Shi: Lance Armstrong and the fall of cycling

July 23, 2013, 8:21 p.m.

It’s been half a year since Lance Armstrong gave up his fruitless battle to preserve a name that simply could not be cleared, and now that we have rightly sullied his name, burned his merchandise and actually begun to sue his Livestrong charity to get our money back, it seems as though there is nothing left for us to do but to renounce the sport that Armstrong personified.

This is relevant because the Tour de France ended this week, and the reaction (or lack thereof) has proven cycling’s resulting irrelevance to all of us. The media coverage has been notable only for its absence; as I write, it isn’t even on the ESPN front page, indicating that it isn’t even the sixteenth most interesting sports story in the world right now. Chris Froome is both the finest cyclist in the world and as anonymous as he is brilliant, but he is also damned by his fickle audience. I didn’t even know the Tour was going on until it was over.

This is one of the most bike-crazed campuses in the entire country, so it’s fair to assume that for a lot of us cycling means something different than it does (or ever did) for others. Cycling is a well-known subculture, of course, but in that sense it is no different than running or bodybuilding. Cycling is a fact of life.

It almost seems outrageous to consider such a mundane activity a spectator sport. For decades NASCAR – which recently graced the front page of ESPN – made its name by using cars that ordinary people might actually use, but you’ll have to forgive me for never really having understood NASCAR either. This is a pretty slow period of the sporting calendar, to be honest, and every news organization can use a superstar. Armstrong filled the void. No life goes untouched by cancer. I had my Livestrong shirts and Livestrong bracelet like everybody else.

In a sick sense, I remain grateful to Armstrong for holding on, for bitterly maintaining his innocence as the world slowly turned against him. Over the years, as Armstrong’s career grew further and further away, I cared less and less about what he had done. If he had succumbed to scandals at the height of his career, his heroism would have been broken; instead it simply succumbed to the tarnish of age and a series of equally corrupted successors, so that by the time he finally gave up in front of Oprah, his failure was a nonstory. I do not feel betrayed by Lance Armstrong. I simply don’t think about Lance Armstrong.

Nor, for that matter, do I think about cycling.

There is still some hope for cycling as a spectator sport; basketball survived losing Jordan, although one could certainly make the argument that Jordan never really left. More appropriate to cycling’s more limited niche in American sports, golf is slowly recovering from Tiger Woods’ major drought. But in the end, it is more likely that Armstrong was a one-off, and American interest in cycling as a sport will never really recover after his retirement.

As cycling enters its ninth year without Armstrong (seriously, has it been that long?), it seems almost unimaginable that Hemingway, normally not prone to florid pronouncements of unpronounceable beauty, could call cycling the most beautiful sport at all. Cycling needed a transcendent character like Armstrong in order to be relevant. Armstrong failed to use that transcendence to build the sport, and as an ambassador of cycling, he proved to be as poor as they come. One imagines that the French, who hated him years before everybody else did (albeit for somewhat different reasons), would shrug and think, “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose,” — the more things change, the more they stay the same. They would be right. Armstrong was merely one of many athletes who ignored the rules. His fall does not mean that the sport can now move on.

Whether Lance Armstrong was the one last great incorruptible athlete or simply the most successful of many cheaters was irrelevant: As the former, Armstrong was the most unlikely legend of a generation and the exception that proved the rule, and as the latter, Armstrong was the rule itself. Cycling is regarded as a dirty sport regardless of whether Armstrong was clean or not. The blame falls upon cycling’s entire Armstrong generation, and Armstrong will have to console himself with the fact that to be the finest cheater in an era of cheaters (i.e. Barry Bonds) still means something. Among cyclists, Armstrong will remain significant.

But for us — the peanut gallery, the ordinary fans — Armstrong’s fall from grace marked the end of an era. The brief summer of Floyd Landis was fun enough (and equally scarred), but in the end, cycling inevitably returned to what it always was: something Americans only watched if an American was on the screen.

With the fall of cycling, Winston Shi has turned his July sports focus onto the Norwegian summer curling circuit. For inside information on the best bets of the week, email Winston at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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