Armstrong cycles on destructive path

Nothing in Lance Armstrong’s lengthy interview with Oprah Winfrey last week can change the essence of his career as a bicycle racer

Joe McLaughlin, Black Press

Nothing in Lance Armstrong’s lengthy interview with Oprah Winfrey last week can change the essence of his career as a bicycle racer: he cheated to win, then lied, intimidated, threatened and sued people who sought to reveal the truth.

He searched out corrupt physicians with the greatest ability to help him break the rules and signed them to exclusive contracts, so other racers couldn’t match his ability to cheat.

Those tactics — in addition to his skill and tenacity — made him a flawed bike-racing champion and a multimillionaire with a net worth estimated above $100 million.

Now he has gone from fame to infamy and his riches are about to shrink substantially.

Armstrong has lost all of his major corporate sponsorships. When Nike dropped him, he lost a $70-million contract in one day.

A former teammate and similarly disgraced drug cheat, Floyd Landis, has filed a whistleblower lawsuit with the U.S. government that could eat up much of Armstrong’s fortune.

He’s also likely to soon lose more money to people and news organizations he sued in the past when they exposed his serial deceptions.

Armstrong inspired millions of people around the globe with his determined rise to elite status in the cycling world. He overcame cancer and created the Livestrong Foundation to halt the disease and assist its victims.

Count me as a former fan.

I read his book, It’s not about the bike, co-written with Sally Jenkins, after he won his first of seven consecutive Tour de France races.

It was a powerful, inspirational story, but — as we have all learned — it was based on a gross lie.

Every significant achievement Armstrong made on his bicycle was tainted by performance-enhancing drugs.

He went from a middling racer without the body frame of a champion to the greatest bike racer of all time.

His courage and tenacity on the bike were enormous, but it became abundantly clear before he apologized to Oprah and the world last week that none of his signal achievements would have been possible without illicit performance-enhancers.

The evidence against Armstrong was overwhelming. It’s detailed in thousands of documents compiled by world and U.S. anti-doping agencies, including damning testimony from former friends and teammates.

Many of them were initially reluctant to tell the truth. Some were bike racers who cheated along with him. Some were friends, keen to maintain that relationship.

Some of the most courageous truth tellers were women: a former girlfriend; a former masseuse; the wife of a racing teammate.

Armstrong verbally abused them all, publicly and relentlessly.

Betsy Andreu was in a hospital room with Armstrong, her husband Frankie — a racing teammate of Armstrong — and several other people just before his cancer surgery in 1996.

They heard Armstrong — knowing that a lie might kill him — tell the surgeon about illicit drugs he had taken to enhance his racing performances: EPO, steroids and human growth hormone.

After Armstrong recovered, ramped up his doping, leaned on his teammates to do likewise, and racked up one victory after another, Betsy Andreu refused to cover for him.

Armstrong viciously attacked her in public, calling her crazy.

When Emma O’Reilly, a team masseuse, learned of and exposed his doping, he called her an alcoholic prostitute and sued her for libel.

Armstrong insistently repeated that he had never been found with illicit drugs in his system, despite hundreds of tests by bike-racing authorities. He passed those tests, not because he was riding clean, but because he and the people around him became incredibly skillful at figuring out ways to beat the testing protocols.

Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, a year after French police and racing officials confiscated a vast arsenal of performance-enhancing drugs from the bike racing teams.

Race organizers were determined to clean up the sport, to make it honest and respected again.

Clearly that never happened, then or throughout Armstrong’s career.

To me, that’s the greatest shame in Armstrong’s precipitous fall from grace.

Last year, a Canadian bike racer — Ryder Hesjedal of Victoria, B.C. — won the Giro d’Italia.

It’s the second most prestigious bike race in the world, next to the Tour de France. Hesjedal took the lead on the last day of the race, only the second time that has happened in the event’s 103-year history.

I watched Hesjedal on television during the final week of that race, and cheered him on to what seemed like a glorious victory.

No Canadian has ever achieved such a feat, but it didn’t resonate across the country like it might have in years past.

I’m convinced that Armstrong’s highly publicized troubles are at the heart of that reception. He gave the sport unprecedented global profile. He helped make many other people rich.

Exposure of his longstanding cheating, however, has now made everything around bike racing suspect.

Every victory will be questioned. Corporate sponsorships will cancelled. Young boys’ and girls’ dreams of honest sporting glory will be crushed.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.

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