Why my dad, a former Olympic bicycle racer, sympathizes with the disgraced former Tour de France champion
My father, Rick Ball, was a serious amateur cyclist in the late 1960s and early 1970s who represented the U.S. in the 1971 Pan Am Games and the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. He raced while pursuing his Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison; upon finishing his degree, he chose academia over racing, and last year he retired as chairman of the math department at the University of Denver.
Long before Lance Armstrong brought the sport to the American consciousness, I grew up in a family that watched the Tour de France religiously, at odd hours due to the time difference, on obscure satellite networks. My dad is also a bit of a libertarian where performance-enhancing substances are concerned, an avid consumer of non-F.D.A.-approved vitamin supplements ordered from exotic foreign websites and catalogs. Given this combination of interests, he's not unsympathetic to the position Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who admitted last week to taking performance-enhancing substances after years of denials, now finds himself in.
This weekend, my father and I watched Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey together. Then I interviewed him about it. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
What was your experience with performance-enhancing drugs in cycling?
I practiced at a time when the American sport had not gone through the dramatic increase in standards that it subsequently went through, as soon as [the American racer] Greg LeMond came on the scene [in the 1980s]. It was such an interesting sport back then. It was practiced mainly in major urban areas—Chicago, New York, New Jersey, etc., because they had immigrant populations, and a lot of the bike clubs were organized around that ethnic identity. You would race in the Chicago area and, honest to goodness, you could hear a half dozen languages in the peloton. The Germans would be speaking German to each other, the Belgians would speak Flemish, the French would speak French, the Italians would speak Italian.