Through comeback, doping and scandal, Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie charts the Tour de France winner’s rise to the podium and the lies that kept him there.
LA Confidential by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Seemingly inseparable, cheating has gone hand-in-glove with the Tour de France ever since the second race in 1904 when night stages would allow cyclists to get up to all manner of deceptions. Perhaps it was the daily wages or the promise of a prize worth more than the average worker’s yearly salary, but the Tour has long enticed professionals and amateurs alike around its 2,200 mile course over three weeks. And as Gibney shows in his archive footage of the Tour de France, with cyclists running into a bar to stock up on beer, wine and soda, drugs and cheating have always played a part – anything to pump a little more blood round those exhausted muscles as they climb the notorious Mont Ventoux. It may be Lance Armstrong’s web of lies that Gibney is uncovering in The Armstrong Lie, but it’s the world’s third most watched sporting event that bears the brunt of Gibney’s charge to uncover the ugly truth behind the beautiful lie.
Alex Gibney began his bio-doc charting the comeback of cancer survivor Lance Armstrong in 2009, but following the eruption of the doping scandal surrounding the former Tour de France winner in 2010, Gibney shelved it – only to return to it in 2013 when Armstrong appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to admit the truth. Armstrong, a confident “punk” from Plano, Texas hit the cycling stage in 1992, taking part in races across Europe and the states as well as the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 – his career on the brink of exploding before being diagnosed with testicular cancer the same year. For Armstrong then, cycling became a freedom from surgery and chemotherapy, and in 1999 he staged the greatest comeback, winning the sport’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France. Since then, he has won the Maillot Jaune six more times (or so the story went), announcing his retirement in 2005, coincidentally and conveniently, as the sport and its media initiated a war on doping which would strip many a team-mate and rival of their medals.
In 2009, with speculation about Armstrong’s doping at its peak and after repeated denials, Gibney accompanies the Texan cyclist to Monaco for time trials, Armstrong brimming with confidence that he’ll win the Tour de France even though he’s promised to ride clean and post his blood factors for each stage. As Gibney cheers on the “hero” on a mission to prove to cancer sufferers he can be better than he was, we’re offered a fascinating insight into the tactics of cycling – using every (legal) boost available to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of the peloton – a specialised cadence in a lower gear that transfers blood to muscles, heart and lungs, altitude training to improve the blood’s capacity for oxygen or protection from cross-winds by his team-mates, or domestiques. Gibney, who often narrates his films, seems even more directly affected than usual – taking the Armstrong lie personally, and worrying that his rose-coloured rooting for the old pro might just have blindsided him to the truth.
Not that he was the only one – and Armstrong’s Livestrong campaign, launching the yellow bands which raised over $300 million to educate about and support those living with cancer, whitewashed the cyclist with a veneer of decency. To what extent this was a calculated campaign to keep the doping allegations at bay remains a mystery, but Armstrong was nevertheless vicious in his attempts to conceal his big doping lie. But, most shockingly, the truth is that that everyone was in on it – from the doping cyclists taking EPO (a hormone that stimulates red blood cells and only lasts in the body for four hours) and blood transfusions (injecting bags of fresh, oxygen-rich blood during the race), to the get-rich, machiavellian Dr Ferrari, and the race’s regulators who accepted Armstrong’s donations as well as the money he brought to the sport. And who wanted a scandal anyway? But the fight to conceal the lie got ugliest in its battle with Betsy Andreu, the wife of former team-mate Frankie and the “shallow bitch” who wasn’t afraid to tell the truth about Armstrong’s drug habit.
Eventually, Armstrong was shopped by former team-mate Floyd Landis, resentful of the hypocrisy that welcomed Lance back as a hero, while he was banned from racing for doping and condemned as a cheater. It’s a bitter irony that without the second comeback (to prove his innocence), Armstrong would still hold his seven Tour de France titles. But for Gibney, the cautionary tale of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong illustrates not only the sheer gall of the man (lying on oath or taking a blood transfusion on a bus in the Alps in plain sight) but also the power-play of a man making his own narrative. After Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, The Armstrong Lie reveals cover-up and corruption in another holy arena instilled with a code of silence. But even with an unholy war of attrition against his detractors, as he savagely undermined their credibility, Armstrong couldn’t protect the fairytale. And Gibney’s documentary, with its two-part genesis, is at times confused in its dual role of mythmaker and mythbuster. Like the rest of us, it seems The Armstrong Lie is just as willing to be deceived by a great story.
The Armstrong Lie is released on 31st January 2013 in the UK