The enduring image of Lance Armstrong, the cyclist, is not the guy in the yellow jersey on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées on any one of the glory rides in his seven Tour de France wins. It's Lance Armstrong, dripping sweat, grimacing, fighting with every ounce of his being as he conquered the Alpe d'Huez or some other grueling mountain test during those seven victories, the ones that made him not just an American icon but a legend known around the world for beating cancer and the rigors of the Tour, the guy who from 1999 through 2005 could and did do it all.
So why on Thursday did Lance Armstrong, a fighter known for fighting relentlessly, abruptly announce he was done fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency?
The news means Armstrong will forfeit the seven Tour de France titles as well as all awards -- his 2000 Olympic bronze medal -- and money won since August 1998. It also means he will be barred from life from competing or having any official role with any Olympic sport or other sport that follows the World Anti-Doping Code.
This announcement was as big as it gets. It was a defining moment in our sports history.
In breaking the news, Armstrong -- who has continued to deny ever doping -- would release a statement that said, "There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' For me that time is now."
He said in the statement, "I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won those seven Tours, and everyone I competed against knows who won those seven Tours."
He said USADA had been engaged in an "unconstitutional witch hunt," said it had "played the role of a bully" and declared: "… I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair."
Armstrong has long been one of the most polarizing figures in international sports.
There are those who believe he did, and those who believe he didn't, and of course there is here the complex intersection of the compelling work Armstrong and Livestrong have done on behalf of cancer patients and their families.
But this is not about cancer.
This is about allegations of performance-enhancing drugs and the Tour de France.
For the true believers, Armstrong's accusations about USADA are sure to play well.
But just pause for a moment.
If you were advising Lance Armstrong, what would you tell him?
-- For starters, USADA has operated in the same manner for a dozen years now. Every athlete has been treated to the same process. You're no different. Moreover, it's the same arbitration process that huge commercial concerns use each and every day. And these would be three experts deciding the case, not a jury of 12 with some retired postal clerks tempted to snooze off after lunch.
Not only that -- let's say you lose the first round. If you want to appeal, to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, you get an entirely new trial. To repeat: an entirely new trial. That's way better than a criminal defendant gets in any court in the United States of America. If you get convicted of, say, felony burglary in Rancho Cucamonga, you might get the pleasure of going to prison while some three-judge appeals court panel takes up your case, maybe. You don't get a brand-new trial.
So the USADA process -- it's legitimate, and that's what you'd be working with.
-- USADA had made it abundantly clear that they were more than ready to present evidence against you at a hearing. They said they had 10-plus witnesses -- the guys you rode with -- lined up to testify against you.
Let's be really clear again. This was not a criminal case. But any prosecutor with 10-plus witnesses, all more or less saying the same thing, would feel really comfortable about the odds of winning.
-- It's true you never failed a doping test. (You did test positive at the 1999 Tour for a corticosteroid and then produced a back-dated doctor's prescription.) Those tests are only a starting point for the discussion. This is why the expert judges hearing the case would be so important. They know all about, say, Marion Jones, and how she passed 160 tests -- and turned out to be a chronic doper.
As in the Jones case, as in the far-flung BALCO affair, USADA was basing its case not on positive tests but on other evidence.
What kind of supporting evidence would USADA have been able to produce?
Would there have been FedEx tracking numbers?
Pharmaceutical trial medicines?
Swiss bank account receipts?
What sort of corroboration -- under oath -- would your fellow riders have been able to produce?
This is the gut question, really.
If the case had gone to a hearing, and the parade of 10 or more witnesses had testified to what had gone on backstage at those seven Tours, and Lance Armstrong had been forced to sit there, day after day, week after week, and listen to it all -- how much damage would that cause?
Not just PR-wise.
At issue is potential criminal exposure -- just because the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles dropped its investigation earlier this year doesn't mean another office somewhere couldn't launch another inquiry -- as well as possible civil liability.
Meanwhile, wouldn't it also make sense that the U.S. Postal Service -- Armstrong's sponsor for many of those years -- would still be wondering if its money was spent judiciously?
No one knows the answer to many of these issues just yet because we don't know what we don't know. That is, the public doesn't even begin to know the full range of the evidence.
But USADA knows. And you can bet Armstrong and his lawyers know, too.
Perhaps it's inevitable that what may or may not have happened behind the scenes at those Tours will make its way into the public space. But -- absent another legal proceeding -- it won't be under oath, and won't have the ring of cross-examination. By dropping the matter now, that's a huge benefit to Armstrong.
It's one thing to fight. Sometimes it's best to drop the fight. The Armstrong way Thursday was to make it seem like he was going out fighting.
Travis Tygart, the chief executive of USADA, was asked in an interview with the cycling website Velonation if he was surprised by the turn of events.
"No," Tygart said, "I think it was our expectation from the beginning. He knows all the evidence as well and he knows the truth, and so the smarter move on his part is to attempt to hide behind baseless accusations of process."
Tygart also said, "We never would have brought a case if we were not extremely confident in the level of evidence. And the truth -- at the end of the day, our job is to search for truth and justice, to expose the full truth and ensure, to the best of our ability, perfect justice."