Lance Armstrong Wants You to Forgive and Forget. Again.
Five years after his Oprah confession, Armstrong is proving, one podcast at a time, that we'll forgive anyone.
Photo: George Burns / Oprah Winfrey Network via Getty Images
There he is, the flint-eyed jackal. The ultimate winner. Legs crossed on Oprah Winfrey's two-piece studio set. It's the eyes, I think, that unsettle.
You look at Lance Armstrong as he answers each of Oprah Winfrey's simple yes or no questions and you wonder what the scam is. What angle he's working. How is this playing to his advantage – because based on past experience, you know that it must be, somehow.
Armstrong answers the questions down the line, with no mitigation. Just the blunt admissions and confirmations. But as soon as Winfrey switches to ask, "When did you first start doping?" we get the first flash of old school Armstrong. Instantly, he's back with a retort, rather than an answer. "We're done with the yes and nos?" He's scoring points.
Later, when Winfrey asks about the extent to which Armstrong's past teammates were pressured to dope, Lance spins into paroxysms of nitpicky detail. They were expected to be fit, but never told to dope. He doped and led by example, but that didn't mean they had to. Of course he could fire any member of the squad, but we'll just have to trust him that he didn't. It's a familiar rhetorical technique, the obfuscation of the facts with layers of detail and qualification, so labyrinthine as to be almost unfollowable. When Winfrey exasperatedly asks, "Are we talking semantics here?" it's like a wave of relief. Yes, Oprah, yes we are.
It was a savvy – if surprising – move, the confessional with Oprah. She's a formidable woman, but not well-versed in the intricacies of blood doping, "oil changes" or 20-minute power outputs. A friendly face and someone he should, theoretically, be able to run rings round on the specific subject of performance enhancement. He fessed up, without ever really seeming sorry. He could get away clean.
That was five years ago, and by no means the end of his problems – a huge lawsuit courtesy of the US government itself followed his admission – but Armstrong has, as he's always been deft at doing, built himself a new identity, recasting himself as a podcaster with a unique perspective. The man once known in the peloton as "Big Tex", considered not just the strongest rider but the man with the final say on all things Tour de France, now owns and runs WEDU, a media company that produces the Armstrong-fronted cycling show The Move, and the Armstrong-fronted interview show The Forward. One almost suspects this is a man who wants to Move Forward with his life.
Sports analysis is invariably done best by those who have "played the game" – just ask superstar football pundit and ex-Liverpool defender, Mark Lawrenson – and Armstrong is naturally better than most at analysing the unfolding of a bike race.
I put on an episode of The Move last week and it opened, inauspiciously, with Armstrong grumbling along about the use of helmets on Alpe d'Huez, one of the most prestigious, difficult and celebrated mountain ascents used in the Tour de France.
Pro cyclists have to wear helmets. The UCI, the sport's ruling body, brought in the law after Andrei Kivilev died from injuries sustained in a crash at a one-week race called Paris–Nice in 2003. And yet here was Lance "Old Man Yells At Cloud" Armstrong, complaining that the riders didn't look "cool" while going up the Tour's second most infamous mountain peak, because their faces were obscured by their UCI-mandated lids. He can't possibly believe the introduction of helmets was a bad thing, or that the protection they provide is unnecessary when riders are climbing (Kivilev was going uphill when he sustained his critical injuries).
Is Armstrong doing this to deliberately to cause controversy, or is he pandering to a particular audience – fans of the old times, when a rider could run and gun, shoot whatever he liked and leave every ounce of effort out on the road unencumbered by unfashionable headwear? It's hard to picture Armstrong taking an anti-helmet position back when he was paid millions of dollars to wear them in competitions.
Was this the sort of incisive insight people could expect from the rest of the show? The cycling equivalent of your da yearning for the days of Kevin Keegan's budgie smuggler football shorts?
Armstrong often depends on other US Postal alums to bring star power to his broadcasts. These are men who have been accused of either helping to hide his doping or doped alongside him. Just as in his bike racing career, he almost always has George Hincapie by his side when recording The Move, while in a recent episode they also phoned up Johan Bruyneel, their old team boss, to add some extra insight. Not many cycling podcasts can book names of this sort of stature.
It's a strong enough formula to make The Move the second most downloaded sports podcast in the US this week. In the UK, it performs slightly less well, coming in at number four on the sport list, two rungs below the BBC's own Tour de France pod. A Bradley Wiggins-fronted podcast languishes in eighth on the UK list and doesn't even rank in the US.
Armstrong doped to win and his results have subsequently been scrubbed from the record books. And yet, cycling fans collectively value his opinion on winning bike races enough to ignore the fraudulent manner in which he won them. Thousands of people happily plug him into their ears and lap up the liberally-sprinkled sponsor messages that directly line his pockets, in return for scorchingly hot takes like "cycling helmets don't look cool". He may no longer have legally won, but he sure brings a winner's mentality.
The Forward has way more to offer those not interested in professional cycling, focusing on interviews with personalities from across pop culture. It's one of that ever-growing genre of podcasts where one millionaire records himself interviewing another millionaire in a conversation that takes 60 minutes but really could've been half that. The Forward counts Malcolm Gladwell, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Bill Burr as previous guests. Clearly people are attracted to the Armstrong Aura – the name still has pulling power.
Despite spending more time than most poring over the details of his bullying tactics and reading with transfixed horror his most outrageous outrages, I still find myself getting sucked in by the occasional Good And Pure moment on The Forward. When interviewing Mia Khalifa, Armstrong breaks the flow of the conversation to complain that he can't find "any of the damn tabs" he had open earlier on his laptop – an almost-charmingly identifiable symptom of Dadhood that belies the idea of Armstrong As Monster. It gets even better when, ten minutes later, he asks her to explain to him what "sliding into DMs" means. Are these moments of Peak Dad just another ruse? Another crushed up hypodermic in a Coke can?
Armstrong made a good go of interviewing Khalifa about her short-lived but meteoric porn career. It was her first public interview anywhere – and that's a huge coup. His incredulity at the means by which girls are recruited to porn seems layered on a little thick, but he drew out some honest, emotional reflection along the way.
Elsewhere, he is less effective when attempting to interview a former professional athlete with a controversial past and history of drug abuse. In an episode last year, his hour-long interview with former NFL star Brett Favre did not involve a single question about Favre's Vicodin addiction, nor the sexts he allegedly sent to Jenn Sterger in 2008.
Given that during the Khalifa interview Armstrong frames his podcast as being about overcoming adversity and past mistakes, it seems strange he'd skip over these key moments in Favre's personal life in favour of a long anecdote about a "throw off" between Favre and a former teammate.
It seems strange, until you remember who Lance Armstrong is.
The $100 million (£76 million) lawsuit against Armstrong wasn't caused by the Oprah interview, but it was transformed by it. The suit was originally filed in 2010 by Floyd Landis, a past teammate of Armstrong, but was largely seen to be going nowhere. With the public confession in 2013, though, the US Government officially joined the fray and from there it became a legal battle that Armstrong simply could not win.
Armstrong settled the case two months ago for $5 million (£3.8 million), a snip when you consider the original figure sought. His wealth had already been depleted by payments for damages and other legal settlements, costing him a figure Bloomberg puts at "more than $20m". He reportedly lost $75 million (£57 million) in a single day when all his sponsors finally ditched him. Nike were so badly burned by the whole debacle that they haven't returned in earnest to the cycling world since.
And yet, paying another $5 million on top to escape going to trial over $100 million is a huge, huge win by any measure. For the first time in almost a decade, Armstrong's past doping is almost behind him – at least from a legal standpoint. Put another way, the Landis/Postal suit was the last chance to make him pay.
"Were you a bully?" Winfrey asked.
Armstrong laughed. "Yes, I was."
It's not so much the fact he cheated that angers people who hate him, it's the way he waged war on anyone who spoke out.
Emma O'Reilly, a member of the support staff on US Postal Service, the team with whom he won six of his seven Tours, was one of the first to blow the whistle. Armstrong's retaliation was unrelenting. He accused O'Reilly of being a liar. He called her an alcoholic and a whore, and her career in cycling was over.
He told the world another of his accusers, the only American Tour de France winner, Greg LeMond, was a drug addict. LeMond responded by paying an entire camera crew to follow Armstrong for the duration of his 2009 Tour de France comeback, on the hunt for any whiff of misbehaviour.
Frankie Andreu, a former teammate, tried to transfer out of US Postal Service when he no longer wanted to dope. He had offers on the table from two other teams, until Johan Bruyneel, Postal team manager and close Armstrong ally, allegedly put a stop to it.
Wherever you looked, it clearly didn't pay to go up against the Texan.
And this is the biggest distinction between Armstrong and the rest of the professional peloton in the late 1990s. For illegal drug use per person, these guys were giving the Hacienda a run for its money, but Armstrong was the most severe when it came to retribution. That's why others who doped "just as much" have re-entered the pantheon of greats while Armstrong is, to a large extent, still shunned by the cycling world.
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Bernard Hinault won five Tour titles, but famously refused to take a dope test, then worked as an official Tour de France ambassador until last year; Alberto Contador, Armstrong's teammate for (and winner of) the 2009 Tour was caught with banned drugs in his system in 2010 and suspended for two years, but left the sport last year celebrated as one of the most gifted ever to turn a pedal; David Millar, the British wunderkind done for EPO possession by the French police returned from his ban as an anti-dope campaigner and now commentates the Tour for ITV. He is also a brand ambassador for Maserati.
All these dopers have found a way back into the fold, but not Armstrong. He remains on the fringes, not because of his transgressions but rather the remorseless way he defended them till the death. They way he created alternate realities.
So the transition to podcaster makes sense in a lot of ways. What is podcasting if not storytelling? And how else would you characterise lying convincingly to the entire world for a decade if not as spinning one hell of a yarn? Cycling journalist and author, Edward Pickering, described Armstrong's gift of the gab in an issue of Cycle Sport released the year before the Oprah interview:
"Armstrong's a genius with language. He has a gift for concocting memorable phrases seemingly off the cuff, and if he goes into politics, heaven help his opponents in debates."
If the idea of Armstrong entering politics seems unlikely, then firstly, you're not paying attention to world events. But secondly, watch the way he replies to this question from journalist and fervent anti-doping crusader, Paul Kimmage, at a 2009 press conference. The barked request for the journalist's name, then the almost-flamboyantly expressive extension of index finger. The two fingers pinched together to. punctuate. each. syllable. and the aside about David Millar, who he "admires greatly, likes a lot, has always liked".
And throughout it all, the savage, unflinching invocation of millions of cancer sufferers as being on his side and who, if you're against Lance Armstrong, you are de facto against too.
He’s an orator as much as a bike rider, a born rhetorician, at his best when selling the planet on huge flamboyant whoppers of his own devising. And we've almost always allowed him to do it.
This podcasting thing is the guy's third comeback.
Before his cancer diagnosis, Armstrong had some decent results as a pro bike racer, the World Championships in 1993 chief among them. He was perceived as a one-day racer, a man better suited to the punchy, aggressive single-day battles of the spring, rather than the attritional wars of the three-week races; the Tour, the Giro D’Italia and the Vuelta a España. Indeed, before winning the race in '99 he'd abandoned three of the four Tours de France that he started.
Testicular cancer closed that chapter of his story in 1996. He lost '97 to the disease and made his comeback in '98.
After his recovery, his progress was merciless. Seven on the bounce. Never done before. Never to be repeated. He retired with those seven yellow jerseys framed on his wall. Comeback number one, done.
Comeback number two was an act of hubris so enormous that it's hard to comprehend in retrospect. Already under furious suspicion, but with the cycling world seemingly happy to live and let live if it meant avoiding another scandal, Armstrong returned to the professional peloton and the Tour de France in 2009. The goal was to add to his already-improbable tally, while raising funds and awareness for his foundation.
He didn't win, but the gall of it all did piss off enough former teammates and federal agents to start the slow sideways topple of his particular Jenga tower. Many in cycling believe that had he not come back in 2009 he would have got away with his seven victories unchallenged. Armstrong himself said as much in the Oprah interview.
The shit hit the fan properly in 2010, and since then Armstrong has been crawling through a Shawshankian river of the stuff pretty much non-stop. Comeback number two ended up more like a comedown.
And now here we are, the third Age of Armstrong. He is a pundit, an interviewer, a super-fan, an authoritative voice providing unparalleled insight.
Yet in all that time Armstrong has never budged an inch on his claim to have won those seven Tours de France. He has apologised to the people he hurt, most of them at least, and many of them have publicly forgiven. He's accepted the lie at the heart of his myth, owned up to the doping and admitted he cheated. But ask him today who won the Tour between 1999 and 2005 and his answer will be as clear, steely-eyed and fervent as it was on Oprah in 2009, or on the podium at the Champs-Élysées in 2005 when he gave his now-infamous "Miracles" speech: Lance Armstrong.
Because Lance knows that in America and in sport, and for American sport most of all, winning is the only thing that matters. Winning proves you right the way wealth proves you virtuous, the way if you steamroller on so fast the criticisms and the scandals and the evidence just get whipped away in the breeze, nothing can touch you. Just like on a bicycle, you just have to keep moving forward.