AUSTIN, Texas — Riders in Sunday’s Livestrong Challenge charity benefit bicycle race have mixed opinions on the Lance Armstrong doping scandal and the legacy of a disgraced cyclist who is also a hometown hero.
Armstrong greeted a record 4,300 riders before the start of the 15th annual event and spoke for about 90 seconds, barely touching upon the doping revelations that shattered his iconic status as he praised the pedal pushers.
“This is truly an honor to be here,” Armstrong said. “I’m truly humble.”
The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) unveiled 1,000 pages of evidence against Armstrong two weeks ago supporting its August decision to impose a life ban on Armstrong and strip him of his seven Tour de France titles from 1999-2005.
Several top sponsors dropped Armstrong last week even as he quit as chairman of Livestrong, the anti-cancer charity he founded in 1997. Most sponsors said they planned to keep supporting Livestrong as they pulled away from Armstrong.
“I’m kind of glad he stepped down so he wouldn’t distract from an otherwise noble cause,” said 40-year-old rider Chris Jetto.
Jetto said Armstrong should follow the example of another Texan, Major League Baseball pitcher Andy Pettitte, and admit doping.
“If he truly did dope… his denials have only tainted his image,” Jetto said.
Rider Jenni Stephenson, 32, was glad to see Armstrong spare Livestrong the woes his scandal could bring.
“I think he’s probably guilty,” she said. “I think it’s important for people to support the foundation. I don’t think it takes away from a good cause.”
Catherine Young, a 50-year-old Houston bike shop owner, was riding for a co-worker who has cancer. She sees Armstrong’s Tour titles as triumphs on a level playing field in a dope-tainted era.
“Regardless of whether he cheated or not, if they were all cheating, he still won,” she said.
Zack Horne, 35, put the cycling in a Lance-less perspective.
“I’ve been cycling for 25 years,” he said. “I didn’t start cycling because of Lance and I’m not going to stop because of the allegations.”
Kevin Stephan, 54, noted that despite Armstrong’s fall from grace, his story as a survivor of lung cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs who went on the win the Tour seven times served to inspire many people with cancer.
“He has inspired a lot of people to get on a bike,” Stephan said.
Chip Harris was among 23 people who flew halfway across the United States from Maine to ride in the south Texas heat.
“We’re not here for Lance,” he said. “We’re here for the foundation. It’s a good cause. We’re all out here to support friends and relatives who passed away.”
Colin Painter, 35, rides for his mother, who died in 2004 of breast cancer, and for himself, having dropped 40 pounds in the past year with cycling as his main form of exercise.
“Whether he did it or not I couldn’t say,” he said. “What attracts me to this event is cycling keeps me healthy.”
Painter added that with concerns about the ends justifying the means in Livestrong’s case, any full portrait of Armstrong — beyond the easy labels of dope cheat and cancer survivor inspirer — will be a long time in coming.
“We won’t know for 20 years,” he said.