No matter your opinion on his personal character, Lance Armstrong is the baddest-ass bike racer of all time. There are maybe five other people alive today who know the ins and outs of road-bike stage racing better than he does. Which is why there were so many fans of Lance’s independent podcast, called Stages, in which he weighed in as an insider-turned-permanent-outcast on the strategy, grit, idiocy, mayhem, beauty, drama, and athleticism that is the Tour de France.
At least five million fans downloaded the Stages podcasts that Lance dictated from home. That’s a massive audience for U.S. cycling in the post-Lance-racing world. Like it or not, Lance was once again singlehandedly making cycling cool again in America.
Intrigued, the organizers of the Colorado Classic, America’s newest stage race, which kicked off August 10, partnered with Lance to issue podcasts from a custom Airstream at the races. The organizers—former ski shop guys from Colorado with a huge love of cycling—told the Denver Post that they were “blown away” at the potential audience they could reach with Lance’s help. Naturally, Lance would get paid for his work.
That’s when, after fielding calls and emails from Lance’s many detractors, the United States Anti-Doping Agency informed race officials that, “Under the World Anti-Doping Agency Code, an ineligible individual [Lance] may not have an official role in relation to a sanctioned event such as the Colorado Classic.” In other words, if Lance so much as worked at a bake sale at the event, they'd shut it down faster than you can say “erythropoietin brownies.” Without UCI, WADA, and USADA backing, there is no high-level professional bike race. Understandably, the race organizers quickly broke their ties with Lance. (Lance has decided to still cover the Colorado race via Stages—he's just not getting any money for it. The first dispatch went live Thursday.)
USADA, in its attempt to place a gag order on Lance Armstrong, trampled on the spirit of the First Amendment. And in the process, it did everything in its power to quash cycling in the U.S., a sport that needs every bit of help it can get.
That last bit is the bigger issue: Why would the UCI engage in such flagrant self-immolation at a time when bikes sales are down worldwide, independent bike shops in America are struggling, and interest in bike racing in the U.S. is as thin as a Team Sky muscle calendar? Baseball has loads of stars, so even if it’s morally wrong to banish Pete Rose, it can afford to do so, economically. As much as many of us would like to deny it—myself included—cycling in the U.S. only has Lance. He’s the sport’s only household name. He brought the cycling boom in the late 1990s and sustained it through the aughts. And now he might just be able to staunch the bloodletting. Let him.
Maybe Lance Armstrong upsets your sensibilities and you don’t want to hear him commenting on the rebirth of clean cycling. It’s understandable. He did wicked things to good people and the black mark he left on the sport is indelible. But, as an American, he has a right to both earn a living and speak his mind. He’s also charismatic, and if given a chance, just might win over his detractors and help make cycling relevant to a wider audience than weekend racers.