Lance Armstrong's '$100 milski': does anyone care?

Has the cycling world, and sport in general, moved on from the self-confessed drug cheat?

Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong
By Juliet Macur
RRP: $32 softcover

A few years before his first Tour de France win, Lance Armstrong and his US Postal teammates joined a popular weekday training ride of about 100km somewhere in Europe.

A former Kiwi elite cyclist, who also rode that day, told me a 15-year-old had skipped school in the hope of riding with Armstrong, but the super-competitive Texan – who spoke to the teen before the ride started – would only truck-and-trailer with his teammates.

It would not have cost the American much to give the kid a minute next to his wheel, argued the Kiwi.

Yes, but this is Lance Armstrong we’re talking about. That is, win-at-all-costs Lance Armstrong, as evidenced by revelations about the massive doping operation behind his record seven Tour de France titles, that were eventually stripped from him and which led to a life ban.

For her book, Cycle of Lies, New York Times journalist Juliet Macur not only interviews Armstrong himself – who berates her for the choice of book title – but also the former pro cyclist’s adoptive father, various other close family members. The book also reveals the recorded testimony of JT Neal, a father figure for Armstrong for many years.

NBR readers might be interested in Lance Armstrong, the business entity.

As told in Cycle of Lies, he earned $US5 million in endorsements on top of his $US2 million salary in 2000 – the year after his first Tour win (amidst doping allegations). His public speaking fees bumped up from $US30,000 to $US70,000, plus first-class expenses for two.

Trek Bicycle Corporation’s sales doubled in the time it took him to win seven titles (although claims would emerge Armstrong’s team were selling their sponsor’s bikes to fund their doping regime.) Nike, it would seem, were one of the biggest beneficiaries from Armstrong’s fame while also being his biggest endorser.

A marketer’s dream, until his spectacular downfall, the Armstrong juggernaut changed the sport in America. The number of USA Cycling licences rose, as Armstrong became a regular at the White House and put his name behind a high-profile foundation to raise money for cancer research.

(For the parochial among us, there are New Zealand connections: Kiwi Stephen Swart, who rode with Armstrong in 1995, outed his former boss as a drug cheat in Sports Illustrated in January 2011; and American bike mechanic Mike Anderson, who also spoke out about Armstrong, emigrated to New Zealand in 2007.)

'$100 milski'
What kind of fortune does a sporting megastar amass?

He apparently gloated to a former teammate he had “$100 milski” in the bank and that’s why he wasn’t worried about a federal criminal investigation. The investigation is ongoing, as are a plethora of lawsuits sparked by his doping admissions in January last year (via Oprah Winfrey, of course).

Going back to my Kiwi cyclist, he’s unimpressed by Armstrong and sees him as somewhat of a distraction.

“There’s a much bigger story going on in cycling right now,” the Kiwi says.

“The sport is cleaner than it’s ever been.”

That’s a scary thought.

The fallout from the Armstrong doping revelations continue. In the last few weeks, his long-time coach Johan Bruyneel has been banned for 10 years, disgraced Italian rider Riccardo Ricco has apparently been caught buying EPO and testosterone.

In December, a 62-year-old South Carolina bike racer, a former 21-time national champion, was banned from competition for two years after admitting to taking a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs.

Just last month, a British cycling fan said he recovered a vial of pills from a crash during a professional cycling race in France, which he would hand to the UK's anti-doping agency.

Leading up to this month’s Tour of California, one US sport journalist asks, “Does cycling deserve anyone’s trust?”

The same writer says Armstrong’s rise and fall has allowed opportunistic journalists to empty their notebooks in book form – but also, perhaps, irrevocably deflated the sport’s image.

Brian Cookson, the president of cycling’s world governing body the UCI, said last month the sport was on the right path but added “I’m not naive enough to believe there aren’t still people cheating out there.”

Cycling may take a generation to clean up its disgraceful history of drug cheating. Until then, it seems Armstrong is as relevant as ever.

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