When news first broke earlier this year that Lance Armstrong might join a cancer charity ride that coincides with the 2015 Tour de France, the general reaction was, how dare he?
Twitterati piled on. There was outrage, indignation, and a sense that Armstrong was trying to rub it in the nose of bike fans. Even UCI president Brian Cookson chimed in, saying, “I think that’s completely inappropriate and disrespectful to the Tour.”
The man behind the charity ride, former professional soccer player Geoff Thomas, obviously has a very different point of view. A survivor of leukemia more than 10 years ago, Armstrong served as a small but important source of inspiration in his own battle against cancer. When he decided to trace the Tour de France route one day ahead of the professional peloton, something he did in 2005, Thomas thought that having Armstrong along for the ride might be a good idea.
Now 50, Thomas could have never guessed the reaction to his decision to invite Armstrong along for the ride. The story has gone viral, pushing his “One Day Ahead” charity ride into headlines around the world. Thomas expected some blowback, but he said he doesn’t care. For him, it’s all about fighting cancer, and as a survivor, Armstrong still carries some weight.
Thomas and a group of 20 cyclists are planning to trace the entire Tour route, riding the day’s stage on open roads a full 24 hours before the peloton arrives. Armstrong will pre-ride two stages in transition days between the Pyrénées and Alps, a choice made in part to avoid the big crowds that would already be building on the mountain passes.
Thomas is hoping Armstrong’s presence helps get the word out about his charity, but he certainly doesn’t want it to turn into a media circus.
Just days before the start of the Tour de France, Thomas took a call from VeloNews to talk about his decision to invite Armstrong, how it happened, and what they’re trying to do.
VeloNews: You have your own story of cancer survivorship, tell us about that.
Geoff Thomas: In 2003, just after I retired from professional football, I was diagnosed with leukemia. At first, I was given three months to live. What cancer does is make you think totally different about life, and the path you were previously on. Lance Armstrong played a small, but important part in my fight against cancer. I read his book [“It’s Not About the Bike”] just two days after I was diagnosed. It became a critical part of my life. He became a spark for a positive mindset to take on this challenge of cancer. I can never forget that.
VN: Tell us about your plans to pre-ride the Tour stages this year, and what you hope to accomplish.
GT: I did it 10 years ago, just a year after my cancer was in remission, in 2005. A journalist friend of mine said, “why don’t you try to ride ahead of the Tour?” So me and four journalists did it. We survived, but some days we were 13 hours in the saddle. I was a pro footballer for 18 years, but riding the Tour route gave me a very good understanding of the torture these guys go through. From that, I became dedicated to raising money, and raising awareness about blood cancer. In December 2005, I won an award from BBC here in the UK. I raised a quarter of a million pounds for cancer research in 2005. So now it’s come full circle. It’s been 10 years on, I want to celebrate surviving cancer, to tell my story, to raise money for cancer. Our goal is to raise 1 million pounds.
VN: How did Armstrong become involved?
GT: This idea started about a year ago, to ride the Tour route again a decade later, and I started to think about a possible involvement with Lance. Through one of my journalist friends, I got in touch with Emma O’Reilly [former U.S. Postal Service soigneur]. I just needed to sit down with her, and ask her what she thought. Somewhat surprisingly, she thought it was a great idea to get Lance involved. Lance was a good friend of hers before things got nasty, just like it did with a lot of people, and Emma represented one of those people who were most damaged. For her to say that she had forgiven Lance, and that she considers him a friend again, so for me, if Emma was talking that way, maybe it could work.
VN: Armstrong obviously brings a lot of baggage, are you worried that it might be more disruptive than productive to have him involved?
GT: I felt like it was the right thing to do. If I could get Lance involved, it would help raise awareness. We have found tremendous doctors, and it would be a way to accelerate their work. And that’s my only aim here, to save lives. I know I’ve opened a can of worms here, and I realize it’s up to debate if it’s appropriate, but I try to think about the bigger picture. As a former sportsman myself, you cannot defend his actions. Anyone who crosses the line to achieve what they did is wrong. I am not that naïve about the world of cycling. I have spoken to many ex-pros, to journalists, I have read all the books, and I know how things were in those days. What I certainly don’t want to do is protect Lance, but rather to recognize him as a cancer survivor, and the work he’s done for the cancer community.
VN: So you never met Armstrong before approaching him with the idea of joining your charity ride?
GT: Never. There was a brief message written to me on a note in 2005 when I was pre-riding the Tour, but I never met him that year. During the BBC awards, he presented me with my award via satellite, but I never met him in person.
VN: So how did you approach him about possibly joining your effort?
GT: After talking to Emma, I got his number through a journalist friend, and I called him up to start a conversation, just to get a feel of where he was. At a certain point, I knew I needed to see him face-to-face, so I flew out to see him in Colorado. I had read so many things about him, but I just wanted to get a grasp of where he wanted to go. What struck me most, and he is quite an intense guy, that after awhile, when he started to open up a bit, was that how frustrated he was that he’s not allowed to do what he could do before in the fight against cancer. What he did during his sport career has also affected his ability to fight cancer, and that’s a source of major frustration. He accepts what he’s done is wrong, and he’s apologized for it the best way he can, but from what I could see, he’s desperate to get back to helping the cancer community. I just started to think, maybe the time is right.
VN: Why did you feel the need to reach out to Armstrong, someone who is quite toxic in the cycling community?
GT: I just started to think the time was right. Why now? For me, it’s been 10 years of being cancer-free and pre-riding the Tour course, and this guy [Armstrong] was a big part of what I was trying to set out to do. I knew there would be people who were dead set against it. But when you’ve been through a battle for own life, when you’ve fought cancer, it gives you a very different perspective on life. To me, fighting cancer and trying to save lives is much more important than what he might have done on his bike. In no way am I defending what he did, but that’s how I can justify what I am doing. By having him involved, we’ve already helped raise attention to our cause. Now we’re able to accelerate funding into the people who need it for the battle against blood cancer. I have to keep banging away at that. Everyone is asking about Lance, but for me, this is only about fighting cancer.
VN: How have people reacted within the cancer community?
GT: People have said a lot of things, that he used the cancer community as sort of a shield. But when you’re diagnosed with cancer, it doesn’t matter how rich you are, how famous you are. You’re stripped down to just you against cancer. At that moment, you’re alone, and it’s a very, very dark place. When I was diagnosed, Lance’s book was a spark, it helped give me hope. I know the cancer community is pretty tight, and I think they can understand that experience. Look, I know this Armstrong question is going to be asked forever, but I have to stick to my guns. It was never my aim to disrespect anyone, to upset people, but rather to spread the word to a wider audience and to gain more finances to fight cancer. And having Lance even agreeing to participate, we’ve already done that.
VN: Have you had any reaction from Tour de France organizers? Or from the cycling governing body?
GT: We were in touch with the Tour organization even before Lance was involved. Once the Lance news broke, Christian Prudhomme said publicly what he told us, that the road is a public roadway, on the day before the Tour, and that we could do anything we wanted, but that they could not get involved. From my experience in 2005, there are going to be parts of the roadway that are pretty empty, and other parts that will already be packed with people, especially in the mountains. We are working with a French group that helps with some support cars. It’s kind of like a rolling road closure, but on open roads. That’s why we were respectful when selecting the stages that we would do with Lance. We don’t want to antagonize too many people. You just don’t know what the reaction is going to be. If you go on Twitter, there are a small, but very loud minority who think this is a terrible idea, but I think a lot of people think enough is enough. And what we’re trying to do is good for the future of cancer research.
VN: What has Armstrong said about what the reaction he might see on the road?
GT: He’s aware there might be a negative reaction. To be fair to Lance, he’s damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. We’ve talked a lot about what he could do. The general idea is that we’re going to stay quiet. We’re not going to do any press conferences. He’s going to be there to ride a few days, to give the guys a lift, and to keep focused on the cause. He’s not there to antagonize anyone. It’s as simple as that.
VN: So what days will Armstrong join your group?
GT: We will be one day ahead of the Tour, so he will ride the routes with us on stage 13 and stage 14, which would be July 16 and July 17.
VN: You have a group of cyclists who are taking part in the fundraiser, what was their reaction when you suggested to them you wanted Armstrong to join the ride?
GT: A few of them were skeptical at first. Lance offered to have them come out to Colorado, and Lance was a great host. Each of them paid their own way, and we went up some of the steep climbs in Colorado. They came back with a new outlook about what was ahead of them, and they said they were surprised about how well they got along with this much-maligned character. Knowing that Lance is coming out to join us on the ride for a few days is making everyone excited in the group. I am hoping for a positive response all around, but I am not naïve enough to know there won’t be a bit of noise around it.
VN: What’s been the general reaction to Armstrong’s participation?
GT: I would say 80 percent to 90 percent has been positive, but from within the cycling community, with the pure cyclist, the reaction has been different. I am more worried about the cancer community, but I can understand why the cycling community is so upset. There seems to be a small minority which is very loud in making known their feelings, but for the most part, people have been supportive. I’ve been speaking to journalists in America, in Australia, in Italy, and I knew this was going to happen, but again, Lance’s participation has already helped us achieve what we want to achieve. This is about helping the cancer community, and the doctors who are doing great work that’s often just swept under the rug. If I have to take a little abuse, well, my shoulders are broad enough. I’ve been through a hell of a lot worse than some people criticizing me on Twitter.