I wanted to believe Lance.
Even in the face of mounting numbers of riders – many of them Lance’s former teammates – reportedly breaking cycling’s code of silence, I wanted to believe his declarations of innocence.
After Lance threw up his hands and said he’d no longer fight the USADA’s case against him, I wanted to believe he still had another card to play, a way to trump all the accusations. He’s just too smart, too politically shrewd to allow his carefully crafted reputation be dismantled without a back-up plan.
I wanted to believe he was tougher than everyone else, more focused, more determined. I wanted to believe his seven Yellow Jerseys were earned by better preparation, steely resolve, a ruthless desire to win.
My love for professional bike racing dates to the Greg Lemond era. I was enthralled by the weekend coverage of the Tour de France, the highlight shows of great races like Paris-Roubaix. But before 24-hour sports networks on TV, before the Internet, it wasn’t an easy sport to follow.
Then along came Lance, with his incredible story of cancer survival, and the sport was electrified. For the first time I could watch the Tour live. Every day. For the first time I could view races like the Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold, Milan-San Remo, the Giro live on my computer screen.
Lance’s “look back” at his rival Jan Ullrich on the Alpe d’Huez in the 2001 Tour is still one of my most scintillating sports memories. It inspired me to travel to France to witness the spectacle first hand. To be standing in the driving rain at the finish line in Nantes as Lance clinched his fifth straight Tour in 2003 is one of my greatest sporting thrills.
But this afternoon, when I read George Hincapie’s confession statement on his website, I felt betrayed, disappointed, dismayed. I felt sad.
When Lance’s oldest friend, most loyal lieutenant who ushered him through many of his greatest triumphs owns up to the sham that was pro cycling through the early 2000s, any remaining shred of hope that Lance would prevail vanished.
Sure, it’s easy to justify the doping practices of Lance, Hincapie, Hamilton, Leipheimer, Ullrich, et al as levelling the field when everyone in the peloton was dirty, but that doesn’t excuse the years of bald-faced lying.
It’s also tempting to cut him some slack for all the work he’s done to raise money for cancer research and the hopes of those suffering from the disease. But that would be a disservice to all those who took inspiration from his seemingly heroic conquests, who bought into the mythology of Lance.
It turns out we were all suckered by a charlatan
Let’s move on and not allow Lance’s deceit to diminish the beauty and glory of professional cycling. It will take years for cycling to undo the damage the Lance era has done, to rejig the record books and restore confidence in the people who are supposed to safeguard the sport.
But I won’t stop watching. The French countryside is still as beautiful. The Dolomite mountains are still as majestic. The Belgian cobbles are still as jarring. And when the colourful peloton bisects those landscapes, my heart still soars.