Lance Armstrong v. Paul Kimmage: For the Soul of Professional Cycling

Mr XSenior Writer IFebruary 17, 2009

The biggest sporting story in the world this year took place last Thursday at the press conference for the Amgen Cycling Tour of California. Lance Armstrong, cycling's greatest ever athlete, was fielding questions from the media when an Irish journalist from the Sunday Times asked him a question.

Having rehearsed this answer many times in knowing which question was coming, Armstrong reprimanded the journalist in an amazing exchange between the two.

The question from Paul Kimmage that gave rise to Armstrong's meticulously prepared answer was about why Armstrong was welcoming back cyclists who had been proven to be cheats, or dopers.

After asking, "What is it about these dopers you seem to admire so much?", Armstrong rounded on Kimmage by stating, "You are not worth the chair that you're sitting on."

Armstrong turned the tables on Kimmage, blasting the reporter over comments Kimmage made during a Irish radio interview last year, calling Armstrong "The cancer in this sport. For two years, this sport has been in remission. And now, the cancer's back," Kimmage said in the September 2008 interview.

After recognizing Kimmage, Armstrong—who survived testicular cancer in 1996—went on the offensive.

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"I'm here to fight this disease," Armstrong said. "You are not worth the chair that you're sitting on with a statement like that with a disease that touches everybody around the world."

Kimmage said he had asked for an interview with Armstrong, but was refused.

"I think it goes without saying, no, we're not going to sit down and do an interview. And I don't think anybody in this room would sit down for that interview," Armstrong said.

Armstrong has portrayed himself as the innocent in this exchange but even here he is being disingenuous.

In refusing Kimmage's advances for an interview Armstrong infers that the interview request was made after the statement by Kimmage, in fact the request was made months before the interview and knowing exactly who Kimmage was and is, Armstrong rejected the interview.

The main problem that Kimmage—and indeed many of the worlds fans and journalists—have with Armstrong is that Armstrong portrays himself as a man who went on to achieve greatness after recovering from testicular cancer.

He has deluded many into thinking that if Lance can beat cancer and go on to become one of the world's premier athletes, then so can they.

What he has failed to do is dispel the stories and rumours about him and his alleged steroid abuse. Almost every Tour De France winner—or second, third, fourth or fifth placed rider, etc.—over the last 15 years has been proven to have doped.

Everyone except Lance.

When the questions were really beginning to bite and come home to roost and his innocence was being questioned at every turn he chose to retire, after winning the Tour seven times in a row.

No other cyclist in the sports history with or without drugs was able to achieve what Lance Armstrong achieved in seven remarkable seasons—after overcoming cancer.

The questions on Armstrong's innocence and alleged use have always been there, but this was the first time that a journalist actually confronted the man.

But who is Kimmage? What right does he have to question Armstrong?

Paul Kimmage was a professional cyclist who represented his country in the World Youth Championships where he finished sixth in 1986. Then after going professional, he began to find that many cyclists he was beating in his amateur days were now leaving him for dust.

The reason was steroids. Devastated by this, Kimmage eventually retired and became a journalist. His first book—Rough Ride—won the Sports Book of the Year in 1990 and is a must read for fans of any sport.

Initially ridiculed by many within cycling that systematic steroid abuse could not take place, Kimmage was eventually vindicated as the Tour De France in 1998 became mired in one of the world's biggest drug scandals of all time.

The Festina and TVM teams were found not only to be turning a blind eye to the doping, but were actually found to be facilitating it.

It's eventual winner Marco Pantani died in 2004 from a cocaine overdose after years of systematic steroid abuse.

Armstrong has feigned innocence throughout, and in Thursday's press conference he turned Kimmage's euphemisms against him and portrayed the Irishman as the villain in the piece.

The ex-Tour champion referred to a quote from the interview, and then twisted Kimmage's words into something they were not.

The quote in question was:

"This guy, any other way but his bullying and intimidation wrapped up in this great cloak, the great cancer martyr…this is what he hides behind all the time. The great man who conquered cancer. Well he is the cancer in this sport. And for two years this sport has been in remission. And now the cancer’s back."

Kimmage knew exactly how Armstrong would greet him. He flew half way around the world to ask him that single question. A question that has never been asked of Lance out loud.

Many American newspapers ran with stories on how brave Lance fought off the idiotic questions from a fool.

And if you read through blogs and search websites all over the world the reality is a little different. Kimmage has many believers, and Armstrong is not a well regarded as he might imagine.

I see it a little different. To me Kimmage is the brave one, not Armstrong.

It took a lot of courage to fly halfway around the world to confront cycling's biggest enigma. To confront a man who is the face of one of the world's major charities.

Sometimes journalists are as brave as the people they write about. Sometimes they are the ones that have to go that extra step, to reveal the dark ugly side of the sport they love. They don't do it out of vengeance, they do it out of love. In the hope that their small action can bring back the beauty of the sport they love so much.

Kimmage has taken a stance against the charlatan, it's another step on the road in the redemption of a sport that was once beautiful

To see the exchange between Armstrong and Kimmage click here.

Here is a full transcription of the radio interview that Kimmage gave in 2008.

"My reaction...the enthusiasm that I had built up about the sport in the last couple of years has been all but completely wiped out in the last couple of hours.

"Let’s turn the clock back to Armstrong’s last apparition in the sport. The Tour de France 2005. He’s standing on the podium. And he makes this big impassioned speech. Which is basically saying ‘The last thing I’ll say to the people who don’t believe in cycling, the cynics, the skeptics: I’m sorry for you. I’m sorry you can’t dream big. I’m sorry you don’t believe in miracles.’

"That was 2005, his last ride in the the Tour de France. And the people flanking him on that podium were Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich. And a month after that race ended the French newspaper L’Equipe reported that in his first winning Tour de France, in 1999, Armstrong had tested positive for EPO. Six separate samples taken during that race revealed positive tests for EPO.

"This return, he wants us to believe that it’s all about saving the world from cancer. That’s complete bullshit. It’s about revenge. It’s about ego. It’s about Lance Armstrong.

"I think he’s trying to rewrite his exit from the sport. He’s sat back and he’s watched the last two years and he cannot stand the idea that there are clean cyclists now that will overtake his legacy and bury the memory of all the crap that he put the sport through.

"When I heard it being mooted first that he was coming back, I thought well that’s fine, because the first thing ASO are going to say is ‘sorry Lance, we’ve seen your results from the 1999 tests, you’re not coming back.’

"I expected a similar statement from Pat McQuaid. What’s happened instead is that Christian Prudhomme has said ‘Yes, you can come back, no problem.’ And Pat McQiad has said ‘I really admire this man, he’s a tremendous ambassador for cycling.’ What we’re getting here is the corporate dollars and the money that’s going to accompany this guy back into the game.

"The money that’s going to bring for Nike, one of the big sponsors of the Tour. And for the UCI, who have been experiencing some serious problems in the last couple of years.

Much as you want to say the sport has changed, as quickly as they can change their own opinions—McQuaid, who says one thing in private and quite the opposite in public, and Prudhomme—if they can change so quickly then I’m sorry, it’s really very, very difficult to have any optimism with regard to Armstrong and the way the sport was moving forward.

"For me, if he comes back next year, the sport takes two steps back.

"I spent the whole Tour this year with Slipstream, the Garmin team. That wasn’t by accident. I chose that team deliberately, because of what they were saying about the sport and the message they were putting out.

"But also the fact that so many of that team had raced with Armstrong during his best years and knew exactly what he got up to. And the stuff that I learnt on that Tour about him and what he was really like was absolutely shocking, really shocking.

"What’s going to happen now is he comes back and everybody’s going to wave their hands in the air and give him a big clap. And all the guys who really know what he’s about are going to feel so utterly and totally depressed.

"And I’m talking about Jonathan Vaughters, who raced with Armstrong that first winning Tour and who doped. And if you look at that Tour, Armstrong’s first win, there were seven Americans on that team. Frankie Andreu has said he used EPO. Tyler Hamilton has been done for [blood doping]. George Hincapie was exposed as a doper by Emma O’Reilly, the team soigneur.

"Christian Vand Velde and Jonathan Vaughters...both are members of Slipstream and would promote the notion that this was not a clean team by any means. When you look at that and what Armstrong’s done and how he’s seemingly got away with it, it just makes his come back very hard to stomach.

"Astana’s the absolute perfect team for him. He’d be renewing his old acquaintance with Bruyneel, who wanted to hire Basso last year. Will he be renewing his old acquaintance with Ferrari, the famous doctor? Will Bruyneel be taking pictures of the questioning journalists and pinning them on the side of his bus?

"When Armstrong talks about transparency, this is the greatest laugh. When he talks about embracing this new transparency...I’m really looking forward to that. I’m really looking forward to my first interview request with him and seeing how that comes back. Because that would really make it interesting.

"This guy, any other way but his bullying and intimidation wrapped up in this great cloak, the great cancer martyr…this is what he hides behind all the time. The great man who conquered cancer. Well he is the cancer in this sport. And for two years this sport has been in remission. And now the cancer’s back."