Lance Armstrong had me at La Mongie.
It was 10 months after the devastation of 9-11, which I had seen first-hand while covering the aftermath in New York City. And here was this gritty American, from Austin by way of North Texas, winning the first mountain stage of the 2002 Tour de France only a few years after wrestling cancer to the ground.
As he crossed the finish line and reclaimed the yellow jersey that day, he gave an understated fist pump. And my heart swelled. I was hooked on professional cycling, and this athlete, for all time.
A couple of weeks later, the American flag flew on the Champs-Elysees for the fourth straight year. This time, I cried as I watched.
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Thanks, Lance, for the incredible memories. For the heartstopping hop across the hay field on the way to Gap. For your fierce ride to the front after hooking the musette on Luz-Ardiden. For The Look at Jan Ullrich on Alpe d’Huez. For the moving salute to the heavens in honor of your fallen friend, Fabio Casartelli, at Limoges.
Thanks for the spectacle of the Texas flag flying over the roads of France, and for those seven rides into Paris behind your faithful lieutenant, George Hincapie.
Mostly, thank you for inspiring millions in the war against cancer.
But now, please, for the sake of your legacy, stop asking us to believe that you, of all people, would give up the fight if you had been wrongly accused.
Anyone who follows cycling knew that this story wasn’t going to turn out well. For me, the suspension of disbelief all but ended last year when Hincapie, the ultimate loyal teammate, wouldn’t deny reports that he had told a grand jury about Armstrong’s doping.
Sure, there was still room for doubt. Maybe it was true that everyone was out to get him: the jealous French, journalists with a grudge, former teammates lying to save themselves. And, OK, maybe it was possible that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was nursing some sort of crazy vendetta.
But ... really? Does this massive conspiracy theory stand up to unbiased examination?
I don’t think so.
Lance Armstrong’s extraordinary life has played out in public, and we feel as if we know him. Of course, we want to believe in him.
Today, however, there’s no way around the truth. His decision to stop fighting doping charges, even though he still proclaims his innocence, has sealed it.
I believe that he cheated. Yes, he was playing by the “rules” in cycling, where doping was (is?) as routine as brushing your teeth. Yes, he was better than all those other cheaters.
Still, we’re left with no other conclusion than that one of the greatest athletes of our time was a fraud, like so many of his contemporaries.
And, sadly, the increasingly bizarre denials threaten to tarnish Armstrong's legacy far more than any EPO injection before a decisive mountain stage ever could.
Kathy Vetter is managing editor for digital and local news and an avid cyclist who's known around the office as the biggest Lance fangirl in town.