Last night I was watching the Lance Armstrong documentary Stop at Nothing (2014) on Netflix. I thought it would provide interesting commentary on striving for “winning” and personal integrity. You all know one of the things that I find important is striving for excellence. While many get wrapped up in the outcome, the process is really what is important. To go through that trial by fire with courage, integrity, and honesty and come out the other side (regardless of the end result) means you can be that person that is held as an example and withstand scrutiny when the spotlight is on. And despite a lot of good things that Armstrong did, that’s ultimately where he failed.
But let’s back up for a minute. Like most in the early to mid-2000’s, I was inspired by Lance Armstrong. He came out of nowhere to win the Tour de France in 1999 and he put cycling on the map. His 2000 book It’s Not About the Bike chronicled his cancer survivorship and you couldn’t help but be inspired by this Hollywood story about the scrappy, charismatic kid from Texas who nearly died but rose from the ashes like a Phoenix to smash down on some frenchies. And then to do it year, after year after year…what a run! I got into cycling there for awhile, so this may get a little geekish for some.
Those with cable got a front row seat in some great moments. “The Look” to Jan Ullrich on L’Alpe d’Huez. Riding with Beloki on Mont Ventoux in 2002 (a stage that he let Pantani win in 2000). Beating Ivan Basso in the 2004 L’Alpe d’Huez time trial. Time trial victories (le Train Blue was my favorite – the team time trial win in 2003). And who could forget the cyclocross deal where he had to mountain bike through a switchback shortcut because Beloki crashed right in front of him.
He made you want to get on your bike and ride. Which is what I did. In 2002 my wife joined a bike club (women’s racing team), and one of my coworkers was doing an Ironman triathlon, so I started riding too. And did I ever ride. This was pre-kids and my wife and I spent a lot of time together with friends riding and training. I got pretty serious into it, and went out to California to do some week long bike camps in 2004 and 2005 (shit, it doesn’t seem like 10 years ago). We rode some of the same mountains and routes that the U.S. Postal team was doing (5000′ climbs, winding roads in California wine country north of Santa Barbara).
You know that “Six Degrees of Separation” idea, where we know someone, who knows someone, who is related to someone, who knows the Dalai Lama? Well I was one degree of separation away from Lance Armstrong. The guy running the camp was a former professional cyclist turned pro triathlete. Lance was a pro triathlete (as a teenager) turned pro cyclist, and at one point trained at the Olympic Training Center, as did my guy, an easygoing and funny dude who was driven in his own way. He said that he and Lance butted heads a little there as Lance was always fighting to be the Alpha dog, but while they weren’t friends, they weren’t enemies either – they just viewed life differently. He mentioned that he saw Le Train Blue out on a training ride near our camp (where he lived), and got a chance to sit in for awhile and catch up with Lance. However, my friend eventually left pro cycling because of all the shit he had to see and deal with, including extensive drug use (the performance enhancing kind) and the grind that is pro cycling.
With that brief aside over, let’s turn our attention back to Armstrong and cycling at the time. First, I believe performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) were really common at the time (as is born out by doping scandals with Ullrich, Basso, Cantador, Vinokourev, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Leipheimer, Schleck), but I’m strongly of the opinion that the ends don’t justify the means. The documentary shed some interesting light on what was going on behind the scenes in the Armstrong camp. Cloak and dagger liaisons with PED doctors, lies and cover-ups, Lance directing his teammates to get on the sauce too so he could keep winning. He would do whatever it took to win. And he was a charismatic guy who could lie with the best of them. I believe one of the people interviewed in the documentary called him a sociopath. When caught, he dragged people through the mud, used intimidation tactics or bribery to keep people quiet, and if you didn’t serve his purpose, you were discarded.
On the public side he was all smiles, gallivanting with friends like Robin Williams and Matthew McConaughey. Even these friendships became strained when he finally admitted to doping.
But despite these behaviors, his legacy will live on in a positive way. He started the Livestrong Foundation that cranked out those yellow bracelets in the millions (wiki says 80 million sold), and he was a huge focal point in raising funds for cancer research. His foundation apparently generated more than $500 million in funds for this cause. This is his greatest contribution and is something that regardless of how he was as a person, lives on as a positive thing in the lives of many. Cancer is a motherfucker.
So my takeaway from the whole situation is this: It doesn’t matter if you reach the top of the mountain if you have lie, cheat, or steal to get there. Be a man (or woman) of integrity, strive for excellence, and be good, and you’ll have the admiration and respect of those around you, and most importantly, yourself. I always liked this poem: The Man in the Glass
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day
Just go to the mirror and look at yourself
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife
Whose judgment upon you must pass
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
He’s the fellow to please – never mind all the rest
For he’s with you, clear to the end
And you’ve passed your most difficult, dangerous test
If the man in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.