In 1999, at the tender age of 12, when I was deep in the throes of my Sweet Valley High obsession, and trying to hide how much I still loved Barbie, I discovered one of the biggest passions of my life so far. I became the only 12 year old girl, anywhere in the whole world, obsessed with road cycling. I certainly didn’t see it coming. You might say my relationship with competitive sports has been a tricky one, the highlight being a brief but glorious stint in Darren Park Primary’s victorious Year 4 Arch and Tunnel team. Other than that, nothing. I never had a clue about football. I went to extreme lengths to get out of any type of sports lessons at school, and it took a four year relationship with a rugby player for me to grasp even the basic rules of that game. So when I suddenly found myself thinking about Belgian sprinters, pedal cadence and Alpine mountain gradients, I was rather taken aback.
As I often find in my life, it was all my dad’s fault. He’d been on the bandwagon for years. I remember being a young child and knowing Greg LeMond was important, although I couldn’t have told you why. I remember watching huge bike crashes on Channel 4 in July, when there was some big race in France on. But it never captivated me until 1999. That was the year my dad took his bike to the Alps and went to The Tour De France. Or Le Tour, to those in the know. Le Tour. And so we watched the coverage on Channel 4, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of him in the crowds. I didn’t see him. But I did see lots of men struggling to cycle up a huge French Alp. A little Italian man getting knocked off his bike just before winning the race that day. And a little man in a yellow jersey and blue cotton cap standing up on his pedals and going faster than anyone else. I didn’t know who he was, but suddenly I was hooked. When my dad got back, he told me that the man was an American named Lance Armstrong, he had almost died of cancer, and now he was going to win.
He did win, and his victory sent me on a summer of discovery. I read the cycling books my dad had. I went to the local library, and for 50p an hour spent days on the internet, asking Jeeves about the big races, how the teams worked and what on earth a peleton was. By the next summer, I was fully clued up. By 2001, I knew so much, my online fantasy cycling team was top of the South Wales boards, and www.cyclingnews.com was my homepage. I developed a snobbery, like an indie music scenester denying their secret love of Mumford and Sons because they’re too famous. ‘Le Tour de France? Pfft. It’s all about the Spring Classics for me. Give me Laurent Jalabert any day.’
But there was one thing I couldn’t deny. Lance. I loved him. I read his book over and over. I had video documentaries on him. When LiveStrong launched and the yellow bands came out, I made my dad drive me to the nearest Nike shop so I could buy one. And in those early days, the first few years of it all, I was blissfully unchallenged in my belief of him. Because nobody had ever heard of him. Well, of course people had heard of him, but most of the people in my admittedly rather limited social circle hadn’t. They didn’t care about cycling.
In 2003, all my Christmases came at once, when my dad and I went to Paris to see the Tour de France. It wasn’t your average Tour de France either, it was the centenary Tour. Lance was riding for his fifth consecutive victory. Never mind I was the only person under 40 on our coach. Never mind the unfortunate sunbathing incident that had left me with blisters on my cheeks and burnt lips that required antibiotics and the permanent presence of a hat. I was at the Tour de France! You may have watched it on TV. You may have seen pictures and read things about it. But the Tour is something that you can’t imagine until you have been. It is utter chaos. It is one of the only sports where you can get so close to the competitors. There is noise everywhere, cars, horns blaring, people screaming, riders jumping off their bikes to wee in the roadside. You can smell their sweat as they speed past you, multi-coloured, hairless bullets in lycra. Total and utter madness. I loved every second of it. And I got to see him! In fact, after a crash that took most of the peleton out at the end of one stage, Lance Armstrong practically rode into me on his broken bike. Our arms touched. My dad got a photo. Best day ever.
He won his fifth Tour. By that time, he was a household name. People talked about him when I hadn’t even started the conversation. But there were also voices saying bad words. Terrible words like ‘Cheat’. ‘Drugs’. ‘Impossible’. I hated them. Lance overcame cancer, I thought. He would never cheat. The man is a hero. No amount of internet stories, or taunts from my cynical friends could change my mind. And it was a mindset I held firmly. As his career wound down into retirement, and the stories and accusations wound into a consistent frequency, I stubbornly insisted that Lance was innocent. I mentally disowned Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis. I watched with satisfaction as case after case was thrown out due to lack of evidence. When the whole USAADA thing started off, I shrugged and felt sure that his innocence would win through again.
Then one morning, my sister woke me up, shaking me and telling me that Lance had given up the fight. With last night’s mascara gluing my eyes shut and my hair all over the place, I stumbled to my television and sat in front of it squinting at the sports news. Learning that he was no longer contesting the allegations was a blow, but reading his statement, still proclaiming his innocence, geared me back into his defence. My poor best friend Becky will attest to the strength of my convictions, after listening to me rant for hours about it. Sorry Bec.
But when the Oprah interview finally aired, and the gleeful texts off certain people (you know who you are) started beeping on my phone, I knew it was over. I don’t know why exactly I’m writing this post. I haven’t really got a point to make, or a stance to take. I haven’t been let down by him, because I didn’t know him, and crazy teenage obsession aside, he’s just a figure I enjoyed reading about and loved supporting. I just feel a bit sad about the whole thing. I will admit I’m wrong if I absolutely have to, and although there is a small part of my brain that is maintaining Travis Tygart must have the Armstrong family dog, and is pulling off some 24-style blackmailing scam, I will accept that Lance cheated. Looking back, I didn’t really have much ground to stand on, and I don’t know if it was pig-headedness or belief in the good of human nature that kept me going so long. I won’t defend it; he’s obviously done a lot of despicable and unacceptable things. There are consequences to them, and he’ll pay. I do get a bit annoyed by the strength of hatred towards him. People who have never watched a cycling race in their life tweeting him that he’s scum and they hate him, and writing articles about what a hideous monster he is. He isn’t. He’s just a man, who failed at something. Granted, he failed in spectacular fashion, and like I said, I am absolutely not defending him. But everyone fails at some point. That’s why humans can’t really be your heroes. Because we’re human and weak, and at some point we fail. That’s also why you can’t really hate him for it. Because he’s human and weak, and he failed. And he has raised a lot of money for cancer research. More than I have anyway. I suppose I hope that his tainted legacy wont reflect on what is a great, ridiculous, preposterous spectacle of a sport. And for him, I hope he finds some sort of peace and redemption. And for me, I think I’ll keep my books. They serve as a reminder that no human is perfect.