Updated: August 24, 2012 at 12:00 am
Lance Armstrong’s name will be erased from the record books. He’s destined to lose his seven Tour de France titles.
But he’s winning the battle of public opinion. The masses in America never will abandon the man who defines cycling in our country.
You could call Armstrong the Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth of cycling, but this description fails to capture how much he towers over his sport. The average American can name another basketball or baseball great. For most Americans, Armstrong is cycling. The sport is him, and no one else.
On Thursday night, Armstrong announced he had, in essence, surrendered to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, based in Colorado Springs. Armstrong said he no longer would challenge USADA’s charges against him for cheating his way to his titles.
But here’s the twist:
America’s King of Cycling will forever remain America’s King of Cycling. After defeating testicular cancer, Armstrong resolved to help others in the battle. He’s raised, through Livestrong, $470 million in the struggle against cancer.
There are hundreds of sports heroes in America. There are precious few folk heroes, and Armstrong is one of them.
On Friday morning, Tim Richter, 43, awoke in his Briargate home in north Colorado Springs. He was dreading his assignment for the day.
Richter had volunteered to work at the Livestrong booth a few dozen yards from the finish line of the USA Pro Challenge. He expected to hear from dozens, maybe even hundreds, of Armstrong critics.
He did hear from hundreds of women, men, boys and girls.
And every one of those voices supported Armstrong.
Those who stopped by the booth called the USADA’s efforts to dethrone Armstrong “a witch hunt” and “unconstitutional.” Supporters used an assortment of other words that we can’t print in this family newspaper.
Scott Strommen, 54, took a more reasoned approach. He drove from his home in Albuquerque, N.M., to follow the Challenge this week. He wore a Livestrong jersey and a tired look as he considered the fate of his favorite cyclist.
“It’s all a lot of hearsay,” Strommen said. “I think he’s innocent until proven guilty. That’s the American way.”
I don’t completely understand Strommen’s – and so many others’ – belief in Armstrong. If Armstrong is innocent, why not complete the battle with USADA? Why not hire the finest lawyers and fight to clear his name?
Armstrong ended his struggle with a furious, final counterattack, saying USADA CEO Travis Tygart had “zero evidence to support his outlandish and heinous claims.”
His impassioned rhetoric only raises more questions. It doesn’t take much effort to dismiss zero evidence.
Armstrong knows better. He knows Tygart had assembled eyewitnesses. He knows the evidence was substantial. He knows about the tests and the scientists. He knows what would have been ahead.
He’s an extremely perceptive man. He knows. That’s the best explanation why one of the world’s most ruthless competitors declined to compete against USADA.
And yet …
Armstrong rides away as a hero. To everyone? No. To the majority? Yes.
He’s grown so much bigger than a mere sport. For millions, Armstrong is a humanitarian struggling against cancer, and he just happens to double as a superlative cyclist who has some issues with anti-doping crusaders.
“Cancer,” Richter said, “touches everyone.”
That’s true. My family has been touched, and torched, by cancer. Virtually everyone’s family has endured the same experience. Richter survived his battle with liver cancer and works diligently for an organization started by a cyclist named Lance.
Richter makes no apologies.
“He’s done amazing things for world cycling,” he said, “and even more for cancer.”
Richter glanced at Livestrong’s large plastic contribution bin.
It was jammed with cash.