In May of 2004, Lance Armstrong was two months away from racing for his sixth consecutive Tour De France victory. In preparation for the big event, and the marketing opportunity surrounding it, Nike, his sponsor, launched a new product with 100% of the proceeds going to Armstrong’s charity, the LiveStrong Foundation supporting cancer survivors.
The creation was a strip of silicon to go around the wearer’s wrist, yellow in color to represent the leader’s jersey in cycling’s premier annual event. According to lore, the band itself spawned from a combination of Armstrong’s hospital bracelet as a cancer patient, and a rubber band he supposedly wore around his wrist, so that he could snap it against his skin anytime he caught himself thinking a disempowering thought which might interfere with his recovery. Under this legend, the Livestrong bracelet was conceived and launched at Nike stores worldwide - drawing millions to the outlets and generating millions of dollars for the foundation.
People bought them for others as gifts, often buying one for the next customer in line. And after receiving one it was customary not only to wear it at all times forevermore, but also to purchase one (or many) to give to friend(s) or family. Replica products from similar charities quickly followed (as did other charities ending in Strong, both of which continue to this day), but the Livestrong bracelet was the ubiquitous accessory from the summer of 2004 through the summer of 2005.
I had the pleasure of meeting Lance Armstrong multiple times around this period. I had previously read his autobiography, immediately when it came out in 2000, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I was recovering from shoulder surgery and watched every kilometer of the ’99 and 2000 Tours live while working out on an exercise bike at a gym near my mother’s house in Virginia. Armstrong’s performance, and his book, Not About The Bike, inspired me so much at a pivotal point in my life. So much so that I really don’t know if I would have continued with sports after my first and then second shoulder surgeries had it not been for watching that man ride a bike through the mountains of France - and reading his life story, including his recovery from severe cancer.
I feel a little silly writing this sentence, but if I’m being honest with myself, I really don’t know who I would be in life and where life would have led me if it weren’t for all the inspiration I got reading that book and watching those Tour de France races those July summers my junior and senior years of high school. Getting to be in the presence of Lance Armstrong just a year or two later when I was in college as a student athlete at the University of Texas was an unbelievable dream come true: There we were, in the sunshine in Austin, Texas, NCAA and Tour De France Champions wearing our LiveStrong bracelets, giving the hook ‘em horns at football games on campus every Saturday. I even worked as a volunteer one summer at the LiveStrong office headquarters in Austin.
Now that Lance has admitted to having cheated in all 7 of his Tour de France victories, those few interactions I had with him during those years make a lot more sense to me. Lance always seemed incredibly stressed, like he had a lot on his mind. I was a nobody in the celebrity scene of that world. Some of my teammates and fellow student-athlete friends were Olympians, Gold medalists, and future professional athletes in major sports. I got to be around by association, so what do I know, really? But when Lance was around - to make a speech or appearance at a pep rally, or to have a few beers at a private roof top party downtown - he always seemed on edge, like I would be if I were leading a double life as PED doper and smuggler. But I always liked Lance, as icy and non-personable as he was in our interactions. I still like Lance. I still respect Lance. However weird it sounds, I think I like and respect Lance even more now as a disgraced hero. He seems more human to me. A shakespearean hero, like an actor cursed to be cast as superman. Imagine feeling compelled to live the lie Lance lived. Lying emphatically to everyone you know in order to be a success. I think a lot of people can identify with that in small ways in their own lives. At least I can.
I’ve watched interviews Armstrong has given, and documentaries made about his elaborate training and doping system, as well as the prominence of doping in the sport. I’ve been all the more fascinated the more I learn. Most remarkably, I actually find myself admiring the degree to which Armstrong commits himself to both training and doping. It’s almost as if he decides (or discovers) that the whole sport of cycling is really one big cheating contest and, once he starts cheating, he pays the price to be the greatest cheater of all time.
I remember one interview, long after the truth was revealed, where Lance explains how his PED use began in earnest. According to him, he was watching countless other riders on the professional bike tour use PEDs and felt like he wouldn’t be able to stay on the tour unless he joined them.
“There was a group of us living in Italy,” I recall Lance saying in one interview, “and we just said, ‘We’re either gonna have to play ball here or go home.’ And I said to myself, if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna try to win the fuckin’ Tour de France… When you do something, you don’t do it halfway. You do it all the way. You bring everything.”
Essentially, Armstrong’s secret plot worked out beyond his wildest dreams, and then he had to navigate the doomed rocket ship on which he had launched into orbit.
Armstrong wasn’t just doping himself, he was leading a team of dopers, encouraging and enforcing their participation in the drug and training regimen. That’s essentially how it all unraveled. The wife of one of his teammates made her husband quit doping, and we he got released from Lance’s team, she began speaking out against Armstrong. She had seen everything from the inside and was telling any reporter who would listen. After Armstrong won his second consecutive Tour de France and became a national hero - around the time I was reading Not About The Bike - reporters started to write about the suspicions.
By this point, Armstrong and LiveStrong, with the backing of his sponsor Nike (now pushing a full LiveStrong product line including hats, jackets, shirts, pants, shorts, shoes and socks) had become a multi-million dollar machine. 24 Hour Fitness partnered up, opening a LiveStrong gym in Austin where they also hawked the nike products. I used to workout there.
Lance and his team took legal action to silence and discredit not just the wife, but any reporter or publication that chose to run such a story. The more Tours Lance won, the bigger it all became, and the more publishers and journalists he had to sue and slander in attempt to keep the story silent and protect the castle he Armstrong built on a pile of proverbial sand.
It’s around that time in his life that I crossed paths with Lance - one of the most famous and “successful” people in the world, adored worldwide while working full-time behind the scenes to muzzle those exposing his deep dark truth. I’m sure Lance didn’t remember my name, nor could he pick me out of a police lineup, but the times I ran into him and spoke with him were memorable to me - and recalling them now I recognize a man trapped in the loneliness of his own lie.
To paraphrase novelist Tom Robbins, “A criminal is a person who breaks a law, usually to right a wrong or out of a belief of entitlement. An outlaw, by contrast, disregards societal laws entirely - not for the sake of defying an unjust law, or righting a wrong - but ignoring legality altogether to do simply what he or she believes to be right.”
According to Armstrong, the Tour De France was not actually a competition about who could ride a bike across France the fastest; it was really a competition about who could execute the most effective training AND Performance Enhancing Drug regimen, which was merely decided by a bike race across France. At that ‘sport’ Armstrong is hands-down the all-time champion. And if you believe that was really the event in which the Tour De France competitors were competing, perhaps he is more outlaw than criminal.
Hundreds of riders from Tours previous and afterward have been caught and suspended and/or banned for using the same Performance Enhancing Drug (EPO) Armstrong used for his seven consecutive victories. Armstrong didn’t introduce EPO to The Tour De France any more than Barry Bonds introduced steroids to Major League Baseball. Cheating through PEDs was well established in both sports - Armstrong, like Bonds, simply accomplished so much more than everyone else who was cheating, he stood body-lengths above the crowd.
Was Armstrong’s profession really about who could maximize the best advantage, exploit every possible loophole the system might provide to get to the finish line first? In essence, was it really about who was the best at bike racing, or who was the best at cheating at bike racing? In that way it, professional bike racing seems similar to the stock market where success is not necessarily defined by a company that creates the most value, serves the most customers, nor generates the most profit - but the company who raises the most investment capital, ethics-be-damned.
During Armstrong’s seven-year tenure as champ, the Tour de France - and professional cycling as a whole - was more popular and more profitable than it had ever been. The Tour, the sport, and its sponsors were eating out of Lance’s hand. Fans like me, could not, or would not, believe that their hero was a mere cheating mortal, inflated and fueled by a lie. It took nearly a decade after his championship run for enough suspicion to mount that the truth finally oozed out.
Hundreds of hours of depositions from the lawsuits to muzzle reporters and his former teammate’s wife - and related court cases - began pouring into news media, revealing their own story. And finally, in all-American fashion, Armstrong confessed to the world live on television in a special episode of Oprah Winfrey. The game was over. The sponsors cancelled him. Many demanding refunds and brining suit, most-aggressively perhaps the US government who had given him millions in sponsorship dollars for wearing the US Postal Service jerseys in the first five tours.
LiveStrong officially separated itself from Lance Armstrong immediately after his confession. The charity continues still now, void of any connection to the founder and bike racing, but still achieving high marks in the charity world with 84 cents from every donated dollar going directly to cancer survivor services, support groups, and cancer research. While no longer popular, the yellow LiveStrong bracelet still retails for $1 with 100% of the proceeds going to the charity. I not only wear one myself, but sell them in my store, not just in support of their mission, but also in homage to a truly complex character of global sport celebrity.
Even knowing the whole story - that he was cheating the whole time and lying to everyone about it, and even attacking through attorneys anyone who spoke out against him - I still find myself inspired by that old footage of Lance Armstrong rising from the saddle of his bike, sweat pouring across his grimacing face, as his lean hairless legs peddle up that mountain, passing rider after rider (some of whom were also doping, just not nearly with the same dedication and desire for victory). In fact, I still can’t help but be chilled by Armstrong’s rules-be-damned, balls-to-the-wall mentality, specifically his explanation: “If you’re going to do something, you don’t do it halfway. You do it all the way. You bring everything.”
Indeed Lance Armstrong brought everything, including the PEDs. Regardless what you may think of what he did, there is no argument. He did it all the way.
I was talking with my father about it. He said what is probably so shocking to people is that one single person could have so many extreme sides to himself - and ironically, that’s all the more reason I find him so relatably human.
For all those reasons - to pay tribute to a complex anti-hero who cheated, lied, worked and peddled his way to fame and fortune - I proudly sell the authentic yellow bracelets in my surf shop, giving all the funds to the LiveStrong Foundation to support cancer patients. Order yours today (and one to give to a friend)!
Woodrow Pack Landfair is the Adventure Correspondent for HighTides Journal and the author of the semi-autobiographical novel Land Of The Free (Harbinger Book Group, 2014), about an indefinite 48 state motorcycle journey he began in 2006, and about the personal challenges fought years afterward while pursuing a life of artistic and professional freedom on the road. Three years after his first book's publication, in 2017, Pack purchased El Porto Surf Shop (the #1 surf rental shop in Mainland USA) and moved to El Porto, California to surf and write every day.
Partially inspired by El Porto Surf Shop's many international customers, Pack is currently pursuing a personal goal to surf every coastal nation on planet Earth - as a means of seeing the world, learning different philosophies, and making friends across the globe. The first 19 countries of that journey are the subject of Pack's second book Here To Surf Vol. 1 in bookstores December 2024.
Pack is a graduate of the University of Texas where he studied English Literature on full academic scholarship from the United States Navy ROTC, and was the only walk-on member of the 2005 College World Series Champion Texas Longhorn baseball team - among several soon-to-be major leaguers. At the University of Texas, Pack earned Midshipman of the Month, Student-Athlete of the Month, Big 12 Commissioner's Honor Roll, served on the Student-Athlete Advisory Council, made three trips to the College World Series in Omaha, and was twice voted Teammate Of The Year by his teammates.