(CNN) — He fought cancer and then won the world’s toughest bike race seven times — albeit with the help of a myriad of drugs — before a precipitous fall from grace.
Worshipped, then demonized, few people polarize opinion quite like Lance Armstrong, perhaps even more so as he seeks rehabilitation in the court of the public view.
“It would be an incredible story of redemption and second chances if he puts himself in a position to deserve that,” says Travis Tygart, CEO of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), whose report led to Armstrong losing all his sponsors and cost him millions of dollars.
“He hasn’t done it … yet but, when it comes to second chances, I’m always hopeful,” Tygart told CNN.
No longer ‘untouchable’
It could be a long road to redemption given Armstrong’s bubbling resentment towards those who brought him down.
In Juliet Macur’s 2014 book “The Cycle of Lies,” Armstrong says: “I hated those motherf***ers — the Betsys, the LeMonds, Walsh, I still hate him … I still hate them.”
The disgraced Texan was referring to his former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and Irish journalist David Walsh, all key architects in his downfall.
More than two years on from his report, Tygart comes across as a modern-day Elliot Ness.
Though Ness and his “Untouchables” used guns, Tygart deployed testimonies from many of those closest to Armstrong to bring down the previously untouchable cycling superstar.
The American lawyer repeatedly held out an olive branch to Armstrong with offers to confess his sins and serve the same six-month suspension dished out to his former teammates.
Armstrong never came to see him, but Tygart still hopes the day will come.
“It takes time,” Tygart says. “Floyd Landis (himself a former Tour winner later exposed as a drugs cheat) denied it and attempted to take us down for doing our job.
“It was a couple of years after he served his sanction that he decided to come in and be truthful. Hopefully Lance Armstrong can and will move on.
“Everyone comes around to the rules and when you’re living your life as a fraud and stealing from people and not living an open and transparent life, that’s not the way to do it.
“To err is human, that’s a big factor in our world. Absolutely, we can forgive and we should offer the opportunity for second chances.
“It’s what we’re about but that second chance has to be earned, it has to be more than just cheap lip service, a real attempt to make amends.”
Tygart’s position is admirable given that during his quest, there was immense pressure on him to halt his investigation, attempts to bankrupt USADA and bring down the organization, even personal threats to the lawyer.
“I don’t like hate mail and death threats but shame on us if you don’t have the courage to set that aside and move on,” he says. “The evidence was so overwhelming beyond any doubt that we had to just move on regardless.”
‘He needs to stop being an asshole’
Armstrong’s former teammate Scott Mercier is another to demonstrate a generous willingness to forgive.
In 1997, at the age of 28 and in the prime of his career, the U.S. Postal rider was handed a detailed drugs regimen by the team’s doctor (who has since been banned from the sport from eight years despite his denials) and told to stick to it.
Mercier’s decision not to dope was the day his cycling career ended.
At a similar crossroads to Armstrong — who would join the team the following year — and so many others, Mercier opted to not cheat, and walked away instead.
It makes it all the more surreal that Mercier, who lives about a two-hour drive from Armstrong in Colorado, regularly drives to a halfway point between the pair’s respective homes, where they unpack their bikes and go for a ride.
“I have to recognize that Lance is 80% gray, 10% white and 10% black,” says Mercier.
“I think there are three camps in the U.S.: those that absolutely hate him and will never forgive him, those that overlook everything that he did and those that are a bit indifferent.
“I think he’ll be forgiven but he needs to keep doing what he’s doing. He’s showing some humility, he needs to stop being an asshole and be nice. He has regrets. He’s spoken about the bullying and I know he regrets that.”
Mercier admits there have been times when he’s grown concerned for his friend, with the magnitude and rapidity of his fall from grace.
“I don’t think he’ll ever get back to the perch that he was on. He was deified for 10 years and now he’s demonized but he’s just a human being. I think part of the problem is that he can’t get over the USADA decision against him.”
Not everyone is prepared to forgive, let alone believe that Armstrong deserves another chance.
His best friend when he first broke onto the European circuit in the early 1990s was fellow American Frankie Andreu.
The pair were tight — Frankie and Lance — an American double act, living together and trying to break into the notoriously inhospitable ranks of continental racing.
Andreu and his wife Betsy were in the hospital room in October 1996 when a then cancer-riddled Armstrong admitted to doctors the cocktail of drugs he had ingested as a professional cyclist.
Fast forward to 2014 and Andreu is reluctant to discuss Armstrong.
“There is no rehabilitation for Lance Armstrong as long as he keeps telling lies and continues to bully and slander people,” Andreu said in a two-line email sent to CNN.
“I don’t even know how you would make a program (or write an article) about something that does not exist.”
Armstrong rang the Andreus the night before his very public mea culpa on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show.
Frankie was not keen to take his call. He said to his wife: “When he doesn’t follow through on anything, I will say ‘I told you so.’ ”
Betsy, though, decided to give Armstrong another chance and initially thought he was genuine. He said sorry to her on air and they arranged to meet to talk things through, but she says Armstrong pulled out of the meeting.
“For three months I talked to him: texts, email and telephone,” she recalls.
“He then completely canceled on me, saying ‘Sorry, I can’t meet you,’ but then he tells people I rebuffed him.
“Sometimes I get sick of it and wish he’d just leave me alone, to leave me out of it, but he still mentions my name. It’s his mess but if he is to lie about me and go after me, I will fight back.”
She is a formidable woman.
Forced to testify in Armstrong’s case against SCA Promotions, which had paid him millions, the cyclist painted a picture of a bitter and twisted woman.
She may have lacked the financial clout of Armstrong but her fight is a match for anyone, with a very clear view on what’s right and wrong.
“In 2013, he said I had no credibility but he’s a pathological liar,” she says.
“What am I supposed to do after that rant in Juliet Macur’s book? His actions to this date are not of someone who wants to make amends.
“Everything that he’s done, it’s just the same Lance. He’s talking about people and he’s trying to deceive the public, and thinks that if he says sorry it’s enough.
“But sorry is just a word. After everything he did to me, I extended an olive branch and he snapped it. That was a hard thing to do after all the lying and smearing of me.”
So is he just the same Lance of always?
“I think he always will be,” Betsy Andreu says. “He will fight and draw out the court cases as long as he possibly can.
“A tiger doesn’t change its stripes. I really think he needs help and I hope he gets it. Maybe then he would stop the lying and could be on his way to healing. An authentic sorry means making amends, not just saying the words.”
When ‘sorry’ is not enough
Greg LeMond, cycling’s dominant force in the late 1980s, was another who faced the wrath of Armstrong’s legal team — and that of the bike manufacturer Trek — due to an interview with Walsh for Britain’s Sunday Times in 2001.
“If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports,” LeMond, the only American now recognized as a Tour de France champion, told the paper. “If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
It effectively sounded the death knell at the time for his own business and it led to him staying away from the sport that made him a star.
Legal action is potentially looming from LeMond’s side. “I’m looking at all the options — nothing is closed to me,” he tells CNN.
“Some of this has been awful — it was scary at times. I was running out of money with legal fees,” he adds.
“For a lot of people it was scary having someone so focused on destroying you for so long. I feel relieved that that’s all partly over but you never know, I’ve ruffled a lot of feathers at Trek.
“What goes around comes around. There is still much stuff that has never hit the news. I’d have a hard time. I couldn’t even begin to explain what was happening. It’s hard to put into words and even describe the people.”
LeMond admits he has no sympathy for Armstrong and also believes that the former rider is not about to admit the error of his ways wholeheartedly.
“I never say never, but I don’t think he’s ready to be totally honest,” he says.
“I don’t think he ever will be. We’ll see. But I think he has a lot of problems with the government.”
‘Too much baggage’
Sunday Times chief sports writer Walsh wrote a book about his battle to expose Armstrong, “Seven Deadly Sins,” which led to the newspaper being sued for $1.5 million by Armstrong for daring to suggest he was doping.
Walsh’s sympathy lies with the cyclists who opted not to cheat.
“I feel sorry for the people who rode clean and got screwed, the Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeonis of this world,” he tells CNN.
“There are some people that believe he should be given back his Tour titles as there was no-one legitimate to take them, but that would merely legitimize what they did.
“I’m sorry but I think he should get hung up. Armstrong getting back into cycling is a nonsense.”
Armstrong met with the Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) in May, but the details of that meeting have not been made public.
As for last year’s Oprah interview, Walsh says: “I think he was sincere to the point that he wanted to be.”
So how does he see Armstrong at this point, and what is the way forward for him?
“What I see is a guy struggling with the reality of now being irrelevant,” adds Walsh. “He had some very significant people when he won all those Tours, and in the years after, that wanted to be in his presence.
“He was an iconic figure. That’s gone. I’d like him to get on with his life and move forward, to spend time with his kids, have an enjoyable personal life and play golf. But he should stay away from public life — there is too much baggage.”
Taking on the state
More legal wrangling lies ahead for Armstrong.
The biggest and potentially most costly is a case against him by the U.S. Federal Government over its sponsorship of Armstrong’s former U.S Postal Service team. Should he lose it will be a more costly day than when he went on Oprah.
“I think if he can win this case it will be bigger than winning seven Tours de France, and I think he stands a chance of winning,” says American journalist Reed Albergotti.
The Wall Street Journal reporter, with fellow journalist Vanessa O’Connell, penned the 2013 book “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France and the greatest sports conspiracy ever.”
“The U.S. Department of Justice doesn’t like to go to trial unless it thinks it has a good chance of winning and jurors have tended to side with athletes, and that could happen here,” Albergotti suggests.
“The one thing we can count on is that he’s gearing up for another fight.”
Albergotti argues that the fight that made Armstrong such an impressive cancer survivor and such an impressive cyclist has been to his detriment as he tries to recover his own reputation while he remains persona non grata in the U.S.
His and O’Connell’s greater interest was not so much in the doping but in the conspiracy not just of Armstrong but those around him.
“If he was truly contrite and really felt bad about what he did to people like Greg LeMond and the Andreus, he would be acting differently,” says Albergotti.
“But he’s still trying to paint LeMond as this crazy boozer, and made Betsy Andreu look like a hysterical woman. He’s tried to destroy people’s reputations and it’s not something he’s really addressed.
“He doesn’t seem to be humbled at all and you want to see that from someone in his position. He’s acted almost as though he lost a bunch of time in the Tour de France and has to make it up and he can do the same thing he’s always done.
“It doesn’t work that way. People want to see his heart.
“He thinks he can win and he still wants to beat everyone if he can. You see it in the way that he’s taking on the U.S. Department of Justice right now.
“I’ve heard he’s telling people he wants to go to trial and beat them — it’s as though this trial is a bike race. He needs to start becoming a better person and there’s nothing to stand in his way apart from him.”
It’s Armstrong’s move next.
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a two-part look at the legacy of the Lance Armstrong’s doping. In the first installment, Armstrong gives his side of the story.