How Lance Armstrong is like Sarah Palin.
All these incidents might be considered minor potholes on the road of life. But then, on the eve of the Tour de France, came this astonishing Nike ad.
Over somber piano music, we see black-and-white scenes of doctors at an operating table, cancer patients in hospital gowns, a bald man hooked up to a respirator, a man with one leg on a treadmill. All of this is intercut with scenes of Armstrong riding his bike. "The critics say I'm arrogant," Armstrong says. "A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn't let it go." Pause. "They can say whatever they want. I'm not back on my bike for them."
It's jarring, dramatic, and memorable—and not in a good way. While it's curious that a multinational company chooses to sell athletic wear in this fashion, the ad is even more interesting for what it tells us about Armstrong's psyche. On its surface, it reinforces the idea that Lance is standing behind the victims of a disease that nearly claimed his life. That is indisputable. It also, however, pushes the idea that Armstrong is some kind of savior. His Shepard Fairey-designed bikes are emblazoned with two numbers. The first, 1,274, is the number of days between his last race and his comeback. The second, 27.2, represents the number of people, in millions, who died from the disease during that time. Is Armstrong suggesting that there's some kind of causal link between him not riding his bike and people dying from cancer?
The ad also implies, disturbingly, that the cyclist's "critics"—and that includes everyone who thinks he's arrogant—are equivalent to cancer. It is apparently not enough for him to ride his bike and lead a positive campaign. He can't help but go after his detractors at the same time. And you thought Sarah Palin was divisive.
Who are these "critics," exactly? One is an Englishman named Andrew Hogg. Back in April, Hogg noticed that Armstrong had accidentally posted his personal e-mail address on Twitter. Unable to resist the temptation, Hogg tapped out a few choice thoughts—starting with "Johnny Pharmstrong—he's loved by the ladies, but has he lied to the fans?"—and hit send.
Within hours, Armstrong had responded to him—not by e-mail but in a videoposted to Livestrong.com. The cyclist quoted from the note and then spelled out Hogg's own personal e-mail address for his then-700,000 Twitter followers to do with as they wished. I tried to write to Hogg to see what kind of responses he got back from the LiveStrong crowd, but I got only a bounce-back in reply. Hogg is now, presumably, in hiding from Armstrong's army.
In May, Armstrong turned on the entire media. After being criticized in the Italian press for leading a rider slowdown to protest a dangerous stage of the Giro d'Italia, Armstrong boycotted the press. He even blocked certain reporters from following his vaunted Twitter account. So much for the global LiveStrong campaign and getting back on the bike in order to get the word out about cancer. At this point, he communicated with the outside world only in homemade videos on the Livestrong.com site (the for-profit arm of his LiveStrong empire). This prompted the European press to start calling him "Bin Laden."
Going into the Tour de France, Armstrong managed a respectable 12th place in the Giro, recently broken collarbone and all. Even so, the only races he really starred in were domestic contests like the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, a low-ranked event that, technically, his team was not even permitted to enter. Despite this less-than-top-notch track record thus far, he comes to the Tour half-expecting to win it—an attitude that hasn't exactly endeared him to the real contenders.
Or to his own teammates, particularly one Alberto Contador, a boyish 26-year-old Spaniard who won the Tour de France two years ago (and the tours of Italy and Spain last year). Contador, who was the unquestioned leader of Team Astana before Armstrong signed on, is widely considered to be the world's greatest bike racer right now—by everyone except Armstrong. "Contador has a lot to learn," Armstrong told L'Equipe after his teammate blew a race in March. (Armstrong did add that Contador is "the best in the world" before saying that "[h]is only negative trait, and I say this with much respect, it's that he's too nervous.")
When he was at the top of his game, Armstrong demanded total loyalty and subservience from his teammates. That's not what Contador is getting from Lance. Take Monday's stage of the Tour de France, when Armstrong ordered his teammates to ride hard on the front, leaving Contador behind. It worked, almost: The tactic not only showed Contador who is boss, but it nearly helped earn Armstrong another yellow jersey on Tuesday's stage. If Armstrong had gotten the yellow—no matter that he stepped on his teammate's back to get it—it would have marked a triumphal completion of his comeback, finishing the self-created narrative arc upon which every successful politician builds his career. In less than a year, he's transformed himself from tabloid joke to cancer-conquering messiah. And if he does enter politics—after a year of fighting the press, demonizing enemies, and fending off personal scandal—at least he'll be well-prepared.