- Paula Lavigne, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
USTIN, Texas -- Hundreds of cyclists, their tight, wildly colored jerseys showing off varying levels of fitness, crowd the starting line just before dawn.
Most face a podium festooned in yellow and black Livestrong banners. Across the street, a slew of television cameras and still photographers -- from as far as France -- jockey for position. Announcers plead for riders to move off of the grass near the podium. Few listen.
A black SUV pulls up, parks, and a low murmur rises from the crowd. Lance Armstrong is in there, and everyone waits on him to emerge.
Many here acknowledge they see him differently now, their devotion shaken by allegations they're not quite sure how to process. Lance Armstrong: a serial doper who for years bullied and threatened his former cycling teammates; an obsessive denier of what appears to be an inarguable set of truths about rampant performance-enhancing drug use and rules-breaking; a central conspirator in a grand scheme to claim his sport's highest honors, earn untold millions of dollars and be the face -- and force -- of an international charity that triumphs his own cancer-beating story.
The cyclists came here last weekend for the Livestrong Challenge rides -- the 15th anniversary of the Lance Armstrong Foundation's preeminent annual fundraiser. Armstrong attends the ride launch amid chaos: his cycling career and reputation as a competitor and human being in tatters. He only a few days prior had stepped down as the foundation's chairman. He'd taken a leave of absence from the foundation's board of directors, at least temporarily wholly removing him for the first time from the organization he founded, "Outside the Lines" learned. And he was largely without a sponsor for the first time in his career, after longtime company alliances followed Nike's lead and unceremoniously dumped the once-decorated rider.
Yet 4,300 riders and their $1.7 million in donations are here, according to organizers, at least giving an outward appearance that -- amid all the grumbling, controversy and allegations of the worst kind -- Lance Armstrong and the Lance Armstrong Foundation will triumph once again.
Far away, near Louisville, Ky., though, was cyclist and triathlete Aaron Breedlove. Breedlove estimates he's raised up to $10,000 for the cancer charity by throwing fundraising parties at his home and sharing stories about his mom, a breast-cancer survivor, and his father's friend who died of liver cancer. Breedlove rode in three Livestrong Challenge rides in Austin, his last in 2010.
"I'm going to ask for my money back," he said. "I don't support people who dope and cheat, and I think the foundation is largely built on the back of somebody who did exactly that. If Lance was not involved with them, I would have never donated, realistically."
It wasn't the doping allegations that turned him away. Breedlove had kind of given Armstrong a pass on that, understanding how pervasive PED use was in cycling as Armstrong raced to his now-vacated seven Tour de France victories. It was the doping combined with stories of how Armstrong threatened other cyclists and sued people for slander and libel, and how Armstrong conspired to create an "organized program of cheating," Breedlove said.
Worse, still, was reading that the cancer foundation had lobbied Congress over the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's charges against Armstrong.
"It's beyond what I can overlook," he said. "If he would have just taken EPO and the blood and all that, I could say, 'OK, that's what you had to do, and I can understand it.' But the other stuff, ruining people's lives and threatening other people. … That's really fraud. He's a fraud."
Breedlove can't separate Armstrong from the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the formal name of Livestrong. For now, he might be in the minority. The Austin events showed little hint of a slowdown for the foundation. And the sentiment on message boards, comment threads and on-the-street discussion seems to be in the foundation's favor despite growing agitation at Armstrong.
Lance the cancer survivor might hold more power than Lance the alleged doper. The future of Livestrong might depend on that.
ow on the podium, Livestrong CEO Doug Ulman gives Armstrong a brief introduction -- as the foundation's founder and a cancer survivor -- void of any athletic accolades. The world "cyclist" isn't uttered. The crowd lets out a long cheer. Armstrong bounds up to the microphone, dressed in a black T-shirt and ball cap. He talks for about 90 seconds: praises the foundation's growth, thanks the crowd and gives a cursory nod to the events of the last week, saying, "I've been better. But I've also been worse." And then he's gone. Armstrong -- a celebrity athlete known for being a bit of a wallflower at such events anyhow -- has become even scarcer.
Unless you were one of the 80 or so top fundraisers who got to go on a private ride Saturday with Armstrong or with those riders and guests at a dinner later at his house, you weren't getting any one-on-one time with the cyclist. Armstrong didn't show for the phalanx of reporters and more than 15 television cameras -- from CNN to the BBC -- staked outside a Friday night gala closed to the media. His comments to the 1,500 supporters there were brief. Dressed in a suit and tie, he didn't directly address the allegations and his decision to step down but did say, "It's been a difficult couple of weeks." He spent most of his five minutes -- shown in a video the foundation posted on its website later that evening -- talking about the history of Livestrong and some of its benchmarks, at one point saying, "This mission is bigger than me. It's bigger than any individual."
Really the only place to see Lance Armstrong the cyclist that weekend was at Mellow Johnny's, the Austin cycling store Armstrong owns. On Saturday, it was packed with a mix of tourists and cyclists. Seven framed yellow jerseys hung on the walls amid pictures of Armstrong crossing the finish line at the Tour de France -- wins that would be stripped by cycling's governing body just a couple of days later. Copies of the book "Comeback 2.0," about Armstrong's return to cycling in 2009, were buried in a stack of books near the register. Another blown-up photo showed Armstrong -- wearing his United States Postal Service jersey -- facing outstretched hands holding tape recorders, apparently giving an interview. But Armstrong isn't taking questions these days.
It's a switch in approach from a few years ago -- shortly after Armstrong's return to cycling in 2009 -- when he responded to doping allegations then by throwing himself into the public eye and participating in several cancer events, although not always associated with Livestrong. One of the most active athletes on Twitter, even Armstrong's tweet volume is down over the past month to less than half of his typical traffic.
Wandering around the Livestrong Challenge expo as riders picked up their registration packets on Saturday, an image of Armstrong isn't to be found. People gravitate toward a display of hanging yellow and white notes -- the size of greeting cards -- with the names of cancer survivors and victims.
Filling out at least 16 cards between the two of them are Tanni Melcher and her mother, Carmen Pfeiffer, diagnosed with cervical cancer 33 years ago. Melcher's husband, Ron, died of leukemia, but while he was fighting the disease, Armstrong was his inspiration. His hospital room walls were covered with Livestrong materials, and he even kept his bicycle there as well. The two women tick off the names of other relatives, friends, relatives of friends and so on whose names they plan to add to the hanging memorial. Cancer, not cycling, brought them here.
"It's not about Lance Armstrong. Yeah, it takes a strong person to start it, but it's stretched so far," Pfeiffer said. "I'm not riding for Lance Armstrong. I'm riding for Livestrong."
Melcher said it was "noble" of Armstrong to step down, and her mother added that his move "takes away the excuse of 'I'm not giving because of Lance, and he cheats.'"
"Look at this," said Melcher, spreading her arms and gesturing to the hundreds of cards jingling on the makeshift memorial. "This is not about that."
Splicing the public image is likely crucial to retain and attract new donors, but it's unclear right now what Armstrong's removal really means for the day-to-day operations of Livestrong.
A foundation spokeswoman said that as chairman, Armstrong talked to CEO Doug Ulman once or twice a day, getting updates on fundraisers, events and other outreach efforts. He also offered his own ideas and advice and was keenly interested in the popularity of Livestrong's services that help patients "navigate" cancer, from dealing with a diagnosis to finding the best hospital.
But Armstrong wasn't in close contact about the USADA report's impact on Livestrong, at least by one measure: It was released on Oct. 10, but Ulman said Armstrong called him two days later to ask: "If there's anything I can do to separate this distraction from the foundation, let me know."
Ulman said he told Armstrong he needed to think about that and would get back to him. Ulman told "Outside the Lines" in Austin that Armstrong had taken a leave of absence from the board but will still be "an active advocate, talking about the issues he cares about."
Divorcing Armstrong from Livestrong -- at least publicly -- was the consensus among branding experts, philanthropic watchdogs, former board members and donors, even those who say they still admire Armstrong for his personal battle against cancer.
On the small level, the separation is easily seen by examining historical screenshots of the Livestrong website, which several years ago featured the Lance Armstrong Foundation prominently on the home page with a picture of the famed cyclist. Today, the site is branded Livestrong, the address is www.livestrong.org, the "Lance Armstrong Foundation" is in small print at the bottom of the page and Armstrong's image is nowhere to be found -- changes made long before the recent USADA charges against Armstrong. On a foundation employee's LinkedIn account, the name of her current employer was recently changed from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to Livestrong. Whether the Lance Armstrong Foundation name will be dropped altogether is up to the board, which meets next in December.
Longtime donor Steve Bartolucci, who figures he has raised up to $200,000 for the foundation since 2003, said Ulman had told him a few years ago there was an effort to create space between the Lance Armstrong name and the foundation's.
"The foundation, the movement, the mission was larger than just one man," said Bartolucci, who is battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. "They felt they were going to move in that direction and kind of rebrand around Livestrong and make the 'Lance Armstrong Foundation' sort of the secondary, small-type kind of thing on the logo. So, yes, it is appropriate at this point for [Armstrong] to step aside and let Livestrong retain its focus."
So far, Livestrong reports no falling back. The organization has been aggressive in reporting unverifiable donation numbers at each round of bad news for Armstrong. Example: It reported last week $20.9 million in donations and event registration fees, up 13 percent from the same time last year. As of Sunday, the foundation said it hasn't received any letters such as the one Breedlove promises, although leaders say it's likely they'll get some -- but there are no plans to issue refunds.
The foundation's revenue was $46.8 million last year, which is down from the foundation's peak of $52.4 million in 2005 -- the year Armstrong won his seventh Tour de France -- but it has been steadily climbing for the past five years. Contributions and grants have been fairly steady, around $25 million to $30 million, (even though tax returns show a blip in 2009 due to a one-time accounting change in which about $10 million in merchandise and event funds were counted as contributions).
One notable change has been a growing percentage of the foundation's revenue coming from other sources, especially direct sales of merchandise and license fees, which accounted for about $15.8 million in 2011, or a third of the foundation's total revenue that year. Those fees come from companies such as Nike, RadioShack, Oakley and Trek, which also sell Livestrong-branded merchandise. It also includes revenue from Demand Media, which runs the commercial Livestrong.com website.
Although several of those companies, including Nike and RadioShack, have publicly stated they continue to support Livestrong's mission, it's unknown how that will actually translate into sales -- especially after some companies, including Nike, Oakley and Trek, have severed their endorsement deals with Armstrong.
Livestrong chief financial officer Greg Lee said he believes the foundation's move to diversify its income stream is what helped it avoid the economic slump that a lot of nonprofits -- which rely solely on donors -- have experienced over the past few years. "It's one of the innovative and entrepreneurial things Livestrong has going for us," he said.
The question is whether the noble goal of cancer care can sell -- everything from cycling-related merchandise such as Livestrong-branded jerseys, Nike shoes, Trek bicycles and Oakeley sunglasses to infant onesies, RadioShack iPod cases and American Century Investments financial portfolios -- without the face and story of the cancer-survivor-turned-cycling-superstar. Foundation workers and donors alike like to point out the number of people affected by cancer dwarfs the number of people who follow professional cycling.
"Cycling doesn't have anything to do with our business every day," Lee said. "We're in the business of cancer-related assistance."
But the merchandise sold because of the connection people made with Armstrong's cancer story, and that puts the foundation into a conflict, said Laura Ries, a well-known marketing consultant and branding expert.
"In the short term, they did have to distance themselves from Lance, but in the long term, walking away from Lance is the worst thing they can do." Selling the cancer message without a spokesperson -- specifically without Armstrong -- could be very difficult, she said.
"The brand is so linked to Lance -- the color yellow, his presence, his story -- that's what people are connecting with. That's why they're proud to wear the merchandise," Ries said. "Without Lance, where are they?"
nd without the foundation, where is Lance?
A foundation spokesperson said Armstrong has never received money from the foundation "for anything," but it's unmistakable that Armstrong has benefited from his foundation. It bolstered his image, making him a more valuable pitchman for companies such as Nike and RadioShack and a more popular author and speaker, allowing him to command hefty appearance fees. Forbes estimates his net worth at $125 million. Armstrong also benefited from a deal Livestrong struck in 2008 with social media/content provider Demand Media, which acquired the rights to start the for-profit Livestrong.com website featuring information and tips on healthy living. The agreement made Armstrong a "strategic adviser and ongoing content contributor" and gave him and his management company a financial stake in the site's success and valuable shares in the firm's initial public offering.
The arrangement raised the eyebrows of the leaders of a few charity watchdog groups. "This blurs the lines between the foundation and its charitable mission and the personal gain of its founder,'' said Ken Berger, president and executive director of Charity Navigator, in an ESPN.com story in September 2010. "It's mixing two purposes in a way that smells of a conflict of interest. The most precious thing a charitable organization has is the public's trust, and things like this put a chink in that.''
In light of the criticism, Armstrong ended up donating the $1.2 million he received from the deal to the foundation.
In recent years, the foundation has received top ratings from Charity Navigator and other watchdog groups, although that hasn't stopped people from criticizing the organization. In recent days, Armstrong supporters have peppered online comment boards with statements about how much Armstrong and Livestrong have done to find a cure for cancer. "Lance Armstrong IS an American hero. He has done more to further cancer research than any government bureaucracy ever has," wrote one supporter.
But it's not actually true. Livestrong does not raise money for traditional cancer research. Instead, its focus has been on raising awareness, acceptance and -- more recently -- what it calls "cancer navigation," which includes providing cancer patients tools and information on dealing with insurance coverage, finding a clinical trial, choosing a doctor and so forth.
"Every single person who has cancer -- no matter how much money you have, where you live, how educated you are, when you are diagnosed with cancer -- you are reduced to this level playing field," said Ulman, who added that the foundation's three-year strategic plan is about expanding those services. "Everyone needs a navigator to help them through."
But Breedlove, the donor-turned-doubter, said the foundation "seems like a lot of fluff."
"I hear stories, you know, the Twitter people that are just Livestrong zealots. 'Oh, Livestrong saved my life.' How did they save your life? 'Lance inspired me to do chemo.' Did that really save your life? Would you really not have survived?" he said. "I don't see them as an integral part of helping fight cancer. I just don't think it adds up. I'm not impressed. I'm a psychologist by trade, and I haven't seen one thing that was impressive about what they do."
Although to others, you can't put a price on inspiration and guidance. Bartolucci said he read Armstrong's book "It's Not About The Bike" just a few days after his first chemotherapy treatment, lying on the couch, coping with bouts of nausea and vomiting, and it got him back on his feet, outside in the fresh air, riding a bike.
"I'm back in the fight with cancer, and I know Livestrong has my back. I know that they're there for me. I know that they're there for everybody, especially those who don't have money, who don't have access," he said.
Bailey Bircher said her father -- who has chronic myloid leukemia -- used the daily diary on Livestrong.org to keep track of his treatments, and he called the help center for advice on finances and finding a doctor. Bircher and her boyfriend, Doug Lardes, from Denver, signed up for the 18-mile Livestrong Challenge ride and have together raised more than $15,000 for the organization.
Lardes -- who acknowledges he's someone who "just learned what a peloton is" -- said he encountered some skepticism when raising money for the ride.
"My uncle had asked will the money be spent properly, because of the allegations against Lance," he said, adding that his uncle eventually did donate.
Ulman said the nonprofit has been wholly transparent about how it spends money.
According to IRS returns, which are required to be made public, the foundation spent about $31.7 million in 2011, of which 81 percent went directly toward charitable work, which is well within the guidelines established by nonprofit watchdog groups.
Included in that figure are millions of dollars -- $5.2 million in 2011 -- distributed in grants to other nonprofit organizations, whether to support their services, cosponsor a conference or partner in an ongoing program. The recipients range from the institutional cancer charities or universities whose revenues are measured in the hundreds of millions to the community foundations whose largest donor that year might be Livestrong itself.
Two of its larger partners, the American Cancer Society and the YMCA, refused to comment to "Outside the Lines." But Dr. Michael Link, past president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology and a pediatric oncologist, said Livestrong filled a void in meeting the social and psychological needs of young cancer patients. ASCO received about $360,000 from Livestrong in 2010, and the two organizations have partnered on workshops to address the unique issues -- such as preserving fertility, entering the workforce and starting college -- faced by young patients who've survived cancer.
"The organization has matured. It has an agenda of things it has advocated for," Dr. Link said. "I just hope they'll be able to continue on their successful advocacy independent of their figurehead. I hope they'll be able to carry on and continue the collaboration we've had with them."
he key to that, Dr. Link said, is Ulman, whom Link describes as a "steady force in the organization."
The 35-year-old Ulman has been CEO since 2007. Ulman -- like Armstrong -- is a cancer survivor, having battled chondrosarcoma and two bouts of malignant melanoma. He is described as a far more avid runner than a cyclist, and he played on three Ivy League championship soccer teams at Brown University in college. He also has his own charity, the Doug Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.
Although not as recognizable to the general public as Armstrong, Ulman is a popular figure among the Livestrong faithful.
As he walks near the starting line Sunday morning, he's mobbed by donors who want to shake his hand or who shout at him to get a quick acknowledgement.
"We've been overwhelmed ... in the last few days by people who want to join the movement," he said. "I think there's going to be a groundswell of people who step up and say, 'I'm going to help this movement.' Ultimately, it's not about any one of us. It's not about Lance. It's not about me."
Though if Ulman left, his departure would be "catastrophic," said Dr. Steven Wolff, a former Livestrong board member.
"I think he's thoughtful. I think he's driven. I think he's capable of understanding the entirety of the process," Dr. Wolff said. "I think he has the support of the board. … The board has to make sure that Doug Ulman doesn't leave."
Ulman's actions over the past few weeks seem to show how the foundation is actively working to maintain those relationships with an underlying tone of realizing that these are rocky times. In an email blast Ulman sent out Oct. 18 -- the day after Armstrong announced he was stepping down -- he pleaded for donor support, using words such as "barriers," "challenges," "adversity" and "battle."
"There are times when our community has to pull together -- proving to ourselves and to the world that we're strong enough and determined enough to fulfill our vitally important mission. This is one of those times," he wrote, later adding: "We can't let up, and we won't let up."
Ulman carried a busy schedule this past weekend. Opportunities to snag an interview with him kept getting pushed back because he was in "meetings with partners" or attending to "hosting duties." He ultimately gave just 10 minutes before he headed to the podium to announce the start of the Sunday rides, which he began by emphasizing how grateful the organization was for everyone's continued support.
Ulman, who earned $374,307 in 2011, doesn't shy from tough questions, even if his answers as the overseer of an organization that has raised $500 million and served 2.5 million people can appear at times too convenient.
Does he believe Armstrong cheated and lied about his cycling career?
"I have no idea. I mean, it's literally -- it's never something that's impacted my job leading the foundation," he said. "My mission, our mission, is so focused on serving those with cancer."
But Ries, the branding expert, said Ulman might want to reconsider the Armstrong image, because she doesn't see Livestrong moving forward long-term without Armstrong. And she doesn't see Armstrong mending his image, at least in the near future, without an admission of guilt, which she believes is well established by the "facts of a thousand-page report."
"People hate liars more than cheaters," she said, noting the public's willingness to forgive Michael Vick after the NFL star admitted to abusing dogs. "He signed a new contract with Nike. People are wearing his shirts. People like Michael Vick; so we have an amazing ability to forgive."
Bartolucci is one of those Livestrong supporters who initially dodged the question of whether they think Armstrong doped, but when pressed hard enough, acknowledged they believe he probably did. It's disappointing, he said, "but Lance doesn't owe me an explanation. He had cancer. I have cancer. ... I owe him a debt of gratitude for what he's done for cancer survivorship."
As the event's top donor with $94,000, Jeff Mulder, who owns a glass company in Holland, Mich., had the one-on-one opportunity -- twice last weekend -- to ask Armstrong the question many want answered. But he didn't. He talked about artwork and -- in his only reference to the current crisis -- asked Armstrong if all this controversy kept him from attending his children's sporting events, which Armstrong told him he never missed.
Mulder is close to raising $1 million overall for Livestrong, but said he said he felt like he'd be intruding on Armstrong to ask him about the allegations given he doesn't really know him that well: "I don't [fundraise] for Lance. Lance isn't where the buck stops with Livestrong." Mulder said he likes Armstrong, even wants to give the guy a hug, but he's confident that Livestrong is fine without him.
Mulder said he even said so Saturday night when he stood 5 feet from Armstrong -- during dinner at Armstrong's house -- and gave a presentation in which he recalls saying the following: "Lance, I don't need anything from you. I don't need your time. I don't need you to do private rides. I don't need you to be a hero. I don't need you to quit. I don't need you to continue to fight. I don't need you to do anything."
Because the stage lights were shining in his eyes, Mulder said he couldn't see Armstrong respond.
Lance Armstrong the cancer survivor might hold more power than Lance Armstrong the alleged doper. The future of Livestrong might depend on that.