It seems that, in cycling as everything else, when the facts become intolerable it’s no longer credible to insist upon them. That being the case it’s not, perhaps, a great surprise that the Facts for Lance website appears to have disappeared.

In one sense the question of whether or not Lance Armstrong ever took illegal performance-enhancing drugs is immaterial. He cannot prove a negative but nor do all those negative tests establish his innocence either. The difficulty for Armstrong and his legion of admirers is that the circumstantial evidence against him has become so substantial that you need to be unusually credulous to suppose that none of it can be true or that all of it is motivated by greed, dishonesty or personal issues.

Armstrong’s team preferred to cast aspersions on the character and reliability of his accusers. If Floyd Landis had lied about his own drug use how could his accusations against Armstrong be trusted? Ditto Tyler Hamilton. And Frankie Andreiu. They’re all discredited! All of which is all well and good but when you lose George Hincapie the game’s a bogey.

Now, as the New Yorker’s Michael Specter, author of a gushing profile of Armstrong back in 2002, acknowledges Armstrong appears to be changing tack. Instead of attacking the credibility of his accusers his people are condemning the frivolous waste of time and money involved in the ongoing federal investigation. On this they may have a point. Nevertheless it’s not looking good for Beatified Lance.

And this is where the interest lies. There are two types of people: those who earnestly need to believe and those who don’t. Armstrong’s supporters are in the former camp, the rest of us in the latter. It’s a little simplistic to characterise this as Faithful Americans vs Cynical Europeans but there’s still some truth to that useful shorthand.

The Miracle of Lance – It’s Not About The Bike was an excellent, telling, title – became a church in which no dissent was tolerated. No wonder it took on a cult-like quality. Heretics were denounced and expelled as a warning to the others. Inconvenient questions were ignored; all that mattered was faith in the prophet.

Since cycling is not short of religious imagery, the Cult of Lance fit perfectly within cycling’s greater narrative. Yet the difference was that Armstrong attracted legions of new believers, many of them much more invested in him than in the sport itself. Their need to believe was all too apparent and deeply strange to the rest of us for whom the question of Armstrong’s drug use was of little real consequence. 

That is, the doping question makes little difference to my own views of Armstrong’s achievements (great but largely limited to the Tour). The argument was only partly about Armstrong, it was also about his followers and their desperate need to believe in their idol.

Are Armstrong’s achievements lessened by doping? (If this is ever proved.) Not as far as I am concerned. Indeed they might be made all the more real, a matter of flesh and blood, not some miraculous revelation brought forth to inspire the world. Feet of clay or not, they’d be victories won by a mere man, not some paragon of virtue and suffering whose example should be a lesson to us all. 

Worship not graven images and all that. Because, actually, it is about the bike after all. It will be a sad day for the believers when or if this is all confirmed but it will at last permit a more sensible, measured appraisal of Armstrong the Man, not Armstrong the Myth.

Tags: Cycling, Drugs, Lance Armstrong