FORT KENT, Maine — Cyclists in Maine or with ties to the state are reacting this week to reports of what many had speculated for months and even years: That Lance Armstrong — seven-time Tour de France winner, cycling icon and cancer-surviving founder of the Livestrong cancer foundation — for years used performance-enhancing drugs and lied about it.
At least one cyclist who competed in races with Armstrong said the confession made during a taped interview with Oprah Winfrey is nothing more than a public relations stunt by an arrogant bully.
Others are saying Armstrong — though a flawed athlete — should be remembered for the good he and his cancer foundation have done globally for cancer awareness and fundraising.
According to multiple news outlets, Armstrong comes clean on his doping past in the taped interview with Winfrey set to air on her OWN network over two nights Thursday and Friday.
“I think the cycling community is split half and half,” Dave Richard, a Waterville cyclist and one of the organizers of the Hinkley Time Trial, said Tuesday. “A lot are disappointed in him, but I like to look at all the good things he’s done for cancer awareness.”
Richard, who is quick to say no amount of foundation work can excuse rampant cheating, said there is little doubt the high-profile athlete had a positive impact on cancer awareness.
“For me, I look at all the things he did for the cancer community,” said Richard, whose own mother passed away from breast cancer a year ago. “It’s above and beyond cycling [and] when someone is faced with cancer there is this guy who was diagnosed with cancer, battled cancer, became a survivor and continued on [and] that gives people hope and having a little bit of hope is the most important thing.”
Providing people with that hope — be it for battling cancer or just getting into shape — is the legacy for which Armstrong should be remembered, Jim Rose, owner of Rose Bicycles in Orono, said.
“I hate to downplay [the doping] and I hope he can still inspire people,” Rose said. “I am also sad about it because I don’t think anyone wanted to believe he was guilty of doping.”
Thad LaVallee, a member of the Designturn Velocite USA Team out of Sharon, Mass., who participated in races in which Armstrong also was competing in the early 2000s, has no trouble believing it and said on Tuesday that Armstrong’s cheating was common knowledge for years in the pro cycling community.
Describing Armstrong as an arrogant bully, LaVallee, who lives in Boston and has participated in hundreds of races around the world and numerous races in Maine, including last summer’s time trial in Presque Isle where he was severely injured when struck by a pickup truck, said Armstrong’s actions this week are more of a public relations stunt than true confession.
“His doing the interview through Oprah raises a lot of red flags,” LaVallee said. “A lot of these issues are really intricate so by going on Oprah he is not really addressing the cycling community who can really call him out on these issues, but because [Oprah] and her audience are not really knowledgeable about the ins and outs of doping, he can get away with a pseudoconfession.”
LaVallee predicts cycling insiders will not be fooled by what Armstrong has to say in the interview, adding, “If he really wanted to come clean he should have sat down with ESPN and allowed himself to be interviewed by people who are really in the know.”
But it was a perfect move, LaVallee said, for a man whose desire for public adoration and money oustripped his love for the sport.
“He’s the type of guy who has to be in the spotlight and who needs to be relevant at all times,” he said.
Banned for life from the sport he made famous, Armstrong also may be attempting to paint himself in a more favorable light as additional allegations of pressuring fellow riders to use and supplying them with performance-enhancing drugs arise along with speculation of widespread doping cover-ups on the part of the sport’s governing bodies.
“Lance now has to control that message,” LaVallee said. “He is hoping he can win over the general public and that this atonement and phoney confession will soften the blow when the truth comes out.”
Doping questions aside, the arrogant Armstrong described by LaVallee is not the man Jeff Bennett, Portland cyclist and Livestrong national advocate, knows.
“This is one thing I will say about Lance,” Bennett said. “I have known him as a cancer survivor and advocate and I can tell you sitting with him at the table advocating for cancer awareness he is a real fighter for cancer survivors and their families.”
Bennett, himself a cancer survivor who has organized fundraising events in Maine and participated in Livestrong events in Austin, said he is unsure of the impact this week’s revelations will have on the foundation Armstrong founded in 1997.
Last October, Armstrong separated himself from the foundation.
“That separation was the right move,” Bennett said. “I can’t imagine it was an easy move [because] I know what it means to him personally.”
To date, Bennett said, donations coming in to the foundation have not dropped in the wake of the Armstrong scandal and media reports are claiming contributions may even rise given the increased attention the foundation is getting.
Moreover, he said, the foundation continues to offer support and guidance — free of charge — to anyone who needs it.
“I’m bummed because it was such a good story,” Rose said. “Here’s this cyclist who was not really doing anything and then he comes down with cancer, beats cancer and goes on to win the Tour de France. He even has a name that sounds like a superhero.”
And perhaps that’s the most important lesson to be learned, Rose said.
“Instead of focusing on a superhero, let’s focus on ourselves and everyone who loves to ride,” he said. “People can realize [Armstrong] was human and they are human and can get strength from themselves.”
Cycling, Rose said, has a great future and people need to look forward.
“Look at my mom,” he said. “She’s 82 years old, had breast cancer and last year we did a three-day, 120-mile ride on the Sunrise Trail, camping out [overnights].”
Cycling does have a solid future, LaVallee said, and it’s with younger cyclists who are learning to rely on talent, not drugs.
That can be a challenge in a world where performance-enhancing drugs are commonplace, he said.
“I have never doped,” LaVallee said. “Have I been tempted? Everyone has been tempted. When you are a young racer in your 20s and you are racing at a level where you discover you can make a living doing it while traveling and having fun and all you have to do is take a pill or get an injection to be that good? Anyone who says they have not been tempted is lying.”
It’s a practice, he said, that goes back to the earliest days of bicycle racing in the 1880s when cyclists believed ingesting mercury would make them faster.
The time has long passed, he said, to move away from that mindset.
“Three of the top riders in the country are from right here in New England,” he said. “These are national-caliber riders down here [and] when you look at them and how much they can accomplish clean, that gives you hope.”