Maybe the worst part about the Lance Armstrong saga, at this point, is how we got where we are right now. Remember Bernie Kohl, the chimney sweep? In 2008, he finished a surprising third in the Tour de France, taking home the polka dot jersey. In October of that year, the Tour announced that CERA was found in his blood sample. Two days later he confessed. Whatever you thought about Bernie Kohl, you got out of your system in about 72 hours or so and moved on.
Armstrong, on the other hand, can probably add to his list of record achievements the longest, most drawn-out, painful sports doping saga in history. Fellow Texan Roger Clemens gave Lance a run for his money, but Clemens' trial ended two months ago. And anyway, who really cares about Clemens, a self-absorbed man-child who acted as one of nine players every fifth day and only once had an impact on a championship? Lance's saga is way worse on that score. There are lots of reasons to care about what happens to Lance, including one big one that transcends sport.
[More blather, and a ray of hope, on the flip...]
My solution, for years, has been to wash my hands of the whole Armstrong generation. I haven't involved myself in the details, in part because (thankfully!) Jen and Douglas have been willing to, and in part because Lance was just a very athletic, very ambitious, very powerful symptom of a greater problem. The insidiousness of doping is that once you open the door to it, it becomes very, very hard to close. If one potential winner is cheating, it forces the others to wonder if they should too, rather than see their goals stolen from them. Morals kick in here, but remember, these guys train endless hours in silence and shitty weather. Seeing their target race stolen by a doper is undoubtedly a bitter, bitter pill to swallow. I'm sure there are guys who have doped like Ricco, without reservation, but probably many more who did so out of resentment and frustration. That was the system Cycling created in the 1990s with its 50 percent rule, where you were dinged for a hematocrit over 50, and consequently you were a fool for racing with a hematocrit of less than, say, 48.
Weaning the sport off of the 1990s* has taken a long time, and clearly the battle isn't over -- perhaps never truly is -- though the inside consensus is that things have "improved." Me, I like to take the sunny optimist's view, but appreciate the cynics, those who still scrutinize and pressure the peloton to stay on track toward cleaner days. I'm not good at the whole eternal vigilance thing, so thank you to those who are.
[* and yes, doping existed before EPO. That's merely when it got way worse.]
The one good side to the whole process we've suffered through (and may yet suffer through a bit more) is that Lance finally is written out of the sport at a time when we can see who will take up his mantle on behalf of US Cycling. When he retired in 2005, there was nobody to claim his spot, except more products of the same system. Landis was first up, and quickly lit himself on fire, as his former Postal teammates probably suspected he would. Hamilton was already out. Leipheimer was more credible, but has headlined a generation of very good riders, not imagination-captivating star winners. There is much to appreciate in the palmares and exploits of Levi, and Hincapie, VandeVelde, Zabriskie, Horner, and so on. Die-hard fans have rejoiced in high classics placings, sprint wins, notable Tour de France GC spots, and moments of brilliance. It's not like there was nothing after Lance.
But those guys, with all due respect, aren't what American fans, or fans of American cycling, need. In some cases we will likely be hearing about their own stories, the former Postal teammates who gave evidence in Armstrong's case. Whatever that turns out to be, it doesn't help us turn the page. What we need to turn the page is a full break from the past, a new generation of US riders to get more than a little excited about. And lo and behold... here they are.
Just this year, we can start to talk carefully about how high up the ladder Tejay van Garderen can climb. It's unfair and probably wrong to claim that we see a run of Tour de France dominance in him, but you never know, and at a minimum he looks very much like a guy who will be in the conversation for yellow, for the next 8-10 years. Also just this year, we see Taylor Phinney, long mentioned as a prodigy for the classics and time trials, looking very much like a guy who plans on fulfilling his promise. We see a deepening bench with guys like Bookwalter, Busche, Duggan, Stetina, Howes, the Kings, Rathe, Talansky. Another wave gains momentum behind, with names like Craddock and Dombrowski, to open the discussion. Unlike 2005, we don't see guys who are still tied to the old ways. And we do see guys with incredibly bright futures.
Apologies to anyone I missed; my point isn't to call roll but to say that if we can turn the page, there is much to get excited about. The story we're being told now is that today's decisions are the prerequisite to turning the page. I hope that's true, at least for some people. For the rest, these are the names who will help you along in that process in the years to come. I should add, the teams play a role too, and programs like BMC and Garmin, while not exactly rising from the ashes of the past with no living ties to the lost generation, are nonetheless seen as injecting integrity into the sport. Jonathan Vaughters' confession is part of the process to cutting off all ties to the old ways, particularly since he runs a team founded on clean cycling principles. This is the way forward, and if Vaughters wasn't the ideal person to lead the way, his actions shore up his credentials considerably. Oh, and this is just the American side of the coin. The rest of the cycling world has some similar stories to tell, if you look in the right places.
Everyone has their own feelings on the subject of Armstrong -- not news, for over a decade -- and this column is not intended to engage in that discussion. But if you're ready to move on and forget about Lance, I'm here to say that there is a great deal of material to work with and get excited about. Me, I'm ready, right now.