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Lance Armstrong commentary: Martyr or fraud on two wheels?

Lance ArmstrongLance Armstrong’s life has rarely been routine. Like Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds and Tiger Woods in their sports, Armstrong catapulted cycling to a new mountaintop of acceptance with talent, charisma and bravado.

Sports fans who make fun of golf as overbearingly boring will watch Tiger Woods play in the Swampville Open. Sports fans who don’t know the Tour de France from a tour of duty watched cycling to see what Armstrong was going to do next on some next on some steep, twisting, snow-peaked road. Or they watched because they had or knew someone who had or died from cancer.

Athletes with such sudden impact are often quickly canonized. But few sporting icons who have done so much right and apparently now so much wrong more convincingly than Armstrong.

From an early age, Armstrong’s moxie off and on his bicycle has been staggering.

Barely an adult as a first-time homeowner, Armstrong purchased investment artwork and infused his home in Texas with a designer’s savvy that included perching furniture off the floor because he liked the concept of space.

As a skilled amateur cyclist, Armstrong escorted his mother to award presentations after he surprisingly dominating races. At one race I attended, when race officials said post-race podiums were for cyclists only, the rider refused to attend. Organizers had no choice — they acquiesced.

But no one in sport, Pete Rose to Marion Jones to Barry Bonds, has been accused of pulverizing their sport so severely.

And nearly 15 years after accusations first swirled around cycling with his return from cancer and first victory Tour de France victory, the cyclist Thursday (Aug.23) announced he had enough. He wouldn’t pursue the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s charges of doping and conspiracy despite a career of denial of any wrongdoing.

Armstrong set his cycling parameters early. He was brash and went to the front of races and powered to single-day wins. When he figured out cycling didn’t work that way, Armstrong found riders who would unwaveringly ride only for him.

When I first interviewed Armstrong he was easy to like — cycling’s version of former NBA star Charles Barkley. He always had something to say. Armstrong was and still is often cordial and candid. He’s smart and can control a press conference instantaneously. But catch him in a foul mood and be prepared.

But with his fame and globally expanding cancer foundation, Armstrong also became a master of manipulation and intimidation and a public relations genius. He adapted to Twitter early and still has 3.5 million followers. He hired a personal photographer.

When he competed a few years ago in the Tour of Italy in his second comeback, Armstrong had short videos made from inside his team motorhome prior to each stage. He had teammates and competitors talk about the day ahead or their families or hobbies. It was new and refreshing and showed cyclists as humans, not shaved-legged robots on wheels.

But when a videographer shot and posted arguably the great footage in Armstrong’s career after he crashed a few years ago a stage of the Tour of California, the video was quickly pulled. The video showed the rider after he had crashed on a cattle guard. He was hurt and bloody but pedaling again.

Armstrong was unsure what to do. It was raw and showed Armstrong vulnerable. I liked him more because it showed Armstrong tough but frail. He was like the rest of us, if only for a few minutes. It may have been the best video in cycling history.

But Armstrong’s powerful PR machine reportedly got the video deleted.

Like any champion, Armstrong has been emphatically cheered when he’s won easily. But when he’s been spit on by Tour de France spectators in the French countryside or booed as a doper in the Alps, he’s won more convincingly.

When he rode through a field to avoid crashing on melting asphalt or when he glared at opponents or faked fatigue to again win at the Tour de France, Armstrong changed the traditions of cycling.

When he claimed his last Tour de France title in 2005, Armstrong addressed the drug accusations that had then already been circulating for nearly a decade:

“For the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics, the skeptics; I feel sorry for you,” he said from the final podium on the Champs Elysees in Paris. “You need to believe in these riders. I’m sorry you can’t dream big and I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.”

All of which circles back to Armstrong’s unexpected announcement.

Armstrong’s decision is hard to decipher. For all the strenuous hill climbs he’s overcome on and off his bike, why did the rider not challenge USADA’s accusations —the biggest cycling obstacle of his cycling career? He never backed way from any other mountain.

It’s also hard to understand why cycling has allowed the agency to change the history of the sport without offering proof. It’s embarrassing, I think, for USA Cycling, the national governing body of the sport, to avoid the subject of Armstrong and several of his former teammates also under the USADA microscope with repeated comments of “no comment.” When USA Cycling wants to promote the accomplishments of its athletes, it has plenty to say.

It’s disappointing several cyclists I spoke with at the USA Pro Challenge wouldn’t comment on Armstrong. The same athletes have always been accommodating when asked about their accomplishments with what reporters call “softball questions.”

It reminded me of a comment Steve Hegg, the former Olympic track gold medalist and national time trial champion, once said. When asked about Armstrong a few years ago, Hegg also wouldn’t comment specifically. But he said, “Cycling is the only sport that eats its own.”

Several years ago, when his post-cancer bestseller, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life” was published, Armstrong often reflected on his life. In one passage, he wrote:

“Quite simply, I believed I had a responsibility to be a good person, and that meant fair, honest, hardworking and honorable. If I did that, if I was good to my family, true to my friends, if I gave back to my community or to some cause, if I wasn’t a liar, a cheat, or a thief, then I believed that should be enough.”

It’s hard to understand why Armstrong would write those words knowing he was lying but write them anyway.

It’s hard to understand why Armstrong, given a second chance after looking at death from close range, would choose to purposely alter his body again.

And it’s hard right now to comprehend that the last article I’ll write about Lance Armstrong after more than 20 years of interviewing, observing and commenting on the most intriguing and perplexing athlete I’ve been around, is the story of a martyr or a fraud. It’s unbecoming of the athlete and the sport.

(Originally published in the Sacramento Bee on Aug, 26, 2012.)