Mark Cavendish got frustrated at the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team presentation when journalists repeatedly pressed him over the Lance Armstrong story. Presumably Cavendish wanted to talk about his the ambitions for 2013. But there’s only one show in town: Lance Armstrong.
The story stretches from primetime sofa to the US Department of Justice via the Tour de France and features an international celebrity in the midst of a downfall more public than Felix Baumgartner’s leap.
Given this even a big name like Mark Cavendish is going to be pressed relentlessly for a quote on Lance Armstrong and others will face tricky questions on other topics this year. What should a rider say? What can they say?
Several years ago I witnessed an American couple riding the Paris Métro. Laden with luggage and probably jet-lagged, they were being quizzed about President Bush by excited Frenchman. They were on surely on vacation yet somehow were expected to account for the actions of their government, as if being on vacation equated to a diplomatic mission. It’s similar today with cyclists who have to explain the actions of another Texan.
Similarly cyclingnews.com’s series of interviews with new riders includes a question about the USADA case, ensuring even the freshest riders are connected to the past.
Talking about Armstrong is a minefield at the best of times. One wrong step and internet forum tripwires quiver, another step and you’ve triggered an explosive headline. It’s probably unlikely these days but some riders might still fear Armstrong’s legal firepower.
No Comment: the first strategy simple, just refuse to talk about it. There’s not much to add, the rider just says “look, I can’t talk on this” and that’s that. But the trouble here is that millions are talking about it. People who can’t ride a bike have an opinion on Armstrong. So if you have nothing to say it’s remarkable itself, almost a news story. Worse, zipping the lips can make you look furtive, as if there’s something to hide.
Delay: you might be annoyed but don’t rush into things. When an awkward question arrives there’s often a moment to play for time. Ask the questioner to repeat it, to explain what they mean in more detail or use another ruse to compose yourself.
Positive message: surely the obvious reaction is to stick to generalities and avoid controversy? Welcome the prosecution of cheats, offer support to the measures being taken by the UCI and WADA and express hope that the sport is cleaner. It might not make the evening news but it’s a satisfactory answer.
Project: if the past is an uncomfortable place then it’s better to talk about the future. When a poor journalist was tasked with getting a quote from Marc Madiot the FDJ manager shrugged and gave little away except the hope things will be better in the future, adding Lance Armstrong belongs to the past.
The pivot: politicians are experts at being asked one question but answering another. It’s called “pivoting” and can be very frustrating but it gets used by people who successfully win millions of votes. Why? Well studies show that if the respondent seems likeable and honest then the audience might not even notice the pivot, nor remember the question. Easier said than done and this is something that politicians spend time crafting in the company of acting coaches, speech-writers and other experts. For the rest of us this could prove harder but the lesson is to pivot less, just to lead the question onto safer ground.
Prepare: maybe you don’t care about a chat show and perhaps the WADA Code is something you hope you’ll never have to read. But a little homework can be considered a professional duty, being aware of the issues and coping with the media might be part of your job.
Turn the tables: sections of the media squirm when asked about their role in the Armstrong story. For years they built him up, ignoring the negatives. It wouldn’t work on live TV but a quick-witted rider could ask their questioner about their role and whether they put the same tough back questions the journo, to ask whether they ever put soft questions to “Lance.”
Twitter: been misquoted? Something got lost in translation? Stamped on a landmine? Twitter is a useful medium to issue corrections and explanations.
Finally it’s worth considering the job of a journalist. It’s not always to annoy but to get a story. Of course a rider is delighted to win a race but when the journalist sticks a microphone in the face of a rider seconds after they’ve crossed the finish line and asks “are you happy with the win” the point isn’t really to check on the rider’s state of mind but to elicit emotion, for them to share the joy of victory live on TV. They can’t always sell newspapers and if they file a video for the TV news then “cyclist says something bland” won’t make the evening bulletin. There’s a symbiosis here where the rider needs publicity for both themselves and their sponsors whilst the media need interesting content.
That said I’m not too interested in what Mark Cavendish has to say on Lance Armstrong. He’s an intelligent interviewee with a great eye for races and would prefer to know if he’s discussed who will lead the team in Milan-Sanremo or Gent-Wevelgem. And if the topic has to be doping, if you insist, then perhaps the media should be asking Team OPQS about the questionable past of Dr Jose Ibarguren Taus. But none of this is prime time TV news material.
The Armstrong is awkward and confusing at times but it refuses to go away. Questions about the matter as as inevitable as a Belgian crosswind. Riders should have a ready answer although there are limits to being asked the same thing again and again.
There can be other subjects that people would prefer to avoid. But like it or not a pro cyclist is a public figure and like others who work in front of cameras and microphones there are techniques to deal with the tough, annoying and sometimes boring questions.