Ah, 1999—those were the days. It was summertime and we were in Holland for our annual visit with my wife’s family. Normally I didn’t spend a lot of time with the Dutch paper, but on this day a story caught my eye. A young American cyclist had recovered from testicular cancer and surprised everyone by winning the Tour de France. The French were saying, “How is it possible? It’s not possible.” But I said, “Sure it’s possible” (sotto voce: “for an American”). That was the beginning of a great love affair.
The next summer when we were in Holland, I made it a point to watch the Tour live on TV. That’s a leisurely business of viewing castles from the air and waiting for breakaways by ambitious riders. Lance Armstrong won again, and I was hooked. He has the perfect name for a sports hero, no? In my mind I saw the arm on the baking soda box, but with a sword in place of the hammer.
I read his book, It’s Not About the Bike, and that impressed me even more. His story wasn’t just about sports, it was about life: surviving, overcoming odds, doing your best, and offering yourself in service to others. When a friend’s sister was diagnosed with cancer, I passed the book on to her.
In 2001 we moved to Holland. From then on I was able to follow the Tour intensely. Cycling is huge in the Netherlands. All the races—the Giro, the Vuelta, the Tour of Flanders—are shown on the local channels, and the sundries stores are full of racing guides. When I was riding my own bike I couldn’t stand to trail a slower rider. When I went to pass, I‘d hear the voice of Mart Smeets, the Dutch commentator: “En daar gaat ie”—And there he goes! As the insinuations about doping piled up, Smeets remained a stalwart defender of Armstrong. In that regard he was like Charles Groenhuijsen, the America correspondent for Dutch broadcasting, who defended George W. Bush before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq and the failure to find those notorious weapons of mass destruction. Groenhuijsen’s stubbornness was strangely reassuring. As an American living abroad, and even though I had serious doubts about what Bush was up to, I confess I was even more doubtful about all the badmouthing of America in Europe.
I didn’t read L.A. Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong, the book published in France in 2004 that supposedly gave the inside scoop on his cheating. I assumed a lot of the accusations were motivated by jealousy. Hadn’t Armstrong’s blood always tested negative? And hadn’t he always submitted readily? How could he have anything to hide?
Every year Armstrong’s Livestrong Foundation put tens of millions of dollars toward improvement of the lives of cancer survivors. When the Livestrong wristbands came out, I had to get one. I wore it proudly. Way to go, Lance! Even Mart Smeets wore a Livestrong wristband while broadcasting the Tour. And every year, for seven years in a row, Armstrong donned the victorious yellow jersey as he pedaled triumphantly into Paris.
But of course, at some point even the truest of believers must come to grips with the fallibility of their heroes. More and more riders got busted and more and more of Armstrong’s teammates confessed and turned on him. Not long ago, I watched closely as he answered questions in a long interview. They say touching your face means you’re lying, but I know from experience (I cannot tell a lie, but I have been known to dissimulate on occasion) that it can also mean you feel awkward or embarrassed. At one point Armstrong scratched his nose. But he didn’t pull his hand away. He just kept scratching there, up and around his eye, as though it really did itch. A tell? I don’t know.
I still love Armstrong. I love him in spite of the bad things I now must concede he probably did. I’ve done bad things myself, and I haven’t helped or inspired anywhere near as many people as Armstrong.
I still have a Wheaties box with his picture on it in the closet. I initially held onto it as a symbol of the invincibility of American sports heroes. I’m not sure what it is a symbol of now. Perhaps I’ll keep it as a reminder of a lost faith.