By Steve Madden
I was the editor in chief of Bicycling magazine from 2002 until 2008. By the time I started working there, Lance Armstrong had won four consecutive Tours de France. And during that entire time, not a day went by without the topic of Armstrong and doping coming up somehow.
We had our suspicions, of course. We all knew that the top levels of cycling -- hell, even the middle and amateur levels -- were filled with dirty riders. And some of the performances we saw defied reality. My personal belief was that if Armstrong was taking anything, it was a drug designed to aid recovery. He was simply too dominant, too many times, on successive days in the mountains -- days that left other riders wobbly as they crossed the finish lines at Alpine ski resorts. And his US Postal Service team, the Blue Train, was simply too strong. They'd ride as one to the front, ferrying Armstrong up climbs, each rider taking a turn setting a ridiculously high tempo at the front, burning himself up and falling off the pace, only to be replaced by yet another super-strong climber before Armstrong rode the final few kilometers to the top. Other teams could only watch and send one, maybe two men to fight.
On my Sunday morning club rides, guys would ask what I thought. "He's never tested positive," I'd say with a smile. "And a positive test is the legal standard for doping." Innuendo and the "they're all doing it" theory just weren't enough. Besides, I was the public face of the world's largest cycling magazine and business was booming. Lance and his hedge fund handlers were fueling a growth spurt in the sport, especially among affluent baby boomers who were looking for a competitive outlet and indulged themselves in the most expensive gear they could find. We watched with slack jaws as the price of high-end road bikes passed the $10,000 barrier. Then the $15,000 barrier. Soon bike shorts, a decent pair of which you could find for $50 at REI, came in a $400 version.
Over time, however, with more Herculean efforts by Armstrong, my stock response became a smirk and a curt "What do you think? It's a dirty sport. The guy who won the Tour in 1996 admitted doping, the '97 winner backed down and retired, the '98 winner is dead from a drug overdose and then Lance comes along and wins seven in a row. Do you really think he’s clean?"
“So why don't you take him down?” somebody asked.
From a strictly journalistic perspective, that story was almost impossible to report during that time, and the burden of proof was huge. Cycling's code of silence, and the vengeance taken out on people who broke the omertà, is well documented in the USADA report and made verifying allegations nearly impossible. The legal burden of proof was a positive test, and Armstrong had none, save for a positive cortisone test for which he later produced a therapeutic use exemption. Armstrong employed a team of legal eagles who rebuffed even the slightest bit of disloyalty with lawsuits, counter claims and rumors, and most publishers in the enthusiast space are risk-averse. A team assistant named Emma O'Reilly, who claimed to have transported drugs for U.S. Postal, was so maligned by Armstrong's camp that she became nearly bankrupt. The same thing happened to Mike Anderson, a former personal assistant to Armstrong, who sought refuge by moving from Austin to New Zealand.
Armstrong exerted a Corleone-like influence in the cycling industry. Through his various sponsorship and endorsement deals, he could make an advertiser disappear from our pages with the same flick of an elbow that one rider uses to silently tell another to pass him. Helmets, sunglasses, wheels, bikes, all of these companies' ads were the lifeblood of the magazine, the one that paid my salary and that of my staff. If we couldn't make money during the boom years, when could we? Besides, dirty or not, it was a thrill to watch a cyclist, one of us, assume what we all knew was the rightful place among the sports world’s elite. Cycling is populated with misfits and loners. Very few of us sat at the cool kids’ table in the high school cafeteria, and none of us was a homecoming king or queen. And all of a sudden, there's Lance, Sportsman of the Year on the cover of Sports Illustrated, hanging with Bono, dating Sheryl Crow and having a building named for him at Nike headquarters. A cyclist! One of us leg-shaving geeks, right up there with Michael Jordan. Finally! Now our sport would break out!
There was another reason why I didn't chase this story: Did I really want to be the guy who bled hope out of cancer wards across America? A friend of mine was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and when I called to wish him well, I told him that he should take hope from Armstrong's story. As far as I knew, Bill couldn't even ride a bike, but he told me that he watched the Tour, with other cancer patients, while the chemo dripped into his arm. A room full of people cheering on a skinny guy on a bike in a race none of them had heard of before 1999. Armstrong had become a beacon for millions of cancer patients. Not only can you beat this, he told them, you can be better than you were before. If Bicycling were to announce that it was all a sham, what would that mean for these people who needed hope so badly?
Maybe the story got away from Armstrong. Maybe it all became too big, too fast and he had to maintain that lie for the same reason. I like to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that's why he stuck with his lie as long as he did. And if even one person somehow survived cancer because of it, then I guess the lie was worth it.
People often asked me what Lance was "really like." I had met him only a handful of times, and none of the interactions were pleasant. He didn't like that a reporter from the magazine had asked him at a press conference if he had ever used PEDs, and Lance never forgave. When I told people that he wasn't a warm, fuzzy guy, the universal response was disappointment. We want our heroes to be nice, regular guys. But the truth is, great achievement usually comes from those selfish and single-minded enough to express the gift that allows them to be great. Nobody ever talks about what great guys Picasso or Hemingway were.
And now, nobody is saying what a great guy Lance is. Nike dropped him after he stepped down from his own foundation, and Nike never drops athletes, save for the dog-abusing Michael Vick. Nike, remember, was the force behind those millions of yellow Livestrong wristbands.
Would Lance have been just as compelling a story if he had raced clean and finished 50th? No.
Would he still be a hero in his second act if he had just admitted what he did, asked forgivingness and continued his work against cancer? Yes.
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Steve Madden is the general manager of Sports on Earth and former editor in chief of Bicycling magazine.