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In Good Conscience

Lance Armstrong has new lease of life but jury is still out

If your past is shady, and possibly criminal, you might think it best to commit to a reformed life. Or hide.

Not Lance Armstrong, and not in the United States, where publicity is its own drug.

The man who doped his way to seven consecutive Tour de France titles, and who still faces a lawsuit brought by the US government and others seeking up to US$100 million (S$136.44 million) over his deception, has set himself up as a broadcaster and blogger on the good, the bad and the ugly of Le Tour.

The gruelling race that pushes riders to, and beyond, human capacity for 3,540km over 21 daily stages, ends at the Champs-Elysees tomorrow. Armstrong will not be anywhere near the finish line. He's calling this one from his own backyard in Austin, Texas.

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"I can watch the Tour in my house, then walk across to my studio," he told CNN this week. "God bless those on the Tour having to drive three hours every day between the stages. That's miserable, you need a vacation at the end of it."

Without leaving Texas, where he once thought of pursuing a career as state governor, he taps into the American (and fast becoming the world's) obsession with celebrity.

By daily podcast and occasionally by Instagram, he feeds the curiosity of, it is claimed, 300,000 people per day across the States. He doesn't hold back.

Like Armstrong - and Alex Rodriguez, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, who are back as TV analysts or public campaigners - (O. J.) Simpson divides opinions about how and when a fallen hero should get back some public esteem.

He lambasts the tour director, an old adversary of his. He attributes blame for dangerous descents, or for reckless riders barging one another off the road. I'm not sure he addresses who, if anyone, among today's riders are drugged to the eyeballs, as he was. Or which team doctors might be helping men to follow his descent down the slope of not just cheating, but lying about it to the point of threatening legal and physical retribution.

Whether his criticisms, his insights, his attempted witticisms break with his past by steering towards truth is, I guess, for each follower to judge.

Armstrong sees the podcasts fill a void in his life. "I had two platforms before," he said. "Cycling and cancer. I'm not saying it's right or wrong, but they went overnight - not just the cycling but the cancer."

He added: "A man with no platform is a lost man."

His records are annulled. His future is hampered by a lifetime ban from competing at anything related to Olympic sports.

At 45, with five kids and planning to marry for a second time, he has to find some meaning in the second stage of life.

The estimated US$125 million in his bank accounts, give or take what the government and other claimants including former team riders are trying to take away, is probably ring-fenced by retirement funds.

Lawyers did that for O.J. Simpson, even while he served the first nine years of a jail sentence for armed robbery. Like Armstrong - and Alex Rodriguez, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, who are back as TV analysts or public campaigners - Simpson divides opinions about how and when a fallen hero should get back some public esteem.

Simpson has just been told that the law agrees he has done his time.

He should be free by the first week in November when the government-backed lawsuit against Armstrong comes to court.

The US Postal Service, which sponsored the team Armstrong rode for, insisted that it would not have paid US$32.3 million between 2000 and 2004 to the outfit, had it known the riders used banned drugs and blood transfusions.

The Postal Service is a government agency, and the court could order that money (of which Armstrong took the lion's share) to be repaid. Indeed, the judgment could triple the amount under the False Claims Act.

Armstrong's legal team argues that the Postal Service suffered no damages - and received far more in value from the sponsorship than the millions it paid. A jury must decide. And if those members of the public are anything like the people who respond online to Armstrong's daily podcast of the Tour, called Stages, they might end up divided between those who admire and those who detest him.

By his own admission, he is actively seeking a platform. He is trying to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the trolls, and to draw some kind of appreciation from those drawn to him.

Before these daily recaps on Le Tour, Armstrong teamed up with Outside magazine on a Facebook podcast called The Forward. His role there is as a presenter and interviewer with guests from literary, musical and sporting backgrounds.

Another dalliance with this new pastime came through HBO. The American TV station broadcasts what it calls mockumentaries, and casts Armstrong in a cameo role in Tour de Pharmacy.

"I watched it with my son the other night," he recalled. "It was funny, nicely over the top."

As one who has watched Armstrong at close quarters going "over the top" of the harrowing climb up Mont Ventoux in the French Alps, I can vouch that there appears to be something new in him. Humour.

Back in the days when he was riding, whenever I, and anyone else, interviewed him on the subject of drugs, there was absolute steely denial. His eyes bored right through. And with no evidence on the table at the time, his assertion had to be taken at face value.

Looking back, he was the best of liars. And humourless with it.

He might have turned one corner. A few months ago, he received a package delivered to his door with a demand notice to pay excess postage of US$1.09.

Armstrong put that up online with the quip: "@uspostalservice wants 100 mil plus a dollar and 9 cents from you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2017, with the headline 'Armstrong has new lease of life but jury is still out'. Print Edition | Subscribe