In recent weeks, I’ve reached out to Lance Armstrong.
My note to Mark Higgins, Armstrong’s manager/screener, was simple: “Would Lance have time to answer a few questions about the Redlands Bicycle Classic?”
How close did he come to racing here?
Who did he talk to about the race?
There’s strong evidence that Armstrong might’ve made Redlands his first competitive race in 1998 after overcoming a serious bout with testicular cancer.
I had no plans to ask him about Erythropoietin (EPO), or doping, or anything about being stripped of seven wins in the Tour de France. Such reporting has been done ad nauseum by the worldwide press.
Drug use was rampant. No sense in trying to recreate that all here. This is a mere attempt to showcase how giant Redlands — sans Armstrong — is within the cycling world.
“Lance,” a two-week, four-hour ESPN documentary shown on May 24 and 31 — following the highly watched five-week “The Last Dance” on Michael Jordan — was fully loaded with familiar faces.
• Jonathan Vaughters, the 1998 Redlands champion.
• Christian Vande Velde, who won at Redlands in 1999.
• Tyler Hamilton, fifth behind Vaughters in 1998.
• David Zabriskie, deadlocked for first place in 2000 with Horner, but lost on criteria.
• Tour de France champion (2006) Floyd Landis, ninth at Redlands in 2000; raced at the 2011 Redlands Classic. It was one of his final races before retiring.
Lance’s would-be lieutenants have been in full force at Redlands. Each was a cycling force, at least at the time. All raced here.
If there’s one question surrounding drug use here, it might be this: The most intriguing question surrounding “Lance” is how often did EPO influence riders at the Redlands Bicycle Classic?
Each of those afore-mentioned riders was an on-camera contributor in “Lance.” While each admitted to drug use, our purposes are to deliberate on Armstrong’s plans to race on local roads.
“If he had attended (Redlands) prior to winning the (Tour de France),” said former racer and eventual U.S. Pro Cycling President Derek Bouchard-Hall, “the fallout would not have been that big. He would have brought the race more attention and crowds being a world champion and cancer survivor.”
Chris Horner, a one-time Armstrong teammate on teams like Astana and Discovery in 2009 and 2010, said, “I’d never talked to Lance about Redlands. “This race would’ve been perfect for him.”
Armstrong winning at Redlands?
Said Bouchard-Hall: “It all depends on his training cycle and motivations.”
Redlands, said Horner, is just one big climb. “To do one climb, that’s in the U.S. when you do five or six climbs at a race in Europe. That one climb (at Redlands) is at Oak Glen.”
“He could have won easily if he was on form,” said Bouchard-Hall. “Oak Glen would have been enough to separate himself from the field. But it would not have been a focus and whether he turned the jets on would have been pure chance.”
“In Redlands,” said Horner, “there was Sunset and Highland. That required strength. And Lance was stronger than everyone.”
After winning a snow-covered 1998 Oak Glen stage race that he was auditioning for a role as an Armstrong lieutenant overseas.
At that moment, Armstrong was racing in the eight-day Paris-Nice road race in France, “but that he abandoned the race,” said Vaughters.
Remember, this was among Armstrong’s first races after beating cancer.
“At that time,” said Vaughters, “many on the team thought that Lance had quit the team for good. He returned to the team in June.”
Frankie Andreu has history in cycling — racer, manager, media liaison. He wasn’t interviewed in the “Lance” series, though. It was his wife, Betsy, who showed up on camera.
Those on-camera shots were a remarkable collection of cycling’s top faces, each having appeared at Redlands. There were others.
Manager Jim Ochowicz, 7-Eleven and Motorola, has had a lasting effect on the sport — and Redlands.
Paul Willerton, who has connections with both Armstrong and three-time Tour de France champion Greg Lemond, goes back to the real early days of the Redlands Classic, the 1980s.
Writer-editor Neal Rogers, who has probably written more than anyone on the sport’s dark side, plus various highlighted portions was spotted in the documentary — plenty of sparkling Redlands writings.
All those names in “Lance” have also appeared at Redlands.
The man himself never appeared.
“Lance had Europe on his mind,” said Carole Beswick, one of the originators of the Redlands Classic. “We asked him to come. We tried. We never thought he was likely to come.”
Lance at Redlands would’ve shown up before his ultimate European success.
Bouchard-Hall and Horner both figured it would’ve been to train in the race, benefit a sponsor, or raise money for his Livestrong cancer awareness charity.
Armstrong at Redlands? It would’ve been a “Who’s Who” of media mobs on city streets. It would’ve ranged from Sports Illustrated to the L.A. Times and everything in between.
Security would have been a big issue, said Horner.
“He’d have to have 20, 30 guys,” he said, “at the (team) bus. That’s before the race and after the race. During the race, it would’ve been no problem.”
In Europe, Horner said, he watched Armstrong “sign a thousand autographs a day.”
Redlands, which has long desired to attract top media to its illustrious event, would have long had its great wish.
“That,” said Beswick, “would’ve been a media long jump.”
Next week: Longtime Redlands Classic official Craig Kundig shares his story on Armstrong’s one-time plans for the local event.