By Bryce Miller, Register sports columnist
PERRY, IA. — Returning to the seat of a bicycle under the broiling glare of a July sun in Iowa created a pedal-powered litmus test for cycling icon Lance Armstrong.
Would people forgive doping charges that led to one of the world’s most prominent athletes being stripped of seven Tour de France titles? Did the tangle of lies and intimidation meant to protect those secrets paint his legacy irreversibly in the eyes of others?
What would people say? What would they think?
Armstrong found part of his answer Monday, mile by warming mile, as he zig-zagged from Harlan to Perry with an estimated 20,000 others on the second day of the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa.
“It’s a polarizing topic where people are pulled strongly either way. I’m not ignorant when it comes to that,” Armstrong said in an exclusive interview with The Des Moines Register. “I know a couple things. I know it was an unfortunate period in our sport — and when I say period, I mean 10, 15, 20 years. Unfortunately for me, I came right smack dab in the middle of that period and I participated like many others did.
“That reality that the world has seen now is uncomfortable for many people.”
Armstrong, 41, ranged from retrospective to humble and humorous during an interview that last nearly 25 minutes in the library of the historic Hotel Pattee.
Waves of debate have swirled around whether Armstrong should be considered, first and foremost, a cheater who bullied those bringing allegations to light. Others argued, just as passionately, that the cancer survivor inspired and helped millions through his former foundation Livestrong — transforming a simple, yellow wristband into a worldwide icon that supported fights against a horrific disease.
When it was announced that Armstrong would participate in RAGBRAI, he braced for reactions that had the potential to include “high fives” or those who might decide “to shoot me the bird.”
Two legs into the ride, Armstrong said this visit to Iowa — his fifth — has proved bird-less.
“I’ve been here before, and I know what the people of the state are like, and I know what the riders of RAGBRAI are like,” he said. “I didn’t expect a wave of hostility.
“People, in general, have been supportive.”
More than anything, Armstrong said the ride allows him to stay connected with the sport he loves amid the most unique cycling backdrop in the world.
Amstrong’s RAGBRAI appearance is the first on a bike during a major public event since a multi-part interview in January with Oprah Winfrey. Armstrong marveled at all he saw as he pumped from western to central Iowa.
“It’s like Woodstock meets the Tour de France meets something else,” he said. “Today I saw a guy on a high-wheeler, the old bikes, (and) the front wheel was 8-feet tall. The back wheel was a foot tall. This guy rode 85 miles on a high-wheeler today. I saw a guy on a unicycle, the wheel was 5-feet tall.
“… Then you’ve got all these other contraptions out there. A guy on a Big Wheel? Nowhere in the world would you see this.”
On doping, Iowans
Legacy-building might finish second to only legacy-rebuilding in terms of difficulty for the most public of athletes. Few have faced a fall as documented or debated, perhaps, than Armstrong. Like so many in history, many are judged not by the act — but by the decisions that follow.
Amstrong won a record seventh Tour de France title in 2005. He announced his retirement, but returned for another Tour in 2010 before indicating in 2011 that his international career had ended for good.
What followed: Confirmed doping allegations erased the Tour titles from the sport’s history.
“It wasn’t a pretty time. I didn’t invent it, and I didn’t end it,” Armstrong said. “My bad for playing along.”
Armstrong said he was reminded of the fallout from his decisions after he traced a portion of Iowa’s highways Monday.
“At the end of the ride today, I had a long conversation with a guy,” he said. “Just at the end he said, ‘I just have to tell you, since all of this came out, I just feel a little differently about the story.’ That’s not quite a middle finger, but it’s an honest, direct answer and an honest, direct opinion.”
So, Armstrong appears to be making time for as many people and opinions as possible while reuniting with the bike-seat beauty of Iowa and the beer-soaked tradition of RAGBRAI.
Choosing a favorite roadside food item proved difficult — based on sleep cycles more than selection.
“Our problem is, we start late. So whenever we get somewhere, the lines, particularly like pork chops for example, the lines are long. The ice cream lines are long,” he said. “I think we have to go to bed earlier and get up earlier to beat the lines.
“Honestly, I don’t know how some people do it. They ride along, they drink beer, they keep riding. If I had one beer in the middle of the ride, I might not finish.”
RAGBRAI director T.J. Juskiewicz joked earlier that Amstrong’s ride fee was waived because it’s a rule for anyone with a speaking role in the movie “Dodgeball” — adding that the rule also would also apply to Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn.
When reminded, Armstrong laughed.
“I’m sure we could get Stiller here,” Armstrong said. “I’m not sure we could get Vince Vaughn here. … My cameo in ‘Dodgeball’ has to be one of the best cameos of all time. It turned the movie around.”
Jokes and cameo aside, Armstrong was faced with heavier topics Monday.
CBS News and British newspaper The Guardian recently reported that former Livestrong donors planned to sue for donations they provided, arguing that the group does not provide money directly to cancer research.
Armstrong defended the group he launched.
“I think the foundation does great work, regardless of what anybody says,” he said. “What Lance Armstrong did on a bike 15 years ago has nothing to do with the great work that organization is doing in 2013. If anybody questions that, I think it’s awfully unfortunate.
“I know people do question it. You know I’m not a part of the organization and don’t anticipate being a part. But I’m confident the people there are great people, and it’s a first-class organization. I’m proud of what I started, what I built — and I wish them the best.”
When asked what he sees for himself in the next five years, Armstrong paused.
“The thing that’s the most important is what happens to my children five years from now,” he said. “I’ve got to help myself, my family and my five kids navigate an interesting time. They’ve done a heckuva job since this all started really a year ago. … I’m blessed to have seen no real changes, rather that’s in their schools, in the hallways, in the park, in their lives.”
Armstrong said there will be heart-to-heart talks to come with his youngest — ages 2 and 4.
“They have no idea,” he said. “They’re going to grow up into a time where everything is forever. Everything will be on YouTube, everything will be catalogued. So forever, they’ll live with it. That’s my job to try and walk the line with them now.”
Armstrong remains a puzzle that fights against a single, simple solution — an unprecedented athlete of his time, who created equally unprecedented debate about the sanctity of sport.
As the ride marches on Tuesday — pork chops, beer cups and all — Armstrong will march with it for one more day. Then he’ll leave the state and bicycles behind to fulfill family obligations.
One thing is clear, though. He plans to return to Iowa, and log more miles than ever before.
“In the next five or 10 years, I need to do the whole thing,” Armstrong said. “It’s too good a time, too much fun. The people are too great.”
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