Thanks for nothing, Lance
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's July 8, Kids In Sports issue. Subscribe today!
IF AMERICAN Andrew Talansky wins a stage at his first Tour de France this year, he'll already be prepared for what happens next -- not on the road but in the news conference.
On a rainy day in March, Talansky won a stage and took the lead of the eight-day Paris-Nice, a key prep race for the Tour. Talansky used speed and smarts to outsprint six riders, including eventual overall winner Richie Porte of Team Sky, and flashed the same biceps-flexing victory pose Lance Armstrong might have used. The euphoria was short-lived. At the news conference, a Belgian reporter zeroed in on Talansky: "What's it like to be a cyclist in America after Armstrong?" The subtext was as clear as the sport's two decades of guilt. He might as well have asked, Why should we trust you?
Talansky, 24, is a talented, charismatic young rider full of promise. He reminds his own coach, who raced with Armstrong, of the legend. "It's not cool to say so, but Andrew has a lot of the same personality traits as Lance," says Jonathan Vaughters of Talansky's ambition and bullheadedness. Too young to have experienced Armstrong's reign, Talansky read last year's 202-page United States Anti-Doping Agency's Reasoned Decision in the Armstrong case in its entirety, along with many of the eyewitness affidavits that ex-teammates of Armstrong (including three of Talansky's current teammates) signed. He knows that Armstrong sold America a false bill of goods for seven Tour wins, leaving jilted fans and cynical bloggers unsure of whom (or whether) to believe anymore.
Yet he hadn't always been even-keeled when questioned. Last fall he Twitter-slammed a racer on the U.S. domestic circuit (the equivalent of AA-ball to the WorldTour Talansky rides in) who tweeted that everyone racing in Europe had doped. "If you believe we are all doped, there's no hope for you," Talansky responded. To him, it seemed obvious that pro cycling, if not 100 percent clean, is cleaner than most American sports, whose drug-testing programs aren't nearly as stringent. He concluded by barking that "it's not my job" to convince anyone otherwise.
Facing the news conference in France that day, however, he found a less exhausting gear. He would try to instill trust. He was aware, he said later, of the irony that he was about to "say the same things the generation before us did." But he would calmly say them anyway.
"Today," he replied to the Belgian reporter, with an I'm-glad-you-asked gleam in his eye, "is a very clear demonstration to everybody who might be skeptical because of what happened with Lance. You look at what I'm doing … and if you want proof that cycling is clean now, look no further."
Five days later, Talansky finished second overall. And three months after that, when he and his team, Garmin-Sharp, compete in the Tour from June 29 to July 21, he hopes for the chance to answer the Armstrong question again and again.
For the wave of young Americans who are rising to the top of the sport, Armstrong truly is history. The last time Armstrong won a Tour, in 2005, Talansky was just 17 and starting his first bike races around Miami. He loved the sport so much that he dropped out of college at 20 to move to Italy and race for zero money. Now in his third year as a pro, Talansky gets his greatest satisfaction from feeling that hot, metallic taste in his throat after a hard workout, all while consciously not touching anything stronger than Advil. "A ballplayer can go off the field, get a shot of cortisone and come back, and he's called a hero," Talansky says of one of the many substances allowed in American sports but not pro cycling. He's not complaining: Strict testing and clean racing are all he has known, and he embraces the sport they've produced.
At first, the constant suspicion frustrated him. But as he began to appreciate the history, he mellowed. Even after all the scandals and lies in so many sports, the Reasoned Decision made it inescapably clear just how dire pro cycling's drug problem had been. Talansky read how Armstrong had help from every corner of the sport. Even cycling's world governing body, the International Cycling Union, failed to follow up when several Armstrong tests in 2001 were termed "highly suspicious" and then silently accepted $125,000 in donations from him. The blood booster EPO was so effective that Vaughters, who himself doped, estimates that 80 percent of pros were using it at the height of the doping era in the late '90s. Reflects Talansky, "I can't imagine what a scary time that was."
So now he sees establishing trust no differently from racing: You have to do the work. He labors at transparency like many other young American pros. They engage directly with fans on social media; they post training rides to social fitness sites like Strava and Garmin Connect; and they let fans and media dissect how climbing speeds and power outputs have fallen back to historical pre-EPO levels.
And they answer questions, in some cases granting extraordinary access. Talansky's team has had several journalists embedded and even released riders' personal medical records to media outlets as proof they're racing clean. Talansky knows he's a way off from the day when an interview won't cover doping. But he's not going to tee off on someone, like Armstrong used to, for asking about it. "Getting frustrated or angry is only going to drive fans further away," he says.
He knows he can be part of a golden generation for cycling, and he knows the only way to defeat distrust is with time. With every win and every statement for clean racing that follows it, trust grows. In a way, Armstrong's fall has helped. It certainly freed Talansky to talk more plainly. "With him admitting it, finally there are no more lies," he says.
At least that's the hope. Unfortunately, optimism about cycling still comes with a corrosive counterpart, a knowing skepticism that without constant forward progress, the sport will slide back to those old ways, as it always has. Fans and reporters today train their sights on Sky, the sport's biggest team, which not only wins but wins by dominating, clinical and robotic like Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service Team was. Sky went 1-2 in last year's Tour and boasts the presumptive race favorite, Britain's Chris Froome. "If you held a gun to my head and asked, 'Are Sky clean?' I'll say, 'Yes,'" says David Walsh, a respected journalist for London's The Sunday Times who is embedded with the team this season. "And when you pull the trigger and there's the click of an empty chamber, I'll say, 'Whew, thank God!'"
Talansky and other racers can't afford not to trust Sky. Once a racer starts worrying about whether his competition is clean, confidence -- so crucial to winning -- disappears. Instead of fretting, Talansky focuses on how, for the first time in memory, a young rider can enter the sport and win clean. "I can't tell you, 10 or 15 years ago, what I would have done," he says of the old days and old ways. "I can't say I would have said no or yes [to doping]." But he has the luxury of not having to decide. His coach, Vaughters, is a leader in the clean-racing movement. His team was created to win clean. Unlike the generation before him, Talansky isn't mercilessly dismantled and demoralized and forced into a choice that isn't much of a choice at all: dope or quit.
Time is a metric with which racers have a close relationship. Victory and defeat are measured in seconds gained in a time trial or a perfectly timed attack on a mountaintop finish. Likewise, time will be the measure of how long it will take to clean up the sport. He can't say how many years. He can't even say Tour winners will be pure. But he can tell people the truth about himself and his team. Because, he says simply, "This time, it's true."