Notes from the Scrum: A hero torn down

Reporter Matthew Beaudin laments believing the unbelievable

“Ultimately a hero is a man who would argue with the gods, and so awakens devils to contest his vision. The more a man can achieve, the more he may be certain that the devil will inhabit a part of his creation.”
—Norman Mailer

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — I was 16 years old, and Lance Armstrong was riding away from the Tour de France. Impossibly. He got lucky on the Passage du Gois split, and won the three individual time trials. Of course, until he didn’t win them. But I didn’t know that, then.

I woke up early before working my summer job to watch the big stages in the years that followed, enthralled by a sport that I had never competed in. I grew up playing football; the European peloton was the furthest thing from my athletic understanding possible. It was no matter.

For six more summers I belonged to the July ritual: Talk about the Tour, rue the long days between the race’s decisive moments and (now) ridiculous attacks. I’d watch the stage twice a day if I could, once with breakfast and once with dinner. Remember the musette? The time trial in the rain when it appeared as if a lean Jan Ullrich had him? The field above Gap. Everyone remembers Armstrong, running through the field. Looking back now, it was all so clearly unbelievable that we’re fools for buying it, for believing what he was on, famously, was simply a bike.

But here was an archetypal hero personified — the closest thing we ever saw in the athletic arena to perfection. Like Jordan, like Gretzky, Armstrong’s greatness was one so immense it suspended the disbelief of everyone; it made you feel privileged to watch.

When I got a copy of the initial charges against Armstrong and his cadre of doctors and Johan Bruyneel, my journalist heart raced. A sea change. I had a quiver of arrows on my back and began to fire them at the shrinking caricature of the hero Lance Armstrong. One-by-one, I shot them, noting the far-reaching doping conspiracy, the incessant drug use and the bully he’d perhaps always been but was now becoming to the broader world.

It’s a strange feeling, smashing your words into the statue of a hero and lashing yourself in the process for being ignorant enough to believe in such greatness.

In college, I kept an old U.S. Postal Service advertisement from a magazine, a photo of Lance Armstrong, mouth open, slicing through the rain in a Postal skinsuit. His face was impossibly lean. I still can see it, tucked into the drawer of my desk. The man was a hero, at least to those of us who watched him on TV every July and didn’t know any better. How many of you had yellow bracelets? I did.

Now, of course, we know better. We know that it may have well been nitrous oxide pounding through his veins. We know his wins were part science experiment and part bike race. It must be cycling’s darkest time, this EPO and blood transfusion cold war in which the Americans triumphed hugely. What a shame.

The question is, what do we do with our memories? Can I really forget the image of Armstrong riding the Alpe d’Huez time trial, absolutely on fire and, clearly, so far beyond the scope of normal human potential? No, I can’t.

This is scorched earth for an American cycling fan. We’re told someone doesn’t matter in the history books anymore, that none of the things we ever saw actually happened.

We wanted to believe in unconscionable achievement, and the story was overwhelming. When it comes to heroes, human beings are inherently fallible, often as flawed as those held up to the sky and called great. Armstrong turned out to be a hologram hero, as most of them are. We don’t know the names of the real greats from those years, who felt the screws of human pain and un-medicated ability. We didn’t care about them, because they finished 65th or somewhere else in the basement.

The true irony is that Lance Armstrong is probably why I’m here, writing for VeloNews. I grew up around road racing (my father, Chris, can still ride away from me on a climb, no handed) but it wasn’t until Armstrong won the Tour de France in absolute American fashion that the road world mattered to me. It’s hard not to feel hoodwinked, notably when paying homage to one of Armstrong’s most memorable moments. This was his defiant statement after he won his seventh and final Tour de France:

Finally, the last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics and the skeptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry that you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles. But this is one hell of a race. This is a great sporting event and you should stand around and believe it. You should believe in these athletes, and you should believe in these people. I’ll be a fan of the Tour de France for as long as I live. And there are no secrets — this is a hard sporting event and hard work wins it. So Vive le Tour forever!

Well, I’m sorry for you, Lance Armstrong. That you made us all tear you down once and for all, and that you’ll walk around with shoeboxes of unwanted memories stuffed full of stolen time in July. But I agree with you. There were no secrets then. We see that now. Vive le Tour, forever.