Since it hit the internet on Friday afternoon, I’ve seen a variety of reactions to Bill Strickland’s Bicycling piece about Lance Armstrong and dope. Many of them, I think it’s fair to say, have been negative. That was expected given the subject at hand, Strickland’s longtime support of Armstrong, and his connections to Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel via authorship of several books. And as expected, among dedicated cycling fans, the criticism has come from both sides of the polarizing Armstrong debate. It follows familiar patterns: For those who believe Armstrong doped, the acknowledgement will never be early enough and the condemnation will never be strong enough. For those who believe in Armstrong’s innocence, there will never be enough proof. C’est la guerre.
But regardless of where you stand, or if you stand at all, I think there are a few things worth noting about the piece that many die-hard cycling fans aren’t taking into account when skewering Strickland, the piece, or both. Many of these thoughts could be summed up as “people are looking too hard at the words, and not enough at the context.” But if you want the wordier version, read on…
It’s highly unlikely anyone who reads this website (and its colleagues, associates, and superiors), niche cycling magazines, and bad translations of L’Equipe is going to be shocked by the piece's content regarding Armstrong. But the article doesn't appear in any of those places. It appears in Bicycling magazine and on that publication’s website. By virtue of its location, the article is not for you, but for a larger, broader, more mainstream audience. For people for whom Bicycling is a main source of professional cycling information (and they are out there, I assure you), this is, if not shocking, an extremely notable change in acknowledgement of “the Armstrong issue.” It is in a sense an epitaph for the “bigger engine, fast spin, and stage reconnaissance” school of explaining Armstrong’s dominance to the masses. And the farewell is writ large on the pages of its most loyal practitioner.
The article is largely Strickland's reflection on his personal grapples with the “did he or didn’t he” question. But the reason the piece is important isn’t because Bill Strickland’s assessment has changed – it’s important because its publication reflects a much bigger change.
Again, the location of the article is important. It's printed in a magazine that has featured ample and presumably profitable content about Armstrong and from his associates (e.g., Chris Carmichael, Johan Bruyneel) over the years, and that draws ad revenue from heavily Armstrong-affiliated companies like CTS, Trek, and SRAM. Bicycling has helped build the Armstrong legend, and, in turn, has profited from it. And make no mistake, that legend still has value left in it. So even when you’re the editor-at-large, the choice to burn those sorts of bridges isn’t all your own. No, people farther up the chain have to be willing to strike their matches, too, and the people holding the dry tinder would know the stakes of this particular bonfire. Bicycling, after all, is not an independent magazine – it’s one title in the much larger fitness-oriented Rodale media empire. Think Men’s Health will get Armstrong to do a shoot for “Ten Great Tips on Staying Fit in Middle Age” now? Think Runners World will get an exclusive quote when triathlete Armstrong turns up at a charity 10k? Think Livestrong is going to return Prevention’s phone calls for its next testicular cancer story? Anyone who’s seen the Armstrong playbook in action knows none of those are likely.Yes, any good media organization keeps a firewall between the editorial and advertising departments, and I don't claim to know how Bicycling is structured or who gets a say in what’s printed. But on some level, everyone knows which side their bread is buttered on. Bicycling’s – and by extension, Rodale’s – implicit decision to give up access to one of the biggest names in fitness (and potentially the ad dollars of his loyal corporate partners) – is extremely telling. Just as Bicycling contributed to the making of the Armstrong brand in mainstream America, Bicycling’s shift on Armstrong will contribute to its downfall in mainstream America. I suspect it was not a decision taken ignorantly or lightly.
You might know, and I might know, but Strickland has to KNOW
Many have criticized Strickland for only now accepting what cycling’s many Twitter users and bloggers have “known” for a long time. I understand where that feeling comes from, but I believe that what we’re seeing here is someone who, whether from personal belief or professional requirement or both, holds “knowing” to a higher standard, at least when it comes to speaking bluntly and publicly as he does in his piece. And he should, because the backlash he’ll experience from it will be of a higher standard, too.
Strickland, on the other hand, has skin in the game. He has a boss he has to answer to if he’s wrong on doping in cycling, and especially if he’s wrong about Armstrong and doping in cycling. He has a job in the cycling industry that still requires him to still be able to talk to people in that industry to earn a paycheck. He not only has his real name on his work, and an easily identified paying agent, but also likely has his work, home, and cell numbers in Rolodexes that you and I don’t on both sides of the Atlantic.I’d venture to say that there’s a lot of internet bravado from the peanut gallery that would ultimately wither under the possibility of a call from Armstrong, or Bruyneel, or, more likely, from their attorneys or numerous other formal or informal cohorts, agents, and hangers-on. Or under the kill-the-messenger onslaught that invariably follows defiance of the inner circle. But the peanut gallery, even its upper echelons, the elite zonder contract of the social media world, never really faces that. Strickland will, and at close range, I'd wager. So if he thinks about it a good deal longer and requires a higher standard of evidence than the rest of us before he sets his opinions in print, I’m not going to begrudge him that. And ultimately, regardless of the substantial downsides, he chose to do it anyway. That takes conviction, and courage. Could he have done it earlier, or been a less fervent Armstrong supporter given his knowledge and position? Absolutely. But life isn’t always as simple as it looks.
[Note: I’m not saying, in the least, that fans shouldn’t weigh in on these issues just because they’re not or never have been professional cycling journalists. Longtime readers know that’s not my way of thinking.]
Late is still early
Finally, let’s circle back to that oft-heard criticism of Strickland as being late to the “Armstrong Doped” party. Now, I’m not sure, and I admit to not doing my good Google diligence on the matter. But I’m thinking that Strickland may in fact be the early arrival at this particular soiree. Yes, countless members of the citizen media have long since gone on record as believing in their heart of hearts that Armstrong doped. David Walsh and Paul Kimmage, both respected, decorated members of the mainstream press have as well. But among journalists who draw a living from cycling publications, you’d be hard pressed to find an earlier statement on par with Strickland’s. From his contemporaries, there have been indicators of a souring on Armstrong, of rising skepticism: hints dropped on Twitter, markedly less laudatory articles, less favorable recountings of the accusations, and more unequivocal assessments offered in private conversations. But the sort of definitive, “I’ve seen the inside, and I think he did it” that Strickland laid out there – from a senior editor, in print, in a cycling magazine? That is a brave new world.