Lance Armstrong will return to RAGBRAI, bringing more perspective along for the ride than any time in his roller-coaster life.
Armstrong, the seven-time winner of cycling’s Tour de France who was stripped of those titles because of doping, has decided to pedal the first four days on the world’s largest recreational ride.
It’s hardly news that Armstrong will rejoin RAGBRAI, given that the 418-mile, 15-county trek across Iowa — which starts next Sunday — will be his sixth. Armstrong, though, intends to give back to the ride that offered him another chance when no one else would.
He plans to work as a guest bartender Saturday night at a street party in Rock Valley to raise money for the northwest Iowa town of 3,400 rocked by flooding.
“My life is totally different,” Armstrong said in a 30-minute interview with The Des Moines Register. “The first one … was a total frenzy. That level of frenzy and that level of support, honestly, I took for granted in my life. Things aren’t like that anymore. …
“If there were 1,000 people there six years ago (surrounding him) and this time there’s 100, you know, I get it. But I don’t take the 100 for granted.”
RAGBRAI XLII : Route maps
RAGBRAI has proved to be Armstrong’s small corner of solitude — even among the rambunctious throng of more than 20,000 riders.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency hit Armstrong with an unprecedented lifetime ban from Olympic sports it governs, down to the smallest, grass-roots levels. RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz, though, plopped down a welcome mat to one of the most polarizing figures in sports.
“Twenty-four months ago, there certainly were no welcome mats,” said Armstrong, 42. “T.J. was literally, no he was the first guy to say, ‘You’re family, we support you, we forgive you and the welcome mat is out.’ … The reality is, the more and more time goes by, there are more welcome mats. But you never forget the person who put the first one out — and that was RAGBRAI.”
Polarizing on pedals
Some argue allowing Armstrong on the ride is self-serving, bringing international attention to the event operated for the 42nd year by the Register. Interest follows Armstrong, without doubt, but what does RAGBRAI really gain? It’s been sold out since at least 1997 — or the year 12 P.L. (Pre-Lance).
A visit from Armstrong, if anything, adds potential distractions, logistical headaches and barbs from critics about the integrity of the ride. There’s a coolness factor for some, but scores of others see the rider’s involvement a blemish on the event’s resume.
“Last spring, when he asked me if he could ride RAGBRAI again, I reminded him that I said he is always welcome to ride with us,” Juskiewicz said. “I know he really appreciated that after so many doors were closed on him. He is welcome to ride again this year.
“He has no agenda other than ride his bike with his friends, just like the 20,000 others that enjoy RAGBRAI and Iowa.”
Armstrong understands the fuss and debate. It makes him appreciate the state’s open door even more. This time, he said it will be special to thank the event — one drink at a time.
“Hopefully, people can make it out, and hopefully we can raise some money for the folks affected,” he said.
For the first time in a long time, Armstrong will be a rookie.
“This will be pretty much a first,” he said. “But I’ve poured plenty of beers and plenty of glasses of wine in my day. … I was relieved to hear that it’s just beer and wine. Because if somebody comes up and suddenly wants a Moscow Mule or something and I’m like, ‘Uh …’ ”
The more you talk to Armstrong, the more it’s clear that he’s not asking anyone to dismiss the bad stuff in his past — the lies, the manipulation, the arrogance and selfishness. In fact, he’s not really asking for anything.
But he wonders, when pressed on the question, how and if the other parts of his life are considered.
A recent profile in Esquire magazine examined it all, from the damage surrounding his cycling career to the profound and inspiring impact of his cancer fight and the founding of the cancer fundraising giant Livestrong.
“The moral of that (Esquire) story was, ‘Wait a second. Are we going to forget about the good stuff the guy did?’ ” Armstrong said.
“So hopefully, and again, I can’t control this, but it’s my hope, Lance Armstrong didn’t get racked in the balls, and say he had testicular cancer and start a foundation and raise a bunch (of money). None of that was bull—-. Like, that actually happened. That really happened.”
After the fall
Armstrong’s meteoric rise and unparalleled fall hits some of the notes of Manny Ramirez, the former World Series MVP and All-Star who is working as a coach and part-time player this summer for the Iowa Cubs. Ramirez was suspended twice for banned-substance violations by Major League Baseball.
Ramirez didn’t need more money. He raked in more than $200 million in his career. He’d had the spotlight. He’d heard the cheers. He could have slinked to a remote, tropical island and sucked down umbrella drinks until his teeth chattered.
The lure of a sport that defines so much of a person, though, can prove powerful and intoxicating.
Armstrong, when asked about Ramirez, wonders if he’ll ever get that chance to truly compete again.
“It’s a good question,” said Armstrong, of comparing the situations of the pair of elite, high-profile athletes. “The main difference, the most significant difference, is very simple — that he’s allowed to come back to the game, despite having one, two or 10 violations. A-Rod being the same, they’re allowed to go back.
“They were protected in a sense by the union and the collective group of players, in that there were penalties that were set and they stuck by those. Whereas in my situation USADA literally changed every rule of their own along the way — and that ended up being a lifetime ban.
“For every sport, whether it be a bike race, a swimming meet, a table-tennis tournament, an archery meet, broomball, you name it — and Lance Armstrong can’t toe the line.”
RAGBRAI provides a chance to be involved, to be included.
“My path back, if there ever is one — and I don’t know if there is — is through things like RAGBRAI or a charitable bike ride or just some other unofficial, unsanctioned gathering of athletes,” he said.
So Armstrong soaks up a measure of contentment by climbing on a bike where he’s wanted — and where he’s always been wanted.
His is a complex, confounding road. He still aggravates and inspires. He hunts for a better way to move forward since he can’t control what’s behind him.
And now, there’s fresh perspective mixed in with the pedals and pork chops.
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
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