Today sees the Dauphiné head to Les Gets and a large section of today’s stage borrows the same roads as last year’s eighth stage of the Tour de France that finished in Avoriaz, won by Andy Schleck.
On Sunday 11 July 2010 the bunch was speeding to the first proper climb of the race, the Col de Ramaz and on a downhill section during the approach there was a roundabout, a small junction to control the traffic to a nearby supermarket and the kind of thing you find all over France. But it was on a fast piece of road and the passage of traffic arriving fast at the roundabout and braking hard had rippled the tarmac a touch, itself softened by the summer heat. Most riders got through but the skittish surface claimed one victim: Lance Armstrong. Up until then everything was going to plan, Armstrong had finished second in the Tour de Suisse and took fourth in the Tour’s prologue.
But everything went wrong thanks to this roundabout. It took a long time to get going and once he was on his way Armstrong was in the red, chasing with team mates to the start of the Ramaz. Team Sky were driving the pace ahead and Armstrong never got back on, especially since Astana kept the pace high to Les Gets and he eventually trundled up the finish line in Avoriaz, over 11 minutes down.
Yet if a roundabout ruined Lance Armstrong’s hopes last year, it was a random and freak event and his team tried their best to get him back in the race. Fast forward to 2011 and I can’t help but wonder if his troubles today are not being compounded by the result of bad decisions and poor advice.
These days, for a guy who made a career out of riding uphill very fast, Lance Armstrong is sliding downhill. Once upon a time we were told he weighed his food with precision and we learned – thanks to Nike commercials – that rain and cloud couldn’t stop him from training in the high mountains. His story reached well beyond the bubble of pro cycling, at first he became an international sports star, a celebrity and an inspiration. At one point he could do no wrong.
Now we are witnessing a downfall in public, a public image car crash and it’s quite ugly. Worse, I can’t help feel he’s being very badly advised.
When fresh allegations and revelations hit the media, the response seems to be to hire more lawyers. This is the equivalent of renting an excavator after you’ve fallen down a hole. Armstrong’s problems are not legal. Yes, he is certainly at the centre of an investigation by the US authorities and needs careful advice but a lot of the work done by the attorneys seems to involve his attorneys rebutting allegations and demanding retractions. This is public and confrontational, not law-related.
These days Armstrong seems buffeted by events. Despite employing top lawyers and apparently the best spin doctor in the Western World, his camp seems to have totally lost control of the agenda and struggles to put out a coherent message.
From the Col de Ramaz to Main Street
The US media is awash with stories that are a variation of “I used to support him, now I’m not sure”. The lame Facts4Lance website has been taken down but only after it was aired for enough time to make Armstrong’s entourage look stupid. Let’s put Armstrong aside for a moment, he’s actually proven to be a savvy internet user whether it’s his twitter account or making millions from selling Livestrong.com to Demand Media. No, someone else must have cooked up the “facts” website ploy and it was a howler as it focussed his defence on trying to undermine others rather than putting out positive message.
What’s the message?
Now let’s not reheat the old did-he-or-didn’t-he-dope debate too much, I’m more interested in how the case is being handled. But if he wants to claim he rode clean all his life, my advice would be that he’s got to get out there and say it, in fact he’s got to shout it. Scream it from the rooftops Lance! Tour the TV studios, record the radio shows, appear in print. But this isn’t happening. In the vacuum he’s letting the likes of Hamilton have their say and it’s fashionable for many opinion pieces in the mainstream media to start asking aloud if he did dope. Instead we get a weasel-worded “I never tested positive” line that is noticeably different from a denial, as it hints “they never caught me” more than the plain old “I’ve never resorted to the use of banned substances“.
Reclaiming the message
By contrast, if there’s going to be a confession then it needs to come quickly. Being bounced and hounded into an admission never looks good, it will appear as if he’s got a problem with the truth and can’t talk straight. For a charity and media personality this can be career-ending stuff. For many cycling insiders who suspect he might have doped, any confession today could seem very late in the day; but for the wider public in the US, perhaps it would appear timely, especially if couched in the terms that he didn’t want to let fans down, that riding the Tour was never easy and so on.
Two courtrooms at once
But perhaps the ongoing investigation is the real agenda setting event. Armstrong might be caught between a legal defence where authorities struggle to prove the use of doping products and the “court of public opinion” where circumstantial evidence piles up by the day. You end up pulled in two directions, the need to avoid any admission in order to ward off the authorities but millions in public are left either scratching their head, or worse, pointing their fingers.
You can crash out of a race by accident thanks to a bad road surface. But these days it seems hotshot attorneys and public relations gurus are pacing Lance Armstrong straight into a brick wall. But this could be for legal reasons, the dissonance between legal pleadings and public expectations.
Either way, a rider once famed for mastering the media seems to be floundering, unable to get a clear message out to his supporters. It is painful to watch and I suspect everyone involved in Armstrong’s defence are struggling for way out.