“The disgraced Lance Armstrong has a good podcast. In Cambodia.” It was a funny line, mainly because it was delivered on said podcast. By the disgraced Lance Armstrong.
It was during this year’s Tour de France that it gradually dawned on me that I couldn’t keep ignoring Lance Armstrong’s Tour podcast show, Stages. Too many people in my timeline were sharing it. Too many of my riding buddies were asking whether I was listening to it. My default position — it’s just Lance being Lance; ignore it! — folded. I started downloading.
And this is the paradox of Armstrong’s new career as a podcast host: he’s converting people like me, the NeverLancers. I’m not even going to rehearse the case against Armstrong beyond saying that his offence was not just that he cheated. As he points out, rightly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, everyone was doing it; you basically couldn’t have a career in pro cycling without doping.
He would say that he just did it smarter and better than others, but that’s not the whole story: he was a mafia don who ran a criminal conspiracy that corrupted the entire sport, including its governing institutions. And he was the capo di tutti capi. I don’t believe anyone who really knows cycling and cares about it will either forget that or forgive Armstrong for it.
But this is precisely the audience, including me, that is listening to his podcasts.
His primary vehicle, The Forward, soft-launched a little over a year ago, published under the aegis of Armstrong’s new vehicle WEDU Sport company, which promotes the Aspen 50, a fondo-style mountain bike event that debuted in 2016. There’s nothing fancy about The Forward podcast: it’s a talk show, usually built around an extended interview with a single guest per episode — Lance shooting the breeze with someone he’s interested in. Which turns out to be something he’s uncommonly good at.
Actually, it’s a reminder that this was always something Lance was good at. Very few athletes besides Armstrong have been as effective a performer in their press conferences as they were in their chosen field of play. Well before his ultimate exposure by USADA, I learned to hate and admire in equal measure Armstrong for his ruthless dispatch of accusations of doping and his fierce putdowns of the journalists who dared raise them.
Even after his downfall, he went on Oprah to give his side of the story and make some kind of apology. That was gutsy in one way, putting it out there, even if he was still trying to use what was left of his celebrity status and leverage the support of his true-believer base, like a damaged politician.
But he was also in the dock, the one answering questions, on someone else’s show. The great difference that Armstrong’s discovery of podcasting makes is that, with minimal investment and infrastructure, he gets to be in charge of his message on his own medium.
The Forward’s branding is smart, sly even: life isn’t easy or simple, there are bumps along the way, but we go forward. It’s the disgraced Lance Armstrong’s nod toward his past disgrace, but an assertion that there are always second chances for those who pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back on it. The concept deftly puts the whole rehabilitation debate to bed.
Turns out there are plenty of famous people prepared to give him a second chance. One of The Forward’s early coups, in July 2016, was to land a wide-ranging interview with the women’s tennis star and ESPN commentator Chris Evert.
Since then, he’s talked to politicians, sports personalities, musicians. Some nobodies, but some great gets: the singer-songwriter Seal; New Yorker staff writer and Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell; mayor of Chicago and Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel; celebrity astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson; actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. His guest list has started to make TED Talks’ bookers look shabby.
That’s also a reminder that Armstrong was never just a cyclist. Call it strategic, but there were always other dimensions: cancer campaign advocacy; business brand alliances; country music; Democratic politics… Lance was always talking to us.
The 2017 Tour de France spinoff, Stages, is not fantastic. It’s rambling at times, and Armstrong’s foil, “longtime Austin radio personality” J.B. Hager, is an uninformed fanboy who’s mainly there to toss goofy, softball questions to Lance. George Hincapie has been along for the ride, at times. But what’s the competition?
At a fundamental level, Lance knows stuff. If the basis of empathy is the capacity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, then Armstrong has empathy with the riders because he has ridden practically every mile of those roads they’re racing.
More important, the show’s very informality is its strength. What’s really working for Lance is that he gets to be Lance: this scrappy, street-smart, tell-it-like-is, dude-bro character you don’t exactly like but who’s fun to hang out with. You would never invite him round for dinner with respectable company, but would you ride with him, have a beer afterward and listen to him shoot the shit? Hell, yes.
And here’s the thing about Lance’s “big in Cambodia” joke. It is a signature gag, because it seems candid and self-deprecating, but it’s also a world-class humblebrag: see my reach, they’re even listening to me in Phnom Penh. Word.
This column is an extract from Rouleur 17.6