SACRAMENTO, CA - MAY 14: Lance Armstrong of Team Radio Shack addresses the media during a press conference prior to the 2010 Tour of California at the Sacramento Convention Center on May 14, 2010 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Lance Armstrong Says Goodbye To Cycling, And We All Wonder How To Feel

Lance Armstrong retired from cycling on Wednesday, and amid allegations that he took performance enhancing drugs, his legacy's more complicated than ever. But if anything, we don't appreciate him enough.

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Lance Armstrong Says Goodbye To Cycling, And We All Wonder How To Feel

About 10 years ago, Lance Armstrong was maybe the most inspirational athlete we'd ever seen in sports. Today, Lance Armstrong announced his retirement, and his legacy is a lot more complicated. Yes, he won the Tour de France seven years in a row, but he spent the next seven fighting steroid allegations.

And let's face it. Lance probably took performance enhancing drugs. He's never been proven guilty, but the evidence just keeps piling up. Here's a sample, from Sports Illustrated:

• When Italian police and customs officials raided the home of longtime Armstrong teammate Yarolslav Popovych last November, they discovered documents and PEDs as well as texts and e-mails linking Armstrong's team to controversial Italian physician Michele Ferrari as recently as 2009, though Armstrong had said he cut ties with Ferrari in 2004.

• In a letter reviewed by SI, Armstrong's testosterone-epitestosterone ratio was reported to be higher than normal on three occasions between 1993 and 1996, but in each case the test was dismissed by the UCLA lab of renowned anti-doping expert Don Catlin, whose lab tested the Texan some two dozen times between 1990 and 2000. In addition to detailing those test results, SI reveals what appears to have been a reluctance from USOC officials to sanction athletes using performance-enhancing drugs.

We could get lost in the PEDs investigation in all this, but for the sake of this column and all our collective sanity, let's say he did it. And... Who cares? I mean, sure, he's still lying about it, but wouldn't you?

Even now, as allegations pile up and we hear about Italian doctors and smuggled syringes, what's craziest about Lance Armstrong's story isn't that he (probably) cheated, but how spectacularly it worked. I don't care about cycling, but he dominated that sport like nobody in history, and in the process, he turned himself into this mythic figure that everyone cared about. A hero who embodied endurance and virtue and willpower and everything else Americans love to fetishize.

Here's a New Yorker profile from 2002:

"How can he do this without drugs? I understand why people ask, because our sport has been tainted. But Lance has a different trick, and I have watched him do it now for four years: he just works harder than anyone else alive."

Lance Armstrong’s heart is almost a third larger than that of an average man. During those rare moments when he is at rest, it beats about thirty-two times a minute—slowly enough so that a doctor who knew nothing about him would call a hospital as soon as he heard it. (When Armstrong is exerting himself, his heart rate can edge up above two hundred beats a minute.)

[...]

"He has always wanted to test the boundaries," she said. Armstrong admits that he was never an easy child. In his autobiography, "It’s Not About the Bike," which was written with the journalist Sally Jenkins, he said, "When I was a boy I invented a game called fireball, which entailed soaking a tennis ball in kerosene, lighting it on fire, and playing catch with it."

I mean, for God's sake, we literally wrote stories about how his heart is bigger than normal people's. He was our superhero. Every single Lance profile you ever read mentioned that irregular heart rate.

As if to say, "He's not cheating, he's just got a bigger heart. The critics just don't understand. Of course they're complaining. They're French. And we're Americans, with the heart and willpower to f**king win." Lance doesn't need PEDs; he plays catch with fiery tennis balls!

But as ridiculous as all that seems in hindsight, casting him as a false idol is too easy. Obviously, Lance Armstrong is proof that there are no superheros in life. But we learned that with Mark McGwire. And then with Tiger Woods, Brett Favre, etc.

We know Lance probably cheated, and worse, he was an active participant in perpetuating this idea of invincibility and virtue, and then making money off the myth. But Lance's legacy is more complicated than most disgraced heroes. For instance, a lot of that money went to cancer research.

And even if he was cheating his sport, in a lot of ways, cheating is his sport. Whatever Lance was taking, it's reasonable to guess that his competition was taking the same. That's not to excuse the doping, but to add some context. As everyone contemplates Lance's legacy in the coming days, it'll be tempting to sneer at the tributes to Lance and say it was all a farce.

He's not some superhero that beat cancer and then won seven Tour de France titles and embodies everything we love about sports. But it's just as simplistic to think of him as the guy that took steroids, lied about it, and tricked the world into worshiping him.

Sure, it turns out he was oversold as an American hero, but now, so many people have called him overrated, if anything, his legacy might be a little underappreciated.

Lance's doping may have tricked us all, but even if he cheated, he's still a cancer survivor who conquered the world after the world had written him off. And in the end, Lance isn't just a symbol of our naivete, but also of why, sometimes, it pays to be naive. Maybe that's not historically inspirational, but it's rooted in reality, and when you think about it, it's still pretty surreal.

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