Roving thoughts and provocations

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No Joy in Aspen

Riccardo S. Savi/Getty Images
Lance Armstrong at the Power of Four Mountain Bike Race in Aspen, Colorado, August 25, 2012

I ride my bike past Lance Armstrong’s house here in Aspen almost every day. It is a simple semi-detached affair that is much more modest than many of the houses in this neighborhood. It would not occur to me to knock on the door. He has reported that in the decade he’s been living part time here that someone he didn’t know has knocked on his door only once. He did once pass me on his bike. He gave a friendly wave.

In a town like Aspen, where celebrities try to make a splash, Armstrong has made every effort not to. He takes his daughters hiking, and takes part in local races, which he generally wins. Some of these races involve a hundred miles at very high altitude. He has in every way been a good citizen of our town, which is why the news that he is not contesting the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)’s charges that he took performance enhancing drugs is so distressing.

Armstrong was a not very well-off, not very well-educated kid from Texas who found himself in Oz. He reminds me of the Robert Redford character in Downhill Racer. He has said that he never dreamed that he would have a house like the one he has in Aspen. The only thing he knew how to do was to ride a bike. I suspect he would have sold his mother to win.

It is also quite clear that during the period when he was racing professional bike racing was a dirty sport. The methods of detection were fairly crude. Though anti-doping officials pursued him for years, Armstrong himself seems to have—with one or two disputed exceptions—continuously evaded detection by the tests used at the time. (He passed more than 500 drug tests.) Now there is a method called blood profiling—taking a sample of the rider’s blood and comparing it to earlier samples that have been taken between races—which makes it possible to tell if something has changed.

Nonetheless there is still some doping. Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, one of the premier professional racers, was thrown out of the Tour de France this year for apparently using a diaretic. Alberto Contador, a Spaniard who rides his bike like a dancer and is a former teammate of Armstrong’s, was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France victory for doping. One indication that the practice may be less widespread now is that the times in the mountain stages of this year’s Tour—where doping might offer a particular edge—were slower than previous years.

Armstrong has not admitted that he was doping. He says he decided that he would no longer participate in the USADA inquiry. But the USADA had indicated that ten of his former teammates were going to testify against him and it seems that it would have been very difficult for him to win if the charges went to arbitration. As has been widely reported, the USADA has as a result stripped Armstrong of all seven of his Tour titles and banned him from professional cycling for life. It is unclear whether the International Union of Cyclists will uphold the USADA ruling.

Since his retirement, Armstrong has entered professional triathlon events where it is said he has earned about a million dollars for an appearance. (The running he is doing in Aspen has been in training for these events.) According to Forbes, in exchange for his participation, the World Triathlon Corporation agreed to donate $1 million to the Lance Armstrong Cancer Foundation, which he started after his recovery from cancer early in his career to raise money to help cancer survivors. It appears he won’t be able to continue competing in such events because of his ban.

I know that it is no excuse to say that they were all doping although at the time a great many of them were doing it. But he seemed like such an admirable man with an almost incredible life story. It’s sad to see it end this way.

Two days after the announcement Armstrong took part in a local mountain bike race called the Power of Four since it involves four summits. It is a thirty-six mile race with a total altitude gain of 9,000 feet. He came in second, having been soundly beaten by a sixteen-year-old local. After the race Armstrong tweeted, “Had a blast racing the #poweroffour this morning. Got whooped up on by a kid young enough to be my son! Keegan Swirbul - remember that name!” Armstrong also said he was now at peace and was going to eat a cheeseburger.

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