Now that Lance Armstrong is out from under the federal fraud case against him, he’s started to more fully step into the public eye, a process which was always going to be fraught with contradictions for someone as famous and reviled as Armstrong. He seems done with being a world-class asshole, though the work of reclaiming his name and establishing himself as someone worth paying attention to is trickier than just no longer being a dick. It’s not really for me to tell you what your standard for redemption should be—especially since I’d argue that he got a raw deal in the first place—but the good news is, no matter how evil you think Lance Armstrong is, the man is an indisputably fantastic podcast host.
In addition to interviewing mostly non-sports folks on his weekly (or so) show The Forward, Armstrong has been hosting daily Tour de France recap podcasts with former teammate George Hincapie. The Move is part of Armstrong’s newish endurance sports media company WEDU, which he hopes to grow over the coming years (There’s never been a better time to be in sports media! Come on in, the water is fine!!!) into maybe a competitor with Deadspin.
It’s a great cycling podcast, and an even better platform for Armstrong. He said recently that its rawness is what makes The Move work, and the rambunctious, AM-radio style show is filmed in an airstream full of cameras where he and Hincapie opine on bad descending, the futility of cycling fights, or how teams minimize ass sweat. Armstrong’s the grumpy one and Hincapie is the straight man. The most interesting parts of the podcast, of course, are when Armstrong and Hincapie talk about their own experiences. Anyone can analyze the 2018 Tour de France, but only Armstrong can juxtapose the dominance of Team Sky against his own Tour de France palmares.
Andreas Klöden wrote in to Hincapie to tell him that Armstrong’s ruthless victory on Stage 17, where he passed Klöden at the line just for the fun of it, was indeed a dick move. But also he forgives Armstrong, who admitted to being the “biggest dick ever to walk the face of the Earth.”
Armstrong’s public reckoning about his nasty streak gets to the most important questions circling around Lance Armstrong today: What sort of platform does the most infamous cheater in the history of cycling deserve? How sorry does the American public need Armstrong to be in order to forgive him?
This week, he joined NPR’s Freakonomics show and gave his longest and most revealing interview since the April court decision. When asked about those who can never forgive him, Armstrong was acceptant. “Nobody wants to hear that that a certain segment of any population is pissed at them or hates them or whatever,” he said. “And for a long, long time that really, really affected me and bothered me. And I just want to be honest with you and the listeners. I understand. How could you not be?”
For years, even after the details of Armstrong’s doping were exposed, he remained defiant. It’s about more than doping with Armstrong, of course, and the way he attacked those who spoke out against him remains his biggest transgression. That’s a lot harder to confront, and it’s still an open question as to whether he’s done the work there. Armstrong is a notoriously competitive person, and even as he began to make amends and apologize for lying to people and cheating, there seemed to be a part of him that kept him from ever fully opening up. Some of that might remain, and he has yet to make the Andrea family or Greg LeMond whole. However, in the Freakonomics interview, he expressed contrition to a degree that I’ve never seen before.
I had a longtime employee at Livestrong finally reach out to me after, oddly enough, she rode the whole wave of this thing and then absolutely hated my guts. Somebody came to her and said “Let’s listen to his podcast. I don’t know. This guy sounds a little different.” And so she listened to a couple and she started to come around and then she reached out and she said, “Can we go have coffee?” and I said “Absolutely.”
I asked her about the process of what was happening at Livestrong while all the accusations were there and there was a lot of smoke—and then eventually there was fire. She walked me through the whole thing, and she said, “You know, at the end of the day we all felt really complicit.”
It changed my life. Look, “betrayal” is a terrible word… Complicit is 100 times And, for me, I had already started to get my mind and my heart around the fact that people had suffered this tremendous amount of betrayal, and then I was hit with complicit. And it just—it rocked me to the core. But it was, I tell you, it was the greatest. It was the greatest, Her name is Melissa, is the greatest gift that anybody has given me the last six years.
Maybe he’s made his peace with the fact that not everyone will forgive him. He relayed a story about going to a bar in Colorado last year and getting cursed out of the joint by a throng of angry fans. “Ten years ago, I would have jumped across the railing and start throwing punches. But this is 2017 in summer, [I’m] sitting in the car saying ‘I have to act. I got to do something,’” he said. So he called up the manager and bought drinks for everyone. “That’s the best thing that I could come up with,” he said. “And just to say to those people ‘Look, I get it.’ And so that’s the only time it’s happened. It might happen tomorrow. It might happen a hundred times. I don’t know but that’s the way I live it now.”
Though Armstrong has plenty to reckon with, he correctly pointed out that he is not the only former cheater in the cycling or sports world. His point about the hypocrisy of Alex Rodriguez enjoying a full-throated comeback while he still languishes is a good one, even if Armstrong’s abuses of power were worse. Ironically enough, it seems that Armstrong may be the man best suited to diagnose the ills of modern cycling. Chris Froome is currently in the midst of a nightmare Tour de France, where fans are treating him as cruelly as they ever treated Armstrong because of his weird doping case.
I don’t know if doping is or is not involved. The situation with Chris Froome involved his asthma inhaler. I mean this is a far cry from a gallon of EPO. This is very very different. So, nonetheless, it was twice the allowed limit which got him in the hot water. And look, Chris Froome has won four Tours. He’s trying to win a fifth. [...] So, it’s obvious, we all know that the biggest, as I said in that clip, the tallest trees catch the wind.
I try not to, and it may come off like I am, but I try not to relate these things to me. You know, half of—not half, but a huge chunk of my competitors are driving team cars, and working for sponsors, and working for the organizer of the Tour de France. But none of them won seven Tours… And so I do get frustrated with that. But let’s just get straight to the point here of what is wrong with the system, and if the aim in 2012 was to finally fix the system they didn’t, they absolutely didn’t.
Armstrong also urged cycling to adopt its own anti-doping practices and ditch corrupt and useless governing bodies. “Be your own sport. Structure your own sport. Manage your own sport,” he said. “Have your own anti-doping regulations, but don’t be beholden to people like the I.O.C. and to WADA and to these organizations that are not interested in the success or the health of the sport of cycling. They’re politicians. And so get as far away from that as you possibly can, as quick as you can.”
Armstrong’s proposition to riders? Unionize. He correctly diagnosed the lack of TV revenue sharing as a major problem for riders, and if they were to form an actually meaningful union, then they could get their cut of the money they earn for the Tour’s parent company (A.S.O). The current riders’ union, the CPA, has “no power, no stroke, no influence,” but a strong union could help protect riders from the tumultuous financial upheaval that seems to have become an annual offseason tradition, as well as help make the sport cleaner.
By the way, if the union is strong and unified and well-organized and well-led and there is incentive, because we’re making money off the T.V. revenue, or the T.V. rights worldwide, if we’re all participating in the upside of the sport, you would think that the athletes then start to self-police. Because look, they look across, there’s 200 guys in the group. They look over there like, “Hey man, if you’re doing what I think you’re doing, just keep in mind that we’re all participating in the upside here and that is potentially damaging to our revenue.” And so it just all is so frustrating because it will just never happen.
Maybe many people will still never consider Armstrong a credible source, and maybe the only contrition that large swaths of the public will accept will be Armstrong leaving the sport for good and refusing publicity. But that’s not going to happen, and as the beginning of his second act is showing, that would mean the loss of the most interesting voice in modern cycling.