Austin Loses Its Hometown Hero
Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong rides down the Champs Elysees in Paris with an American flag after the 21st and final stage of the cycling race in 2000.
For a short time, when I had brief dreams of gaining muscle mass, I was a member at one of Austin’s Lance Armstrong 24 Hour Fitness centers. The seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor was inescapable at the place. Above the check-in table was a gigantic yellow “Livestrong” bracelet, a nod to Armstrong’s beloved foundation that offers support to those with cancer (and did much to market the Armstrong brand). As I used to struggle to lift a few pounds over my head, I stared back at a huge poster of Armstrong, next to his famous quote from a Nike ad: “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are YOU on?” He seemed to be with me throughout the workout, and when I left, usually sweaty and exhausted, there was yet another Armstrong aphorism plastered near the exit: “I don’t have bad days. I have good days and great days.”
Now Armstrong is having bad days. Last June, the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged Armstrong with using performance-enhancing drugs, and by August, he’d been given a lifetime ban and stripped of all titles. When the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) published a report in October offering a slew of accounts of both doping and bullying others to do so, Armstrong lost his most lucrative sponsorships, like Nike and Radio Shack. He even had to disassociate from Livestrong. Thursday night he offered his confession to Oprah, admitting the legend he'd created around himself was "one big lie." Nationally, his reputation is in shambles. Buzzfeed is already featuring favorite ways people are defacing their Livestrong bracelets. But in Austin, where the favorite son has lived for decades and where people have often felt they had a particular connection to his inspiring tale, the emotions are a little more complicated.
After the report came out in October, the 24 Hour Fitness centers were “rebranded,” as a spokesman for the company politely put it. All six of the “Lance Armstrong” gyms, four of which were in Austin, have been remodeled; the photographs, the maxims, even the giant Livestrong bracelet, are gone. As the press release put it, the company “determined that our business relationship with Armstrong no longer aligns with our company’s mission and values.”
Employees were given a series of responses to give clients who asked about the change. The gist of it was that gyms support health and fitness and not performance-enhancing drugs. But not everyone working there was so eager to cut ties.
“All of my clients, they were more just sad for him after everyone was behind him for so long,” one 24 Hour Fitness employee told me. “He brought about so many positive things with his organization.” She said most her clients weren't angry at Armstrong, just downtrodden about the whole thing. “It’s been downplayed here in Austin for our own benefit,” she explained. “We all want to still believe and support him.”
The employee gave me a number of reasons why it was unfair to be mad at Lance—chiefly his foundation's work supporting cancer patients and survivors. Doping seems to be the norm among elite cyclists, she said. He couldn’t confess, given how much he had to lose. Why is everyone so focused on Armstrong’s failings? No one’s perfect.
Similar defenses came up in 2012, before the USADA report came out, when a number of Austin's civic leaders defended Armstrong against the mounting accusations. Each excuse falls short, of course. It’s comforting to think that in an age where celebrities can be sky high one day and in the gutter the next, Austin isn’t so willing to discard its former hero. It’s also evidence of just how much some of his hometown folks staked on the Armstrong story.
Craig Staley has been the general manager at Mellow Johnny’s since Lance Armstrong and some business partners started the bike shop in 2008. According to Staley, it may be the most famous single-shop bike store in the world. Business has been slow this week, though. It could be the weather. The mid- to low-forties is awfully cold for warm-blooded Austinites. Of course, it could also have something to do with the CNN trucks Staley says have been camped outside for the last three days.
Staley isn’t too worried about business, since the shop’s been around for almost five years and has taken hold in the community. Mellow Johnny's works with the city to make streets and trails more bike-friendly and offers a number of community events to encourage the sport. Staley remembers when Amstrong made his Tour de France comeback in 2009: “We couldn’t print T-shirts and jerseys that said ‘Mellow Johnny’s’ fast enough.” Those were the days.
For Staley, however, Armstrong’s cycling career plays second fiddle to his work with Livestrong. “Lance inspired a lot of people and helped build companies,” he says. “Then you look at him beating cancer in the '90s and forming Livestrong. It’s a very unique story. I don’t think we’ll ever seen someone climb that high and fall that far.”
Regardless of the drugs, Staley and other supporters are adamant that Armstrong’s current woes will not stand in the way of his legacy. “There are a lot of people who have fought cancer who really don’t care about bike racing,” says Staley. “They are going to remain fans no matter what the outcome.”
The trouble is that Lance Armstrong’s story was his body. It was his body that was built perfectly for cycling. His body that got testicular cancer that metastasized to his brain and lungs. His body that recovered and came back, not just healed but seemingly stronger than before. The inspirational tale wasn’t just that Armstrong survived cancer, but rather, that he was actually better, stronger, and faster post-cancer. “I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles," he told cynics in his 2005 Tour de France victory speech.
Plenty of people chose to believe the miracles and go along with Armstrong’s repeated and vehement denials of doping. (He even brought lawsuits against some of his accusers.). After all that, discovering he was doping—and pressuring others on the team to do so—leaves the inspirational tale in tatters. Of course he still survived cancer, but it’s hard to credit him for supporting others when he was pushing teammates to take dangerous measures to improve their times. Armstrong himself made claims to be superhuman, and invited people to feel like they were part of his own magic, whether they connected more to his foundation or to his sporting victories.
That was especially true in Austin. "The story is personal to them," Armstrong said in one interview. He called himself "a guy they lived with. They lived with him when he won the world championships in 1993, they really lived with him when he was diagnosed in '96 and through the recovery, and they lived with him through all these Tours." Now it turns out we lived with just another bully, another cheater. He now seems just as fallible—and in some ways weaker—than the rest of us.
There have always been the stories, of course—someone knew someone who’d dated Lance and he’d turned out to be a jerk. He and Sheryl Crow went out for dinner and didn’t tip the wait staff. The stories didn’t tell you much of anything necessarily, except that plenty of Austinites weren’t so eager to deify the man.
“He was known for being cocky and brash and getting into trouble now and then,” says Ian Dille, a former pro cyclist and now a freelance journalist in Austin. Dille grew up in a racing family; in 1993, when Armstrong won the world championships, Dille’s family named their new dog “Lance.”
Dille mainly had positive interactions with Armstrong; Austin operates as a small town in many ways, and Dille was part of a group of elite cyclists. He would sometimes join Armstrong on “The Tuesday Nighter,” an informal ride. “He wouldn’t go out of his way to put on a show. Obviously he could have come out and demolished everyone,” Dille said, pausing. “Especially being on drugs and everything.”
But according to Dille, doping isn’t nearly as common as it once was. “As far as I know, all cyclists that were born in 1980 and after that made it to the top level of the sport were clean,” he said. When we talked, he was headed to play Frisbee golf with some of the Livestrong team, made up of the country’s most talented cyclists under 23. “They honestly don’t even know what to think about it,” he said. “They’re 20 now and they were 10 when Armstrong was winning tours. It’s hard for them to even form an opinion.”
At Austin’s local bookstore, BookPeople, one of Lance Armstrong’s framed yellow jerseys still hangs in the stairwell, prominent enough that I did a double take when I last walked down the stairs. For the most part, you don’t see much “Lance” stuff around town these days.
“I’m kind of ambivalent on the thing,” said Steve Bercu, the owner of BookPeople. “Pre-scandal he was like a monster source of civic pride in Austin. He was a local guy winning the Tour de France year after year.”
The winning, Bercu said, was key to Armstrong’s status as Austin’s favorite athlete. “The only story is winning. I guess he would have done anything to win.”
Longtime tennis star Andy Roddick also calls Austin home, but nobody’s beating down his door to personify the city. He spent his middle-school years here before moving to train in Florida, and after he retired from tennis he returned to focus on his own foundation, which helps underprivileged kids in East Austin. He’s certainly giving back.
But of course, Roddick always played in perennial No. 1 Roger Federer’s shadow. He worked hard, he was tremendously talented, but he never dominated anything the way Armstrong did. Winning was what made Armstrong the metaphor he was in Austin. For Bercu, like so many others, Armstrong’s confession “shatters it pretty much.”
But unlike 24 Hour Fitness, Bercu told me he plans to keep the Armstrong jersey up, even though the Tour titles are gone. “Now," he says, "it’ll be an oddity."
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