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Commentary: We should still ask Lance Armstrong hard questions

Lance Armstrong has always wielded power over the media — and that compels us to keep asking hard questions.

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Lance Armstrong has spent the last five years talking about the past. And there are some in the cycling media who think that is long enough.

As you may have seen today, VeloNews features an interview with Lance Armstrong conducted by Joe Harris and Steve Maxwell at The Outer Line (Maxwell is a co-owner of VeloNews). The piece has caused a stir within the VeloNews editorial staff because Maxwell and Harris informed Armstrong prior to their interview that they had no intention to ask him about his past.

“This endless harping about the past isn’t doing anything to fix the sport — in fact, it’s probably only damaging it further,” Armstrong told Maxwell and Harris. “The sport needs to be realistic, and talk about where to focus our efforts and attention going forward.”

I respect Armstrong’s desire to move forward — as a cycling fan, I’m so tired of reliving his story. Yet I strongly disagree with the viewpoint that cycling media should give up on those tough questions about the past. Especially when Armstrong gives such few interviews to cycling-specific reporters these days.

The Outer Line’s interview is consistent with Armstrong’s current mission to focus on the future and move beyond his unpleasant history. Over the past year, Armstrong has made huge strides toward that goal. His weekly podcast is a smash success. Outside magazine invited him to write a cycling blog during the Tour de France. He even fronts a personal brand — called Wedu — and sells stylish apparel online. All of Armstrong’s projects look to the future.

It’s easy to understand why. After his public downfall in 2013, Armstrong spent years recounting his past to mainstream reporters on both sides of the Atlantic. And when he completed the media cycle, Armstrong put forth a compelling argument: He had released every secret, apologized for every crime. Those who still had questions about the past were simply haters.

Lest we forget, the Lance Armstrong story is a big and complex yarn involving shadiness on a monumental scale that went on for more than a decade. Armstrong rose to the pinnacle of a sport that was rotted with corruption and performance-enhancing drugs. He did not create cycling’s doping problem, yet he and his team unquestionably took it to new depths, due to their resources, dedication, and organization. And various other parties had some level of involvement with the scam: Personal managers, team liaisons, federations, sponsors, and even media.

Yes, the mainstream media has thoroughly picked over the Armstrong story. But cycling is our sport. We know it better than the BBC, better than Oprah. And our sport will forever battle doping controversies and conspiracies. So to simply brush off cycling’s biggest-ever conspiracy as case closed is, in my mind, lazy reporting. Sure, we should be interested in Armstrong’s current projects within cycling. And no, we may not want to plumb the depths of Armstrong’s story every day. Yet we should use what little access we get to ask real questions. Because every time we do plumb the depths, something new and interesting bubbles to the surface that, in my mind, helps us better understand the overall picture.

During last year’s Tour de France I asked veteran reporters to recall their experiences during the Lance Armstrong era. I heard common stories: harassing phone calls and emails from Armstrong or his handlers during and — after the publication of stories — repeated threats of legal action against journalists who wrote critically of Armstrong. Access was given to those who asked easy questions and denied to those who asked tough ones.

The anecdotes were often funny. Multiple reporters mimicked Armstrong’s menacing phone calls with a similar voice (think Christian Bale as Batman, only a bit higher pitched). After hearing each story, I had so many questions.

“He told my boss that I was a terrible journalist and that he had a dossier on me of my earlier articles,” said Reed Albergotti, who covered Armstrong for The Wall Street Journal and co-wrote the book “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever.”

“He would message my editor insulting things about me, including stuff about the way I looked,” Albergotti added. “He knew I was a cyclist and he said I was too fat to be a cyclist.”

Did Armstrong really have a dossier on Albergotti? Who compiled it? How did Armstrong know Albergotti was, er, heavy? Or that he was an amateur cyclist? How much time did Armstrong dedicate to investigating this guy?

Jeremy Whittle was editor of Procycling Magazine between 1999 and 2005 and is a long-time cycling correspondent for The Times. He said that much of Armstrong’s power over the press came from his blacklist — Armstrong granted interviews to some non-critical journalists while denying any access to others. For editors, his name guaranteed circulation and advertising revenue and, for reporters, access guaranteed a paycheck. But those who wrote critically of the American quickly saw their access cut off.

This happened to Whittle in 2000 after he wrote an initial story questioning Armstrong. After that, there was no more access. Whittle said press conferences became impossible — either his attempts to ask questions were ignored, or Armstrong simply moved on to “next question” when Whittle asked. When he asked Bruyneel why it was so difficult to get an interview with Armstrong, the Belgian denied that there was any problem.

“It was a steep learning curve because they held all the power. When you’re editing a specialist magazine and it pays your mortgage and that of the people you work with, you’re conflicted — and Lance knew that. I felt a strong responsibility toward editorial integrity, but at the same time you don’t want to get the magazine closed down,” Whittle said. “I really struggled with it, but in the end, I walked away from pro cycling for a while.”

Who managed Armstrong’s media blacklist? Were there friendly reporters who helped him with it? With so many stories written about him, how many people were charged with reading Armstrong’s press to determine which reporters were friendly and which were not? What level of negativity did a journalist have to attain to be added to it? And how cognizant was Armstrong of the wants and needs of the endemic press?

Irish reporter David Walsh said Armstrong’s manager, Bill Stapleton, threatened to sue him several times prior to the eventual 2004 lawsuit Armstrong filed against Walsh and The Sunday Times. Armstrong’s camp tried multiple methods to win him over prior to the suit, Walsh said.

“[Stapleton] approached me and said, ‘We know what you’re writing, and if you take a less aggressive tack in your approach, we could provide regular access to Lance,’” Walsh said. “He told me if I continued reporting about [doping], they were going to react. I asked if that was a threat. ‘You’re damned right it is,’ he said.”

How often did guaranteed access actually coerce journalists to drop the doping angle? How often did legal action do the trick? Which journalists caved to threats like these?

In July I even interviewed Felix Magowan, who along with Maxwell, purchased VeloNews in October. Magowan owned VeloNews from 1988 until 2008 and said that Armstrong pressured cycling sponsors to avoid advertising with the publication after the magazine put a hypodermic needle on the cover in 2004.

“We unquestionably lost money because we had critical coverage,” Magowan said.

Did any brands follow Armstrong’s orders? How did he enforce this type of request?

All of these anecdotes point toward a well-planned media strategy that obfuscated Armstrong’s real story for years. I joined VeloNews in 2004, and during my early years, I marveled at the information gap that existed between cycling’s reporters and its hardcore fans. Fans worshipped Armstrong like some type of deity, while the journalists rattled off stories about his various misdeeds. Yet nobody dared publish such stories, for fear of lawsuits, harassment, or loss of access.

Now, I’ve watched the Armstrong documentaries, read the books, and listened to the interviews. Armstrong has never spoken in depth about this media strategy, revealed who else was involved in it, or provided details for how he so thoroughly duped reporters for a decade. We know he did it, but we really don’t know how he did it.

None of the people I spoke to seek an apology from Armstrong, or aim to punish him further. The guy has a lifetime ban, after all, so what damage can these stories from the past even cause? Instead, cycling journalists simply want to understand the entire picture of the Armstrong story. Perhaps that deeper understanding can help cycling identify media meddling like this going forward.

And you can apply this logic to the various other chapters of Armstrong’s story: Sponsorship, sport governance, team ownership, etc. What more will bubble up if we continue to ask tough questions? We will never know until we ask. And we will never know if we simply tell Armstrong that we just want to ask him about the future.

And even then, Armstrong has the power to tell us to take a hike. That’s what happened when I reached out this past summer to ask Armstrong about his media strategy from the good old days.

Through his longtime PR rep, Mark Higgins, Armstrong declined my request for an interview.