Let’s get something straight from the start. I’ve never met Lance Armstrong. I’ve never worshipped him, either. And my family owns Bicycling Magazine and I’m the CEO of the company it’s a part of. I once saw him speak at A Clinton Global Initiative, and the way all those “alpha males” were fawning over each other and calling each other “my friend” over and over kind of made me want to puke, even though I didn’t quite understand why at the time.
Cycling and I go back a long way. My father built a velodrome in the early 1970s. He even bought houses for young, broke cyclists to live in while they trained. He brought famous cyclists over from Europe to promote the sport (this is how I ended up as Eddie Mercxx’s chauffeur for a weekend). Since this was the 1970s, and thus, before Title Nine, as a girl I was not a budding racer, I was a groupie. I hung out at tracks in Montreal, Vienna, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. But my home track was Trexlertown. I hung out with riders before Lance Armstrong was potty-trained.
Here’s what cyclists are like: They’ve got the Fever. And what they lack in big paydays down the road (let’s face it, they are never going to earn what a top football or baseball star will earn), they make up for in ego. True, their bodies are amazing (yes, there is still nothing sexier to me than a man’s shaved and oiled leg). But today, while the times have changed and the drugs have changed, if anything, the egos have probably gotten bigger.
Such is the passion within the sport that I only learned a few weeks ago about the omertà—the code of silence. What’s funny is that I now understand I have experienced it personally in a past relationship with a cyclist. I refuse to name names, but y’all know who you are and what you didn’t say.
Back to Lance (see paragraph 1)…did he really damage the sport or just expose what we suspected all along? While I never met him, I know a lot of people who did, and very few of them came away with a favorable impression. I won’t use the word I most often heard, but you can guess. It rhymes with gas pole.
Racing is a beautiful sport to watch. But that’s not why my Dad built a velodrome and bought Bicycling. He did it because he wanted to see more people riding bikes. Because cycling is healthy. Because it’s cleaner than driving. Because it’s beautiful. And fun.
You don’t need dope to reap those benefits.
I actually see the fall of Lance as a perfect segue into a new era of cycling, one that embraces women racers and riders, one that’s more welcoming to outsiders and is humble. One that celebrates the joy and romance of the sport and the activity, without the testosterone-driven, chest-thumping, ego-fueled, false-hero-worshipping, win-no-matter-what attitude (the pukey part).
But I could just be dreaming. This summer all three of my daughters suddenly woke up with the Fever. My oldest rode in her first race. My teenager goes out for bike rides after school just for the fun of it. And no, she’s not riding to the store to buy cigarettes the way I did when I was her age. And my 6-year-old learned to ride on the velodrome in their Pee Wee Pedaler program. I saw the Fever rise right before my very eyes: her intense focus, the falling off and sliding down the track and being more eager to get back up on the bike than to find a Band-Aid for the track rash. She has pink-and-white streamers that fly in the wind when she’s going fast, and a basket, too.
Cycling will never be the same, thank god. You all can wait for your apology from Lance, and the fanatics can cling to their omertà traditions. But there’s no future in it. It’s the obsession with \wining that creates a culture of cheating and lying—whether it’s the Tour de France or any other event in the sport. Any one of us who participates in the code of silence is complicit.
I dream of a day when we worship sports heroes not for their physical prowess alone, but for their integrity, too. I dream of a day when we celebrate people not just for world-record–breaking times, but for their courage and positive attitude, as well. I dream of a day when the truth is easier to tell than a lie.
I dream of a day when we put our obsessions, our cash, and our attention into things that really matter and that make the world a better place. Where sponsorship money goes to building bike paths rather than big egos. Where media attention goes to the pleasure of the sport, rather than the desperate need to win. Where boys and girls grow up with heroes who don’t let them down.
I know. I’m dreaming. But to quote Bruce Springsteen, “There’s a code of silence and it can’t go on.”
It’s time for a code of truth.