On the wall of my living room I have three large posters hanging side-by-side-by-side. They are from Lance Armstrong’s Ride for the Roses weekend in Austin, Texas, and seeing them always made me smile. I go back a lot of years with Lance, back to the early days of his triathlon career. I loved his passion and energy and felt that, at the age of 15 and already swimming and cycling with the legends of triathlon, he would be the next great one after Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Scott Molina hung up their Speedos.
But back in the late 1980s, triathlon was not yet an Olympic sport, and Lance was determined to get to the big show. After he signed with the Subaru Montgomery Cycling Team in 1991, I was in a chase vehicle with Coach Eddie Borysewicz, aka Eddie B., the architect of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Cycling Team and who was now overseeing Subaru Montgomery. Eddie was from Poland and spoke an interesting form of staccato English. As we came up next to Lance I asked Eddie his opinion. Eddie didn’t hesitate: “Lance have diamond legs … next Greg LeMond … will win Tour de France.”
Eddie was right: Lance was special. After he was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Oct. 2, 1996, we had numerous conversations on my radio show, and very few of them involved racing his bike again. Lance told me how he would spend his days reading messages from fellow cyclists wishing him well. “Those messages and those people helped get me through those days,” he told me, “and I’ll forever be grateful.”
“Lance,” I asked, “you get through dealing with tumours in your stomach and then find out you have lesions on your brain. How did you handle that?”
“I looked at it as a positive,” he insisted. “At that point I felt that it couldn’t get any worse, that there had to be a light at the end of the tunnel.”
I go back frequently to listen to those conversations and I always get nostalgic. He was a young man in the prime of life and, rather than being scared to death, he had decided to get out of the saddle and attack this insidious disease the same way he attacked the peloton.
When he came back and won his first race as a member of the U.S. Postal Service Team in downtown Austin, I was lucky enough to be there as the announcer as he out kicked Chann McRae for the win. Since Austin was Lance’s hometown and this happened to be part of Lance’s Ride for the Roses weekend, I wondered if Chann had maybe given Lance the sprint. “I grew up here, too,” McRae said. “No way I give him that win. He beat me.”
Besides the three autographed posters, I also have two champagne glasses from Lance’s 1999 Tour de France vic- tory, a Wheaties box showcasing Lance, Sports Illustrated issues with him on the cover, an autographed yellow jersey and a personalised Competitor magazine cover from a photo shoot we did in 2002: “For my friend Bob,” it says. “Thanks for believing.”
I am sad to see what has happened to Lance. I saw the vindictive side of Lance and had my run-ins with him over the past few years. He was unhappy with me for talking about cycling’s drug issues and for interviewing David Walsh, the author of From Lance to Landis, drug ex- pert Michael Ashenden, longtime Lance critic Betsy Andreu and three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond. When I ran into Lance in 2010 during President Bush’s W100 Mountain Bike Ride in Tex- as, he told me Walsh and LeMond were idiots and clowns, Andreu was crazy and that I should do something to myself that I’m pretty sure is not physically possible.
What do I believe now? I believe Lance Armstrong overcame testicular cancer. I believe he created a wonderful foundation called Livestrong that has done so much for so many. I believe Lance Armstrong was as talented an athlete as anyone I have ever met.
I believe he not only used performance-enhancing drugs, but that he insisted that those around him use them as well. Tyler Hamilton told me during an interview recently that while he and the other top cyclists in the Tour de France wanted to win, Lance needed to win.
Finally, I believe that Lance Armstrong was so corrupted by power that he lost his moral compass and took a tragic wrong turn on his way to seven Tour de France titles and immortality.
Bob Babbitt is the co-founder of Competitor magazine, the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the host of Competitor Radio and an inductee into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame and USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. To hear his interviews with more than 500 endurance legends, visit Competitorradio.com.