It’s the story and character that many cycling fans wish would disappear to never return, but the story of Lance Armstrong continues to be one that dominates the sport. Any slight update in the life of the Texan or provocative soundbite continues to be devoured.
Enter, therefore, ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 documentary, simply titled ‘Lance’. Over three hours, filmmaker Marina Zenovich gains access to Armstrong who promises he is now finally done with lying, as well as his family, former team-mates, friends, and enemies.
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The whole story is told from start to finish in the true American sports documentary style you’d expect, with the first part available via the ESPN Player from Monday May 25 and the second part airing on May 31. ‘Lance’ follows the network’s success with ‘The Last Dance’, which documents basketball legend Michael Jordan’s career. Lance Armstrong is another intriguing figure who transcends his sport.
But what does this new documentary tell us that the other ones don’t? Having had a few years to reflect on everything since his doping confession to Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong is as combative as ever, and age hasn’t completely mellowed the 48-year-old as he sheds new light on the greatest doping scandal in sporting history.
His expectations of life after Oprah
The bigger you are the harder you fall, a notion that was not lost on Lance Armstrong in the aftermath of his doping confession in 2013.
“When my life took the turn that it took, I said to myself that everywhere that I go for the rest of my life somebody is going to walk up to me and say ‘f*ck you’.
“And so a couple of days go by and nobody says f*ck you, then months go by and years go by…I always know when somebody wants to say f*ck you but nobody does, nobody ever does. It took five years…”
That incident, five years later, involved a group of guys outside a bar who spotted Armstrong and yelled profanities at him. Instead of Armstrong marching over there, which he says he would have done in years past, he instead called the bar up and gave his credit card details to pay for the group’s food and drinks.
“I have to act, I’m me. Me. Lance Armstrong doesn’t just let sh*t like that happen and not do something,” the Texan explains.
The offer had a catch, though.
“You [the bartender] have to go out there and say, ‘guys, Lance took care of everything and he sends his love.'”
Robbed of his accolades, star power, respect, Armstrong still has one thing that gives him power, money. His podcast generates $1 million in revenue, while an early $100,000 investment in Uber netted him tens of millions of dollars, saving him from the financial ruin of the lawsuits that followed his doping admittance.
Was the conciliatory gesture to the guys in the bar a sincere apology? While Armstrong may have lost the argument, the fact he can still flex his financial might allow him to still have the last word.
Armstrong started doping aged 21, seven years before his first Tour de France victory
One of the first questions asked is at what age Armstrong started doping. He balks: “Wow straight into that. I was probably 21.”
In the Oprah interview, Armstrong admitted to doping to win all seven of his Tour de France titles, but the rainbow jersey he won in 1993, six years before his first yellow one, is the biggest victory of his that still stands.
It would appear Armstrong has now let go of this victory too, admitting he started using cortisones during his first professional season the year before the 1993 Road World Championships in Oslo.
“The rumours of EPO began in 1993, but people were scared of it,” Armstrong says. “There were all these ideas that people were dying from it. Then I won the Worlds in ’93 somehow, wore the rainbow jersey through ’94 and got my ass kicked all year long, wearing the world champion’s jersey.
“We had already been dabbling in low-octane cortisone, whatever was around, but EPO was a whole other level. The performance benefits were so great that the sport went from low-octane to this really high-octane rocket fuel, so that was the decision we had to make. “
Armstrong says for two seasons in 1994 and 1995 him and his team refused to touch EPO and subsequently struggled for results.
“EPO was like wildfire but we refused. Nobody on Motorola in ’94 made that leap. All the way through the year nobody had any results. Then in ’95 it was even crazier, it was everywhere.”
Former team-mate, and now EF Pro Cycling boss, Jonathan Vaughters, says this inability to compete drove Armstrong crazy, with the Texan initially wanting those using EPO to be caught.
“He should’ve been, at that point in time, progressing in his career but instead he was regressing, and the anger… you could just feel it coming off of him,” Vaughters says. “As he called it at that moment, ‘there’s an EPO epidemic going on, these motherf*ckers need to be caught, taken out.'”
Armstrong eventually relented, though, then claiming he asked Eddy Merckx to introduce him to Michele Ferrari, who was the doctor behind the Gewiss team and had been working with Merckx’s son Axel. Eddy Merckx has said he didn’t know Ferrari was involved with doping practices.
“I went there in the winter of ’95 and started working with [Ferrari] in the winter of ’96,” Armstrong says. The rest was history.
He thinks doping may have caused his cancer
Armstrong is asked whether he believes his doping caused his cancer: “I don’t know the answer to that, and I don’t want to say no because I don’t think that’s right either, I don’t know if it’s yes or no, but I certainly wouldn’t say no,” he says.
“The only thing I will tell you is the only time in my life I ever did growth hormone was the 1996 season, so just in my head I’m like ‘growth, growing hormones and cells, if anything good needs to be grown it does, but wouldn’t it also make sense that if anything bad was there it too would grow?'”
After recovering from cancer, Armstrong struggles during his comeback season with Cofidis, the French team then dropping him at the end of the season, and the only team that would take him was the US Postal Service team.
Armstrong struggles at Paris-Nice in 1998, failing to finish the first stage. “That was one of the few times in my life I saw Lance where he wasn’t sure of himself,” former team-mate George Hincapie recalls.
“I went over and got my ass kicked,” Armstrong adds, looking confused at this concept.
Was the decision to then start doing EPO again a difficult one?
“No,” he chuckles, before falling silent. Zenovich waits, then saying: “because..?” with Armstrong then cursing under his breath at the prompt to continue before elaborating: “In many ways, and this is not going to be a popular answer, EPO is a safe drug, assuming certain things: it’s taken properly, under the guidance of a medical professional, taken in conservative amounts, there are far worse things you can put in your body.”
The effect the fallout had on his eldest son
One particular interesting part of the documentary is meeting Armstrong’s eldest son, Luke, a college football player. Lance is filmed giving a talk to his son and his team-mates at Rice University in Texas, where he gets his son’s jersey number wrong, with Luke picking him up on this afterwards.
“I never really bring up who I am as I believe it’ll make me come off as someone I’m not,” Luke says in his interview.
“I mean it is part of who I am, but at the end of the day it’s not what describes me, there’s so much more than that.”
He’s asked if he’d ever take performance-enhancing drugs, to which he shakes his head. “I mean for me, I’ve always felt grinding for something and really working for a specific goal has always been so much more worth it than taking a shortcut. I also feel if I ever did that and got caught, for random people, they would be like ‘he’s just like his dad.'”
It’s a fascinating segment, seeing the truly personal effects that Armstrong’s doping had on those closest to him. Earlier in the documentary, Lance’s step-father, Terry Armstrong, takes the credit for his step-son’s competitive streak, saying: “I drove him like an animal.” Lance puts the physical abuse he suffered a little more matter of factly: “He beat the sh*t out of me.”
Lance is then asked how he would feel if Luke was to ever use performance-enhancing drugs.
“If we were ever in the position where Luke, who’s a college football player, came to me and said either ‘I’d like to try this’ or ‘I’m doing this’ I would say that’s a bad idea. You’re a freshman in college… it might be a different conversation if you’re in the NFL but at this point in your life in your career, not worth it.”
Lance is living up to his promise to be honest at the very least, while Luke goes on to say it was important he chose to be an offensive lineman rather than follow his father’s footsteps into the peloton.
“I think it was important that I played football, that [my sport] wasn’t cycling so that I had my own path to be myself, to be Luke and not be Lance’s son.”
Both Luke (and Lance’s son) were 12 years old at the time of the Oprah Winfrey interview.
“My dad eventually had to sit me down and say [doping] happened, [what they’re saying] is right, stop sticking up for me, trying to protect me,” Luke says. “To receive that news as a little kid, that really flipped my world upside down.”
He insisted on going into school the same day: “I didn’t want to show it was really affecting me.”
His mum, Kristin, recalls dropping him off that day, with kids crowded on the lawn at the front of the school.
“He took a step out that car and a step into real manhood, it broke my heart into a thousand pieces,” Kristin admits.
In the Oprah interview, Lance said: “He [Luke] never said, ‘Dad, is this true?’ He trusted me.”
Treatment of Emma O’Reilly and Filippo Simeoni is ‘the worst thing he’s ever done’
“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Lance is asked, promptly flipping it around. “Everyone in the world needs to get this question,” he responds, yet not everyone has had to settle a $100m lawsuit with the federal government of the United States or called a colleague a whore in sworn testimony.
That colleague was Emma O’Reilly, the soigneur at US Postal Service who told the Sunday Times’ David Walsh about the doping that had been going on.
“To call a woman a whore, it’s hard to be worse than that,” Armstrong admits. “I was an idiot and in full attack mode, that’s why I did it. I would have said anything.”
“I couldn’t be a different person off the bike, there was no getting in my way, and it worked really well for training and racing. Perfect for that. It just doesn’t work well with another human being who’s not in the race.”
Alongside O’Reilly, Armstrong says his treatment of Filippo Simeoni was another of his biggest regrets; the Italian rider had testified against Michele Ferrari.
Armstrong had “vindictively,” as Vaughters describes it, chased down Simeoni after he had got himself into the breakaway on stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France, his punishment for spitting in the soup.
Then, once Simeoni is back in the peloton, Armstrong looks at the TV camera and motions zipping his lips. “You cannot get anymore fundamentally evil than that,” Vaughters concludes.
Charles Pelkey, a former editor of VeloNews, says this should have been an embarrassing episode for Armstrong, except the American was “getting away with stuff”.
“Simeoni is right up there with Emma,” Armstrong concedes. “To stoop to that level, that’s not what a champion does.”
Armstrong went to visit Simeoni in 2013 to say sorry. The Italian said to him: “For nine years, my entire life is associated with you.”
“This was a guy who was a multiple Italian champion,” Armstrong explains. “He’d won some races, but everybody remembered that day because I was a f*cking asshole. It just takes those days and hearing those things to learn and be like okay, what you thought was bad was actually way worse,” Armstrong says, tearing up.
No olive branch for Floyd Landis
“It could be worse, I could be Floyd Landis, waking up a piece of sh*t every day,” Armstrong goes on to say.
“That’s what you think?” replies Zenovich.
“That’s what I know, not what I think, I know.”
While Armstrong is apologetic for his treatment of O’Reilly and Simeoni, his wrath remains for Landis. His former team-mate had revealed in 2010 that both he and Armstrong had doped, rattling off emails to officials at governing bodies and anti-doping authorities telling them everything.
Years earlier, another one of Armstrong’s former team-mates who had left US Postal Service in pursuit of individual glory was Tyler Hamilton. After winning the Tour de Romandie in 2004, the American had finished second in the Critérium du Dauphiné, beating Armstrong on the time trial up Mont Ventoux.
“I’ve heard from sources that he was pissed, and he called the UCI, this is what I was told, and he said ‘you’ve got to get this guy’. Sure enough, they called that night.
“So I don’t know, it most likely happened. If I had to guess one way or another I’d say most likely yes, he had something to do with me getting caught.” These allegations are, however, not put to Lance in the documentary.
If what Hamilton says is true, there is a cognitive dissonance that remains between the rules that apply to everyone else and the rules that apply to Lance Armstrong.
“There will never be a relationship,” Armstrong says of him and Landis. “Most people I’m fine to forgive and forget but there are a few I’m not there with yet.”
This documentary clearly hasn’t put the whole story to bed just yet.
The fire and fury inside Armstrong rages on
As the documentary reaches its end the storytelling becomes more reflective, prompting Armstrong to try and tie the narrative neatly together, an almost impossible task.
While he is insistent that he’s happy to deal with any regrets, “I’ve told you numerous times, I wouldn’t change a thing,” the final sentiments on how Armstrong perceives the fickleness of who is and isn’t held to account for his generation’s sins as flawed.
Armstrong had been trying his best to come across a more measured, mature character over the condensed three hours of the 18 months spent filming, the Floyd Landis flare-up aside. But when the conversation turns to Jan Ullrich and the issues the German has faced over the past few years, Armstrong is unleashed, brought to tears when discussing visiting the German in 2018 before descending into a rage within a matter of seconds.
“It’s just a terrible situation. Jan was in that era, that cesspool that we were all in, and he got caught, we all got caught, and the reason I went to see him is I love him,” Armstrong says, then struggling to compose himself for a minute.
“Anyways, it was not a good trip. He was the most important person in my life. Nobody scared me, motivated me. The other guys… no disrespect to them, didn’t get me up early. He got me up early. And he was just a f*cking mess.
“When I look at Jan’s situation and I look at my situation, because they’re very similar, the timing is very similar… he had all the things I had. He had a wife, children, money, and that wasn’t enough to keep him together.
“And the fucking sport did it to him. And the media let him do it.
“The country of Italy glorifies Ivan Basso, idolises him, puts him up there, gives him jobs, invites him to races, puts him on TV, he’s no different than any of us. Yet, they disgrace Marco Pantani, they destroy him in the press, they kick him out of the sport and he’s dead. He’s f*cking dead.
“The country of Germany idolises Erik Zabel, Rolf Aldag, gives them jobs, puts them on TV, invites them to races, puts them on the podium, and they disgrace and they destory and they f*cking ruin Jan Ullrich’s life. Why?
“The country of America idolises, worships, glorifies George Hincapie, invites him to races, gives him jobs, buys his s*hit and they disgrace and destroy me. That’s why I went [to visit Ullrich], because that’s f*cking bullsh*t.”
As for the last example, Armstrong had already answered an hour earlier why he is scapegoated above all.
“It might be one lie [for one rider who doped] because you answer once, or in my case it might be 10,000 lies because you’ve answered 10,000 times. And then you take it a step further and reinforce and go ‘don’t you ever ask me that f*cking question again. And then you go sue somebody and then it just… so that’s why it was 100 times worst. Because we all lied.”
“I don’t even know where the line is anymore between good people who do bad things and bad people who do good things,” says Peter Flax, former editor-in-chief of Bicycling Magazine. “There is this Shakespearian quality to the whole thing, you just have to enjoy the infinite complexity of the characters because there are no obvious bad and good guys.”
The Sunday Times’ David Walsh wrote in his column that Armstrong didn’t like the documentary when sent a copy, and didn’t show up to the premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. No matter how many articles or documentaries are written and made about Lance Armstrong, will the story ever truly be over?
The full documentary will be released on ESPN Player, with part one available from Monday, May 25 while part two will be released from June 1.