Lance Armstrong has made his first public speech since the United States Anti-Doping Agency published damning evidence of the extent of the doping that brought him seven Tour de France titles. Speaking at an event in Austin marking the 15th anniversary of his Livestrong charity, the 41-year-old made only passing reference to “a difficult couple of weeks.”
Some had wondered whether Armstrong might use the occasion to make an admission of doping. News earlier in the day that the giant Big Tex statue that for 60 years has welcomed visitors to the Texas State Fair in Dallas had gone up in flames seemed to serve as a portent, as did the fact that the yellow – not red – carpet that greeted visitors to Livestrong’s birthday bash became strewn with broken glass as guests brushed past tall flower vases, causing them to topple over and shatter.
Armstrong, a man who doesn’t have a reputation of treading lightly, didn’t need to on this occasion – he was whisked round to the rear entrance, away from the glare of the cameras, and the media would likewise be excluded from his speech.
Those hoping for an admission would be disappointed. It may come one day, but following a week in which he had stepped down as chairman of his charity and sponsors such as Nike had withdrawn their backing but reaffirmed their commitment to Livestrong, it was unlikely he was going to allow his own troubles to overshadow the celebration of its work.
Still, it was a different Armstrong to the one seen in public of late. After USADA announced in August that it had banned him for life and stripped him of results dating back to 1998, he had introduced himself to a conference on cancer in Montreal with the words: “I won the Tour de France seven times.”
There was no such bullishness, no reference to cycling last night – although it’s likely there will be tomorrow, when he is expected to address 4,000 cyclists taking part in a Livestrong charity ride around Austin.
Instead, flanked by Livestrong staff, he told an audience including celebrity supporters Robin Williams, Ben Stiller, Sean Penn and Norah Jones, “It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. It’s been a difficult couple of weeks, for me, for my family, for my friends, for this foundation.
“I get asked a lot, people say, ‘Man, how are you doing?’ and I say this every time, and I mean it. I say, ‘I’ve been better… but I’ve also been worse.’”
He moved immediately on to relating how the idea for what would become the Lance Armstrong Foundation, now better known as Livestrong, started with a meal with friends at a local Tex-Mex restaurant in Austin after he had been diagnosed with cancer, and spoke about how it had developed over the years.
Towards the end of his speech, Armstrong said: “This mission is bigger than me. It’s bigger than any individual. There’s 28 million people living in the world with this disease. Martin Luther King said once: ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’ This team behind me on this stage has infinite hope. The people in this room have infinite hope, and the people who we serve, literally whoever needs to be served, whoever we can serve, need infinite hope. The mission absolutely must go on."
He concluded: “We will not be deterred, we will continue to go forward, and we will continue to serve the 28 million people around the world that need us the most.”
That figure of 28 million people has been referenced by Armstrong before, including in the closing stage of what would prove to be his final Tour de France when the start was delayed as his RadioShack team were forced to change out of a one-off kit they wanted to wear for the day that bore the number 28.
The delay while riders changed jerseys and struggled with safety pins gave the kind of worldwide television exposure that cynics might say would be beyond any charity’s advertising budget.
It would leave a bitter aftertaste to Armstrong’s final participation in the race he once dominated – and one from which his name is likely to be erased from the record books should the UCI ratify the United States Anti Doping Agency’s decision on Monday.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.