A couple months ago, an interesting new documentary popped up on my AppleTV, called The Armstrong Lie. It was directed by Alex Gibney, who was hired to film Lance during his 2009 comeback year, and Alex felt Lance owed him more interviews after Lance finally admitted to doping in early 2013. I didn’t have a chance to see the film when it toured art house theaters last Fall, but I sat down and watched it the day I discovered it was available for rent.
My Lance Feelings
Like any American cyclist (or anyone that lived through the 1999-2005 reign of Lance in the sport of cycling), I have An Opinion on Lance, and it’s largely been in the middle. I would say there are definite ends of the spectrum of opinion on Lance during the early 2000's, with one end being “he’s a lying cheating doper scumbag” and the other end being “he’s a cancer survivor on a crusade and never failed a test and you’re just a hater.” Though most of my friends occupy the murky middle of that range, I have a couple close friends at the absolute ends of the spectrum and it was always entertaining to have spirited conversations about Lance with them.
My own middle ground position starts with equal parts admiration and respect, but also featured a healthy amount of suspicion. It was too amazing, too good to be true that Lance returned from cancer and became almost an immediate champion. I’d seen Greg LeMond try and recover from gunshot wounds a decade before, and I’d known how much fitness I personally lost just being sick for a few weeks that I was always skeptical that Lance could bounce back from a year off fighting cancer to jump right back into the top tier of competitive bike racing. As The Lance Years wore on, I grew more skeptical as I heard story after story and watched Lance yell at journalists and sue people for libel and slander wherever he could. I’ve never really respected people that ran around suing people to shut them up and that was easily the ugliest side of Lance. Despite my skeptical tendencies, I still thought he did an amazing job on the bike, and I found most of his Tour de France victories incredibly entertaining. When he announced the 2009 comeback I was kind of happy to see him return to racing, since he was only a year older than me and I wanted to see an “old guy” like me win some bike races again.
The Oprah Moment
As the evidence and hearsay mounted through 2012 against Lance, I eagerly anticipated the hours with Oprah that would finally reveal what we’d always known. On the first night of Lance’s TV interview with Oprah, I was surprised and a bit amazed that the first question was whether or not Lance doped and Lance answered yes to that question for the first time in public. The rest of the interview was hit and miss though, and I felt Lance carefully picked his words probably not just on the advice of lawyers, but it sounded like he practiced several answers with his lawyers. He skirted most every tough question and even when Oprah asked him direct difficult questions, he would change the subject or answer jokingly.
As time passed from his debut on Oprah and his sponsorships and titles dried up, I felt like he was getting what he deserved, but I didn’t feel relief from having been duped so long by this guy I’d admired previously. I never felt satisfied with how the Oprah interviews turned out, how Lance made jokes when asked how he ruined Betsy Andreu’s and Emma O’Reilly’s lives in his various legal proceedings, instead of hearing new lawsuits against him by those people he’d wronged. It felt like even though his world was coming down, he was still getting off with not much more than a slap on the wrist.
I dropped everything to watch The Armstrong Lie looking for more answers.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
I’ll say right up front if you lived through the Lance Years of cycling and have any opinion on Lance, you really should watch The Armstrong Lie. It was really well done, goes way deeper than Oprah did, and will give you much more background on Lance’s life. You might also end up hating him even more by the end, like I did.
Alex Gibney does an incredible job telling the story of Lance’s life, covering his upbringing and his start in the sport. He does a great job demonstrating how Lance moved up in the sport of cycling and finally delves into interviews conducted months after the revelations on Oprah.
The film is just over two hours long, and recent interviews with Lance occupy most of the film. As Lance is talking to someone that has shot cycling documentaries, the questions and answers are more detailed and technical in nature and any cyclist will appreciate this interview much more than Oprah’s breezy time with Lance.
The strangest thing to me is that I started to empathize with Lance. I never bought the mantra that busted dopers in cycling are always saying “I had to do it to level the playing field.” As Lance explains over roughly 90 minutes, you start to understand how widespread doping was in the sport of cycling in the late 1990s (and even up until today), and for the first time in my life I started to understand his line of thinking in choosing to dope. I wasn’t forgiving him in my mind, but I was reaching a new understanding after hearing about the environment he had to operate in.
The best part of this movie is how frank and honest Lance is for most of it. Where he sounded flippant and polished on Oprah, these interviews feel much more raw, and Lance doesn’t sound like he has anything to hide. He goes through pretty much every rumor I heard about previous ways he cheated, and talks openly how he essentially bribed the UCI to hide his positive tests, how he made up ailments/doctor notes to cover failed tests, and how exactly he obtained performance enhancing drugs and how he used them. The interviews felt like the first time I’d ever heard Lance speak truthfully, and it’s probably why I started to warm up to the guy as the film went on. I imagine these interviews were conducted after Lance knew he wouldn’t be getting out of future lawsuits, so he might as well finally come clean.
The Bad and The Ugly
I loved this documentary almost up to the very end. After about an hour and 45 minutes into this 2 hour film, the subject changes to Lance’s comeback in 2009. In the aftermath of the Oprah interviews and his various setbacks in the sport, Lance was still desperately trying to work a small legal loophole that would not ban him for life from sports, but allow him to compete in professional triathlons, if only he could prove he hadn’t doped since the Tour de France wins back in 2005. In the last ten to fifteen minutes of the film, Lance’s entire tone changes as he insists that his 2009 comeback was entirely clean.
There have been many sports science blog posts, interviews, and analysis of Lance’s 2009 comeback blood numbers and the results ranged from “deeply suspicious” to “one in a million chance he’s not doping.” Blood doping is still largely the only doping you can do without easy detection, and all signs pointed to Lance’s return to the peloton being aided by packing red blood cells in his own system. His insistence on his innocence during his 2009 comeback fell on deaf ears for me.
The movie ends on a sour note as a result. After over an hour and forty-five minutes of absolute honesty, Lance reverts right back to the guy that would say anything to keep his dreams alive. By the time the credits rolled, I felt a tinge of anger at having felt bad for him for most of the film and how I’d thought I gained a new understanding of why he did the things he did. As the film ended I realized Lance has always been a manipulative sociopath and can bring that out at any time when it may benefit him.
By the end, I realized I had just been played for a fool.