To many in Aspen, Armstrong still a hero | AspenTimes.com

To many in Aspen, Armstrong still a hero

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2011, file photo, Lance Armstrong pauses during an interview in Austin, Texas. Armstrong said on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012, that he is finished fighting charges from the United States Anti-Doping Agency that he used performance-enhancing drugs during his unprecedented cycling career, a decision that could put his string of seven Tour de France titles in jeopardy. (AP Photo/Thao Nguyen, File)

ASPEN – It’s been more than three years since Aspen resident Don Bird underwent treatment for prostate cancer, which included surgery and six weeks of radiation therapy that left him “sort of diminished physically and also sort of emotionally.”

Bird was 61 at the time, and he turned his focus to the Tour de France that summer, when Lance Armstrong took third place in his final appearance on cycling’s biggest stage.

“I watched every stage,” Bird said.

As he watched the tour, Bird saw the Nike commercials featuring the Texan’s road to recovery. He said he was taken in and inspired by Armstrong’s comeback from life-threatening cancer.

“I realize it’s a little Madison Avenue – that’s what (the commercials) are supposed to do – but at the time it was extremely inspirational for me,” Bird said.

And despite Thursday’s bombshell announcement from Armstrong that he was quitting his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Bird remains a faithful follower of the part-time Aspen resident.

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“To me, he’s my hero. He’s my role model,” said Bird, a cyclist himself. “The scale of what he was doing, you look at your own situation and say, ‘Come on. This isn’t that tough.'”

Armstrong’s announcement comes on the heels of two days in which Aspen basked in its role as a cycling-crazy town, as evidenced by its playing festive host to the finish and start of two USA Pro Cycling Challenge legs on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

Armstrong, who just won the Aspen Summer Uphill this past Saturday, and who’s registered to compete in Sunday’s Aspen Valley Marathon, was not in public view during this week’s cycling event.

But his impact could be felt, even at the top of Independence Pass on Wednesday, where a crowd of fans gathered to cheer on the racers as they made their ascent. One person displayed a sign that said “Free Lance.”

On Friday, the USADA announced that Armstrong is banned for life from the sport of cycling and that it would be stripping him of his seven Tour de France titles.

The USADA’s declaration prompted Armstrong’s camp to react with a statement insisting that “Lance Armstrong has not been stripped of his Tour de France titles.”

“Despite the media frenzy, the (USADA) has no jurisdiction over the Tour de France or international titles, therefore statements that Lance Armstrong has been formally stripped of his Tour de France titles, with a lifetime international ban from competitive cycling is false,” the statement reads. “The simple fact that a public announcement would be made to reflect such an interpretation, and that the media would report such a conclusion without verification of the facts, has caused catastrophic reputational damage to both Lance Armstrong and the LIVESTRONG organization, and represents the substance and spirit of the USADA accusations.”

Mayor Mick Ireland and Aspen cycling enthusiast Erik Skarvan, both vocal supporters of Armstrong leading up to Thursday’s announcement, had mixed reactions about the news.

For Skarvan, Armstrong remains the “greatest Tour (de France) rider ever and one of the greatest American cyclists ever.”

“I feel for him,” Skarvan said. “In terms of these nonstop allegations over the years, you have the French media, other media sources, our own federal government, and now you’re talking about USADA.

“It’s nonstop for the guy and I do feel for him. We have a system in place, and we have a constitution and a justice system where a person is innocent until proven guilty.”

While Skarvan questioned what he feels has been the relentless pursuit of cycling’s biggest name, he said he understood why Armstrong gave up the fight.

“At some point, you have to drop all the craziness,” said Skarvan, who said he has met Armstrong a few times. “I’m glad he’s drawing the line.”

Ireland, who once advocated a Lance Armstrong Day for the city of Aspen – an idea that did not gain traction -called it a “sad day.”

“From my perspective, he was very generous with that success in supporting others, and I admire that,” the mayor said. “I guess we’ll never have a real factual determination of what happened, and what he did or did not do.”

Armstrong obviously has had his detractors over the years, including a person who uses the Twitter handle CacheCacheAspen. The moniker is in reference to the Aspen restaurant that Armstrong has frequented regularly over the years – and where he reportedly had a June 2011 bathroom altercation with Olympic gold-medal cyclist Tyler Hamilton, who accused Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs on “60 Minutes” – but has no affiliation with the eatery.

Instead, CacheCacheAspen has taken pot shots at Armstrong over the last year, including a salvo Thursday that read: “Since many have expressed concern – here at CacheCache we are watching highlight reels of ’99 tour sipping new cocktail called Tranquillo.”

Skarvan said he’s tired of the cloud of negativity that has hung over Armstrong over the years. Armstrong’s successfully passing of 500 drug tests should account for something.

“At the end of the day, I give him the benefit of the doubt,” Skarvan said. “In our system, it’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Bird, meanwhile, said he’ll keep wearing the ubiquitous yellow LIVESTRONG wrist bands synonymous with the Texan and the fight against cancer.

“I will still wear it, and I’ll still continue to give them a small donation every year,” he said.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com