I fell in love with le Tour de France not when Lance Armstrong won his first, but in 1989 when Greg LeMond came from behind on the last day to beat Laurent Fignon by eight seconds. It was one of the most incredible athletic performances I had ever seen. After racing for nearly a month it came down to eight seconds. Fignon was crushed. LeMond had come into the final day time-trial behind by 50 seconds. Most experts said the race was over before the final day began, but somehow LeMond managed to win his second Tour. This is the same Greg LeMond who overcame being shot by his brother-in-law in a hunting accident, the same Geg LeMond who could have won a tour in 1985 but allowed his older and weaker teammate to win, and it is the same Greg LeMond who I now hate.
LeMond is not a Lance Armstrong fan. LeMond believes that Armstrong cheated to win. He is not alone there are lots of Armstrong haters and all of them are celebrating today because Armstrong announced yesterday that he will no longer fight the USADA charges against him. It isn’t an admission of guilt; it is a factual surrender.
I don’t care. I don’t care if he was guilty of cheating or not. I do care that the USADA is going to strip him of his titles. I do care that many people all around the world will have their “I told you so” moment. I do care that the media will use this opportunity to soil his accomplishments further. He did win seven tours and if you have ever watched a tour from beginning to end you know what an accomplishment that is. Get on your bike and ride 120 miles and then get up and do that 25 more days in a row. That’s what Lance did better than anyone else seven times. Seven times…after nearly dying of cancer. Seven years of being tested over and over for using performance-enhancing drugs and never testing positive. Seven years of media speculation and harassment. Seven years of wearing the yellow jersey on final day of the tour. Seven years of being able to give the finger to all his critics as he rode through Paris.
Armstrong critics will say he cheated and there is a growing list of athletes who never tested positive and have since admitted cheating. Some critics have even claimed that doping probably caused Armstrong’s cancer. So what? Does that diminish his accomplishments? If you think so you are naïve.
Great athletes are great for one reason: they are egomaniacs. Is Lance Armstrong an egomaniac? Yep. So is Michael Jordan. So is Tiger Woods. So is Magic Johnson. So is Jim Brown. So is everyone who ever dreamt they could be better than all the people who came before them. To be an egomaniac is to be flawed, to believe the rules of the world do not apply to you. All of the great ones (with the one exception of Wayne Gretzky) have had their moments when they let the world see what it takes to be great: You have to step on some faces. That is why Michael Jordan will always be better than LeBron James. MJ would step on your face to win; he stomped on teammate’s faces. Listen to his Hall of Fame speech; he stomped on a few faces that night.
I was a reasonable athlete when I was younger. I was good enough to play small college basketball and I thought I was pretty good. How good did I think I was? Better than anyone I ever played against. I never stepped on a basketball floor and did not believe I was better than everyone else. I remember thinking I was probably the best player in the state of Washington. Now, I wasn’t even close to the best, but imagine if I had been the best. Imagine if I had been the best in all the US, or the best in the world. It would have taken about 10 seconds for me to become a complete egomaniacal-face-stomper.
Lance Armstrong is a face-stomping-maniac. It is what helped him win seven tours, it is what helped him survive cancer, and it is what I love about him. Armstrong’s unflattering and unfaltering belief in himself is a gift. It is a gift he has given anyone diagnosed with cancer. Armstrong’s survival and comeback is inspirational and cannot be diminished by the USADA.
Even if Armstrong cheated, and I believe there is a very strong chance he blood doped but so did everyone he raced against, it doesn’t matter because drugs do not make an athlete great. Great athletes are made through the internal belief that they are the best.
My lasting memory of Armstrong will be the day in 2003 when he and Jan Ulrichwere racing up a mountainside. Most of the racers had fallen behind and there was just a small pack of top riders remaining. The crowds of people pushed in close to the riders, and a small boy waving a yellow flag was right in front of Armstrong. The flag got caught in Armstrong’s front brake and locked his wheel. Armstrong crashed to the ground. It was a hard crash, the type of crash that breaks bones. It took Armstrong some time to gather himself and check his bike, and then he was off, chasing after Ulrich. Ulrich had done the sporting thing and not pressed the attack once his chief rival had fallen. It took some time for Armstrong to catch back up to the leaders. The untold energy it took to catch up looked like it might cost him the race. He looked cooked. Then he did what the great ones do, he looked directly at Ulrich and took off. He just went away. He rode so hard that no one could keep up. He broke them all. Here is where Armstrong’s critics say, “Cheater. See how no one could keep up.” Here is where I point out that Jan Ulrich admitted to blood doping. Ulrich was cheating and couldn’t keep up with Armstrong. Armstrong might have cheated on that day also, but it wasn’t the drugs that made him pull away, it was because Lance Armstrong believed that he was the best who ever lived and then he stomped on Ulrich’s face to prove it.