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Books | Sports

October 30, 2012

The Lance Questions

As a prominent cycling writer, Bill Strickland fields a lot of those. He doesn't mind but says many don't have definite answers.

David Goldenberg

Bicycling Magazine editor-at-large Bill Strickland has accomplished a lot in his career. He's served as one of the foremost chroniclers of both the sport and the hobby of bicycling, and his autobiographical Ten Points is one of the most devastatingly powerful sports memoirs ever written. Despite Strickland's impressive oeuvre, though, his career has of late been inextricably intertwined with that of a certain brash Texan. Strickland isn't asked to appear on CNN to talk about his writing, or even his sport. Nope—they just want him to talk about Lance.

Bill Strickland. Photo by Chris Milliman.
"Are there riders farther down in those standings who rode clean, or cleaner, and could have beaten him? All we can say is maybe."

Bill Strickland. Photo by Chris Milliman.

I guess that's what happens when you're also known for penning a book called Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Cycling's Most Controversial Champion; Strickland spent months taking notes in the back of the team Astana vans as Armstrong and manager Johan Bruyneel plotted to retake the race that they had conquered a staggering seven times previously before a brief retirement. Armstrong was clipped in that 2009 comeback race by his own teammate Alberto Contador, and subsequently lost the rest of his titles as well when the peloton omerta about systematic drug use finally cracked wide open.

In the following email interview, edited for clarity, Strickland tells Gelf why Armstrong's story isn't a cycling one, argues that Armstrong deserves his wins, and clarifies the difference between an evil person and, well, a dick.

Gelf Magazine: Your take when you last spoke to Gelf is that Lance doped but isn't evil. Some of the USADA reports make him sound like a bully, though, and occasionally evil toward his teammates and their wives. Have you changed how you feel about his character, outside of the doping?

Bill Strickland: Bully, sure, I guess. (Although I always thought bullies were the mean kids in schools and when we became adults and lived in a world of legalities, it was intimidation. But, hell, even the people who wrote the report are calling it "bullying.") I could probably claim that he bullied me a few times through all the years, or tried to, but when it happened I always just thought of it as him being a dick. I read the entire USADA report, went through all the supplemental material, and read every affidavit. The guy did some awful stuff, no doubt, some of it perhaps criminal, much of it unsavory, and I think it is the sum of all his actions, rather than just the doping, that eventually brought him down. But evil? Nah. The same way he was never a saint. The last few paragraphs of George Hincapie's affidavit are especially worth reading in this regard.

[Editor's Note: Here are excerpts from the end of Hincapie's affidavit:

I continue to regard Lance Armstrong as a great cyclist, and I continue to be proud to be his friend and to have raced with him for many years.
While I understand that the choices we made were wrong, I understand why we made them and why, at the time, we felt justified in making them. I do not condemn Lance for making those choices and I do not wish to be condemned for the choices I made.

Gelf Magazine: You pointed out that Lance was a bad-ass racer, as well. Did he dope better or smarter than his opponents, or did the doping just level the playing field and that he and his teammates deserved the wins, in that sense?

Bill Strickland: It seems apparent to me he brought the same vigor, focus, discipline, and methodical outlook to doping that he brought to the rest of his preparation, whether that was training or going after the best bikes he could, or figuring out pretty simply, but brilliantly, that he should just go ahead and hire as many of his biggest rivals as he could, so he wouldn't have to compete against them.
Did he deserve the wins? I think if you look at the era and the riders who just finished behind him, it's hard to say he didn't beat all of them at the game they'd all agreed to play. Are there riders farther down in those standings who rode clean, or cleaner, and could have beaten him? All we can say is maybe. I think in 50 years, people will remember him as the winner of those Tours.

Gelf Magazine: Do the new revelations, and everything that's come out about Lance, lessen in retrospect your enjoyment of those Tours he won, plus the one you followed in 2009?

Bill Strickland: Interesting question—and something I've been all over the place with. It's not exactly enjoyment, but my perspective of those Tours is bigger now, wider, deeper, rangier, messier. It's much more challenging to think about the Tours, and their great moments, and who won this stage or that stage or was first over which climb. Cycling fans really might be the first postmodern sports fans, the ones who figure out how to grapple with the newly fluid nature of victory, failure, and the revision of history—the chance that something we witnessed in person will later never officially have happened.
With cycling, for the fans, I don't think it's ever been primarily about the wins. Those are so many little moments in cycling, so many alliances and betrayals and disasters and rebirths on the road that the win just kind of signals the end of the race rather than embodying the race.

Gelf Magazine: What do you make of Pat McQuaid, who seems to be telling all of the peloton that they're scumbags or that they make him sick?

Bill Strickland: FIFA, UCI, IOC—I didn't like my seventh-grade student council, and my opinion of high-level administrators has never changed since.

Gelf Magazine: How do you feel when the national media and conversation are all about cycling, like they were after the recent report? Is it nice to see the sport get some attention, no matter the reason? Any dismay at misinformation in the reports?

Bill Strickland: Right before I was going on one of the morning news shows—on CNN, I think—an Italian cyclist named Fiorenzo Magni died. He was 91 or 92. He was "The Great Third," the cyclist who had the unfortunate fate of being born so as to race against Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali—the two giants of Italian cycling and, in Fausto's case, a rider who became known as "il campionissimo," not just a champion but "The Champion." Eddy Merckx himself, the greatest cyclist who ever lived, once told me that he thought Fausto may have been better.
I went on that news show and I answered the questions they asked me about Lance.
What I think about Magni has nothing to do with whether 100 million people drinking coffee at their kitchen tables know that he ever existed, let alone that he died. I get it. Cycling is a weird sport. I don't expect the general audience to understand or appreciate its nuances or all the folds of this story. The Lance story is no longer a cycling story, but a story about the downfall of a one-name celebrity who was a beacon of hope to those suffering from one of the remaining scourges of mankind. Can you imagine how huge this would be if, instead of pedaling a bike, he had instead been born with the ability to throw a baseball and had come back from cancer and gone on to dope his way into pitching in seven straight World Series final games for the Yankees?
My dismay, I guess, might be that, oddly, right now cycling is probably the cleanest pro sport of any decent size but has been branded as the dirty one.

Gelf Magazine: Who is the cyclist you wish people were talking more about, whose story you'd like to yell out when people ask you about Lance, Lance, Lance?

Bill Strickland: Look, this has been going on since he started winning. Even during his streak, even before almost anyone started to imagine he was doping, it was apparent that so many great stories and great riders were being ignored for Lance. He transcended the boundaries of the sport, which was good for the sport in some ways, bad for it in others. He brought in a lot of fans whose interest pretty much starts and stops with the Tour de France. I don't expect those fans, or the general public, to suddenly care about Jurgen van den Broeck or even Taylor Phinney. I think it's possible to expand a love of cycling to a much larger public, but it is a complex, maddening sport based on principles that reward breaking alliances as much as forming them. There's no walk-off homer. It doesn't go to penalty kicks. People who fall in love with the sport understand it better than people who fall in love with a rider.

Gelf Magazine: You say that cycling is a "sport based on principles that reward breaking alliances as much as forming them." Does that mean that the riders at the pinnacle of the sport are, by design, selfish assholes?

Bill Strickland: Ha—it means they're great cyclists. But it's like this, even at my crappy amateur level: Say I attack the field and get away with three or four other racers. We all know, then, that even though we are rivals, even through some of us might dislike or even hate the other, that we will need to cooperate to have any chance to stay away from the pack. So we do, but we all know there will come a moment when we will turn on each other in the most vicious way—we need to cooperate until the chance of winning seems high, then we will attack each other, lessening or even ruining the chance often that any of us will win. What's more, in that little breakaway might be someone who would be delighted just to take fifth place, and someone else who normally would win easily but has a cold he is hiding from the others and so would be delighted to finish as high as third. There might be another guy whose teammate is stuck back in the pack but who just has to win the field sprint, not the race or even not catch the break in order to win the season-long points series if his teammate in the break can just beat rider X who also is in the break. There are all these little wins and losses going on underneath the win.

[Editor's Note: The last two questions originally used the phrase "zero-sum" incorrectly due to an editing mishap. Apologies for any confusion.]

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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