Armstrong's Confession And The Future Of American Cycling

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Lance Armstrong listens during his interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc)
Lance Armstrong listens during his interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey. (AP/Courtesy of Harpo Studios, Inc)

Not even a Hollywood screenwriter could have predicted how Lance Armstrong's confession would play out: to Oprah Winfrey, not Barbara Walters or Bryant Gumbel, with, at times, more commercials than questions.

But, the transgressions to which Armstrong confessed? Well, those have been well known for a while.

"This has been talked about on every bike ride in America," Richard Fries, who calls himself a cycling "evangelist" said. "You know. Things just weren't adding up."

Fries is also a well-known race announcer, event marketer, and he was even a veteran of European competition, back in the 1980s, when performance enhancing drugs came onto the scene. "It wasn't seen back then as a sense of cheating or performance enhancement," Fries said.  "It was sort of seen as a degree of devotion."

[sidebar title="The Report That Brought Him Down" width="630" align="right"] Armstrong's confession comes after the US Anti-Doping Agency released a mountain of evidence against him in October. ESPN's Bonnie Ford sifted through that evidence for us.[/sidebar]Even before the whispers of Armstrong's doping regimen became deafening, his degree of devotion was reported to be stronger than anyone else's.

"Definitely part of his record is, like, going after his enemies and crushing them, yes," agreed Matt Seaton, a former cycling columnist for The Guardian and editor of that organization's Comment is Free US site.

Many expected—or hoped—that Armstrong would implicate those at the top, especially the International Cycling Union. But, when Oprah Winfrey asked, Armstrong denied he paid that organization roughly $125,000 to overlook a positive test at the 2001 Tour of Switzerland. Seaton says, Armstrong was only likely to confirm that accusation if there was something in it for him.

"There's no sentiment involved here, there's no human feeling, there's no loyalty that can't be broken, it's what serves the interest of Lance Armstrong that Lance Armstrong cares about in the end."

Armstrong also said he never pressured anyone else to dope, at least not explicitly. Cyclocross rider Tim Johnson, who left European competition because he wanted to ride clean, isn't buying it.

"They raised the level so high and the non-verbal pressure to dope on his team was just spread throughout the entire sport," Johnson said.

Johnson says his decision to leave international competition came "quicker than most." Instead, he's made a career riding in the domestic peloton, which he describes as the "minor leagues" of cycling. Johnson says he never thought he'd watch Armstrong confess on national TV.

The purity of [cycling] will shine through. It's just too wonderful of an enterprise to not shine through.

Richard Fries

That "mess" has wiped from the record books a decade of American success: eight Tour de France wins (seven by Armstrong and one by Floyd Landis), as well as Armstrong's Olympic bronze and Tyler Hamilton's Olympic gold. Not much is left to make American fans proud.

"We still have Greg LeMond. Thank goodness for that," quipped Ryan Newill, who writes for Velo magazine.

Newill says as more and more details emerged about doping by Armstrong and others, competitive cycling in this country has taken a hit. Sponsorship is down and some say that as many as 70 riders, that's more than a quarter of the domestic peloton, are out of a job this season.

"There's no denying it's incredibly damaging. That said, we do have a lot of great up and coming riders," Newill said. "So, there are exciting things to come and things to look forward to."

Announcer Richard Fries tries to focus on the future of his sport. He says professional cycling today is cleaner than the NFL or even college football. He talks eloquently about recreational cycling as a way to promote healthier lifestyles and cleaner transportation. And, he says, cycling has a lot to offer over America's other pastime…

"People get weepy over Yankee Stadium, which kinda smells of beer and urine," Fries said. "We have the Dolomites and the Alps and the Rockies, I mean our arenas are these Roman roads in Northern Europe, so it has this grandeur that will eventually take back the sport. The purity of it will shine through. It's just too wonderful of an enterprise to not shine through."

There will likely be more confessions, court testimony and legal wrangling in the next few months, but the next chance for the "purity" and "grandeur" of American cycling to shine through will be in two weeks at the Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville, Kentucky.

This segment aired on January 19, 2013.

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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