Six months after his sensational doping confession, Lance Armstrong has announced a low-key return to the cycling circuit. The disgraced athlete will take part in an annual recreational ride across the Midwestern state of Iowa, organised by The Des Moines Register newspaper.
It marks Armstrong’s first official cycling engagement – not to mention his first major public appearance – since he admitted using several banned substances and blood doping during his professional career, in a widely watched television interview with Oprah Winfrey in January. “I’m well aware my presence is not an easy topic, and so I encourage people if they want to give a high five, great,” the 41-year-old told the Register. “If you want to shoot me the bird, that’s OK, too.”
As many as 10,000 riders are expected to take part in the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI, a week-long, 406-mile trek from the banks of the Missouri River in the west to the Mississippi in the east of the state. The event’s organisers describe it as “the world’s oldest, largest and longest recreational bicycle touring event.”
The ride begins on 21 July, which just happens to be the final day of the 2013 Tour de France, which Armstrong won seven times – titles of which he has now been stripped. Last month the Texan told French newspaper Le Monde that he believed it was “impossible to win the Tour de France without doping”.
Armstrong was banned from professional cycling for life in October 2012, following a report by the US Anti-Doping Agency which accused him of leading “the most sophisticated, professional and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
He was stripped of the record seven Tour titles he took between 1999 and 2005, as well as an Olympic bronze medal, and now faces lawsuits set to deprive him of up to $135m (£90m). “I’m committed to working through them,” he told the Register, “whether it's settling cases or whether it's fighting some cases – because some have merit, some don't. But I'm committed to the process, and that's probably as much as I would and could say about it... Unless you have $135 million you want to let me borrow, or have?”
Armstrong said he will be joined on the Iowa ride by several of the staff from Mellow Johnny’s, the bike shop he owns in his hometown of Austin, Texas. They will spend at least “three or four days” on the RAGBRAI, which, like Armstrong, is in its 41st year. This will be the fifth time he has ridden in the event. Explaining his decision to participate again, he said, “To be honest, it’s not a statement, it’s not an experiment. It’s just me wanting to go ride my bike with what in the past has been a friendly group of people who share the same interests.”
TJ Juskiewicz, the event’s director, said, “What attracts the other 10,000 people to RAGBRAI attracts [Armstrong]: he likes riding his bike and hanging out with people… Some people are going to say ‘Hey, welcome back’, and there’ll be others that are disappointed in him.” Armstrong was well aware that not all the other riders will be pleased to see him. But, he said, “I’m a big boy... I made the bed, I get to sleep in it.”