As cycling fans, we have this odd relationship with those we watch and cheer on. We don’t know these people. We cannot understand what motivates them. Yet we heap expectations on them and request acts of heroic proportions. And then we put them on pedestals. When we find out that they cheated to achieve such amazing feats we are left with three choices. #1) Forgive and forget, #2) Not forgive, and not forget, and #3) Walk away from the whole stinking mess. How do I rationalize forgiving Christian VandeVelde, for example while mentally persecuting Lance Armstrong (which, I admit, is exactly what I’ve done.) I’ve met Christian several times – even ridden with him – and he seems like a super nice guy. I listened to Armstrong speak once in Rolla, MO back when I was the biggest LA fanboy I knew, and I came away from his talk thinking he was an arrogant prick after he made some insult about the size of Rolla and refused to let a woman with cancer come up and hug him on stage during the Q and A. But I was too scared to say how I felt because everyone else loved him. But do I know either of these guys? Absolutely not. How do I make sense of the categorization my brain does automatically and without conscience thought: Christian is a good guy, Lance is a shit. Partly because I could honestly care less at this point if they doped or not. It’s more about how they have dealt with their decision and the fact that it now has become public knowledge. Part of what defines character is how you respond to adversity.
Speaking of which, several years ago, I got to spend the day with Floyd Landis. I was put in charge of organizing a benefit to raise money for osteoarthritis research, and was charged with coming up with a keynote speaker. Floyd had been found guilty of doping, had served his 2 year sentence and was then making his comeback racing for Ouch/Maxxis on an artificial hip. This was before he would make his full confession in the Wall Street Journal article. At the time, I believed he was innocent of the doping charges. I contacted Team Ouch and three phone calls later had somehow managed to secure him as the speaker for the event through his agent. They never asked, but I guaranteed there would be no talking about doping, him winning, or not winning the Tour de France, or Lance Armstrong. We just wanted to hear about what it was like to be a professional bike racer who performed with an artificial hip. We made the public announcement that he was coming to speak at the event and I immediately got a couple of derogatory emails about the appropriateness of hiring a ‘doper’ as a speaker. I stood my ground, defended Floyd, and the event remained scheduled as planned.
The day of the benefit, I had to pick him up at his hotel and take him to lunch. There would be four of us going – and we were to eat at the winery in Rocheport – a 30 minute drive away. When I met him and his agent in the hotel lobby, I was nervous. He rounded the corner suddenly and came right up to me and said, “Hey, I’m Floyd” and shook my hand really, really strongly with a huge smile on his face, and I relaxed almost immediately. I asked him if he and his agent would like to ride separately in their larger rented car, following us out to Rocheport, since it was a long drive, and I only had my Subaru Outback. He said “Hell no – I can fit in the back seat – let’s go.” So I drove to Rocheport with Floyd Landis in the back seat of my Subaru. Somewhere along I-70 I came to the realization that this was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Here was the man I watched ride solo and win Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France in what many have called one of the single greatest days of bicycle racing ever, sitting in my back seat. The word ‘bizarre’ doesn’t come close to describing how I felt. We got to the winery and Floyd asked if I rode. I laughed it off, but he asked again and I confessed I was just a Cat 5 choade. He asked me more about where I had ridden – out west? Overseas? I told him I had done both – ridden the Copper Triangle in Colorado and gotten to meet Davis Phinney through a mutual friend. He asked how Davis was – if I had been able to notice any evidence of the Parkinson’s he is affected by. He complemented him on being a truly amazing cyclist and a great guy. I told him about how on the descent of Fremont Pass, the freewheel hub of my Mavic Ksyrium Elite had started squealing like an ape being raped and he laughed and told me he had the same thing happen to him once. I asked about his hip, how he was doing – and he told me the entire story. Despite what I knew about Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong largely ignoring his condition and not facilitating him receiving the appropriate medical attention to have it addressed when he rode for Postal, he remained respectful of them when speaking about them – although he did recount a story of Johan demanding he fly to Europe the day after he had two screws painfully removed from his femur which resulted in a massive hematoma that extended down his leg, which he would later have to hide from doctors to be allowed to race.
As I drove him back to his hotel after lunch, I asked how his parents were, especially in dealing with the press and aftermath of the 2006 Tour. He said they were doing just fine, and thanks so much for asking. I asked what his Dad did for a living, and he told me about his trucking company. Amongst other things, he moves gravel in large dump trucks, and generally loves his job. There was a long pause after this, and he continued “You know – sometimes I think that may be the most basic, and most gratifying job a person could have. Move this stuff here, to that place over there. Work hard at it, then go home and enjoy the evening with your family.” I liked Floyd.
The benefit that night went incredibly well. Floyd seemed nervous at first during his talk, but warmed into it, and there was a great Q and A afterward with him. He signed things for people, spent a tremendous amount of time interacting with folks and posing for pictures. Basically he gave himself to all the people that were in attendance. I was grateful and relieved that the whole thing had come off so well. As I walked him and his agent back out to their car, he shook my hand firmly again and told me to give him a ring if I was out in San Diego; that we’d go for a ride.
The next year, he would confess to doping throughout his career, and to having done so under the direction of Johan and Armstrong on Postal, and then on his own with Phonak. He was called a “rat” and a “liar” by cycling fans and ostracized from the sport by commentators, fans, other cyclists. He had previously accepted money for his legal defense knowing he was guilty all the time – and people were upset with that. But in my estimation, they were more upset that he was now calling Lance Armstrong a cheat. Lance defended himself by saying Floyd was mentally unstable. (In retrospect, I’m thinking you’d have to be somewhat mentally unstable to race at that level at that time.) But from my day with Floyd, my impression was that he was as down-to-earth and genuine as a person could be.
In the midst of Floyd being singled out by virtually everyone, none of his former teammates that also doped came to his defense. Hamilton, Vaughters, Zabriskie, Hincapie, VandeVelde….they could have spoken up and said, “Hang on – he’s telling the truth.” But they didn’t. There was positive incentive, to be sure: defending a friend, telling the truth. But they would also be certain to lose 2 years of their career and undergo the same smear campaign from the Armstrong camp (see Hamilton, Andreus, O’Reilly, Anderson, LeMond etc) – and maybe they would never be able to race again at the level they wanted to, like Floyd. They circled the wagons, remained silent and protected themselves, and Armstrong indirectly. Now each has admitted to doping – under the threat of jail time. Floyd was right all along. As was Hamilton. As was LeMond and the Andreus. It has kind of played out like a movie. On the topic of movies, Dave Zabriskie was recently quoted as saying that the movie “Breaking Away” inspired him to become a cyclist, and that’s what good movies do, “They inspire. Make us believe we can do things and believe things.”
I also think a good movie makes you ask yourself “what would I do?” Like every time I watch the movie Deliverance, I ask myself, ‘Would I bury that body deep and paddle on?’ Or ‘Would I go to the police and say it was self-defense?’ And every single time, I think to myself, I’m burying that body deep and paddling my ass down the river pronto. In the movie version of the cycling saga that has played out for us all to watch, I play the same game. I’d like to think I wouldn’t have doped – but I probably would have (remember - bury that body deep and tell no one). But I also like to think I would have confessed for the purpose of standing up for a friend instead of just to save my own skin. But who knows?
I’d still like to take Floyd up on that bike ride.
I still think Christian is a good guy.
And I still think Lance is a shit.