Lance Armstrong’s book “It’s not about the bike” is one of the many books I bought and tucked away in the book shelf in 2008, for future reading. Having stayed glued to the TV watching his interview with Oprah Winfrey last week, I felt the time was ripe to read the book. I was intrigued by the interview and wanted to know more about the man and what he had to say in his book.
My interest in Lance Armstrong stemmed from the unfortunate circumstances that our family has been through. All the members of our family save my Dad and I have fallen victims of cancer. My brother has been battling pancreatic cancer for the last year or so and is in the terminal phase of the illness. My mother and four siblings have all succumbed to the dreaded disease over the last three decades. To me Lance Armstrong’s successful battle against cancer and his monumental success in professional cycling was the ultimate inspiration for those who dreaded or had to battle against what seemed like the inexorable march of death when stricken by the disease.
After taking to cycling three years ago , there was that much more interest in the man and in the awesome Tour De France. The book itself is not about the bike as the title suggests and is a moving account of his life and emotions both on the cycling tracks and through his battle against testicular cancer. In spite of all the bad press on account of the doping scandal and his admission to taking drugs on the Winfrey show, I found the book extremely gripping and couldn’t put it down till I had finished it. The co-author Sally Jenkins had done an inspired job of putting the book together and packaging all the feelings that constituted the man. If I hadn’t known of the doping scandal, I would have carried away an image of a remarkable man after reading the book. The doping scandal put an unfortunate stain on his reputation, though I still hold some sympathies for him. I am either an incorrigible fan or the sadness of so many deaths in our family makes me see him in a different light altogether.
I read the book deeply to understand the man and his motivations. I also browsed through hours of video conversations and interviews of his on YouTube and also of his team mate Tyler Hamilton, of David Miller and Phil Anderson and of some of his detractors. I was seeking to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together and trying to see what I could make of it. By all accounts and that included the submission of Tyler Hamilton, Lance Armstrong was a remarkable athlete. None of his detractors can take this away from him.
He speaks of the pain he felt when a middle aged woman riding a heavy mountain bike passed him as he was cycling on a hill while convalescing from cancer. As Lance would say “She cruised without even breathing hard, while I puffed and chugged on my high performance bike. I couldn’t keep up with her …….. I had to admit I was in bad shape.”Similarly one day as he was cycling with his friends they came to a small rise on the road that required minimal effort. In his words this is what happened,”I got half way up the incline, and I lost my breath… I felt faint. I tried to breathe, but I couldn’t seem to draw in enough air to revive myself.”
That’s how weak he had got .Having seen several of my family members struggle through chemo therapy , I could understand what Lance Armstrong was going through as he was convalescing .As he says, “I didn’t think I had fully admitted the effect chemotherapy had on my body, I came into the cancer fight very brash and fit and confident, and I could see that with each cycle that I was being drained somewhat, but I had no idea how incapacitating it truly was until I almost collapsed in a stranger’s front yard.”
One of the remarkable things for me was how Lance Armstrong was able to get over two operations, one for removing the infected testicle and the other for the tumours in his brain and repeated rounds of chemotherapy; and still have the resolve to get back to competitive cycling. For me it was not whether he would make it back on the professional circuit or not. For me it was the endeavour, the will to win and the tenacity to build up his strength to be a competitive athlete once again.
Nobody seemed to believe he could get back to the professional circuit. None of the professional teams or sponsors was ready to back his efforts. Cofidis, the team that had signed him on just before he was diagnosed with cancer and had already pulled out of the contract while he was still undergoing treatment, was not willing to give him a suitable offer when he was on the comeback trail. It was only after protracted negotiations and the intervention of the chief investor of the U.S. Postal Service Team that he was finally signed on again as a racer. It was time for Lance Armstrong to get back to serious cycling training and a regime that would allow him to be a competitive cyclist again.
I suppose that somewhere along the training regime he may have been induced to incorporate drugs as part of the rehabilitation. Lance Armstrong did mention in his book that during the third round of chemo his hematocrit, the percent of total blood volume flowing through his body, fell to less than 25 against the normal reading of 46 . He was then given the red blood booster Epogen (EPO) which he said in the book was a banned substance as it was performance enhancing but was needed to keep him alive at this stage of treatment. You can now call it the infamous EPO after all the doping revelations.
EPO, I suppose would have played an important part in his cycling rehabilitation. Dr. Michele Ferrari was also a doctor he regularly consulted and who assisted the Postal Service team until 2004.. Dr Ferrari was convicted in July 2012 by the US Anti-Doping Agency and given a lifetime sports ban for numerous anti-doping violations including possession, trafficking, and administration and assisting doping .In his televised confession in the Oprah Winfrey show however, Lance Armstrong did not implicate Dr Ferrari. Lance did not accept Tyler Hamilton’s submission that he, Lance had tested positive for EPO after the Tour of the Swiss, but that the results were suppressed after discussion with the UCI (the International Cycling body). It would appear that Lance Armstrong was not keen at this stage to implicate regulatory bodies of the establishment which included the doctors and team management. I would stress at this stage. For his confession, as in every aspect of his life, would be deliberate and controlled actions. We may see a lot more unfold in the days and months ahead.
One aspect that keeps coming up, is that in the decade in which Lance Armstrong competed, almost all the top riders, or the riders of the peloton as they were called, took performance enhancing drugs. It would have been inevitable for Armstrong and the Postal Service team to” level the playing field” if they wanted to win. Why didn’t Armstrong attempt to clean up the sport? He was a participating for several years in the Tour De France prior to his illness and would have been fully aware of the state of affairs.
They say that in every journey there comes a phase when the journey man faces a fork. Taking one limb leads to lasting glory, the other leads to eventual destruction. This is true even for the spiritual journey. Lance Armstrong when confronted by the folk seems to have chosen the path of destruction .Winning at all costs was embedded in his psyche. Not even a near death experience as he battled cancer could change that. Cycling was not just a sport he loved, he cycled because it was his job, his source of income and recognition. He had a king sized ego and was brash and arrogant. The need to give Cofidis a fitting lesson would have been playing in his mind and also to all the teams who refused to believe he could return to professional cycling. As one of them said,” Come on that guy will never ride in the peloton again .It’s a joke that he could ever ride at that speed. “
The problem was that Lance Armstrong didn’t just take performance enhancing drug.As the leader of his team he is reported to have actively promoted it and built an elaborate support network around it. Tyler Hamilton says in his revelations that the Postal Service team members were once flown to a destination in Spain where they were taken to a hotel and a pint of blood taken from them. This was later injected back into them during a Tour De France stage giving them a performance surge. His book shows him to be a person who researched deeply about any situation he encountered or was getting into. He had read so much about his illness that he could have gone on to attend medical school he claimed.
His arrogance and bullying tendency was also a trait that was not becoming of a sporting icon. Tyler Hamilton speaks of how Lance and a group of his supporters accosted him in a hotel after his testimony to the US Anti Doping Agency and threatened him in a very loud and unbecoming manner. He refused to listen to Tyler’s, plea that they go somewhere quiet and talk. This arrogance and brashness was in evidence in several of his press confences when confronting difficult questions about doping.
Yet Lance Armstrong had a human side that came out very strongly in his book as he talks of his attachment to his mother, Linda and his love for his wife Kristin .It also comes through in the interactions he had with the hospital staff notably the head nurse La Trice .His love for Kristin is one of the moving parts of the book. During the interview with Oprah Winfrey he was asked several times if either his mother or Kristin knew he was taking performance enhancing drugs. He skirted these questions and just said how very sorry and how bad he felt at letting them down. He choked a lot during the interview, when he spoke of his son Luke and how he told him that he had indeed been taking performance enhancing drugs. This was the human side of the man. His detractors will scoff at this being unwarranted sentimentalism by a man they consider as having perpetuated a massive fraud on his sponsors, donors and the cycling fraternity.
I suppose Lance Armstrong needs to be stripped of all his seven Tour De France titles and he may need to payback through litigation a lot of the sponsor funding and performance bonuses he may have earned through his career. That would be punishment enough. After all the entire sport was tainted and proportionate punishment needs to be meted out to other offenders and also the establishment comprising of administrators, doctors, team managers and coaches. The sport as a whole needs to be rid of the menace of doping. Lance Armstrong needs to serve out his sentence, for an appropriate length of time, but I hope he is allowed to compete in cycling events, triathlons and other sporting events of his choice when his term is done. I hope he can continue to be a part of the Livestrong Foundation and continue to be a source of inspiration to millions of cancer affected people besides raising funds to support cancer research and cancer hospitals. What he achieved by overcoming cancer and his ability to regain his athletic prowess is a story that must continue to inspire those unfortunately stricken with cancer and fearful of the treatment, the pain and their lives.
I had bought a Livestrong yellow band on my last visit to Canada a few years ago and have been in two minds whether I should stop wearing it now. Well, I intend to continue wearing it. Likewise I used to regularly post fitness goals and progress on the Livestrong web site till a month or so ago. I might get back to that too.