There's plenty of symbolism to explore in this video of Lance Armstrong gone grease monkey, demonstrating how to fix a flat tire. The disgraced cyclist, looking and sounding strikingly humble, made the cameo for Outside, which posted the two-minute how-to on its website last week. But I was more interested in what editor-in-chief Christopher Keyes had to say in a companion piece, because when it comes to matters Lance, we at SI have walked the same path as our colleagues at Outside.
We too wonder if we regarded Armstrong's Tour de France titles with enough skepticism as he won them. We too feel betrayal at having been repeatedly lied to and spun. We too acknowledge that, through it all, he sure sold a lot of magazines. Having named him our 2002 Sportsman of the Year, we're also guilty of "enabling the cult of Lance," as Keyes' predecessor at Outside, Hal Espen, has put it.
I nodded along with what Keyes wrote until coming to this:
I'd ... argue that the prevalence of doping [when Armstrong won seven Tours] made it a level playing field, a notion I stand by today. Once you comprehend just how easy it was to evade doping controls or that, toward the end, most top riders like Armstrong were resorting to the old school method of blood doping instead of using EPO, it's pretty hard to buy [USADA chief] Travis Tygart's claim that Armstrong's team ran the "most sophisticated doping program in history." The most aggressive and powerful PR machine, certainly, but all the top riders had access to the same performance boosters.
And that's where I respectfully part company. Because that's not true.
Armstrong did not win those Tours on a level playing field. Like Keyes, I once believed he did. I thought that, through the Nineties and Oughts, pro cycling was so saturated with PEDs that it was governed by honor among thieves, a code that conferred on Armstrong's victories a relativistic legitimacy.
But it's impossible to read the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's findings, and then the pointillist, often achingly human accounts in David Walsh's Seven Deadly Sins, Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle's The Secret Race, Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell's Wheelmen, and Juliet Macur's Cycle of Lies, and still believe that Armstrong didn't enjoy a decisive advantage.
Doping doesn't benefit everyone to the same extent; by definition, it un-levels a playing field. Armstrong's natural hematocrit level, a measure of the oxygen-carrying red-cell count in his blood, fell far below the limit at which a lab would pronounce a rider positive. Thus, by an accident of genetics, Armstrong could leverage a greater advantage from EPO or reinjected blood than most of his rivals.
More than that, Armstrong had the money to lock up the one dope doctor all other dope doctors secretly wished to be. To dope effectively wasn't merely a matter of the stuff you took, but how and when you took it, to maximize the benefit and avoid detection -- and only Armstrong and his U.S. Postal Service teammates could use the chargeur who knew best, Michele Ferrari.
If you were Hamilton or Floyd Landis, and dared leave a supporting role on U.S. Postal because you felt you had a shot to beat Lance and win the Tour yourself, you were condemned to ride for some gang that couldn't shoot up straight. Which, in the cases of both riders, led to positive tests soon after leaving the fold, and oafish injections that might have killed each of them, according to chilling passages in the aforementioned books.
As more and more of the peloton tested positive or confessed, including virtually everyone to join Armstrong on those podiums in Paris, the cycling establishment closed ranks to protect its sole remaining star and meal ticket. That included not just the UCI, the since-discredited international governing body, but also U.S. Cycling, which Macur persuasively implicates in her book.
Armstrong's caravan publicitaire -- the agents, lawyers, sponsors and even some journalists enriching themselves off his story -- helped ensure that he would be tested fecklessly and given the benefit of every doubt. Some of those same people intimidated much of the press into submission, doing so with everything from lawsuits, to ostracism, to insinuations that to be a Lance skeptic was to be pro-cancer.
During Armstrong's swing through Santa Fe to shoot that fix-a-flat video, he joined several Outside staffers for an off-the-record lunch. It's easy to imagine him, over enchiladas and guacamole, mounting the level-playing-field defense, for he has made it before, including once to Macur: "If people think I cheated to win the Tour de France, they're f---ing dumb. All two hundred guys that started the race broke the rules."
But again, that's not true. More than half? Surely. Eighty, even ninety percent? Probably. But it's appalling to watch a supposedly penitent Armstrong try to mitigate his own culpability by smearing every rider he competed against. He needs to be called out on it.
One of the cyclists of that era, Christophe Bassons, had an imposing VO2 max and such a reputation for probity that other riders called him Monsieur Propre (Mister Clean). He broke no rule other than the unwritten one that you look the other way when riders are doping with impunity. Armstrong made sure there'd be no refuge in the sport for such an outspokenly clean rider. He personally began the process that hounded Bassons from the peloton. With Lance, we never should have waited for the Godot of some "B" sample to match an "A;" crude vigilantism like that clinched the case that he was dirty.
In his piece, Keyes goes on to weigh whether some rehabilitation with the public is possible. I agree that it is. But I also believe there's only one road to it. He needs to do precisely what USADA wants him to, and has made clear is a precondition for revisiting his lifetime ban: name names, and attach to them acts and dates and amounts. He needs to explain the broad contours and niggling details of everything -- how he and his lieutenants pulled off their deception for so long, and how extensively the mandarins of the sport enabled them to.
Armstrong vowed to Macur that he'll never do this, for he's not "a rat." On the other hand, in her book she paints a portrait of someone who has continuously tossed people from his life, as if driven by some tic. Under oath in one of the many lawsuits he currently faces, he has implicated a number of former associates; now even Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong's longtime directeur sportif and once a reliable dead-ender, no longer insists on his own innocence.
To come fully clean -- to be party to the one-two punch of truth and reconciliation that cycling so sorely needs -- would put Armstrong in league with people trying to reform the sport. As it happens, many of those reformers are people over whom he has spent the last 15 years working himself into a frothy hate. The question is, does he love cycling more than he despises Walsh, Tygart, Bassons, Betsy Andreu, Jonathan Vaughters and Greg LeMond?
I hope that, in the sport they have in common, Armstrong might find a staging ground for disliking those people a little less, and helping to save cycling in the bargain.
For that's where the route to redemption lies. Not in a custom circuit of rides and triathlons, obscure enough to fall outside USADA's jurisdiction, where he can say, Hey, I just want to compete. Nor in more viral videos of regular-guy supplication.
Cycling is a noble sport with a sorry past. Lance could be the man to launch it toward a better future -- to put it, at long last, on the level. But based on his words and actions in the Oprah interview and since, I don't expect him to do so anytime soon.
In the meantime, here's a thought experiment. Take Hamilton, Landis and Armstrong in their primes. Purge their bodies clean. Put each on the same brand of bike, pointed at the same destination, with no domestiques to do anyone any favors. In other words, level playing field.
My money's on Armstrong. To finish third.