It’s been a month since the trailer for the new Lance Armstrong biopic landed on YouTube. Directed by Stephen Frears, known for his work on the cult classic High Fidelity and the recent critically acclaimed film Philomena, and starring Ben Foster, Dustin Hoffman, Lee Pace and Chris O’Dowd, this movie is clearly not a half-hearted attempt to grab some quick cash from movie audiences. It certainly isn’t being marketed in the U.S. as the next big blockbuster, instead hitting German theatres for it’s initial run. And the casting and direction choices (along with the trailer itself) make it clear that this movie is a carefully constructed and complex piece about the disgraced former Tour de France winner. Oddly enough, however, no one in the cycling world seems too eager to talk about it.
Cyclingnews.ca published this brief blurb on the movie, which featured the German dubbed trailer, but so far the film has managed to fly under the radar in the cycling community. Perhaps the movie comes too soon after the revelations that Armstrong was a doper for all those years. The backlash over Lance’s presence at the Tour this year, despite it being a charitable endeavour, clearly indicates that the smell of sour grapes still lingers in the air. Most of the backlash over the charity ride, in which Lance rode a stage of the Tour to raise money for cancer, has come from the message boards and social media. Just like the movie, most news outlets dedicated to cycling largely ignored Lance’s presence in France in July. It seems the only thing newsworthy about Lance is when he testifies about his doping past or questions of his ban are raised by UCI officials and prominent members of the cycling community. Armstrong the human being and Armstrong the cancer survivor are no longer of interest to anyone but Armstrong the doper is still headline news.
When the The Program hits theatres later this year, there is no doubt in my mind that cycling fans will watch it. The question is whether they will buy a ticket or if they’ll watch it alone at night when everyone has gone to bed and only admit to having seen it when someone else in their riding group pipes up. Given that the movie is based on David Walsh’s book documenting his long battle to expose Armstrong, which on several occasions put him in the path of Armstrong’s legal juggernaut, forgiveness and redemption probably won’t be two words the movie conjures up in our minds. And maybe that’s what the cycling world is so afraid of. The Armstrong legacy, despite his last Tour win being 10 years ago, still plagues cycling. This year’s tour winner Chris Froome faced the same allegations Armstrong faced. How do we trust cyclists aren’t doping when Lance got away with it for so many years while constantly and persuasively maintaining his innocence? When Froome says he has never taken drugs the first thought many have is, “yea, that’s what Lance said too.” Maybe the cycling community is afraid that redemption for Lance will hinder cycling’s ability to move beyond its doping past. Maybe we just want to forget without having to forgive. Or maybe we’re just in a state of unhealthy denial about the sport’s legacy. Doping nearly ruined the sport when the truth was revealed. Sponsors didn’t just abandon the sinking Armstrong ship, many abandoned the sport altogether. The number of U.S. domestic pro teams was cut in half in just a few short months after Lance’s doping was revealed. On the other hand, however, Lance’s doping is what made the sport what it is today.
When Greg LeMond won three Tour’s in the 80s, no one in America batted an eyelash. When Lance won his first Tour and the world heard the story of the cancer survivor who clawed his way back to glory, not only did Lance become a household name, but cycling became a booming business in North America. Those seven years turned Trek into a world player in the bicycle market, it helped give birth to the MAMIL phenomenon, and cycling quickly became a dominate sport in the U.S. Riders like Phil Gaimon, who champion the fact they ride clean by speaking out and sporting ‘clean’ tattoos, came into the cycling world at the height of cycling’s popularity in the U.S., which was directly supported by the doping culture of the late 90s and early 2000s. Armstrong’s popularity made it evident that big money could be made in cycling. In those boom years during Armstrong’s reign, teams began popping up all over America, prize purses got bigger, payrolls got bigger, sponsors were in abundance. Riders like Gaimon who are trying to make an honest living in cycling now both benefitted from Armstrong’s success and suffered because of his disgrace.
It will be a long while before Armstrong’s legacy is far enough removed that the cycling community can start to think about redemption and forgiveness. The Program might be too soon for some but perhaps we need to be reminded that there are lingering effects of Lance and his doping program both good and bad. How long can we ignore the fact that while Lance nearly singlehandedly brought down the sport, he also single-handedly turned cycling into a billion dollar business and one of the most popular sports in the world. Would you be wearing spandex and riding a $3000 carbon road bike if Lance had never won those Tours? I think probably not.