10 June 2011

Not wearing yellow

I took off my yellow Livestrong wristband the other day.

This may not seem like a big deal to you, and you likely abandoned yours a long time ago. But for me, it represents a pretty big change in my way of thinking, and I’ve struggled with the decision for a while now.

Because here’s the thing: Cancer sucks.

I’ve been a cancer “survivor,” in the broadest sense of the term, since my grandfather was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 3 years old. Given six months to live, he managed to fight for six more years, traveling the world and getting to know his grandsons before he died. By then I was 9 years old, in the fourth grade, and “Bubba” was gone.

Let me put it another way: I have never known life without knowing cancer.

Three of my four grandparents had it. Both of my parents. Other family members. Family friends. Personal friends. Loved ones. Some have fought and survived. Too many have not.

And so when Lance Armstrong founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation, charged with the mission of supporting cancer survivors, I was on board. I was excited that here, finally, was an organization focused on the living – plenty of really smart folks were fighting the fight against the disease in laboratories around the world; for the first time, here was a group aimed at the individuals and families who were fighting the fight just to survive each day.

And when Nike introduced the Livestrong bracelets, I walked more than a mile through a late May downtown Chicago heat wave to make sure I got one, straight from the Nike Store on Michigan Avenue. The demand was huge, the buzz was bigger, and the money they were raising was going straight back to the people who needed it most. And except for a brief spell when I succumbed to peer pressure a while back, I’ve not removed my band for any reason for the past 7 years.

Until now.

See, there’s another side to the yellow wristbands: They’re inexorably tied to Lance Armstrong, the man. When folks (especially industry types) saw me wearing the band, they automatically made an assumption that I supported Lance, that I was a “Lance Fan.” I even remember a particularly thorny conversation on the way to Moab one year, in which I debunked that thought in rather strong language to someone whom I thought knew better. Because although I thought it was cool that U.S. Postal, and Lance, figured out the winning combination to Le Tour, I never really liked Lance the person: I thought he was a pretentious prick before cancer, and I don’t believe people change that much, even when faced with a life-threatening illness as he was. To me, Lance 2.0 just couldn’t have suddenly become Mr. Nice Guy.

So when doping allegations began to be heard – they started as early as 1999, remember – I dissociated my support for the LAF from what was happening in the peloton. I’ve been following bike racing – and in particular Le Tour – for the past 30 years, and quite frankly, nothing I heard surprised me. My annual support of the LAF continued, even as the whispers about Lance himself turned into a roar. And when the bracelets were introduced in May 2004, I bought mine not because of Lance, but because of the Foundation and what it stood for – to me, a very big difference.

Throughout all this, I raced my bike. It’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do with my life, and I attacked it with passion. Eventually, I got to a level where yes, I was racing against dopers. Where I was getting chased down by folks who tested positive just weeks later. Where I would line up against people just back from suspension, only to have them get suspended again a year or two later.

Instead of getting bitter, I developed my own take on doping in the peloton: I was never going to succumb, and all of those folks racing dirty just forced me to work harder. Do I feel cheated? Yeah, somewhat. But let’s face it: My results in some no-name crit in Madison weren’t going to get me a contract. Eventually, I walked away from road racing in part because of the people and the culture that was all around – each week, each race, I felt I was surrounded by folks who were OK with the omerta, who were on the inside of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge that takes place at that level. It was toxic, and I was through with it.

I also developed a theory on the toxicity itself. If you follow the cycling media, it doesn’t take long before you come across some bizarre disease you’ve never heard of, contracted by an otherwise healthy professional racer. Or you read about this rider or that absolutely destroying themselves physically, sometimes years after they have retired. I have no scientific basis for it, but my thought is that the doping products racers take to succeed wreak havoc on their bodies, opening them up for opportunistic infections, joint destruction, cancer. It happens too often to be a coincidence.

And that’s where Lance comes in. Yes, he’s “never” tested positive. Yes, he’s “never” been busted. Yes, there’s no “proof.” But I’m not that na├»ve, I’ve been around racing way too long, I’ve seen everyone around him get caught. I’m not stupid. I had a personal interaction with a member of Lance’s Tour squad several years back that gave me pause, made me think it wasn’t as red-white-and-blue as it seemed to be on the TV. The junior program Lance and many of his eventual teammates were a part of was dirty as hell, and in my mind, it’s the reason he got cancer in the first place.

But OK, even if that’s the case, we all engage in risky behaviors. I smoked for 10 years – if or when I get cancer myself (I’m a walking genetic time bomb after all), do I reject outright any good I might be able to do? No. So if Lance got cancer because of doping, does that mitigate the influence of the LAF? No – to me, they were separate things. One does not in any way forgive the other – LAF may be good but it does not apologize for Lance being a doper. In my mind, I could support one without the other.

Until now.

It really started for me when I read Bill Strickland’s latest essay in Bicycling magazine. Bill has been a Lance supporter, to some extent, for a long time. But in a recent issue, he finally admits that he’s been swayed: He believes Lance doped. An inside source made it pretty clear to him. And so Bill drew the line.

Simultaneously, media coverage of the Novitsky investigation picked up steam here in the U.S. 60 Minutes ran a piece in which Tyler Hamilton, a convicted doper himself, says he saw Lance dope. Even more damning, and yet to be refuted, is that CBS also reported that George Hincapie – Hincapie! – testified against his former team leader to a grand jury. Everyone so far has been an admitted doper themselves – Andreau, Landis, Hamilton – and may have had an axe to grind against Team Lance, but now, Big George may have come clean. And Lance lawyered up – he already had a legal team in place, but all of a sudden his representation took on a criminal-experience edge. He’s getting ready for battle, even if their first salvos have fallen pretty flat.

There’s one more piece here that makes it personal. There is one more Postal Tour team member who has testified against Lance to the grand jury. He has yet to be named. I think I know who it is, and he’s not a big enough personality that the media would grab onto it. But if I’m right, I’m sure this guy would tell the truth. And while that may be hearsay from a law point of view, to me it would be the final word. And that word is guilty.

So what changed my mind about the yellow wristband? None of this is proof, none of it is really anything new for that matter. Why now?

Oddly, it came down to a comment on a VeloNews forum. I can’t even remember the article it was referencing, but the commenter made a valid argument that got mixed in with my own and mutated. So I changed my thinking – or rather, I finally made up my mind. I reconnected the two entities: If Lance doped, not only did it give him cancer (in my mind at least), it also enabled him to win the Tour a record 7 times. AND – and here’s where I changed my mind – it was that winning that gave him a platform to start the LAF. It was his ill-begotten fame (notoriety?) that allowed him to raise millions toward cancer survivorship support. With that connection made, all of a sudden that feels like blood money to me.

I need to do some more thinking about my feelings toward the LAF. But in the meantime, the wristband has come off – oddly, the most difficult part is that I’m really superstitious, and I’ve had a run of amazing racing while wearing it. That short time I didn’t? The riding didn’t go so well. I hope this time will be different – at least this time, I’m doing it for myself.

I’m sad that I have to write this. I’m sad I have to think this through, to this extent. For 35 years now, the specter of cancer has held sway over me and my family, and I’m sad that I feel doubt toward an organization with a mission as important as the LAF’s. Maybe at some point I’ll change my mind, and be proud to show my support in some way. Maybe another organization will step up.

But for now, I’ve taken off my yellow wristband.


joeyTWOwheels said...

Nice post, Chris. I love Strickland's article as well. Really made me think.

Can you go further in your feelings about doping as it relates to cancer? Is there a correlation? I might be naive about this.

But like you, I have a hard time believing innocence around the horn. Especially in a sport so riddled with cheating.

Steve Courtright said...

Hey Chris,

Well written. I know exactly how you feel. But at the end of the day, it's family and friends we count on. Everyone else seems to have an agenda.


Gina said...

So out of something bad came something good. You know I don't care if he doped. It was wrong but unlike your life, it doesn't affect mine. It's still good to see something positive come from something negative. That is just how I have to see it.