There is such a thing as wanting to win too badly. Lance Armstrong and his team are examples of that, as are, it seems, the majority of cyclists in the Tour de France over the last 15 years or so. Yesterday, the USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency), came out with its case against Lance Armstrong, and my hope in him was finally crushed.
I have been a Lance Armstrong fan, not because of his personality, but because of his Herculean feat of winning 7 Tours and surviving cancer. Until recently, I was a cyclist myself, and I am still one at heart. The Tour awes me every year. But each year, it seemed, one more person was coming out saying Lance cheated. Not just the fans or the losing team, but his actual Teammates. Floyd Landis won the Tour, got busted for doping, and he squealed on Lance his former teammate. Sour grapes, I thought. Then others came forward. Alberto Contador got busted as well. Teammate after teammate got busted, and still Lance tested clean.
And then, Lance stopped fighting the charges, out of the blue. He had always fought. He beat Hans Ulrich (also busted for doping) up the mountains in an epic test of will and power after being crashed by a bystander. Seven times he rode to the podium in the yellow jersey, and now he just quit?
Now I know why. Of the eleven who testified, Hincapie was one of them. Most people do not realize that cycling is a team sport, but it is. Drafting is huge in cycling. The guy who rides in front of you, creating a hole in the wind, that guy saves you 30% of your effort. For years, Lance’s bullet in the breeze was George Hincapie. I loved Hincapie, the faithful domestique. He worked hard for Lance, for the team, and he got little glory for it. He spent his efforts to make certain that Lance made it to the podium, too wasted from the effort to win the day in the mountains. Hincapie never stood on the podium, but rest assured that Lance would not have been there without him.
And now, Hincapie says that he himself cheated, and that everyone on the postal team cheated. It was expected of them. Hincapie said, “Early in my professional career, it became clear to me that, given the widespread use of performance enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them.” You can read about the USADA’s reports here, here, and here. In the report, eleven of Lance’s former teammates testified against the team. All I would have needed to hear, as a fan, was one of them. When Hincapie said, “I cheated,” for me it was over. If Hincapie was dirty, I could no longer believe.
And now, I am angry. And grieved. I am grieved that an entire sport became so infected with the drive to win that they forgot that winning isn’t everything. Sports build camaraderie, trust in others, the ability to work as a team, and the humility to put others over self. Cheating rips at the fabric of the sport, because it betrays the very honest nature of competition. What’s more, it robs people of their achievements and hard work. It forgets that the camaraderie of the sport is built on trust and team and others over self, even those others who aren’t on your team.
What about the guy who didn’t cheat all those years the sport was infected with it? We don’t know his name. Because of his principles, he may not have even made a team. He raced in some obscure league with obscure teammates, and yet he could have stood on the podium in the place of Lance Armstrong. He could have been a hero, but Lance and his team stole that from him. It is foul. It is wicked. It is the antithesis of sports.
Lance and his team played two games. One was on the Tour, and one was with the doping commission. They were a bicycle length ahead in both games, but the commission has finally caught up. The tragedy is that the best man who didn’t cheat will not be found. The titles for those years will be vacated. No one wins, and the true man of the hour is lost to history.
Lance Armstrong is still holed up somewhere claiming that he did not cheat. He dropped out of the fight against the USADA because he knew he couldn’t win, and for Lance, all there is is winning. So he took what victory he could; he played the martyr and went home when the race was lost to him. He has not confessed. He has not repented, and he is as guilty as can be. If a thing is confirmed with two or three witnesses, eleven is surely a closed case.
As I grieve over this travesty, the only thing that really brings me any hope is imagining that lone rider that didn’t cheat. That mythical man who gave up the podium and fame for the sake of his integrity. In my mind, he is still riding, alone but victorious, over the unseen opponents of greed and selfishness that Lance has yet to master.