The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong — What you need to know before watching ‘LANCE’

ESPN’s 30 for 30 “LANCE,” directed by Marina Zenovich
Part 1: Sunday, May 24, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Part 2: Sunday, May 31, 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Livestreaming: ESPN App, ESPN+ and ESPN Player (where available)

After beating metastatic testicular cancer that had already spread to other parts of his body in 1996, all eyes were on Lance Armstrong when he returned to cycling the following year. But it was in 1999 when he won his first Tour de France — the most prestigious and difficult race in cycling — that his status was really elevated and he became one of the most revered athletes at the time.

Armstrong became a household name. He became a cause, a movement.

Armstrong was thrust into the international spotlight and helped increase the popularity of cycling globally. He won the Tour de France seven times in a row before retiring at the age of 33. Armstrong came back years later — though not at the same level of dominance — and raced in a handful of big races before retiring again.

Despite all his success and glory, Armstrong’s career was not without controversy. From the beginning of his dominance in the cycling world, he was constantly accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs — accusations he vehemently denied. Eventually, however, the truth caught up to him. In 2012, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories following a report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, and in 2013, he admitted publicly that he doped during each of his Tour de France wins.

The Rise …

Before his 1999 Tour de France win, Armstrong had been cycling around the globe for years — he was a triathlete as a teenager, after all.

Even before his cancer diagnosis, Armstrong was winning races. In 1993, he won the Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh, the K-Mart West Virginia Classic and the CoreStates USPRO national championship in Philadelphia — a trio of wins known collectively as the Thrift Drug Triple Crown of Cycling.

In 1999, his first tour de France victory was propelled in part by four stage wins. He beat Alex Zülle, the second-place finisher, by 7 minutes and 37 seconds. However, Jan Ullrich — with whom he would later have an established rivalry — did not participate because of injury, so Armstrong was still not quite at the top of the cycling world. Marco Pantani, an Italian cyclist, was also not able to participate in 1999.

Ullrich and Pantani were back for the 2000 Tour de France — and thus began the Armstrong-Ullrich rivalry. Armstrong beat Ullrich by 6 minutes and 2 seconds in the 2000 Tour de France, despite winning just one stage. Armstrong also went on to win bronze in the 2000 Summer Olympics.

In 2001, Armstrong again beat out beating Ullrich for the victory, by 6 minutes and 44 seconds. In 2002, Ullrich did not participate due to suspension, and Armstrong took top honors over Joseba Beloki of Spain by 7 minutes.

Again in 2003, it was the same story: Armstrong beat Ullrich by just a few minutes. In 2004, Armstrong won his record-setting sixth Tour de France, finishing 6 minutes and 19 seconds ahead of German cyclist Andreas Klöden — Ullrich finished fourth.

Armstrong again won in 2005 — and then announced he would be retiring to spend time with his family and dedicating his efforts to his cancer foundation.

… and The Fall

In 2008, Armstrong came out of retirement. He continued to brush off doping allegations and he told ESPN he was prepared to have to work harder to continue to compete at an elite level — as he’s now 37.

ESPN profiled Armstrong for his first race back in January 2009, the Tour Down Under in Australia. Of the 127 riders who completed the race, Armstrong finished a lackluster 27th.

Despite struggling in various races — and still dodging allegations that he never competed in a Tour de France while clean — Armstrong decided to participate in the 2009 race. Armstrong finished third that July, but as ESPN’s Bonnie Ford noted, it was still impressive: He was 38 and had been away from professional cycling for three years.

Ahead of the 2010 Tour de France, Armstrong said it would be his last race. Around this time, his former U.S. teammate Floyd Landis sent emails to cycling officials detailing his use of performance-enhancing drugs while racing for the U.S. Postal Service team. Landis also accused Armstrong and other teammates of doing the same.

“I want to clear my conscience,” Landis told ESPN at the time. “I don’t want to be part of the problem anymore.”

Still denying allegations and claiming there was no proof, Armstrong competed in the 2010 Tour de France months after the Landis emails, coming in 23rd place.

Armstrong couldn’t avoid the allegations even in retirement. More of his former teammates started to break their silence in 2011, in a preview of the evidence they will ultimately give against him in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case.

In October 2012, a USADA report against Armstrong left no doubt he doped throughout most of his career. He didn’t contest the case, was stripped of all accomplishments from August 1998 onward and ultimately received a lifetime ban from cycling.

Finally, Armstrong confessed publicly in an interview with Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. The interview was emotionless, and it was unclear if Armstrong regretted what he did. He admitted to doping for every Tour de France he competed in and won.

In April 2018, the long legal road ended for both Armstrong and Landis when they reached a settlement in Landis’ federal whistleblower case, which was pursued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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One thought on “The rise and fall of Lance Armstrong — What you need to know before watching ‘LANCE’

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