Keep Austin’s cycling tradition alive without Lance

Amil Malik

By now, you probably know that Lance Armstrong confessed to allegations of doping during all seven of his Tour de France victories. He did so in the first part of a 2 1/2-hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey  this past Thursday and Friday evening at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Austin. 

Aside from Lance’s palatial Austin residence, Austin bears many signs of his presence: his bike shop, Mellow Johnny’s, the name of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and the presence of the Livestrong Foundation headquarters, not to mention the significant increase in the number of cyclists in Austin during and after Armstrong’s victories in the Tour de France.

Thanks to that roster, Armstrong became many cyclists’ hero and leader, particularly in Austin. But now that spectators worldwide realize that Armstrong’s seven Tour de France victories resulted partially from his reliance on a cocktail of performance enhancing drugs such as testosterone, cortisone, human growth hormone and EPO (erythropoietin, a naturally occurring hormone that stimulates the growth of oxygen carrying red blood cells), a backlash has begun with groups of people trying to remove the cancer survivor’s mark on the city of Austin.

Lance Armstrong’s yellow jersey has been removed from Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s office. The mayor publicly commented on his disappointment that “Lance misled [him] and so many others in Austin.” To top it all, many residents have started talking about renaming the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, a cycling route that opened in 2009 as a response to the city’s expanding enthusiasm about the sport. This backlash raises an interesting question: How should we perceive our hometown hero, and how will the scandal impact cycling in this city?

Whether you like it or not, cycling’s popularity in Austin is directly related to Armstrong’s influence on the city. Not only do I not condone Armstrong’s actions, but I also understand the deep disappointment with his drug use and believe that his aggressive attacks on those who reported his drug use deserve condemnation. Yet I still believe that Austin, as a city, should try to preserve what Armstrong gave to cycling — an overall positive contribution to Austin’s culture — and keep that in mind when evaluating the Armstrong episode.

In a previous column, I earned a reputation of criticizing local cyclists for not following traffic rules,  but I believe that cycling, both recreational and competitive, should remain an important aspect of Austin. The benefits of cycling are numerous. According to the Discovery Channel, cycling is good for the heart, muscles, waistline, lifespan, coordination, mental health and immune system. Moreover, it is one of the few sports with relatively easy access. Decent used bikes are affordable. Helmet costs are low. Almost everyone in Austin can bike.

So, as for removing from the city all influences of Lance Armstrong, I disagree, and not just because of his influence on cycling. Granted, like many other athletes today, Lance took drugs. He abused his body, and I do not condone his behavior. Unlike most other athletes who faced similar situations, Armstrong not only confessed to cheating and taking drugs during the Tour de France, he also apologized for his actions. And, scandal notwithstanding, he has an impressive resume. After battling cancer, he created the Livestrong Foundation, which provides support for those afflicted with cancer and fights for government propositions that back cancer research. Through Livestrong, he backed Proposition 29  (a California initiative designed to raise funds for cancer research through a $1 tobacco tax increase) and Proposition 15 (a Texas initiative that created the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and allocated a $3 billion fund for cancer research within the state). 

Just because Armstrong’s mistakes have drawn popular attention and media hype away from his successes, his positive influences on Austin should not be overlooked. If they are, an important aspect of Austin’s cycling culture could be lost as well.

Malik is a Plan II and business honors  freshman from Austin.