“You were racing because you were pissed.”
What’s amazed me most about this whole Lance Armstrong thing is how many people seem to be shocked or surprised at the mountain of evidence released by USADA. Really? No one knew? A sprinter loses five pounds and is suddenly beating the best climbers in the Tour de France on the mountain stages, and no one blinks an eye?
Of course, we were all so ignorant of the world of cycling back then. By the time Lance won in ’99, I already loved riding my bicycle (which had been my sole form of transportation for at least a year at that point). But if I hadn’t read Lance’s book, I probably never would’ve pinned a number on and climbed Teton Pass. I’d probably be lifting weights and riding my bike, but not for competition’s sake.
So Lance, if you’re reading, thanks for that.
But through all of this process, my mind keeps going back to a different cyclist, someone who’s not around to see his suspicions validated, someone I grew to idolize (probably more than I should’ve) and recognize as a victim of this doping culture.
I keep thinking about Steve Larsen.
There’s an almost 90-minute interview with Steve still available on CompetitorRadio.com. When I first listened to it, I hardly knew who Steve was. But it’s hard (for me, anyway) to hear that interview without identifying with the guy.
Here’s a rider who was set up on his bike by Greg Lemond, who devoted an enormous amount of energy to becoming the best cyclist he could be, who showed promise from a young age, and who competed for a national championship early on. Then suddenly, things changed.
“In 1990, I was beating Lance, and by ’91, I was working for Lance, and that’s all she wrote! … That’s how quickly Lance progressed.”
Steve went to Europe to race as a pro a little earlier than the others. He managed to make his team’s Giro d’Italia squad. But by the end of that three-week race in 1993 (and yes, I fact-checked this), Steve finished fourth from last—129th—riding, in his own words, “pan y aqua [bread and water]—you know, clean.” He’d gutted his body just to finish under the time limit while legends (and dope fiends) like Marco Pantani conquered the monolithic spires on the course in record time.
“It’s mind-boggling how severe it is … A three-week tour, the kind of fatigue and suffering you go through is hard to explain. I mean, it’s so deep in you, and you’re so tired. Your heart rate doesn’t go up anymore. Things aren’t working normal, and yet you just get up and you do it again day after day.”
Ultimately, Steve came back to the United States after only a couple of seasons. Europe wasn’t a place for clean riders at a time when EPO was spreading like a disease across the peloton. I once talked to a former pro who’d raced him and who said Steve had a nasty attitude toward his competitors. Can you really blame him? A rider he used to beat (Lance) won the world championship the year before Steve lost his pro contract and came home.
“It is a little disheartening to, y’know, know guys that I raced with for a good part of a decade are now coming out and saying, ‘Oh yeah, I cheated,’ and knowing those were guys I could’ve been competitive with. By the same token, it is what it is.”
For five years, he competed in what I think is the most intense sport on the planet: XC mountain bike world cups. Then he got left off the 2000 Olympic team despite being one of the best riders on the circuit. By then, Steve had learned his lesson.
“I was racing with anger and with rage, and it was, honestly, a miserable way to do it. As much success as I was having, it wasn’t any fun.”
He left the NORBA behind (despite being the national champ) and entered the hypoxic world of Ironman® triathlon. He smashed Andrew Macnaughton’s Wildflower bike course record on a stock road frame with a road helmet on. He won Ironman Lake Placid and demolished the field on the 112-mile bike leg of Ironman Hawaii on an extremely windy year at the Big Island, taking 12 minutes out of the guy who would ultimately claim the Hawaii Ironman bike course record.
But then, before his career grew stale, he dialed things back, became an age group athlete and took things a little easier.
“One of the reasons I lasted 15 years in pro sports and am still married to that great wife and have five kids is knowing when that passion is going away and when you need to redirect your energies.”
He understood balance and knew what came (comes) first: family.
And then, on a spring day morning in 2009, he collapsed during a run and died on the track at the age of 39, leaving behind a wife and five kids.
By that point, he’d become my biggest endurance sport hero—a guy who could do it all and be a great dad at home too. He also seemed to embody the same turning point I knew I needed to make: from a vengeful underdog to a calm role model and family patriarch. I’d go to my little pool-swim sprint triathlons and hammer the bike, passing hundreds of other riders and feeling I’d sampled an hors d’oeuvre from the same table where Larsen had eaten his endurance feasts.
I was devastated when he passed away.
In literature, they say ghosts symbolize unresolved conflict. I guess that’s what the doping situation seems like to me: a whole lot of injustice and a whole lot of loose ends. Perhaps that’s why the more I read about the “reasoned decision,” the more that interview with Steve swirls around in my mind.
But in the end, it’s Steve’s interview that reminds me that not all injustices result in personal destruction. Some, it turns out, do just the opposite. In Steve’s case, I think it whittled and carved him into the dad and competitor he became, someone I came to really admire.
“The whole rage thing interests me. How long did it take to let go of that, and have you really let go of it? I mean, deep down inside, it sounds like that really, really, really got to you.”
“You know, it did … after the road career didn’t end great. But you know, I’ve let it go … I sleep well at night … Some of the guys you mentioned, I know how I used to beat ’em at a certain age when, you know, playing fields were level.”