My 'tour de Lance': Forthcoming Lance Armstrong documentary paints a complex picture

The Oscar-winning director and erstwhile Armstrong fan Alex Gibney explains why his behind-the-scenes documentary profile of the drug-cheat cyclist is far more complex than a total condemnation

As perhaps the most eagerly awaited documentary of 2014, it would be no surprise if The Armstrong Lie – and its Oscar-winning director – came down hard on the cyclist who doped his way to titles, adoration and fame. Yet speaking to The Independent, the film-maker Alex Gibney surprisingly mounts a defence, albeit a partial one, of the disgraced Tour  de France winner Lance Armstrong.

Gibney’s new feature, released in the UK this month, follows Armstrong during his comeback at the 2009 Tour de France. When he started the film, Gibney was a self-confessed Armstrong supporter.

Asked whether he now felt “shame” at his collusion with an athlete who admitted to drug taking after years of denial, Gibney replies: “Mild embarrassment might be more accurate. Look, I got caught up. I wanted to reflect that frankly in the overall film. That’s one of the reasons why I put myself in it.”

The director acknowledges that he was “inside the bubble, embedded in the Armstrong army” and that his initial perspective on the sportsman “was probably too rosy”.

Inevitably, there has been a huge backlash against Armstrong since he finally admitted to his doping guilt in an interview with Oprah Winfrey a year ago. The British director Stephen Frears is currently at work on a film about Armstrong based on Seven Deadly Sins, the book by the cyclist’s long-time critic David Walsh.

As the very title of his own documentary now makes clear, Gibney feels let down by Armstrong’s dishonesty. However, he has also calls for some perspective on the cyclists misdeeds.

Even in 2009, Gibney says, he was well aware of the allegations against Armstrong. His film was originally going to be called The Road Back. “That was a double title. It was a comeback title but it was also a way of saying all roads lead back to the past.” At the time, he thought Armstrong was trying to win the Tour de France “clean so that he could put an end to doubts about the past”.

Before Armstrong’s first Tour victory in 1999, the American cyclist was regarded as a good one-day racer who couldn’t ride in the mountains. He had been in several Tours prior to 1999 without shining. To some, this was obvious evidence that his sudden transformation was down to drugs. But, says Gibney, “that neglects one thing”.

“We now know even from Armstrong’s own admission that he was doping in ’94. Well, that’s five years before... If the dope was so good and all he had to do was dope to win, then he should have won in ’94.”

Gibney’s own theory, which Armstrong disputes, is that the cyclist had extra motivation after recovering from cancer. He was also paying very close attention to the advice of the doctor, Michele Ferrari. The doctor realised that Armstrong had extraordinarily strong lungs. Ferrari’s training regime put more pressure on the cyclist’s heart and lungs and encouraged the cyclist to change to a lower gear and pedal faster. Combined with the EPO – a hormone that increases red blood cell count – this made him unbeatable.

A still from the film 'The Armstrong Lie' A still from the film 'The Armstrong Lie'
Armstrong is reportedly sanguine about Gibney’s use of the word “lie” in the title of his film. The cyclist finally accepts that he did lie. The film-maker and the cyclist had a conversation recently in which Gibney said: “I can accept you’re the best of a bad era but the enormity of your lie and the way you used the power of the story to attack people telling the truth, I am going to be tough on that.”

The cyclist is currently mired in law suits. Gibney predicts that he will contest these in his usual feisty way. “That’s what Lance Armstrong knows how to do. He likes to fight. He is comfortable fighting.”

In the documentary, we see Armstrong at home with his children as doping inspectors turn up regularly at the door. “Look, whenever the camera is on, he is performing to some extent,” Gibney suggests. However, the director points out the poignancy in Armstrong having his blood taken by inspectors in front of his kids.

“The cancer thing is real,” the director says of Armstrong’s work with his cancer charity Livestrong. “I heard any number of stories where he reached out to people personally. I was in his presence a few times when he would get calls and say ‘Sorry, I’ve got to take this’ – because he would be advising someone who had a certain kind of cancer, helping them figure out what to do and giving them some sense of support. That was real!”

In his own film-making career, Gibney has made several documentaries about powerful men with feet of clay, leading businessmen and politicians, whistleblowers and Catholic priests among them.

“As someone says in the film, this is not a film about doping, it’s a film about power,” Gibney reflects. “A lot of the films I do are about people with power and how they abuse their power... it’s this psychology of people who think they are entitled to do bad because they are fundamentally on a mission that is good.”

Gibney doesn’t condemn Armstrong altogether. What disappoints him, though, is the way that cheating destroys the purity of sport. “I think that’s the sad part of it... you don’t want there to be doubt. You want to believe in a moment where an athlete extends themselves in some extraordinary way that transcends their physical capacity to do something magnificent. You want to believe. That’s tarnished by doping.”

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea


In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops


Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game