About 4 weeks after my final race of 2013 I find myself firmly planted in the off-season. I am in the thick of midterms instead of mountain stages and thinking more about neuromuscular force production than about bike racing.I suppose I should regale my readers with the typical “Cyclist Off Season Commentary”. That is I should tell you all about my relaxed, jovial and immensely hopeful outlook now that racing is done. I should tell you about all the wicked nature hikes I am going on (none), all of the bon-bons I am cramming into my long deprived gullet, how I am giving Cyclocross a go (not a chance) and how I am tootling around town on my single speed (they invented derailleurs for a reason) on my way to all the hip coffee shops that I frequent (at least 2 different Starbucks, so there). But alas, I don’t have any of those stories and I don’t want to try to write one. Instead I decided I would try to write something a little different based on an idea I got browsing a cycling websites at 3:30 in the morning. Thank you for reading.
Spoiler Alert: You probably don’t want to read this if you want to preserve the surprise of the Breaking Bad series, or if , for some reason, you are saving the last 15 years of cycling media to read all at once.
Lance Armsrong is Heisenberg: The Tragic Story of an Unlikely Cowboy Taking on the Wild West
My off season downtime consists of two main sources of diversion. First, I find myself reading endless reams of Pro Cycling gossip to fill my competitive void and after than I also consume a deplorable quantity of television. Amongst all the shows that I have watched start to finish, Breaking Bad is probably my favourite. I like it so much that upon watching the poignant series finale, I started right at the beginning again watching with a Breaking Bad newbie, my lovely TV watching copilot Emily. As any fan knows, Breaking Bad is one of those powerful shows that leave you thinking about an episode for days-the writing is just that penetrating.
And so, as I lay awake at 3:30 am reading some warmed-over article about Lance Armstrong refusing to return his ill-gotten medals and yellow jerseys, something resonated with me. Hours earlier I had watched a “caught red-handed” Walter White explain to his wife Skylar that he had indeed “earned” the 500000 dollars of meth-money before them and that he wouldn’t be giving it up. He explains that he “didn’t steal the money from anyone”, he had just “done the job and did what it took” to accomplish his seemingly noble goal of providing for his family. As I stared, bleary eyed at my phone in the dark I made the connection. I had been watching a very personal Breaking Bad story unfold right before my eyes for the better part of a decade. Indeed, without knowing it I had watched the season premiere sometime in 9th grade when I cracked the spine on a new copy of Its Not About the Bike.
Lance Armstrong and Walter White. Two life changing illnesses, two talented, ambitious and ruthless personalities and two men who broke all the rules to achieve incredible success under a thick veil of deception. The script is the same, I’m not joking. How could the story of a world beating champion really parallel that of a frail, meth-cooking mastermind? Let’s start at the beginning.
It all started with prodigious and pure talent. Lance Armstrong was born to ride a bike and ride it fast. He won everything he touched from the age of 12 and put the world on notice by winning the World Championships at 21. Though he undoubtedly doped in his early years, it appears that he never did anything that wasn’t the norm in those golden EPO years and never caused any disturbances. Walt, as we find out, has a similarly amazing aptitude for his craft-enough to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. He too did things conventionally and enjoyed success before mysteriously downgrading himself to an underpaid high school teacher. As we come to see, these men are anything but the normal high achieving personality, but in the beginning at least, they acted the part.
Cancer Pulls the Trigger
And then everything changed. Both Walt and Lance are shocked to find out that they have a very lethal cancer and are thrown into a life of disarray as they confront mortality. Life’s hardships don’t relent for either man as Lance is abandoned by his Cofidis team and Walter is continually humiliated trying to scrape money together at his second job washing cars. Eventually amidst the misery, something changes. The adversity flips a deep psychological switch and each man starts down a compelling new path-Lance and Walt Break Bad.
The First Act
This is where the triumphant story really begins. An inspired Walter White assembles a Winnebago Meth Lab and cooks his first batch. A fierce Lance Armstrong attacks the 1999 Tour de France’s top contenders on the misty climb to Sestriere. The process isn’t particularly pretty or polished but the result is something special. Lance takes a firm grip on cycling’s biggest prize and Walter manages to produce the most pure methamphetamine in existence. Lance Armstrong becomes an instant household name and Walter’s alter ego of “Heisenberg” is the name on every New Mexico meth distributor’s lips.
En route to these early successes glaring mistakes are made and the protagonists barely escape the consequences. Walt is cornered by a rival dealer and only escapes with a flourish of chemical brilliance while Lance barely evades a positive test for Cortisone on a falsified technicality. Lance draws ire from the European “Old Guard” in the peloton who are appalled at the idea of a brash cowboy taking charge in their sacred sport. Walter faces the same problem except that in his case the Mexican Drug Cartel proves a little more dangerous than a pack of angry men in spandex. With luck and guile, they both make it through relatively unscathed and shift their aspirations upwards.
Staying On Top
This is where our characters set themselves apart from the average criminal and into the realm of mastermind. Somewhere along the way for both Lance and Walt it stopped being about keeping a secret and became about coercion, intimidation and evasion of authority. Lance went so far as to pay off officials and had a secret EPO motorcycle follow him around France. Walt stooped to blowing up buildings and killing off coconspirators. The goal was still greatness and the ultimate obsession was always another triumphant yellow jersey in Paris or another 100lbs of blue meth cooked and sold. But now achieving this goal entailed a managing a complex network of accomplices and enemies.
At this stage in each story I found it good fun to compare the respective supporting casts. I think that Lance’s former teammate Tyler Hamilton most resembles Walt’s business partner Jesse. Tyler and Jesse were both morally decent guys who get caught up in their leader’s master plan but are left for dead when things got bumpy. I envision Walt’s wife Skyler as George Hincapie because of their quiet servitude and also because the visual is hilarious. Walt’s sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman is definitely the equivalent to Lance’s crooked manager Johan Brunyeel. Both carefully guide their guy onto a profitable course for as long as possible but then swiftly exit stage left when things go south.
When Walt reaches the highest level of drug manufacturing he encounters the ultimate “boss” of the crystal meth game, the seemingly upstanding community figure Gus Fring who enables protects Walt for the gift horse that he is. I envision former UCI president Pat Mcquaid to play Gus’s role in the cycling world as he diligently maintained Lance’s image for his own gain, hiding positive drug tests and warding off skeptics. Further, I imagine that Mcquaid might have felt a bit like he had his face removed from his skull when he was thoroughly ousted from the UCI this fall (maybe he didn’t use that analogy exactly).
Finally, Walt’s brother-in-law and DEA officer Hank can be represented by the sport of cycling and its fans in the Lance Armstrong story. Despite all the evidence against Walter, Hank remained oblivious until the writing was on the wall at which point it was too late. In the end, I feel like Hank may have gotten off better than cycling did.
After all the races were won and all the money was made, our gun-slinging cowboys both tried to ride away into the sunset with their victories and their honor in tow. Lance basked in the magnificent glow of 7 yellow Tour de France winner’s jerseys while Walter filled a storage unit with 77 million dollars in cash (weird right?). There was a sense of finality and that nothing could bring these men down now that they had walked away. The last words of Breaking Bad’s penultimate season seems too reinforce this notion. Walt, having brilliantly vanquished his greatest opponent, phones Skyler and finally proclaims: “I’ve won”.
The story could have ended there and maybe it should have, but it didn’t. Our greedy, narcissitic cowboys couldn’t fight the urge to turn back into town for a victory lap. This time, Lance and Walt’s shared flaws became fatal. When Lance Armstrong came out of retirement in 2009 it was as if he ripped a Band-Aid from the wound he had created on the sport. Likewise, Walt returned to cooking and left a trail of evidence and contempt clear enough for Hank and the DEA to follow. The hunt began and this time Lance and Walt weren’t going to make it out intact.
In both cases the ultimate demise was swift and devastating. In a matter of days both men lost nearly everything as the forces conspiring against them took action. With some sort of perverse pride, both Lance and Walt finally admitted their guilt and accepted the fate they knew they deserved. They were each left with little money, fewer friends and a world profoundly worse-off for their existence. However, true to their characters, Lance and Walt never lost their pride or expressed any real regret.
How could that be? How could these men justify such destructive moral transgressions and leave with their heads held high? I think that Walter says answers this question best for both characters in the series finale:
“ I did it because I was good at it…I was really…I felt alive.”