The thing that surprised me most about the Lance Armstrong news from last week was that I had any opinion about it at all. From 1999 to 2005, Armstrong’s dominance in a sport I didn’t care about was so complete, I didn’t have any reason to think about him. His success was like the sun rising: a sure thing.
But when I did start to think about him, or when those yellow bracelets came out, I didn’t like him at all. Those bracelets are still the worst. Even now, I’m not sure what they mean, other than being against bad things happening to good people. I’m against that too, but those the bracelets yellow-coat cancer. Cancer isn’t this new, singular pandemic that scientists are just a few grants short of funding to crack. It’s a million kinds of diseases, each of which needs its own treatment. And it’s been around since the beginning, though back in ancient Greece, dysentery struck before testicular cancer. More people die of cancer now because they have to die of something. Being against cancer is like being against the human condition, but you don’t see Woody Allen hawking bracelets that say LIVENERVOUS.
When Armstrong’s teammates started coming out against him, I was easily convinced that Armstrong had doped, if only to have another bullet point in an argument against those bracelets. And anyway performance-enhancing drugs are so pervasive in cycling and Armstrong had been the preeminent cyclist: it made sense that his blood was thicker than it should have been. And after George Hincapie’s testimony, believing Armstrong was clean was like believing in Santa Claus. As a Jewish non-cyclist, I had no reason to believe in either.
I had never considered Lance Armstrong’s talent until I went trail running in Leadville, Colorado. Armstrong has competed several times in the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race. On my run, I went up Powerline, a 3.4 mile stretch with a 1,300 foot gain that is included in the bike course. The first part is even steeper, but no statistics are readily available from a cursory google search, so this picture will have to do:
Walking quickly up that first half mile was difficult, and pushing a mountain bike up it would have been a pain. One of the guys I was running with told me that Armstrong was the first guy to ride up it, which I can’t even imagine. But I did get, finally, that Lance Armstrong is an incredible athlete.
The thing that’s often overlooked in discussions about performance enhancing drugs is that they are not a short cut. If anything, they’re the opposite. These drugs improve recovery time, so athletes can train harder.
For instance, last night, I didn’t follow through on my last speed repeat because I have a very limited interest in lactic acid pain. No performance-enhancing drug could change that in me. But if I were taking a drug, I’d be less sore this morning, and I’d be able to do speedwork again tonight. The extra workout, not the drug, would be what would make me faster.
So while this Nike commercial is now kind of awkward, it’s not inaccurate:
Lance Armstrong was on his bike, busting his ass six hours a day. The fact that he probably had more red blood cells in his system than was natural has nothing to do with his commitment to the sport.
The people who can now dismiss Lance Armstrong as a cheat or a coward are being intellectually lazy. Lance Armstrong did cheat, sure, but that doesn’t change what he accomplished. There’s no performance-enhancing drug for hard work.