The moment when it started to seem obvious that something might be up with Lance Armstrong—that the sudden dominance of Americans in a sport they had previously ignored might be built on shaky foundations—had nothing directly to do with Armstrong himself. It was the end of the talent-light 2006 Tour de France, robbed of its stars both by Armstrong’s retirement and Operation Puerto, the officious anti-doping investigation that ended with bans for many of cycling’s strongest contenders. A previously obscure American named Floyd Landis, the prodigal son of Pennsylvania Mennonites who had spent years as a support rider for Armstrong, had taken a thin lead through the race’s early stages, but his advantage collapsed dramatically on the mountainous approach to the Alpine village of La Toussuire, when Landis could no longer handle the pace and simply cracked. “Landis,” one live-blog proclaimed, “is just dead.” He finished twenty-third in the stage, and his hopes for victory seemed over.
The next day’s race was the most astonishing sporting event I’ve ever seen; Landis literally seemed to defy the physics of cycling. Because so much resistance is absorbed by the leading rider in a pack, even the greatest individual rider cannot outpace an engaged Peloton over long distances, and the sport’s strategy depends upon finding the moments (the end of a long mountain climb, usually) when the marginal advantage a great single rider enjoys can be leveraged. But on a long mountain stage, a day after his race seemed over, Landis broke away from the pack, a full hundred and twenty kilometers from the finish line, and simply kept on going for a whole afternoon, riding away from all the best cyclists in the world, a little boy escaping. Landis, a solid professional but never in a decade-long career considered a star, won the stage by nearly six minutes. The Guardian compared him to the sport’s greatest champions—the Belgian Eddy Merckx, the Frenchman Bernard Hinault—and wrote that Landis’s coup “stood comparison with anything his illustrious predecessors achieved.” L’Equipe, somewhat more cynically, published a cartoon of Landis as a mouse, wearing the leader’s yellow.
If the French were predisposed towards a certain skepticism, it was because they had spent the better part of a decade watching Armstrong do basically the same thing: finding new reserves of energy when he should have been tanked, seeming to obey his own special physics. The Texan’s iconic triumph came in 2001, near the summit of the Alpe d’Huez, when he and the second-greatest rider in the world, Jan Ullrich, had more or less shed the rest of the field. Armstrong glared into Ullrich’s eyes and simply pedaled away. One superhuman Yank a dyspeptic Gaul might accept—if grudgingly, if skeptically—but two? There were not many possible explanations. Perhaps the American riders—who somewhat obnoxiously touted their superior training regimens, their single-minded focus on the Tour, and the elaborate, expensive wind-tunnel technologies they used to improve their bikes and gear and to shave seconds off their times—had, in their relentless quest to win, simply mastered the science of the sport in a way the Europeans never had. Or perhaps they had cheated.
The allegation noose, years in the weaving, began constricting pretty tightly around Armstrong’s neck last week, and it is his former teammates, his ex-friends, who are doing the tightening. Landis was disgraced, stripped of his title, and eventually accused the Texan of doping, too. Armstrong’s longtime teammate, Tyler Hamilton, appeared on “60 Minutes” last Sunday and said Armstrong had taken performance enhancing drugs. Yet a third American teammate, George Hincapie—perhaps the only one of this cadre beloved by the European cycling press—reportedly told a grand jury of still more doping transgressions, these committed by he and Armstrong together. And yet—because this is Armstrong, and because of the special symbolism he has acquired—the drama has provided a fascinating window into the decade-long battle between Americans and Europeans over the idea of American exceptionalism, and it has revealed each of these two cultures on opposite coasts of the Atlantic at their worst, their most reptilian.
For half a decade—the one at the beginning of the 2000s when the rest of the world was trying to decide whether American exceptionalism was an unsustainable bubble of hype or an unprecedented achievement in social engineering—no athlete loomed larger in the European imagination than did Armstrong: relentlessly driven, disdainful of cycling’s traditional pieties, emphatic about the superiority of his own training methods and innovations. Americans had few misgivings about Armstrong. In 2004, when an Air Force officer wrote a monograph outlining the “Best Practices for Inspiring Pro-American Sentiment,” she made the example of Armstrong chapter one. There were hints he might run for governor, and The Washington Monthly even pushed him as a potential presidential candidate. Still, the cyclist inspired a degree of continental loathing at the time reserved for one American in particular: One academic even wrote a paper examining the parallel, titled “Lance Armstrong and George W. Bush: French anti-Americanism and Texan Traditionalism in Le Tour and War.”
By 2006, these attitudes were hardening. Armstrong had sued London’s Sunday Times over doping allegations that the paper reprinted (some from former teammates, some from his masseuse); publicly challenged a L’Equipe story headlined “The Armstrong Lie”; and gotten into an angry confrontation with a journalist during the Tour. (The French can say “angry confrontation with a journalist” in the same outraged tone they usually reserve for “defiled the Mona Lisa”—there is a broad national sense of the sacred.) But the episode seemed to give life to each culture’s half-correct idea of the other: The Americans correctly spotted a European officiousness, a obsession with obeying obscure rules that have become somewhat estranged from their original morality, and the Europeans correctly noted an American fondness for their own exceptionalism, a conviction that the normal rules do not always apply.
Perhaps as a result, there has been a special relentlessness to the degree to which Armstrong has been pursued: When he briefly returned to cycling in 2008 and 2009, he submitted to 24 unannounced tests by the authorities, all of which he passed. The fervor of the quest can seem a little unhinged, particularly given how many of Armstrong’s competitors have actually tested positive for banned drugs. Alberto Contador, who has won three of the last four Tours, had excess levels of clenbuterol in his blood during the 2010 race; Oscar Pereiro, who became the 2006 champion after Landis was disqualified, tested positive for heightened levels of salbutamol; the great German champion (and 1997 Tour winner) Jan Ullrich was banned from the Tour after being linked to a doping conspiracy, as was the Italian hero Ivan Basso; and on and on. You could even make a case that, with the exception of the Spanish rider Carlos Sastre, there is less evidence that Armstrong has been doping than any other champion in the last decade. In the enthusiasm with which the Armstrong case was pursued, you could see echoes of another, deeper crusade: the conviction that, like the claims of American exceptionalism then echoing forth from Washington, Armstrong’s prowess was built on an unsustainable bubble, too.
Cycling has a morally bulimic approach to performance enhancing drugs—permitting binges, and then following close behind with purges—and there is little question that doping is endemic in cycling, and in sports. The question is whether that means we should deny ourselves heroes.
The American response to this has been clear—a more or less outright refusal. It has taken nearly a dozen separate allegations that Armstrong altered his body chemistry illegally to make a real dent in his reputation. You could argue that this radical postponement of judgment is only fair, given that the field seems to have been doing the same thing. But there is also the suspicion, trailing at the edges of this case, that we have been indulging the national characteristic, both beautiful and sick, that has marked the whole past decade: a willingness to believe resolutely in stories that are quite obviously too good to be true.
Benjamin Wallace-Wells is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and Rolling Stone, and a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation.
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