It’s Tour de France season, which means not only daily race coverage, but doping revelations, scandals, and the media circus that inevitably surfaces alongside the world’s biggest cycling spectacle.
If you’ve been following cycling for awhile, you know that media revelations are a key part of the intrigue: Floyd Landis made his accusations against Lance Armstrong in the run-up to the 2010 Tour; Tyler Hamilton repeated the process a year later; and Antoine Vayer released a publication questioning Tour racers’ credibility at the 2013 race. So it came as no surprise that Freakonomics, the NPR radio program, chose to air a tell-all interview with Armstrong this week, just four days before the conclusion of the 2018 Tour.
Many people will roll their eyes at the proposition that Armstrong still has a platform. (To be fair, he covers the Tour for Outside.) And yet, in the interview, Armstrong proved himself perhaps more relevant than ever.
You see, despite professional cycling’s best efforts to depict itself as totally reformed following its 2012 purge of Armstrong and his cadre, the sport still labors under the specter of doping. For the past year, questions have swirled around Team Sky and Chris Froome, the sport’s marquee squad and racer. Armstrong wouldn’t be drawn into speculating over the specifics of Froome’s case. “I don’t know if doping is or is not involved,” he said. But he maintained that the system is broken. “A huge chunk of my competitors are driving team cars, and working for sponsors, and working for the organizer of the Tour de France…so it’s a very similar situation,” he said. “If the aim in 2012 was to finally fix the system, they didn’t.”
Chris Froome’s salbutamol soap opera underscores this point. The case—stemming from a test result the Brit returned during the 2017 Vuelta a España that was double the allowable limit for the asthma drug—looked poised to overshadow this year’s Tour. Then, with almost zero public explanation, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) made a bottom-of-the-ninth decision to clear Froome to race the event. Cycling’s international governing body clearly hoped that the resolution would put the issue to bed. “The UCI hopes that the cycling world can now turn its focus to, and enjoy, the upcoming races on the cycling calendar,” the organization said in a statement. But in reality it just raised more questions. On Wednesday, Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), who was largely responsible for bringing Armstrong to justice, told the BBC that the handling of the Froome case was “another blow to the perceived credibility of the global anti-doping movement.”
In light of all this, Freakonomics journalist Stephen Dubner asked Armstrong what he would do to clean up the sport if he were in charge. “I would get out from under the control of the International Olympic Committee,” he said. “Have your own anti-doping regulations, but don’t be beholden to people like the IOC and to WADA.”
Armstrong proposed plenty more solutions on the podcast, including sharing profits of TV revenue (teams currently get none of the proceeds) and strengthening the riders union (he called the current one, the CPA, “completely ineffective”). “If the union is strong and unified and well-organized and well-led and there is incentive because we’re making money off the TV revenue, or the TV rights worldwide, if we’re all participating in the upside of the sport...the athletes then start to self-police,” he said.
The interview’s most poignant moments, though, were those of self-reflection. I heard something from Armstrong that I’d never heard before: contrition. He recounted a recent interaction with an ex-employee from Livestrong that finally made him confront what he had done. “She walked me through the whole thing, and she said, ‘You know, at the end of the day we all felt really complicit,’” he said. “It changed my life. Look, ‘betrayal’ is a terrible word…complicit is 100 [times that]. I had already started to get my mind and my heart around the fact that people had suffered this tremendous amount of betrayal, and then I was hit with complicit. And it just…it rocked me to the core.”
He addressed the fans who will never forgive him. “Nobody wants to hear that a certain segment of any population is pissed at them or hates them or whatever,” he said. “And for a long, long time that really, really affected me and bothered me...I just want to be honest with you and the listeners: I understand.”
Perhaps it helps that Armstrong seems to have finally lost his title as the world’s most reviled cyclist to Chris Froome, who has been spat at and punched by spectators at this year’s Tour, booed by the crowds, and even strong-armed off his bike by a French policeman after one stage.
Even still, many people will never forgive Armstrong for his deceptions. Many more may just wish the disgraced cyclist would go away. But Armstrong is still relevant. For one, he is one of world’s foremost experts on doping in cycling; if we care about cleaning up the sport, it’s worth listening to what he has to say.
He’s also a reminder that we fans should remain at least a little skeptical of our heroes: How many times did Armstrong, despite all contrary evidence, protest his innocence? And shouldn’t that history inform how we appraise similar claims in the face of repeated suspicions today?