The Tour De France ended today, and for another year I not only missed seeing a single minute of it, I barely knew it was happening and only knew pretty much two names in it (the two most famous: 4-time winner Chris Froome and 3-time world champ Peter Sagan). This has been a pretty big change for both Ash and I, considering that not only did we watch many stages of Le Tour on TV back in early 2000's, but we actually went and rode through the Pyrenees in 2003 and saw three or four stages come by. But now we pay about as much attention to the tour these days as we do pro basketball, which is to say not at all. Why? In a nutshell....because of Lance Armstrong.
I probably know more than I care to admit about Lance; I remember being ecstatic watching him win the 1993 world championship road race and followed his results closely as he won national championships (one or two in Park City!), tried the tour, got and beat cancer, and then of course riding and winning the Tour. I read his first two books (It's Not About the Bike and Every Second Counts) and even as the drug scandals kept rocking the sport I believed the likes of Lance, Tyler Hamilton, and Floyd Landis who all had good reasons/rationale for not doing performance enhancing drugs, and like a lot of people I wanted to believe that they were clean, so I did. But even as I followed the sport and admired Lance's work ethic, singular focus (the Tour), leadership, and raw cycling strength and prowess, I had a big reason to not "like" him (as if he cared): basically, he was a complete and utter asshole.
I have friends who worked with him at Nike who told me that Armstrong was ferociously difficult to work with, and at one point Lance told Nike's president Mark Parker to fire the guy who had started and championed the Livestrong deal at Nike even as that guy was one of the Nike prez's oldest and best friends because my friend dared to stand up to Lance and call bullshit on him (and Parker did indeed fire my friend), his vicious character asassinations of detractors - including ex-team members like Hamilton and Kevin Livingston who naturally wanted to go to lead teams of their own was disturbing, and it was well known that he was obsessed with what people said about him. It was quite clear to me that despite his fame and success that he was still ferociously insecure, and that insecurity manifested itself in a pathological desire to arrogantly dominate literally everyone, all the time. The same unfortunate characteristic that our current president has. Their brashness and braggadocio is widely perceived as confidence, but in my notso-humble opinion, it's exactly the opposite.
Of course, the rest is history: over time the house of cards started to crumble and the longtime testimonies of investigative journalist David Walsh ("The Little Troll", according to Lance) and "That Bitch" Betsy Andreu turned out to be true, defrocked Tour winner Floyd Landis filed for protection under whistleblower status and testified that Armstrong had defrauded the US Postal service, the US Justice Department joined Landis' lawsuit, and that was the beginning of The End for Lance (this April, Lance was ordered to pay the USPS $5M and Landis $1.1M). In the meantime, Lance had his infamous confessional with Oprah, where he admitted guilt but was still clearly not very contrite about it, and it confirmed yet again that he was a total dick.
This spring, despite my better judgement, I saw a copy of The Wheelmen and read it; it's a quick read as the comprehensive story of Lance and the other players in the "Greatest Sports Controversy In History." Apparently my apathy for the sport that was generated by the concept that "they are all cheating and are all assholes" was overcome by my curiosity regarding the lurid details of the actual drug use and the fascinating machinations of both the business and legal details that these guys - who fundamentally are primarily "just" really good at pushing pedals around and suffering mightily - have had to learn and deal with at a very high level with high stakes (being convicted of defrauding the US government doesn't sound appealing).
So I was quite curious when I heard that my favorite podcast Freakonomics Radio had done a recent interview with France; Freakonomics' Stephen Dubner is a very deft interviewer who is able to ask difficult questions of very impressive people, and I knew he'd do a great job. Here it is: http://freakonomics.com/podcast/lance-armstrong/
After listening to it I gotta say.....maybe Lance Armstrong is not such a dick any more. He fully admits that at the time of the Oprah interview he was indeed not really contrite - at least, enough in the first segment that made people think that he was anything more than still dickish - and it took a chat with a woman who works at the Livestrong org who told him that she felt "complicit" in his actions. He knew he had betrayed his sponsors, his fans, the sport, etc., but the realization that he had also made people feel complicit in his betrayal hit him like the brick that he needed. It reminded Ash and me of a This American Life episode recently where a guy had been cheating on his wife for 20 years, and it took all of a therapist's skills to make the guy understand the importance of acknowledging the depth of the effect that it had on his wife. Empathy is clearly not a common characteristic associated with perpetrators of long term fraud.
Lance talks a lot in the interview about the unusual nature of bike racing; the "teams" are just gatherings of riders with sponsors and very few actual assets (as opposed to NFL or other teams that are actually "owned"), that despite the huge global TV viewership of events like the Tour none of the TV money trickles down to the cyclists the way it does to football players, and that the cyclists union isn't as tight/effective as the NFL players union so there isn't as much internal watchdogging. But the meat was there: yes, he took a lot of EPO because there wasn't a good test for it, and when a good test came online they transitioned quickly to blood doping, and the reason that neither he nor others were caught is that they "managed the timing"of tests very well. But what was surprising is that he said that he has recently traveled far and wide to try to make amends to the people he's wronged, he's understanding of people who still think he's the anti-Christ, and he knows that he was wrong. At the end he even relates a story about a bunch of people on a bar patio yelling "Fuck you!" at him and saying "I had to do something; 10 years ago I woulda started throwing punches" but he instead called the bar owner, gave the bar guy his credit card number, and paid for everyone's tabs.
However, even as I listened to The New Lance, I couldn't help but notice how he sounded a bit defensive as he complained that Alex Rodriguez and even Michael Vick have basically been forgiven by the public but he hasn't (Dubner gently reminded him that it may have something to do with Lance's passionate insistence on his innocence and his venomous campaign against his detractors). I also remembered how he regaled his fans with stories in his original book of how much of a dick he was in his early days in the peloton and how he was so much mature in the early 2000's, even as he was spearheading this huge doping campaign essentially throughout the peloton and impugning all who spoke against him. So I couldn't help but wonder to myself: "is he doing that again now?" The difference is that now he doesn't have any looming situations that will test his commitment; he can't really compete again due to lifetime bans (even in trail running?!), so he can't put his values to a true athletic test.
I've heard it said that America loves stories of redemption, and perhaps to date it's the lack of contrition that has continued to make Lance Armstrong the poster boy of Cheating rather than the best candidate for Redemption Boy. But perhaps this relatively obscure interview (?!? It was picked up by Business Insider, whatever that is...) is the first step towards Lance Armstrong's long road to true redemption.
And if that happens, maybe I won't think he's such a dick, and maybe I'll even watch a stage or two of The Tour next year.