Bicyclist Lance Armstrong, who began the year in a televised confessional with Oprah Winfrey in which he admitted to doping his way to seven consecutive Tour de France wins, has chosen a different yet familiar sort of hot seat this summer — a sweaty bike seat amid the Iowa corn fields.
Armstrong said Tuesday that he will return to our sun-baked byways this month for his fifth visit to The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa. This would mark his first major public appearance since his mea culpa in January that reversed years of his impassioned denials and triggered scorn and lawsuits aplenty.
But he doesn’t plan to helicopter in and out on a quick, single-day jaunt.
Armstrong said that he and his staff from the Mellow Johnny’s bicycle shop he owns in Austin, Texas, will linger at least “three or four days” on RAGBRAI starting with the July 20 expo held in Council Bluffs on the eve of the ride.
This year’s 41st RAGBRAI, July 21-27, winds 406 miles from Council Bluffs to Fort Madison — the second-shortest route in the annals of the world’s oldest, largest bicycle touring event that was created by a pair of newspaper columnists.
“To be honest it’s not a statement, it’s not an experiment,” Armstrong said Tuesday from Aspen, Colo. “It’s just me wanting to go ride my bike with what in the past has been a friendly group of people that share the same interests.”
Armstrong was feted by huge crowds in 2006 during his inaugural RAGBRAI, in the immediate wake of his initial retirement from professional racing. Armstrong told reporters that year that while Sen. Tom Harkin had long lobbied him to join the ride, it was a group of cancer-stricken Iowa bicyclists who approached him during a dinner in Indianapolis whose pleas made the difference.
He most recently joined our pork-and-pie gauntlet in 2011 and flew all the way from Paris, France, to Carroll for the occasion.
The 41-year-old cancer survivor, stripped of his Tour de France titles by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), realizes that he returns this year as a much more controversial, humbled sports icon.
Armstrong told Oprah that he quit doping after his seventh and final Tour de France victory in 2005, but that has been disputed by a USADA report.
“I saw my son defending me and saying, ‘That’s not true. What you’re saying about my dad is not true,’” Armstrong said in the interview of what prompted his belated confession. “That’s when I knew I had to tell him.”
The logical, cynical reaction might be to lambaste Armstrong for taking advantage of our landscape of “Iowa nice” as the first rung on his long climb toward rehabilitating his public persona.
Armstrong himself admits that he’s simultaneously curious and insecure about how this first serious mingling outside of a handful of private charity events might unfold.
“I’m well aware my presence is not an easy topic, and so I encourage people if they want to give a high five, great,” he said. “If you want to shoot me the bird, that’s OK, too.”
He called himself a “realist.”
“I’m a big boy, and so I made the bed, I get to sleep in it.”
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RAGBRAI Director T.J. Juskiewicz, who said publicly in January that Armstrong was welcome to return to RAGBRAI, said that Armstrong is no different than the 10,000 other bicyclists who ride annually.
“They have a great time here, and they want to return,” Juskiewicz said.
He added, “We are open to anyone that wants to come ride RAGBRAI.”
He did see the humor in what could become a bizarre international media stir as the church ladies in small town Iowa try to sell their homemade fruit pies.
“Who knows, we might get TMZ covering RAGBRAI this year,” Juskiewicz joked.
To be clear, RAGBRAI never has paid Armstrong a dime in appearance fees, although it’s an unwritten rule, Juskiewicz said, that all Tour de France champions — whether or not they have been stripped of their titles — ride for free.
Regardless, Armstrong has bigger financial worries. By some accounts he’s facing as much as $135 million in liabilities from multiple lawsuits leveled by the government, insurance companies and others.
“I’m committing to working through them,” he said of the lawsuits, “and whether it’s settling cases or whether it’s fighting some cases — because some have merit some don’t. But I’m commtted to the process and that’s probably as much as I would and could say about it. That’s a tricky area there.
“Unless you have $135 million you want to let me borrow, or have?”
Nike even has announced that it will let its contract with the Livestrong Foundation and those ubiquitous yellow wristbands expire next year — a deal that according to the Associated Press is responsible for about one-fifth of the $500 million raised by the cancer-fighting charity since it was founded in 1997.
Armstrong also has had to distance himself from Livestrong in one of the myriad complications of his scandal. He’s “not a part of that organization anymore,” he said simply, “and don’t see that in the near future.”
RAGBRAI then seems to provide Armstrong an oasis in which there’s “nothing set up, nothing coerced, coordinated, composed,” as he put it.
He also praised Juskiewicz as a “great friend and a great supporter through all this.”
“Dude, you learn a lot about people when stuff like this goes down,” Armstrong said. “The first 24-48-72 hours, you never forget those calls, and he was one of them.”
But Armstrong also insists that he doesn’t want special treatment. He’s “just a dude like everybody who likes to ride bikes and likes to drink beer and has made his fair share of mistakes — and that’s that.”
At least that will be that until the tires get dipped in the Missouri River at the start of the ride, and the high fives and bird-flipping begin in earnest.
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