I listen to a lot of podcasts. As I did with cycling I got into podcast before anyone else did, before Serial came out and they became cool. I got into them before every single celebrity decided that they needed to have one regardless of what content it contained. In fact in the early 2000s I had started my first podcast, at a time when the only way you’d be able to listen to it on your mobile would have been to abandon your game of snake and then call me and have me play it down the phone. All of this is true apart from that bit about getting into cycling before it got cool which is a lie. Just. Also I’ve remembered that I had a Sony Walkman phone at the time and it was way more dope than a 3310.
Podcasts give us choice. They democratise our listening, allowing us to program our own virtual stations free of all the things that ruin actual radio stations like awful music and adverts. Actually we still have to hear the adverts but thankfully they’re almost all for squarespace and not double glazing manufacturers and places where you can buy cheap vans. Unlike proper stations, our own virtual ones also allow us to avoid presenters that we hate. How come then that Lance Armstrong has found his way onto my virtual station? So successfully that his show is about all I’ve listened to for the last week.
As a fan of cycling and of not being around bullying, cheating, frauds, how is it that I became obsessed with listening to someone who is the future definition of a very damaging personality disorder? At first the answer to that was simply out of curiosity for this pariah’s latest attempt at redemption. That motivated me to listen for about 5 minutes during which the revelations were were even less satisfying than that time Lance was on Oprah, so I headed back to my regular digest of This American Life, Radiolab, Criminal, Memory Palace, and Unfictional. What drew me back I can’t say, but when I did comeback I did so with a strategy. That strategy is almost definitelyexactly what Lance wants. It was to suspend my prejudice and give the podcast a chance. I’m sure that he hopes that if I do this then I might give the man himself a chance. In my defence I’m pretty sure that this strategy will help me write a better article and avoid me just writing 2000 words trashing him, an exercise that a proper troll could have achieved much more efficiently in less than 140 characters.
“You’re good at this” says Freediver Tanya Streeter in the episode from February 27th 2017, “you let people talk” she adds. It’s hard to argue with this. When I first tried listening to Armstrong’s podcast it was dull, the elephants in the room were ignored and the skeletons in the closet were left there amongst the tins of boiled potatoes that it was recommended you should have consumed over a decade ago. Fair enough I thought, Lance is clearly not here for an honest confession, if he wants to do that he’ll go on Dr Phil this time.
So what is Lance here for? He’s here to speak to interesting people, people that he admires. Those early shows, in the shadow that Lance casts, felt boring when you considered their potential for revelation. This hindered my ability to listen to Lance’s guests tell their stories and it meant that I was both an early adopter and an early abandoner of the show. I’m not sure what drew me back to give the podcast a second try. It was probably the fact that I’ve now got a phone that can actually download podcasts which means I’ve been devouring them at an increased rate. Eventually Lance’s were the only podcasts I had left, if iTunes were a box of Cadbury’s Roses, then Lance’s shows were Strawberry Creams.
In giving Lance’s show a second chance I realise that I was probably at fault for our stuttering relationship. I haven’t mentioned the title of the show yet, it’s called The Forward which tells you a little bit about where Lance is coming from on this. It’s not deep, but then again Livestrong was about as profound as “put a tiger in your tank.”
“Move Forward” Lance is saying, the past is the past and it’s time to move on without all that baggage. That’s as much a suggestion to the listener as it is a mantra for Lance to live by. To be fair there is not much else he can do, however I question how successful he is being at it when, in an episode with his old teammates George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde and Dylan Casey, he talks about how he’ll deal with his kids getting older and seeing some “bullshit documentary” about him. He never expands on which parts are “bullshit”, but it still smacks of a man who is yet to come to terms with his past actions and their effects. Lance, in moving forward, still seems quite concerned with how most of us view his past.
In that same episode, despite the fact that they are all talking about old times, I think the word “doping” gets used once. That element of the past is talked around in various ways, mostly in words that amount to “the shit that happened.” At times it’s like listening to a teenager talk to his parents about sex, everything will be fine as long as no one uses the actual word.
This episode of The Forward is perhaps not the right one to dwell on. Most have nothing to do with cycling, and Lance’s array of guests are fascinating. He’s had people such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Burr and Bo Jackson on the show. I’m currently listening to his interview with Michael Franti (of Spearhead and Disposable Heroes Of Hiphoprisy fame), and it moved me almost to tears when Lance asked Michael about his doitforthelove foundation and the special moments it has created in the lives of terminally ill people. It shows a warmer more humanitarian side to Lance and so perhaps some of those old documentaries are “bullshit” after all. The episode with Freediver Tanya Streeter, features a long conversation about the damage that plastic is doing to our Oceans and I’m pretty sure that Lance isn’t faking his concern or the impact that Tanya’s documentary on the subject had on him. However the episode with Tanya and the episode with his old teammates do throw into the spotlight the distinct lack of women on the show, 3 in 50 episodes Tanya points out. That hints at an undercurrent of misogyny. That undercurrent threatens to surface when the old gang are together and Lance says “I’m not going to talk about podium girls.” It’s clear there’s a story there but it’s one that’s only for the bros in the frat house.
I actually don’t care if Lance wants to be misogynist on his own show, I just want him to be honest. My friend Huey Morgan is about to start his own podcast and he recently recorded an interview with Scroobius Pip, who is a prolific podcaster. Scroob told him to hold nothing back “the podcast is all you”. If people want to shout you down for your views and neither tolerate them or talk to you about them, then I’m normally of the opinion that it is they that have the bigger problem.
One thing that is clear in The Forward is that Lance isn’t so damaged by his past that he has no opportunity to move on. He’s maintained a lot of friends and he still sees himself as the rightful winner of those 7 Tours De France. The bitterest pill for me is that he is still reaping the benefits of his cheating. He variously records the podcasts from his homes in Aspen, Colorado and Austin, Texas, neither of which I imagine are too shabby. He also seems to spend a lot of time travelling across the country taking part in fun bike races, although none of them are governed by the UCI. He’s still got his bike shop and a cafe, and he and his buddies get to be the legends at a fantasy camp for cycling fans. It’s hard to imagine Ben Johnson being the big draw at one for sprinters, or the blokes who ran Enron doing likewise at a fantasy camp for fans of the energy, commodities, and services business. Lance still has the difficulty of the lawsuit brought about by Floyd Landis, but I’m pretty sure that whatever the outcome he’ll still come out of it having a more privileged life than I do and I’ve never smashed a load of EPO before any of my races.
Writing this I can feel two sides of my personality battling for supremacy, I think for a minute there the bike racer was winning but I really want to give the radio producer a chance. As a show The Forward has solid production values. There’s a little bit of mic handling noise that could do with ironing out but I can tolerate that. Lance has even created a studio where his musician guests can play sessions.
As I said earlier the guests are often fascinating and apart from being mostly male, are incredibly diverse, however they all seem to share the same credential of being brilliantly successful, something that Lance is obviously impressed by and which becomes mildly cretinous if you listen to too many shows in a row. Especially if you’re 35 and you’re writing this article in your pyjamas in the house that you don’t own and you’re absolutely certain that it would take a disaster of King Ralph proportions for you to ever make into onto The Forward’s guestlist.
Lance also has a bit of a potty mouth, which is fine, if done artfully but to my ears it provides a consistent reminder of Lance’s other persona. The persona that isn’t a welcoming podcast host, but rather the patron of the peloton who shut down both Fillipo Simeoni’s breakaway attempt and his career. The man who, allegedly, called his soigneur, Emma O’Reilly, a “whore”. Even when done in good humour I still can’t escape the image of Lance swearing in genuine anger. Wash your mouth out, Lance. Please.
Lance’s great advantage, though, is how damaged he is. His guests recognise that and in seeing another troubled soul they often have no problem in sharing their own demons. Any aspiring chat show hosts out there take note. If you want to get your guests to share then you should spend a good few years doing some dark shit yourself. Imagine how good Parkinson would have been if he’d spent a few years doing crack.
So should you listen to The Forward? I can’t tell you that. All I can tell you is that if you are expecting to hear a series of therapy sessions where Lance lays it all on the table and tries to come to terms with it, then you’ll be disappointed. Truth is drip fed into the show but it is a reward of listening regularly and is probably not going to satisfy the hardcore cycling journalists amongst you. If you want to hear a podcast, presented by a man coming to terms with the major script changes to the third act of his life, who is joined by some fascinating people, then The Forward is at least worth a try.