Competitive bicyclists historically were considered “convicts of the road” because the sport was so brutal. Riders raced far more demanding courses than the Tour De France, hundreds of miles a day, and they took and did whatever type of enhancement was available to them, Lance Armstrong, the disgraced seven-time Tour winner said.
“We all knew that history, even when I was young in the 1990s,” Armstrong said during a taping of the June 27 Rocky Mountain PBS show “Colorado Quarterly.”
Armstrong spoke candidly about the era that led to his downfall, when he went from being a revered champion considered the greatest cyclist ever to losing his titles and many sponsorships and damaging the sport in a doping scandal that reverberates to this day. In 2012, he was stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned from competitive cycling for life after the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) found him guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs.
“Of course, you always want science to be ahead of where doping would be,” Armstrong said Thursday, suggesting that, if so, all competitors would be equal. “But at that time, science was way, way behind. There was a substance, EPO, that was tremendously helpful, up to the tune of 10 percent (in enhanced performance), and just as important, it was completely undetectable. And, of course, it ran like wildfire through the peloton (professional cycling).”
EPO, erythropoietin, is a hormone that acts on the bone marrow to stimulate red blood cell production. An increase in red blood cells improves the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry to the body’s muscles.
Armstrong participated in Colorado Quarterly by phone from Aspen. The show was moderated by Rocky Mountain PBS President and CEO Doug Price, who was joined on set by Scott Mercier, a talented cyclist who gave up a lucrative professional contract to avoid doping, and by Ian MacGregor, a two time national champion who competed cleanly.
“Ironically, Lance was the greatest athlete of our generation, doping or no doping,” said Mercier. “He had huge success, but he’s suffering now. I’m suffering by not knowing what could have been for me. But I’m proud to be friends with Lance.”
Said MacGregor, “I want to be clear. I didn’t make a choice. I was supported by a sponsor trying to encourage us to make a different (anti-doping) choice. I was insulated.”
Price asked Armstrong if what had happened to him was worth it and necessary for the good of the sport.
“That’s a great question,” Armstrong replied evenly, “and one that I ask myself every day. My answer is not a popular one. My answer is that it wasn’t worth it.
“I can look at what it’s done to our sport, I look at how teams and sponsors are fleeing, events are folding, participation is down,” Armstrong said. “It all stems from choices I made. But with all due respect, this was not an effort to clean up cycling. Because in order to do that you have to truly take a global view and a global look at this thing, and a global commission has to do it, which I think we’ve started to do now.”
During his championship era, Armstrong was almost equally as well known for his Livestrong Foundation, a hugely successful advocacy organization for those with cancer. Armstrong himself is a cancer survivor.
He told Price that he regretted that the doping scandal had made it impossible to continue his involvement with the foundation. “Now I can only try to help people on a one-on-one basis, which I like doing.”
Armstrong said from Aspen he is now living simply, riding, golfing and spending time with his five children.
“It wasn’t pretty and I’m not proud of it, but it was what it was,” Armstrong said.
He said his future lies “in what the world lets me do.”
See “Colorado Quarterly” on rmpbs.org.