Commentary: The limits of LANCE – A full review of ESPN’s new film

ESPN's new documentary LANCE captures the full scope of the Lance Armstrong story. But the film's intense focus on Armstrong's interior self may turn off some cycling fans.

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In September 2005 I flicked on the only episode of Fox’s TV series ‘House’ that I would ever watch after reading its amazing promo copy: Dr. House resists treating a famous bicyclist, brought in after collapsing during a race, because he believes the athlete is taking performance enhancers.

Much to my chagrin, the show’s “famous bicyclist” raced a Walmart bike and wore a cheap helmet with a plastic visor — he looked like a cyclist you might see in a brochure for life insurance or hemorrhoid cream. A lesson stuck with me: Whenever Hollywood tackles cycling, it does so with mainstream audiences in mind, not hardcore bike fans like me.

Similar sentiments crept into my mind during my recent screening of LANCE, ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary about our sport’s most polarizing figure. The 201-minute film airs its first of two episodes this coming Sunday night on the worldwide leader at 9 p.m. Eastern. Part two airs a week later.

To be clear: there are no cringe-worthy depictions of cycling in LANCE. Producer/director Marina Zenovich zeroes in on our sport with laser-like precision, and she tells the story of Lance Armstrong and the go-go doping era of the 1990s and early 2000s with fantastic detail and accuracy. Zenovich calls on a team of experts to narrate the familiar story, among them former VeloNews editors Neal Rogers and Charles Pelkey. These experts, along with Armstrong, recount his story from childhood to champion, doping to downfall.

Yet much like Hollywood’s other cycling projects, LANCE is unquestionably made for the mainstream viewer, not the hardcore cycling fan. The film’s thrust may frustrate those who have read the many Armstrong books and watched the documentary films, and are still somewhat puzzled by the whole thing. LANCE unearths very little new information about Armstrong’s dirty deeds. Instead, Zenovich trains her lens on Armstrong’s contemporary psyche, and the new ground she breaks is in exploring Armstrong’s current perspective on all of the lies, deceit, and cheating.

And in order to access those feelings, we, the viewer, must spend an agonizing amount of time with Lance Armstrong. We follow him onto a private boat, to a celebratory gala, and through his mansion in Aspen. We see him awkwardly address his son, Luke, in front of the Rice University football team. At times the film feels like an extended therapy session/hangout with the disgraced champion. And if you wouldn’t want to chill with Lance Armstrong for three hours in real life, you may grow weary of him in this film.

Here is Lance on a boat in LANCE. Photo: Courtesy ESPN

This was my experience, and I realize that my opinion on LANCE likely says more about me than the film. I went in ready to gobble up Zenovich’s reporting. After two hours I was suffering from Lance Armstrong fatigue.

Yet I would never label LANCE a failure of a film. On the contrary, I see the film as a major achievement for capturing the full scope of the Armstrong saga, and I said as much to Zenovich during our recent interview. I believe that it will become the defining work of the Lance Armstrong story. Think of LANCE as Lance Armstrong 101. Decades from now it will be used as the introductory text for explaining sports cheating.

Still, all of the attention given to Armstrong and his current feelings comes with an opportunity cost. As I listened to Armstrong pontificate on subjects like relationships, the challenges of being a celebrity, and why he is still relevant (“This is gonna sound terrible, but I am relevant. I am.”), I thought of the various other angles that this film could have explored about our sport and its complicated relationship with Armstrong. LANCE fails to mention the toxic cloud that still hangs over pro cycling seven years after his Oprah confession, or how the sport nearly imploded after his admission. An entire generation of American riders still lives in Armstrong’s shadow, and even today our very best — think Kate Courtney, Quinn Simmons, or Colin Strickland — will never generate as much mainstream media attention as this one film about Armstrong has.

And yes, there are still unexplained chapters in the Armstrong saga that could be illuminating and — dare I say it beneficial— to the sport and its hardcore fans. And while LANCE gives these areas a mention, it simply doesn’t have the time or energy to investigate them with much depth.

Lots of riders doped, and many were caught or lived in constant fear of being busted. Yet Armstrong seemed to have owned an endless supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards. How? Why? Zenovich does ask Armstrong about his relationship with then UCI president Hein Verbruggen, and he kinda sorta sheds some light on why he was allowed to skate by.

“If the question is how much did you have Hein Verbruggen in your pocket, there’s a lot of different ways to answer that. Financially, zero,” Armstrong says. “Do I believe that Hein wanted to protect the sport? Yes. Protect me? Yes — because that protects the sport.”

Okaaay, but can we get a bit more on this? Should we believe him? In my opinion, the lack of clarity around this relationship continues to haunt the sport to this day. Perhaps if we knew the gory details of Armstrong and the UCI, Armstrong and USA Cycling, or Armstrong and Nike, then our sport could prevent collusive relationships from blossoming again, and cycling fans could move on.

But alas, LANCE gives Armstrong’s relationship with the UCI about as much screen time as it does a shot of him grating a block of parmesan cheese. And thus, the film does little to help cycling or its most ardent fans escape the Armstrong stink. I understand why, of course. My proposed documentary on pro cycling would attract dozens of viewers, while LANCE will reach millions.

And, to her credit, Zenovich tried her best to get the truth. Hein Verbruggen is dead, she told me, and other sources from that era wouldn’t give up the goods.

“People are only willing to go so far, whether it’s Pat [McQuaid] or Lance or Bill Stapelton,” she said. “There were a lot of people who didn’t want to speak.”

It’s true, and Verbruggen isn’t the only voice missing in the film. Greg LeMond, Frankie Andreu, and Lance’s ex-wife Kristin Armstrong, among others, are missing.

So, what new information do we learn in LANCE? Armstrong doped during his rookie season in Europe, and he now thinks that taking all of that HGH may have acted like Miracle-Gro for his testicular cancer. Tyler Hamilton believes Armstrong called the authorities on him in 2004 which led to his ban. In 2011 Pat McQuaid, then the UCI President, alerted Armstrong after he learned that USADA was sniffing around.

As for what LANCE tells us about contemporary Armstrong, there is plenty to learn. He doesn’t regret the past and believes he told 10,000 or so lies to cover up his doping. He sees Floyd Landis as a “piece of shit,” and hates the way today’s pros shake hands and act friendly with one another. He once paid the bar tab for a bunch of bros who heckled him at a restaurant, and then told the owner to let them know it was him who picked up the check. And he still cannot fathom why some dopers are welcomed back to the sport while he remains an outcast.

Those long Armstrong interviews provide deep insight into the man, and my guess is that many viewers will eat them up. Alas, I’m not one of them. About two hours into the film an unfortunate truth dawned on me: I’m just not that intrigued by the Lance Armstrong side of the Lance Armstrong story anymore. It’s a lesson I could have only learned by watching LANCE.

LANCE is a very good film. It’s just not the one for me.

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