This story appeared in the November/December print issue of VeloNews Magazine.
By the time Lance Armstrong sat down with Oprah Winfrey in January of 2013, the cycling world knew what was coming. Several months before, the United States Anti-Doping Agency had published its damning report on Armstrong’s years-long doping conspiracy, and banned him from competition for life.
The decision ended a two-year investigation into Armstrong by the federal government, which was delayed by the lawsuits Armstrong filed to stop the inquiry. And for years before that, enough credible accusations had been made by Armstrong’s former teammates and staff to convince many hardcore fans and media members alike that Armstrong had won his seven Tours de France with the aid of illegal substances.
Yet Armstrong hadn’t admitted to any wrongdoing before his meeting with Oprah. USADA even offered him a reduced punishment if he agreed to admit and share details of how he and his team of doctors and business agents obfuscated the truth for so long. But Armstrong passed on the chance, a decision that sealed his fate.
“When I hear that there are people who will never believe me I understand that,” Armstrong said, after admitting to having used EPO, Human Growth Hormone, and other substances. “One of the steps of this process is to say sorry. I was wrong, you were right.”
Armstrong’s downfall was quick and expensive. His major sponsors jettisoned him, which he later said cost him nearly $100 million. The history books erased his seven Tour victories. Before each mention in press reports, the word “disgraced” was added to his name.
And the impact that his downfall had on pro cycling was both immediate and long-lasting. Pro cycling and the Tour de France became a punchline in mainstream media—how could anyone follow a sport where the greatest champion cheated?
Mainstream brands like Radio Shack, Nissan, and Volkswagen fled the sport. American TV ratings for the Tour de France tanked. Across the American cycling scene, race promoters and team managers watched as potential sponsors refused to return phone calls and emails.
For years after the Oprah appearance, American road racing sagged under financial hard times and falling participation. Was this spiral all the fault of Armstrong? Of course not. Did Armstrong’s public black eye contribute? It’s undeniable that it did.
Armstrong didn’t invent doping, of course, but his dogged denial of the truth, and mean-spirited pursuit of those who accused him, created a dark cloud over pro cycling that lasted for years. His downfall was hardly the most positive story of the decade. But it’s undeniable that it was one of the most impactful, which is why, despite its negative nature, the story belongs on the list.
Years later, Armstrong mounted yet another comeback as a member of the cycling media. He launched a podcast called The Move, where he discussed cycling with his co-conspirator in the doping case, Johan Bruyneel. The podcast was one of the most downloaded sports podcasts of 2019.