In return for the 14 years he’d spent constructing the myth, it was a very short dark night of the soul.
Only a couple of months have passed between the US Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to strip Lance Armstrong of his titles and his apparently penitential appearance in front of Oprah.
For most of the time, Armstrong sat there opposite Oprah Winfrey with one foot resting on the other knee, both hands in the brace position and every pore of him radiating stone-cold fury.
There was something about his language, too – putting himself in the third person, using phrases that sounded pre-scripted (“My ruthless desire to win at all costs served me well on the bike but the level it went to, for whatever reason, is a flaw”), repeating certain things – which all sounded more like a man playing politics than a man who’d made for himself a searching and fearless moral inventory.
Oprah did a good job of taking Armstrong through all the key questions, pulling out revelations along the way, and providing the audience with a splendid show of incredulity at some of his responses. Did he really think he would have got away with it if he hadn’t tried to come back in 2009? Does he honestly believe it’s fine to call the physio Emma O’Reilly a liar and a whore because he never said she was fat? Was taking testosterone somehow fine because he’d already lost a testicle to cancer? Of the doping: “It was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone.” And – somehow emptiest of all – was the winning of those seven Tours worth so very little? “There was more happiness in the process, in the build, in the preparation. The winning was almost phoned in.”
No retreat, then, and no surrender. For him, this whole public shriving thing is just a way of lining himself up to get back in the game and to start plea-bargaining with the authorities. And for his enemies, it really makes very little difference what he does or says now because there’s no possible act of contrition they’ll accept in exchange for his betrayal. As he pointed out, it wasn’t just that he ruined cycling for them; it was that he ruined heroism, too.
So is there anything good to take from all this? Anything left to like? Well, maybe. Somewhere at the back of all this, there are still a couple of sticky truths to be tackled. First, as Lance vs Oprah Part 1 proved, the guy is still a star, and we still can’t take our eyes off him. The same quality that brought him blazing to the front of the peloton and wrenched pro cycling from a niche European sideshow to a global media circus is still there. He dominated cycling for a decade or more, and he’s still bullying the agenda into position now, because he took a sport that was obscure, complex and riven with history, and he made it sexy.
He was once so liked and is now so hated partly because he’s impossible to dismiss. He’s not some idiot Texan jock; he’s an intelligent, thoughtful, bullying control freak who changed the cycling universe. Before him, teams had been a bunch of individual egos in similar clothing. Post-Armstrong, they were more like machines. Some of the team tactics which famously (and cleanly) won last year’s Tour for Bradley Wiggins and Sky were those which originated with two of the most contaminated names in cycling; Armstrong, and his manager Johan Bruyneel.
But overhauling team tactics was only a means to an end. As Armstrong pointed out, what really distinguished him was not his genuine athletic peculiarities (stratospheric VO2 max, nonexistent lactate levels, enough power output to light a small city) but his ability to shut down everything except a single, dominating will to win. Alastair Campbell interviewed him in 2004, and still dines out on a quote from that meeting. “When I was sick, I didn’t want to die. When I race, I don’t want to lose. Losing and dying, it’s the same thing.”
“I have quoted it many times since,” wrote Campbell later, “not least in political campaigns, as the ultimate in a winning mindset.” Really? That wasn’t about victory; that was about fear. And oddly enough, that focus on winning was one of the (many) reasons the French so disliked Armstrong. For most of his career, he concentrated solely on the Tour. He wasn’t interested in the Spanish and the Italian equivalents, the Vuelta and the Giro, or the endless smaller Classics. He made no bones about wanting to possess the big one and wanting it again and again. The French, being perverse, considered this unsporting; what they wanted was a proper old-school all-round winner like Eddy Merckx – the Belgian, whom they never much liked.
But there’s another reason why Armstrong and the Tour were the perfect match for each other. The man who, in 1903, set the race’s rules and established its ethics was an ex-rider turned journalist called Henri Desgrange, whose intent was not to find the fastest bicycle rider in the world but to create something magnificent to watch and to sell a load of car magazines in the process.
Desgrange didn’t want to make the Tour fair or sporting or friendly. He wanted to create a race so challenging that only one person – one almighty god-like superhero – would ever be able to complete it. Every year, he made the Tour a little steeper, a little longer and a little more legendary. Competitors were expected to carry their own spares and mend their own breaks. He banned team assistance and variable gears for being too girly and refused anything to do with drugs. If they wanted them, he said, then riders must provide their own. Those riders often responded in kind, taking trains between stages or bribing the organisers, while the spectators strewed tacks all over the road.
Within a few years, the Tour was an irresistible, unmissable part of French life. When an unknown Texan first turned up almost a century later, it was still as lawless as the Wild West Armstrong came from. Desgrange wanted legends by any means possible. A century on, that’s exactly what he got. Be careful what you wish for.
Bella Bathurst’s books include ‘The Bicycle Book’, published by HarperPress