Cycling

Suddenly Lance has gone silent

Image: Lance Armstrong (© Graham Hughes/Associated Press)
USADA banned Lance Armstrong for life from the sport of cycling.
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Billy Witz

Billy Witz has contributed to The New York Times and covered a multitude of sporting events. A Tulane University grad, Witz has won Associated Press Sports Editor awards for investigative reporting, feature writing and game stories. He covered the Lakers' every move last season for FOX Sports West.

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The inspiration of Lance Armstrong is a powerful thing. I did not come to this conclusion watching him win the Tour de France seven times, hook up for a while with Sheryl Crow or by slipping on those once-ubiquitous yellow Livestrong bracelets.

No, this revelation dawned on me as I walked down to the beach Thursday morning and watched the sun rise over the Pacific. Really, it did.

Later, it sunk in as I watched Joe Biden smile so much he pulled a facial muscle because he really likes Paul Ryan, “my friend,” so much.

Really, he does.

This is the power of Armstrong. I mean, Tim Tebow may have a legion of believers, but thus far one of them is not Rex Ryan. If Armstrong said he could quarterback the Jets, Ryan would let him call his own plays, too.

To believe in Armstrong has always required an article of faith that was as elastic as — and considerably thicker than — a pair of cycling shorts.

Yes, he had been an inspiration to cancer victims and survivors all around the world, an accessible rock star of a rider whose determination and earthy charms carried an appeal that far transcended his sport.

If you spent any time in the crowd that always surrounds Armstrong’s bus at races, you were sure to see someone who had dealt with cancer share their story with him.

His encouragement was as genuine.

But to believe that Armstrong was as clean as he insisted — the most tested athlete; never failed one — always strained credulity. If virtually every one of the top cyclists in the world had been busted for doping, how could the man who had crushed them with a willpower that was as thick, relentless and unbreakable as his thighs not be dirty?

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If asking that question labeled you something between a killjoy and a cynic, then the release Wednesday of the United States Anti-Doping Agency report ensured that you had company.

This 202-page file was not a lone voice, another case of he said-she said that Armstrong has repeatedly beaten into silence with a fierce legal salvo. This was 11 former teammates of Armstrong testifying through affidavit or providing information that depicted Armstrong as something closer to zero than hero: as a bullying ringleader of a sophisticated doping program in which riders were expected to shoot up for the good of the team. There was no room for moral uncertainty. You were either in or out.

Among those who testified were some of the United States’ best cyclists, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and Tyler Hamilton, along with other teammates — all of whom admitted taking part in the United States Postal Service team’s systematic doping. In all, there was evidence from 28 people with ties to the cyclist.

The next move now belongs to Armstrong.

His attorneys have trotted out the same government-is-out-to-get-Lance conspiracy theories, but Armstrong has been silent on the subject, carrying on as if the USADA report was some sort of academic white paper.

There was no reference to it on his Twitter account, which included an entry Thursday: “Hanging @LIVESTRONGHQ w/ the team talking about next week's events and plans for 2013. Can't wait to see so many friends and supporters.”

This is the sound of a curtain being pulled back and empire built on deceit being exposed. It is what happens when Livestrong loses its ‘v’ — as in verdad.

The next move is being calculated, but anything short of a full mea culpa, anything that hints at a grand conspiracy puts Armstrong in the Sandusky wing of the Hall of Delusion.

There is no wiggle room on the way out of this self-constructed box for Armstrong, who relished raising a verbal middle finger to his critics.

“To the cynics and skeptics,” Armstrong said on the podium in Paris after his final Tour de France victory, “I say I am sorry that they can’t live a dream or believe in miracles as there are no secrets to my success.”

Not anymore there aren’t.

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