America’s greatest ever cyclist has paid $5 million for bringing pride and glory to the nation he represented. Sounds about fair.
No, really, I mean it. Both parts.
First, let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way.
Lance Armstrong has reached a $5 million settlement with the US Government over a whistleblower lawsuit.
While $5 million isn’t exactly chump change, it’s actually a huge let-off for the Texan, as the government was chasing him for an eye-watering $100 million.
Uncle Sam’s argument was that Lance had defrauded the American people by using performance-enhancing drugs during the seven years he spent dominating the sport of cycling.
See, during a significant portion of his drug-fuelled years of invincibility, Lance rode for a team primarily sponsored by the government-owned US Postal Service. So the argument was that by cheating on his bike, Lance had also cheated his sponsors, and the sponsor paying him the most money happened to be funded by American taxpayers.
And – to give serious disincentive against ripping off taxpayers – US law can make someone found guilty of that particular brand of fraud pay back the money they misappropriated by triple.
Hence the 30-odd million US Postal spent getting insane exposure had turned into the $100 million that Lance owed – and let’s get this part straight – not the Postal Service, but the American people.
See how personal that makes things? Isn’t it ridiculous?
All cool on the legalities? Great, let’s talk about what a freakin’ gun this dude was when mashing the pedals.
Lance Armstrong was – and still is – without doubt America’s greatest ever cyclist. The man may have officially been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles for profiting from – as the US Anti-Doping Agency put it – “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen”, but he still wore the Maillot Jaune into Paris seven years in a row.
That’s two more titles than anyone else ever managed, and more than double the total of America’s next-most successful cyclist, Greg LeMond.
And while the history books say he didn’t win squat, those seven jerseys are still on display at Lance’s bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, in Austin, Texas.
Initially, when Lance first got busted and played the ‘I only did what everyone else was doing’ card, I wasn’t having a bar of it.
You cheated dude, and honest, hard-working cyclists missed their chance because you took the easy way out.
And then I looked into it. Like, really looked into it.
The 2014 Tour was a bit of a fizzer, so I decided to get my cycling fix by finding out what blokes riding bikes around Europe were really up to in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Lance was in his pomp.
I started with The Secret Race by Lance’s ex-teammate, Tyler Hamilton (it’s probably the best sporting book ever written, and I’ve re-read it countless times). My appetite whetted, I then bought Wheelmen by Vanessa O’Connell and Reed Albergotti.
Seven Deadly Sins by David Walsh, Bjarne Riis’ autobiography, Breaking the Chain by Willy Voet, Cycle of Lies by Juliet Macur, Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage…
I read virtually everything there was on the internet and watched all the docos – hell, I even went to a play about Lance’s battle with Marco Pantani on Mont Ventoux.
My wife would have been worried about me if she wasn’t so goddam bored of hearing me talk about Lance Armstrong all the time.
I got a fair chunk of it out of my system with a nine-part series here on The Roar, called World War Cycling (you should read it because, just quietly, it’s perhaps the best writing I’ve ever done).
At the end of it all, I reached a pretty firm conclusion: Lance was right. Everyone was on drugs when he was on drugs.
In fact, he wasn’t even the first cyclist to be stripped of his victory – Riis had his 1996 title taken from him after admitting to doping, but it was later reinstated on the basis of, ‘Whelp, you can’t change the past.’
As further evidence everyone was on drugs, when Lance was stripped of his seven titles, no one inherited them, because the field was just too dirty. You couldn’t take Lance’s title and give it to Jan Ullrich – that dude was doped to the gills!
What’s more, this is a sport where the greatest of all time, Eddy Merckx – who is perhaps the only athlete in history who could compare with Don Bradman, so incomparable were his feats – got busted for doping three times!
But Lance wasn’t just on better drugs; he was a better cyclist.
As he himself put it last year, bike racing is “a mix of running a marathon, playing a game of chess, driving in NASCAR, and running for President. If you can’t figure all those out, then you’re not going to win”.
Lance had it all figured out, it’s just that being on drugs had to be part of the equation during his reign – that or “you’re not going to win”.
Man, he was such a dick!
The thing about everyone doping is that it means everyone knows everyone’s doping. Therefore, it’s no secret that the guy who’s winning is on the juice – it’s the only logical conclusion when we’re dealing with drugs that can give you a ten per cent boost in a race where the margin of victory is around 0.1 per cent.
But when anyone so much as whispered that Lance was doping, the guy went nuts. And in America, there’s only one kind of nuts that’s worth going – legally nuts.
Lance sued everybody.
David Walsh, who first reported Lance was doping? Sued.
Emma O’Reilly, Lance’s soigneur, who helped him dope, then talked to Walsh about it? Lance called her an “alcoholic” and a “whore”, then sued (although the case was eventually dropped).
SCA Promotions, the company that withheld a $5 million bonus to Lance, because they believed he was doping? You better believe they got sued.
As for those Lance didn’t sue, he bullied and had them blacklisted. And this was a guy who took bike rides with the President – if he wanted to bury you, you might as well start digging.
But here’s the thing.
That whistleblower lawsuit Lance settled? It’s not technically about what a tool he was. It was about him defrauding the American people.
And on that front, their suit was a complete load of BS.
Sure, it’s never a great look for a sponsor when the team you’re behind are found to be cheats – only last month, Magellan dropped Cricket Australia like a hot potato after the ‘Sandpapergate’ incident in South Africa. But the government wanted restitution for events that had taken place over a decade ago, and which were exposed long after their involvement with the man was over.
As for the whistleblower who brought the case forward? That was Floyd Landis, an ex-teammate of Lance’s on US Postal, who had his own 2006 Tour title stripped for doping.
Whistleblowers in these cases can be awarded 25 per cent of the funds the government takes, meaning Landis is potentially in for a million-dollar payday (again, not chump change, but certainly not ‘put your feet up for the rest of your life’ money, which $25 million would have been).
Doesn’t it just seem a bit off that someone who was doing the exact same thing as Lance – doping on the taxpayers’ dime – stands to make money for it?
As for those who say Lance bullied him into doping, Landis was on the juice long after he left the team. Again, he was just doing what it took to win, but the ‘Lance made me do it’ line doesn’t wash.
Finally, and most importantly, Postal made bank off Armstrong.
According to the Denver Post, “reports by two marketing firms covering 2001-04 state the USPS received $103.6 million in domestic value from sponsoring the Armstrong-led teams”.
So they earned $100 million from Lance when he was on the bike, then wanted another $100 million from him long after he was done?
In the words of Ned Flanders, “You might even say I hate the Post Office.”
But this was never about the Postal Service recouping loss of face for supporting a cheat. Not really.
This was about the American people getting their pound of flesh out of a man who rose to staggering heights by cheating, then behaved in a frankly sickening manner to maintain his position.
While they were after his money, they really wanted his blood.
Because while he lost hundreds of millions in sponsorship, and repaid pretty well everyone he ever sued, the guy still has a great life.
Sure, he had to give up his private jet(!) and mansion, but he’s still got homes in Austin and Aspen, a healthy stock portfolio, an enviable art collection, Mellow Johnny’s, and a budding content platform (his Stages podcast is a must for any cycling fan).
That’s what this lawsuit was really about – truly punishing the man. And since you can’t go to jail for winning bike races while doped (thank God), the US Government decided to try send Lance to money jail: bankruptcy.
But (there’s that word again)…
While Lance Armstrong needed to pay a price for what he did – the bullying, not the doping – let’s be real.
Smacking the guy for a hundred million bucks just because he was awesome at sport, then acted like a douche? There’d be no athletes left!
As for five million? Yeah, I’d say that’s about right. He’ll feel it – he’s not Mark Zuckerberg – but it won’t ruin his life, nor that of his family.
And it shouldn’t. Because yes Lance cheated, yes Lance bullied, yes Lance was a total dick.
But he’s the best cyclist America has ever produced.
Around a year ago, I had an amazing morning walking around Mellow Johnny’s, soaking up all the memorabilia – and there is a ton of it.
My mate is a keen gear-head and had no qualms turning the pedals over on some of the bikes. I stood back in a state of reverent awe, but did briefly touch the handlebars of the bike Lance was riding when he gave ‘The Look’ on Alpe d’Huez in 2001, and legitimately got chills.
His legacy may be irrevocably tainted, but so is the sport of cycling. And for seven unforgettable years, Lance Armstrong was its filthy king.