Seven consecutive victories. Lance Armstrong was a sensation–the first cyclist embraced by mainstream America. Lance Armstrong put cycling on the map and even more, through Livestrong, he raised awareness of cancer and research. Like millions around the world, he inspired me, and as another competitive cyclist, I wanted to believe he won clean, even when numbers suggested otherwise.
I still believe Lance can be forgiven, redeemed. It’s just that this race rides on honesty with the millions, like me, who long looked to him for inspiration.
At seventeen I moved from Korea to T-town, Pennsylvania, the cycling Mecca of the world, to take my shot at the American dream.
At the ‘92 Olympic team cycling trials I competed against George Hincapie, who would go on to be one of Armstrong’s most loyal teammates. My teammates and I finished 22nd in the 100K; Hincapie and his team finished first. They were shockingly fast–as if racing on an extra set of lungs.
And I recall thinking, “If these guys are this fast, how much faster is Lance?”
They say you can torture data to confess to almost anything. But in modern cycling, sophisticated tools such as power meters measure actual wattage that correlate heart rate, cadence, and other important parameters. That’s where Lance’s numbers failed him.
The Tour de France is a 22-day, 3,000-plus kilometer race over some of the tallest mountains in the Alps and Pyrenees. Riders compete in snow, sleet, and rain, sometimes after breaking a collarbone in a crash descending mountains at 60-plus mph.
Cycling is an endurance sport. It requires discipline and work, but more important, a specific genetic potential known as the Max Vo2. Most people are unaware it exists but every human possesses it.
Max Vo2, or maximum volume of oxygen consumption in layman’s terms, is the most oxygen the lungs can receive and effectively use. An average person could have a Max Vo2 in the mid 30s while Lance Armstrong is in the low 80s. And here’s the problem.
Past winners on the Tour had a much higher Vo2 capacity in the high 80s and low 90s. Given Armstrong’s performance, his Max Vo2 was suspect.
When the story broke that Lance used EPO, the red blood cell booster used by cancer patients after chemo, it made sense.
The problem, of course, was using the drugs after surviving cancer to improve his athletic ability. That constitutes cheating, fraud.
To win the Tour once is monumental. To win it back to back seven times is superhuman. And to do it after surviving cancer, in my opinion, is impossible—except that Lance did it.
Overcoming insurmountable odds, he inspired millions of people to live for something more. So news that he cheated to victory was devastating. But athletic achievement is just that: athletic. Most stunning were the testimonials about coercion and intimidation of anyone in his way. What a blow to learn that such an inspirational figure could do such uninspiring things.
But here’s where I part with a lot of current sentiment. The Bible says every person has sinned and falls short of God’s bar. It also says we are justified freely, redeemed, by God’s grace, which is available in Christ. That’s the shirt I wear now—the “live strong” I live on. Nothing Lance can do, anytime, anywhere, disqualifies him from God’s forgiveness, and therefore from mine.
Lance’s corporate sponsors are gone now. Authorities banned him from competition for life. His once storied career soiled with controversy. He can pack it up and live like a recluse—he has that option–but in my opinion, his greatest opportunity lies just ahead.
He could rise from the ashes. He could compete again.
Will he do it? And if he does, can he inspire the world again? Much of that rides on his sincerity; his effort to make amends with everyone he’s wronged.
Lance Armstrong has taken a well deserved beating lately, but no one is beyond redemption. I believe that. I live by it. The world still needs its heroes.