Lance Armstrong never should have tried that last comeback.
In 2009, Armstrong felt compelled to return to the sport he dominated for a decade, nearly winning another Tour de France before retiring for good in early 2011. If it weren't for that comeback—that "see, I told you I was clean, and I told you I could still do it" moment of hubris—Armstrong would not be where he is now.
Armstrong was a hero; he still is to some. Now he is a pariah, at least in sports terms. After giving up his fight to defend himself against USADA's claims he cheated during his career, he has nothing left but to defend himself in the court of public opinion.
Armstrong's statement—calling the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's crusade to clean up his sport an "unconstitutional witch hunt"—is the last time he will talk about this situation. "Today I turn the page," Armstrong wrote. "I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances."
This is not the ride off into the sunset Armstrong imagined it would be. He never should have tried that last comeback.
With rumors chasing him like a peloton tracking the lead pack, Armstrong always managed to stay ahead of his detractors, winning seven straight Tour de France titles amid a never-ending cycle of rumors, suspicions and accusations that were on no account supported by physical evidence.
For years, people suspected Armstrong of cheating. He was just too good to be clean, especially for a man whose body was ravaged by cancer. In a sport where cheating had become the new normal, it was easy to suspect Armstrong was breaking (or at the very least circumventing) the rules.
Through all that, he rode on, kept winning and became the most polarizing athlete the world has seen in almost half a century.
On one side, we saw a cancer survivor who worked hard to become a great champion, then used his celebrity to raise hundreds of millions of dollars and a priceless amount of awareness for cancer research. No matter what people think of Armstrong himself, his Livestrong campaign has become of the most generous benefactors the world has ever seen.
On the other side, we saw a typical professional athlete who let success get to his head, splitting up with his wife and becoming a professional celebrity, shacking up with rocker Sheryl Crow or being photographed shirtless with actor and fellow professional celebrity Matthew McConaughey.
Still, with all the celebrity that came from riding a bicycle faster than anyone else in the world, Armstrong used the notoriety mostly for good. The more famous he became, the more yellow rubber bracelets people would buy and the more money he could raise to fight the disease that almost killed him.
He just never should have tried that last comeback.
Armstrong never would be in the situation he finds himself in now had he not come back in 2009. There was no reason to prove anything to anyone. He was still raising millions of dollars for charity without that comeback. Livestrong was still one of the most popular charitable causes in the world without the boost of interest from a comeback.
Whatever advice he was given in 2009, someone had to be in his ear telling him there was nothing positive that could come from a return to competitive cycling.
Now, 18 months after his retirement, Armstrong has been stripped of everything. The banners have come down from the rafters, his name sullied forever in the history books of not just his sport, but American history. Armstrong tried to fight the United States Anti-Doping Agency and lost. History will not forget that, witch hunt or not.
The peloton finally caught Armstrong, surrounded him, then left him for dead on the side of the road.
After the court dismissed his case against USADA, Armstrong had few options. In July, USADA CEO Travis Tygart made very strong statements against Armstrong, leaving little to no room for speculation:
USADA only initiates matters supported by the evidence. We do not choose whether or not we do our job based on outside pressures, intimidation or for any reason other than the evidence.
As in every USADA case, all named individuals are presumed innocent of the allegations unless and until proven otherwise through the established legal process. If a hearing is ultimately held then it is an independent panel of arbitrators, not USADA that determines whether or not these individuals have committed anti-doping rule violations as alleged.
Armstrong may have decided to give up his fight two years too late, but given the circumstances of this month, he is finally getting some good advice. Rather than face that independent panel, Armstrong gave up, saying "enough is enough" in a strongly-worded defense of his career that puts the blame on Tygart and questions the motives of USADA, suggesting the governing body gave deals to dopers who were caught but willing to roll over on Armstrong.
This whole thing is just one big conspiracy, per Armstrong, who claimed for one last time that he played by the rules and won those championships fair and clean.
I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours. We all raced together. For three weeks over the same roads, the same mountains, and against all the weather and elements that we had to confront.
There were no shortcuts, there was no special treatment. The same courses, the same rules. The toughest event in the world where the strongest man wins. Nobody can ever change that. Especially not Travis Tygart.
If only Armstrong had been okay with just winning those seven Tours. If only he hadn't tried to come back, there would have been no more allegations. There would have been no testing in 2009 and 2010 that was "fully consistent" with blood doping.
Sure, people would have whispered. The rumors and suspicions would have always chased Armstrong wherever he rode had he not returned to the sport in 2009, but they never would have caught him. It never would have been like this.
Armstrong's fall didn't happen because he purportedly cheated and it didn't happen because he got caught. This fall—this ignominious end to a heroic journey—happened because he could never figure out when to give up the race.