I began cycling in 1990, a year after I moved to Laramie, Wyoming. The bike became my most frequent companion (other than my wife, Karen), riding the ranch roads and smaller state roads around Laramie, as well as a variety or roads around Wyoming on my annual visits to newspapers. I took it with me during a week in Bozeman, Montana, when I conducted a communications audit at Montana State University, riding up Bridger Bowl. Two years, I went to the Carpenter-Phinney cycling camp in Frisco, Colorado, riding Vail, Aspen and Loveland passes. I was hooked
Late in 2003, I started suffering from a continual ache in the lower right quadrant of my back. I tried heat, ice, chiropractic. Karen bought me a massage pad for my office chair. Nothing worked. Finally, my GP ordered an ultrasound. I asked the technician if she saw anything where I felt the pain. "Not there, but there's a mass on your left side." One evening, soon thereafter, my doctor called and asked Karen and me to meet him that night at his office. Clearly, it wasn't good. We ate dinner at the nearby Wendy's, discussing the best- and worst-case scenarios. My doctor came right to the point. You have a tumor in your left kidney. It's probably cancerous.
We set up surgery for early January 2004. The surgeon conducted a total nephrectomy through a double incision still visible today. I was in the hospital for three painful weeks. Four weeks after my discharge, I went back to work, wearing a sweatsuit, the only clothes I could wear comfortably. It was quite a while longer before I could get back on the bike. I can't remember my first ride, but I remember ordering my yellow, rubber Livestrong band. I admired Lance Armstrong and his return to high-level professional cycling after cancer surgery. I vowed to myself that I'd get back to my previous level of fitness, and after five years as a cancer survivor I'd remove the band. Before I left Laramie, I got myself back up to 55-mile rides to the end of Herrick Lane, but I never did get out again to Woods Landing for the 60-mile rides I did in the late 90s in preparation for bike camp.
One day, a couple of years after my surgery, I received a morning call from my good friend, Charles Pelkey, inviting me over to his house for brunch. There was, he said, someone he wanted me to meet. When I got there, Charles, who by then was writing authoritatively about doping-in-cycling issues for VeloNews, introduced me to Greg LeMond. Over bagels and salmon, we talked about cycling, doping, and, inevitably to Lance Armstrong. I didn't get all of the technical data points, though I'd been reading Charles' articles for several years. It was clear that Charles and LeMond believed Armstrong had doped during his Tour de France wins. LeMond asked me why I was wearing a Livestrong band, and I responded that I was a recent cancer survivor. He wished me well, but suggested there were better cancer-fighting organizations to which I could give my money, referring to Livestrong as Armstrong's retirement fund.
I didn't want to believe Armstrong was a doper. I bought his argument that it would be unthinkable for a cancer survivor to take doping products into an already battered body. But, I thought over LeMond's reasoned arguments. I thought over Charles' writings. And I remember how, at Carpenter-Phinney one year, a camper, a licensed pharmacist, asked the late cycling fitness expert Ed Burke what performance enhancers she could take and not get caught at doping control. This from an amateur cyclist; a pharmacist.
I began to believe that Armstrong was a doper, a bully, a liar, and a cheat. I stopped watching professional cycling for a few years and cancelled my subscriptions to magazines that covered professional cycling. I rode for fitness; I rode for fun. In 2009, five years after my cancer surgery, I removed my Livestrong band.
All of this came back today while watching Alex Gibney's documentary, "The Armstrong Lie." Gibney, a serious and prolific documentarian whose work includes "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," began work on the documentary as a confirmation of Armstrong's greatness as he attempted to win the 2009 Tour de France, four years after his seventh consecutive win. As Armstrong fell further and further behind eventual winner Alberto Contador, it became clear that the documentary would not have a happy ending. Gibney, at the time, did not know how unhappy the ending would be. Floyd Landis' 2010 doping confession and accusations against Armstrong; Tyler Hamilton's "60 Minutes" accusation; USADA in 2012 stripping Armstrong of all wins since 1998 and banning him from cycling for life; Armstrong's 2013 confession to Oprah Winfrey. Gibney lays it all out with interviews of Armstrong's former teammates, Irish journalist Dave Walsh, Betsy Andreau (his former teammate Frankie's wife), and more. And, in his own interview with Armstrong, Gibney presses for reasons - why did you cheat, why did you lie, why did you trash all your accusers. The answers are revealing of Armstrong's character, or lack thereof, essentially: "To win," "Because I cheated (though everyone else did too)," "And because I've always been a fighter."
As Gibney notes in the documentary, the use of performance enhancers has always been a part of cycling. Alcohol, cocaine, strychnine, caffeine used as early as 1886. Amphetamines were used by the likes of Italian champion Fausto Coppi; French champion Jacques Anquetil; British cyclist Tom Simpson, who died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux in 1968; and the greatest rider in history, Belgian Eddy Merckx. Cortisone, hormones, steroids, blood doping, EPO, human growth hormone. On and on, scandal after scandal, illness and death.
I'd like to think that professional cycling is cleaner now. I'd like to, but I can't. Enhanced performance is intoxicating. When I moved from Laramie (7,200-foot-altitude) to northern Idaho (2,250-foot-altitude), I had an immediate two-week boost in fitness from having trained many years at altitude. When I developed kidney disease in my right kidney after losing the left one to cancer, my nephrologist proscribed a short-course of EPO to help build red blood cells. That was nice. And when I had a blood transfusion in the early days of my disintegrating pancreas to remedy blackouts from anemia (internal bleeding), I felt like Superman for a week or two.
But it's all illusion. You are what you are, you ride as you ride. I'll never be a strong rider, because that's my physiology. I'll always climb like a cat without claws. So what. As Armstrong wrote (with Sally Jenkins), "It's Not About the Bike." Maybe that's the truest thing Armstrong ever said. It's also not about winning at any cost. It's not even about winning.
For me, it's always been about enjoyment, and in more recent years it's been about staying healthy enough to live through another surgery if it becomes necessary. It's why I suffer nearly every day during winter with my bike locked onto a trainer, building endurance and strength, so that when spring comes I can take my bike back on the roads and trails around Northern Idaho and Spokane, and ride the Tour de Cure, an event that, as a Type 1 diabetic for the past four-and-a-half years means a great deal to me.
My performance enhancers: Gatorade and homemade energy bars that prevent my blood sugar from dropping and causing crashes, both metaphoric and literal. It's not about the bike. It's all about going out for a ride, having fun, and coming home in one piece.