Welcome to the party:
We were there, in 2009, on Mount Ventoux. It was the penultimate stage of the Tour de France (Tdf). This was the day Lance Armstrong had to go all out to secure a spot on the podium. It wasn’t what he’d planned for his come back, but it was good enough for now. And it was good enough for me: as a road cycling newbie, I had very quickly succumbed to the lure of the giants. I had missed out on Coppi, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain, and Pantani, to name a few, but here was a chance to see a modern-day giant, Lance Armstrong climb a mountain. I wanted to see this legend in action for myself, and like a lot of people, I bought a bike because of him.
For many he gave people hope, an inspiration to believe that not only could you survive your battles, but you could, like him, come out even better than before. Then the truth came out. The party was over.
“I didn’t live a lot of lies, but I lived one big one. It’s different, I guess…let’s get to the real detail of this story. We haven’t heard it yet is the truth.” – Lance Armstrong, from the film – The Armstrong Lie.
Acclaimed documentary maker Alex Gibney pieces together an enthralling and often painful portrayal of the fallen hero. The film is split into mainly two parts – the BO (before Oprah) and the AO (after Oprah) periods of Lance Armstrong’s professional career. Just as much as the world of cycling needed a champion to heal the harms caused by decades of doping; the fairy-tale fighter wanted people to sit up, watch and listen to his triumphant return. What Lance wasn’t counting on was that these very same people also wanted to talk of what they had seen and what they had experienced. They wanted to set the record straight. It wasn’t going to be what most people wanted to hear, an epic lie.
The Odeon cinema on Panton street is a nondescript place. Given its surroundings, it feels awkwardly seventies, tucked away behind the glitz of Leicester Square and Haymarket. This is quickly made up through the friendly and helpful staff, and eventually the charms of the cinema grow on you. When the screen-times for the film were first published, it showed a short run of a week. Soon after, it updated to an additional run of seven more days. Clearly there was money to be made. However, there is no blaring TdF circus; no red carpet, no podium girls, and no waving fans. Just a handful of people in a small auditorium. For Lance Armstrong, this is a world far removed from his glory days.
As the lights go down, Lance looks at us, his audience, in the same way he stares down his rivals: assured and unapologetic, he declares:
“I viewed my battle with cancer as an athletic competition. You either win, or you lose and die. So I took that perspective, a little dark, and I put that into everything I’ve done since then. I like to win, but more than anything I can’t stand the idea of losing because to me that equals death.”
Cut to Lance dropping Pantani, followed by journalists, experts and friends entering the frame; sharing their stories amongst a montage of his cycling successes and dramas. In twenty years of Lance being arguably the most recognisable athlete in the world, his apparent drug-free image is well documented. Yet his accusers and their evidence have had very little media exposure. The interviews with Lance are short and don’t reveal much at all, except that his stance throughout the 2009 tour is resilient, if somewhat nervous, and is equally so on his campaign of innocence afterwards. But his inner circle of sporting agents, legal team, and former directeur-sportif, Johan Bruyneel, portray a calculated and vicious unit hell-bent on domination.
Equipped with his very own private army, rather than talk with Gibney, and ultimately with us, much of the interview feels like a nauseating battle. And Lance has got to win.
The Armstrong Train
Both on and off the bike the film documents people who fell, and continue to fall under the fast moving Armstrong locomotive. People like Betsy and Frankie Andreu; former close friends and teammates. Upon overhearing Lance’s confession to taking performance enhancing drugs, whilst under treatment for cancer, are ousted, and left to pick up the pieces. Although George Hincapie, also a former friend and teammate, shatters the Andreu credibility, by declaring that Frankie, as his mentor, showed George how to dope. The twists take a further turn, with Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, who are clearly embittered by their Captain’s continuing success, that they eventually blow the whistle. Their presence in the AO interviews would have been damning. Their absence either shows how distant they are now from Lance, or perhaps that Lance doesn’t need any more grave diggers at his funeral. A poigniant inclusion is of one of the most determined antagonists in this saga, British sports journalist, David Walsh. Sued and subjected to public ridicule when questioning Lance’s integrity, David Walsh reflects on his 13 year odyssey in searching for the truth. Whilst fellow riders, such as Filippo Simeoni are shamed openly in front of his professional peers, and forced to back down from a race. Having testified against one of Lance’s closest allies, Michele Ferrari, it is harrowing to witness Lance’s reach in the sport.
The seduction of ‘One last job’ – David Walsh examines the Hollywood-like temptation for Lance to return:
As we watch Gibney’s tale, a couple are sitting next to us. The female viewer busy scribbling down notes. A writer? A professor? I wonder what she thinks of all this.
The film would be nothing without the post-Oprah interviews. Besides being only half the tale, it presents the aftermath of the bombshell confession. Not just with our protagonist, but with the likes of American cycling journalists who remain friendly with Lance. One in particular dismisses Lance’s claim that he rode clean in 2009. Michele Ferrari, Lance’s disgraced doctor and medical expert is chilling when he grins to camera confirming he still has ties with Lance. Ferrari’s Frankenstein obsession in using the body as an instrument to toy with silences the auditorium.
In his After-Oprah interviews, there are two, Lance is soberly aware of his downfall. Yet, he staunchly believes he was, and continues to be in the right. A liar, yes, but a cheater, no way. His family, his children anyway, are every-day kids who happen to have a significant father. Seeing them play whilst in the midst of yet another drugs test at home, shows Lance is willing to share his life with them. He is close to his children. It is evident that he loves them, but not having a single family member there to support him on camera makes me wonder: does anyone trust him? Is there anyone willing to put their neck out for Lance? It might be too much to ask, but the absence of even a credible neighbour, a trustworthy colleague or friend, to say that Lance is sorry does not materialise. Nor does a worthy apology from Lance himself.
The last documentary I saw was Senna. Armstrong’s film is different in many ways to Senna’s. Ayrton, despite his own flaws, grows and changes within his short life. The intimate family footage: tinkering over a go-kart with his father, lazy days on a boat with mother and friends, chats with his sister, and his frank interviews makes you warm to him. No one claims Senna is lying. And because of his honesty a nation and sports fans adore him. Lance on the other hand, comes across as cold, power-driven, and unrepentant. His moments at cancer clinics, kneeling and being with sufferers is the closest we get to witnessing his humanity. Even times with his children are strained. Unwilling to change his point of view, he seems ultimately lonely.
Is everything about Lance false?
Before getting to the film, I recall a piece by Michael Hall. He writes in ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’, about Asher Price, a man who like many to this day, owe a debt of gratitude to Lance: Asher Price, who writes about energy and the environment for theStatesman, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2006. After surgery, he got an email: “Hi, it’s Lance Armstrong here.” Lance recommended a trip to Indiana to see his doctor, Larry Einhorn, but when Price—who had learned that the cancer had spread to his lymphatic system—tried to get an appointment, the nurse said he’d have to wait six weeks. Price asked Lance for advice; Lance emailed Einhorn. One week later, Price was being examined by the doctor. Now Price is cancer-free. Like everyone in Austin, he has wrestled with his relationship with Lance. “My feeling is, the good things he did, whether it was helping me or inspiring someone else in their struggle, or nudging people to get a checkup or donate money—all of that was real. It really happened, and it helped people,” he told me. “Yes, there’s a stained quality to his victories. But people think that makes everything false. It doesn’t.”
If The Armstrong Lie doesn’t cut it, will Lance eventually come clean and make his own documentary – The Armstrong Truth? I doubt it, but with more films in the pipeline, continuing legal battles, and another book, what could be behind his next window of opportunity?
Further features of Lance Armstrong by The London Baroudeurs – ‘Lance Man Standing‘