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What If ... Lance Armstrong's cycling career had been cut short by cancer?

by Austin Murphy

It's a tad ghoulish to imagine a world in which Armstrong succumbed to cancer—in 1996 doctors gave him a 40% chance of surviving—but what if the disease had curbed his cycling career, as many suspected it would? In this duller universe, Armstrong didn’t do his homework, didn’t listen to the advice of the oncologist who suggested he exclude bleomycin from the chemotherapeutic cocktail that saved his life. Bleomycin is an effective anticancer agent, but it takes a harsh toll on the lungs. Had he put it in his body, Armstrong still would have beaten cancer, but his pro cycling career very likely would’ve been cut sadly short.

How sad, actually, would that have been? Is it possible the world might be a better place if Armstrong ended up selling commercial real estate in Dallas, or managing a successful adult cabaret/gentlemen's club on the outskirts of Austin?

Let us venture down the road not taken. If Armstrong doesn’t get sick, pull through and then win the Tour de France seven times, his incredible story never gets told. Countless credulous, Livestrong-braceleted fanboys and fangirls around the world are not uplifted, distracted from their suffering or given hope.

Say what you will about Armstrong—that he is deceitful, remorseless, amoral—but admit this: He inspired people. True, many of those same people were later profoundly disillusioned. But in the moment he had the power to transport us, to deliver a register of joy that can never quite be erased or undone.

But what else did he undo? Having beaten cancer, Armstrong returned to the Tour de France a year after the scandal known as the Festina Affair, when some teams (mostly French) were intent on moving away from a doping culture. Armstrong, working with the notorious Dr. Michele Ferrari, went aggressively in the opposite direction. By doing so, did he trigger a doping arms race?

Not so, says Jonathan Vaughters, a former Armstrong teammate. The Texan’s Tour victories from 1999 through 2003 were viewed by those on the inside as “fair—doped wins in a doped sport.”

“But as things rolled on in ’04 and ’05,” continues Vaughters, who used PEDs early in his career before emerging as a champion of clean riding, “a lot of guys were making real efforts to stop doping.” With numerous scandals threatening the viability of the sport, “people were trying to turn the page. Lance was not. He was still full-throttle with the doping, using greater resources than anyone else.


Is it possible that the world might be a better place if Armstrong had ended up selling commercial real estate in Dallas?


“So Lance wasn’t responsible for starting the arms race,” Vaughters goes on, “but he could have helped stop it.” Going into the 2005 season, Armstrong had won a record six Tours in a row. That year “he could have tried to win clean and been very clear behind closed doors, with other riders, about what he was doing. That would have gone a long way. It would have shown real leadership. Instead, it was just all about winning number seven.”

And then, after a few unfulfilling years in retirement, it was about winning number 8. The Texan’s 2009 decision come back to cycling yet again angered many of his colleagues. It was viewed, says Vaughters, “as dismantling a lot of the anti-doping efforts of lesser-known riders.” (One lesser-known rider, the disgraced Floyd Landis, broke the sport’s omertà, ultimately bringing down his old teammate.)

If Armstrong doesn’t come back in 2009, there’s a good chance he’s never exposed, never stripped of seven Tour titles. He doesn’t lose eight sponsors in one day, as happened in ’12. He does sit down with Oprah—not to confess his sins, but to talk about his surprise victory in the ’12 Ironman Hawaii.

Cycling would’ve had a drug problem whether Armstrong came back in 1999 or not. The sport wouldn’t have been as interesting without him. But it could’ve started healing sooner.