In a country that by now almost gleefully repeats the cycle of building public figures into near mythic proportions only to watch them inevitably and spectacularly fall from grace later, living rooms and brew pubs across the US filled up Thursday night as sports fans and curious observers waited to watch Lance Armstrong on the Oprah Winfrey Network to admit doping throughout his now-disgraced career.
At the Rapha North America headquarters in Portland, Oregon, a boisterous group of industry insiders, amateur racers and cycling super fans gathered at an open-house showing of the made-for-TV confession.
“I think we just thought this was a public spectacle,” said Rapha North America General Manager Slate Olsen, who previously collaborated with Armstrong on cycling projects when Olsen worked at Oregon-based Nike. “This was the biggest event that's happened – certainly in a decade – since maybe Festina but on a larger scale, and especially in Portland, where he's been involved through Nike and everything like that. We just thought it would be a great thing for people who were informed about the sport or fans of the sport to come together and watch it together. And it was a chance to have a party, which we're always looking for.”
The crowd was transfixed as Winfrey peppered the former cyclist with a staccato opening round of yes or no questions in which he admitted using EPO and/or blood transfusions through all seven of his Tour de France wins. Armstrong's admission that he hadn't read former teammate Tyler Hamilton's recent book ignited a round of laughter that broke the silence. By the time it was over, about 75 minutes later, the interview drew mixed reviews from the people Cyclingnews spoke with, although most agreed there was very little new information and certainly no earth-shattering revelations.
“I'm not surprised by anything,” Olsen said after hearing Armstrong's confession. “I guess I'm kind of jaded because I just always figured this was the case. But in a way I am surprised that he's done this and curious as to why, ultimately. He fought this fight pretty good and held the line, but maybe at some point you just see the rope ends and you have two options, and this was one of them.”
David Mackintosh, a cycling fan and Masters racer from Hood River, stopped by the Portland event after reading about it on the internet. But he wasn't impressed with what he saw on the TV screens.
“I was disappointed,” he said. “It was interesting, but I'm really not taking anything away from it, I have to say. Pretty empty. I thought Oprah asked some pretty good questions, but she backed off when it was clear he wasn't gonna really give anything away. I've read a lot about the story, and there definitely wasn't anything I hadn't heard before.”
Sharon Sandoval, a cycling fan from Portland who left after the first couple commercial breaks, also expressed disappointment and appeared skeptical about the motivations behind Armstrong's confession.
“It was pretty much what I expected: a lot of nothing,” she said. “A lot of lack of emotion. I think the tears will come on a little bit later. He has to get that target audience. That's basically what I took from it.”
Despite the lack of any breaking news Thursday night, some of the people watching the confession said there was value in hearing and seeing Armstrong admit what many had suspected for so long.
“There was nothing new, but it was good to hear it from Lance,” said Dave Roth, who spent much the evening pouring beers for the thirsty crowd. “It was good to hear him say what we all knew. The comments about people he's maligned in the past, people's he's said things about or sued, it was good to hear him say, 'Yeah, I shouldn't have done that.'”
Brad Ross, a local cyclo-cross promoter and race director of the Cascade Cycling Classic – the 1988 version of which is now Lance Armstrong's last official cycling win – said Armstrong was actually more forthcoming than he thought the former US Postal team leader would be.
“It's not that I like him any more than I ever did,” Ross said. “But he was much more honest than I thought he'd be, for sure.”
Oprah under fire
Reviews about Winfrey's performance as grand inquisitor also drew mixed reviews, with some people telling Cyclingnews Winfrey did a good job holding Armstrong's feet to the fire, while others said she let him off the hook far too easily.
“Oprah is not part of this industry and has not followed this at all,” Ross said. “But she's obviously done her homework, because she asked some pretty pointed questions that there was no good way for him to answer.”
Longtime industry veteran and Rapha North America Communications Director Chris Distefano said he had hoped for more from Winfrey.
“I saw what I believed to be a sort of genuine expression of remorse, but I don't think Oprah was as hard-hitting as maybe she could have been,” he said. “I think it would take someone who really understands the sport to say, 'This and this, plus and this,' or maybe the questions in the Sunday Times. What about the specifics and what appeals to the absolute elite in the cycling world who really are concerned about details?”
Mackintosh, the fan from Hood River, said he would liked to have seen Winfrey push Armstrong harder on admitting he lied in the SCA lawsuit about what the Andreu heard when a doctor asked their then-cancer-ridden friend if he had used PEDs.
“There were a lot of things they didn't talk about at all, like crushing Greg LeMond's bike company and a lot of those other bad deals,” Mackintosh said. “He implied the UCI was not at all in cahoots with him. He definitely wasn't throwing anyone under the bus. There are some things there that we really still don't know. He wasn't making any revelations that would confirm what a lot of people suspect.”
The confession Part II
Most of the people Cyclingnews spoke with said they were hoping for a lot more to come out during the interview's second half, which is scheduled for Friday.
“I want to really know the details,” Anderson said. “That would be great. It'll be interesting to see if he gets a little more in depth.”
Roth said he wants to hear Armstrong address the rumors about alleged collusion with the UCI and USA Cycling.
“I haven't been following all of them, but the rumors are he has dirt on other people, and I would assume that's what part two will be about,” Roth said. “Part one was, OK, here's everything Lance did and he's sorry for that, now part two is who are the bigger fish. There's always a bigger fish. There's always someone else you can blame, and I'm assuming part two is that kind of thing.”
None of the people Cyclingnews spoke with said Armstrong's appearance on Oprah's show had much effect on their opinion of the former cycling superstar who has fallen so far so fast. But one thing was obvious as the overflow crowd spilled out into the night: Lance Armstrong still draws a crowd.
“The biggest revelation for me was how many people showed up tonight,” Distefano said. “I cannot believe how many people showed up. I guess the explanation is, despite all the people who say Lance isn't important, this many people showing up shows just how important he was to that time period, to the sport's growth, and how much maybe people wanted him to be that important.”
Roth, the bartender, said the number of people that came through the doors, many of them unfamiliar, caught the hosts off guard.
“We thought a few people would show up – our fiends, our buddies,” Roth said. “And then the local news picked it up and started talking about it, and a couple news stations came by today to do interviews. Once the doors opened and people started flowing in, it was like, oh my goodness, who are all these people. And I've seen on Instagram some other parties over on the East Coast like this – just packed.”
Olson, the Rapha host who said he partied with Armstrong on a Valentine's Day back when they collaborated for Nike, summed up the evening succinctly.
“I think you could probably put a week's worth of interviews up and I'd watch it for seven days straight if you let me,” he said. “As someone just said, 'Everyone loves a public lynching.'”