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Mel Gibson wasn't the only one whose career ended this weekend. During Sunday's eighth stage of the Tour De France, elderly cyclist and wristband tycoon Lance Armstrong involuntarily kissed French pavement three times, finishing 12 minutes behind the pack and declaring his chances of winning over.
"I'll just appreciate my time here," Armstrong said. "And appreciate the fact that I'm not coming back."
So will we. Assuming he doesn't change his mind next year.
Why the Lance loathing? First, nobody likes to see an athlete who doesn't know when to hang it up. There's nothing fun about watching the proverbial punch-drunk boxer climb in the ring for another beating.
Secondly, he might have cheated.
As his supporters are quick to note, Armstrong has never failed a drug test. Big deal. Barry Bonds never failed a drug test either. No one seems to have trouble believing Bonds was juiced. Armstrong could certainly be cleared of every doping charge, including the latest from Floyd Landis. But some people will nevertheless refuse to believe that he rode clean. Others, particularly in the cancer community, will never believe Lance cheated, no matter what evidence may arise. Given what he stands for within that community, choosing to believe an inspirational ideal rather than a potentially ugly truth is a perfectly understandable response.
If Armstrong didn't use performance-enhancing drugs, he not only won seven Tours, he did it against cheating athletes. Even if the doping allegations are true, though, that isn't what makes Armstrong so annoying. A big-name athlete using PED's is about as shocking as the gambling at Rick's Café Américan.
Also? Armstrong seems like a kind of a jerk. Daniel Coyle, author of Lance Armstrong's War, was asked to name the public's biggest misconception about Armstrong. Coyle said, "That he's a nice guy."
Yes, he survived cancer, and he has performed tremendous amounts of life-saving work on behalf of people fighting the disease. The embodiment of superhuman perseverance, he fought off death to win the world's toughest bike race an astonishing seven times. He bested the Europeans at their own sport, becoming an American icon and inspiring millions. But that still doesn't give you the right to be a jerk.
He left his wife for Sheryl Crow, then broke an engagement to her for flings with Ashley Olsen, Kate Hudson, and, seemingly, Matthew McConaughey.
An avowed environmentalist, he was cited by his hometown of Austin, Texas, for using more water than anyone else in the city —as much as 300,000 gallons a month. A construction project on his property polluted a swimming hole he shares with several neighbors, and they had to file complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality before Armstrong would pay for the clean-up.
But Armstrong's crimes are far greater than a little green-washing or standard celebrity selfishness. His great, unforgivable sin is dominating, and so popularizing, such a fantastically goofy sport.
Cycling fans, of course, will counter that bike-racing is the most punishing sport on earth, demanding a triathlete's stamina, a skier's grace and the tenacity of a pit-bull. All very true. But so what? Just because something is hard to do, that doesn't necessarily make it fun to watch. Reciting Hesiod in the original Greek is hard, but try getting anyone to watch you do it. Archery is hard too, but when was the last time you saw 80,000 people pack a stadium to see it?
At heart, bike-racing is about endurance. Specifically, the endurance of physical pain. Loads and loads of it, all self-inflicted. For hours on end, day after day, cyclists endure the sort of agony that makes normal people cry for their mommy in ten seconds. The Tour itself—21 days of racing across more than 2,000 miles—is a celebration of self-torture perversely set within some of the most breathtaking landscapes on earth. Marquis de Sade would love it. There is no question that pro cyclists are magnificent athletes—even without doping. There is also no question they tend to be solitary, even grim, and that there is something creepy about any sport where the best masochist wins.
Not only did Lance make watching this theater of cruelty popular in the United States, compelling otherwise sensible people to use "peloton" in casual conversation. He inspired an entire generation of new cyclists, making him almost single-handedly responsible for the vast hordes of adult men wearing skin-tight, multicolored cycling jerseys with spandex bike shorts that roam this nation like a blight upon the land. For that, Armstrong can never be forgiven.
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