. It isn’t the District Attorney’s office. Nothing in its mission suggests it should be reaching back a decade or more to chase Armstrong or any other retired athlete.
By the way, I do not condone cheating. I’m not saying there isn’t credible circumstantial evidence that Armstrong doped. But there is just as much credible evidence that he didn’t dope. He never failed a drug test, yet the USADA now proposes a multimillion dollar prosecution that the Justice Department declined to pursue, one that could take years to litigate, sap the sport anew, damage the Livestrong Foundation, and ultimately end as an unresolved vendetta.
Armstrong has been great for cycling. Armstrong has been great for the fight against cancer. Targeting Armstrong now is just plain wrong. Close the case. Let’s ride.