Admiring (But Not Idolizing) Lance Armstrong

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This GIF is pretty sad, almost hard to look at. Lance Armstrong’s face is so obviously in pain. He makes a quick nod to acknowledge the question, this cloud that has been hanging over him for years. His eyes glaze over for a moment, as if he’s just wanting to get away again. What I saw in this GIF was someone who needs to escape. And it makes sense. Aside from the fact of the mounting evidence and his long string of denials, I mean, the guy rides bikes for a living…

And I’ve always associated bikes with escaping. When I was a kid, bike-riding was a definite escape for me — that is, when it wasn’t for practical purposes, like getting to and from school. If I wanted to get away from my parents or my homework or whatever else could bother a grade-schooler, that was my go-to outlet. My bike was more than just a mode of conveyance; there was some weird magic to it.

Bikes are self-propelled, but after a point they just seem to take over. That saying, “It’s like riding a bike,” is so pervasive, because bike-riding is in our bones. You can’t forget how to ride a bike, because the act is itself a sort of forgetting. A few pedals, and the world whizzes past in a blur. Cars are like little rooms, big enough to carry multiple passengers and, thus, their own set of problems. Buses are even bigger and compound that effect. But a bike is made for one person, and it seems to move just fast enough that problems can’t catch up.

Maybe I’m weird in thinking about bikes this way, but I don’t think so. I think a lot of people do, including maybe Armstrong himself. He’s an interesting figure, because before his downfall he represented both the need to lionize physical strength and canonize physical weakness. Our culture makes athletes into gods and the unwell into saints. We want to marvel at the strong because they’re able to do great things with the same raw physical materials we’re all made of — muscle, bone, and nerve. We want to make the sick and dying into blameless paragons of virtue, because they soon will transcend (or at least abscond from) those same raw materials, no longer subject to our temptations or silly human impulses.

Armstrong was both weak and strong at different times, and around either of those states of being hangs the association of morality and spiritual enlightenment. And in his case, as in almost all cases except by coincidence, these were false associations. But he didn’t make them that way; he just capitalized on them.

I’m not defending Lance Armstrong. (I don’t care enough about him to seriously evaluate his supposed crimes, though he seems to be more amoral than immoral.) But I can’t help but notice that a lot of the vitriol directed at him is not based in reality. He was never a saint for beating cancer, and he was never a hero for riding a bike really fast. (Also, I just have a thing against public humiliation and scorn, even for people who really deserve it. I just kind of hate it.)

Yes, he milked those images. Yes, he often and loudly declared himself as the thing he was supposed to be, and wasn’t. And for that he deserves blame. But what actually made him famous, riding a bike fast and beating cancer, didn’t change. We can still be inspired by his fast bike-riding. (Remember doping is rampant in cycling; all but two Tour de France winners since 1995 have been involved in doping scandals. And a lot of cyclists dope and get nowhere.) We can still be inspired by how he beat cancer. (Which, remember, he totally did.)

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.