By Ben Montgomery
Times Staff Writer
Before we knew his name, before he monetized our trust and hawked Coke and Oakleys and Nikes, Lance Armstrong visited Tampa with the U.S. Olympic road team. A couple of locals ran into the young cyclist and showed him around. They warned against training on busy Dale Mabry Highway. They took him instead to ride down Bayshore Boulevard, and he impressed them.
The kid who'd found escape from a rough childhood on a bike wasn't brash or cocky, even if he could cruise at 30 mph while engaged in chitchat.
This was 20 years ago, in 1992, and the unknown cyclist pumping his legs along the blue-gray Hillsborough Bay, past palms and oaks and stately old houses, had the potential to be very good. The next year he'd win the World Championship, then the Clásica de San Sebastián in 1995. He'd chalk up a victory in the Tour DuPont and a handful of stage victories in Europe. But unless you were tuned in to cycling, you'd still not heard of him, because he couldn't win the race that mattered.
He withdrew from the Tour de France on three of his first four attempts. In 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs. But this was just the start of his trajectory. He beat cancer, cheated death and introduced himself to America.
You may have seen him in July 1999, on that rain-slicked mountain road leading to Sestriere in France, his legs churning like a pumpjack, attacking the pack from behind and finishing the stage six minutes ahead of the rest.
This is how we came to know Lance Armstrong, as an improbable fighter, a cancer survivor who'd been given a pitiful chance to live just 33 months before. He was a supreme American underdog who came to rule the sport. He became a parable, an illustration, and while there were skeptics, many of us fell hard. We bought bikes and bracelets and pumped our fists at the world. That mountain climb more than any other, as Armstrong surged toward his first of seven Tour de France victories, came to represent what we loved about him.
It also created a confounding duality.
On one side: Lance Armstrong illustrates the best in human ability.
On the other: Lance Armstrong is human, and humans can't perform like that without help.
Now, after the governing body of cycling announced it will not appeal the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's findings that Armstrong cheated by doping, by running a secret doping brotherhood even, after he's been stripped of all seven Tour titles, we wonder what to think of him and what to make of those memories.
He has denied doping since that mountain climb. He has said that "doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling" and that other riders needed to dope to "stay competitive within the peloton" and that "I never felt that way."
But the evidence against him proved insurmountable. He lied.
He gave up his fight. A few days ago he removed from his Twitter bio any mention of his seven Tour de France victories. He joined the fraternity of the fallen, those figures who held our greatest hopes before we realized they were human.
Maybe we weren't clean either. Maybe we were dopes. We have choices too, after all. We chose to believe the incredible. We bought products from companies that sold a myth. We got taken. But did we get smart?
And now we're left to wonder, to weigh the book-length record of evidence against the word of a man who did amazing things. To wonder about those edge-of-seat memories, and whether they retain any value. To think about that young man riding down Bayshore Boulevard, miles of decisions before him.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.