Cycling's fans want answers, not a ride


TWO DAYS have now passed since Lance Armstrong's reputation took the harshest blow ever - two days for America to try to convince itself that he's right and that a French newspaper is wrong, or lying, or confused, or out to get our hero.

And two days of waiting for Armstrong to explain himself.

Not that two days is anything, especially around here, where the Raffy Watch is closing in on four weeks. Still waiting on his side of the story, the one that he promised to produce back when he was first unveiled as having flunked baseball's steroid test.

It's not much to ask in light of all that has been said and done in the name of credibility and integrity, for him and his sport: If you say you didn't do it, then how did that positive test happen?

The same question hangs over Armstrong, who stands accused by a report in France's daily sports newspaper of having used a banned substance during his first Tour de France win in 1999. It's been posed by the director of the Tour de France, Jean-Marie Leblanc, and the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency and longtime International Olympic Committee official, Dick Pound.

"Why, how, by whom?" Leblanc was quoted as saying yesterday, as well as saying the latest allegations against Armstrong "are no longer rumors or insinuations; these are proven, scientific facts." This is a guy who's running the risk of killing his sport's golden goose, which should override any doubts about his motivation.

If Armstrong thinks he can issue a non-denial denial the way he did Tuesday, avoid a direct explanation and steer around this controversy as if it were a fallen competitor at a time trial - well, he's probably right, at least in this country.

So far, there hasn't been much demand here for Armstrong to tell us precisely why the accusation in L'Equipe is wrong, to tell us how a urine sample taken from his 1999 Tour ride - the first of his seven straight victories - showed evidence of a blood-doping agent, one for which there was no test at the time, but which still was illegal.

If you, as a Lance fan or a cycling fan or a sports fan, aren't demanding an explanation, then shame on you. If you wear one of the Livestrong bracelets that has become a symbol of what's best in Armstrong and in us as humans, and you aren't demanding an explanation, then I'm not sure what to say, honestly.

The idea behind the bracelets goes a lot deeper than just his prowess as a cyclist, not to mention his good name. But face it, if Terrell Owens was promoting those bracelets instead, would 50 million of them have sold in the past year, with no limit in sight? Fifty million.

Armstrong is beloved, and he gets a benefit of the doubt that few others will ever get. There is more than enough reason to cheer for him, his recovery from cancer tops among them - but no reason whatsoever to believe he's either infallible or incapable of lying.

If you have a reason, and it has to do with how surly he is to the writers or diva-like to his teammates or whether he has a plush chair in his team's clubhouse, then your reason is worthless, and you should just admit to your double standards and move on. Haven't the lessons of Palmeiro and Mark McGwire taught us enough? You turned toward them and away from Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, and see where that got you.

Armstrong has always known what buttons to push. You can never lose in this country by blaming the French, the media and what he would call "haters" had he grown up in another culture. He's even sued detractors, which takes matters far beyond the Palmeiro finger-wag.

And he's always said that he was the most-tested athlete in the world, and that he's always tested clean. That, remember, was the reasoning baseball players hid behind before the sport ever put a testing program in place. It also was the default explanation for the athletes involved in the BALCO case - which, at its heart, was not about Bonds (or so we've been told), but about a steroid, THG, that was undetectable by the testing of that time.

Can't flunk a test for something no one can test for, can you?

It's too bad that athletes are now considered by the public to be guilty until proven innocent. But their forebears have lied so often in the same situations that they can't be trusted solely on their word anymore. That's the unfortunate world Armstrong now lives in.

Yet that doesn't excuse Armstrong from what Pound called his "obligation" to tell everybody not that the newspaper is wrong, but why it's wrong.

Even if you've decided you believe him, that you want to or have to or invested too much into believing him - he still owes you an explanation.

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