Deeper in the report is this eye-popping stat: The number of U.S. adults who ride a bike at least 110 times a year rose by 12 percent between 2000 and 2010.
That, I posit, is the influence of Lance Armstrong. Many of those active riders were inspired by the cycling prowess of Armstrong, who won a record seven Tour de France crowns from 1999 to 2005. Or, as humorist Andy Borowitz put it late last week on Twitter, “By far, Lance Armstrong’s darkest legacy will be that he convinced millions of men it was okay to wear bike shorts.”
In an ongoing battle between the cyclist and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Armstrong blinked this week, announcing that he would no longer contest allegations that he cheated by using performance-enhancing drugs.
The 41-year-old Texan made it clear late Thursday that he was not admitting guilt, merely disengaging from what he termed “an unconstitutional witch hunt.”
The agency, however, will consider his lack of defense as guilt and strip him of many of his titles, including those from the Tour de France, and ban him from future involvement in the sport.
In a statement, Armstrong said: “There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now.”
This latest development adds another layer to a mixed legacy for Armstrong, who has battled allegations of cheating for more than a decade.
With his name stripped off many of his cycling achievements, part of the public will lump in Armstrong with other notorious cheaters in athletics over the past three decades. For the record, professional cycling has more than its share in this hall of shame.
Others will note that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency had no physical evidence establishing that Armstrong took any drugs or engaged in any practices that gave him an unfair edge.
Jacksonville cyclist Carmine Di Biase summed up the issue for me on Friday. “There is no easy answer to this mess. Doping is wrong, but now what? Who gets the seven Tour wins now?” Doping scandals cloud a large number of those who finished behind Armstrong during those tours.
“The whole era was disgraceful, but is Armstrong more guilty because he was the hardest one to catch?” Di Biase asked.
Thus is born another debate for sports fans to puzzle over. Did he? Didn’t he? Was this zealous pursuit of Armstrong into his retirement a matter of score-settling? Did he give up the fight because his former teammates (with a promise of immunity in hand) were prepared to testify against him?
A larger point stretches beyond these questions. Armstrong inspired lots of Americans, as well as fans from across the globe. Many took comfort in his amazing recovery from a mid-1990s cancer diagnosis. Others took a closer look at his sport and gave it a try.
What hooked me was a 2001 Texas Monthly article, published before what would be his third straight Tour de France victory. “Who isn’t moved by the images of Lance riding up a mountain with a look of absolute determination on his face, standing stoically with other cancer survivors, raising his baby son aloft in exultation, or parading victoriously through the streets of Paris?” wrote Michael Hall in the article. “Lance seems chosen.”
His legacy is bigger than doping allegations. It inspires the young child diagnosed with cancer who has seen Armstrong beat the odds. His charity, Livestrong, raises money to battle the awful disease. His exploits inspire the over-the-hill types to get off the couch and on the bike.
My friend and fellow cyclist Jimmie Wetzel put it well on his Facebook page Friday. Wetzel, 51, discovered Armstrong in the early 1990s, when “this kid from Texas … was beating the Europeans at their own sport.”
Wetzel, a resident of Hokes Bluff, wrote, “I really don’t know if he doped or not. As someone who competed as an amateur (never successful) I fully understand how cheating can destroy the sport, of how it robs from the athletes who train so hard honestly. Having said that, I wear a Livestrong wrist band and I believe that what he has done for cancer research is extraordinary.”
A few years back, while wearing a Livestrong shirt, Wetzel was grocery shopping when he encountered a woman in tears. It turned out the woman’s daughter was supported by Livestrong after being diagnosed with cancer. “She thanked me for wearing the shirt,” Wetzel said. “I finally understood how this was ‘not about the bike.’ ”
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Twitter: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.