Susan Elias is resolute. Nothing she learned Friday changes her respect for Lance Armstrong.
“I can’t think of him as anything other than the seven-time winner of the Tour de France,” she said from her home in Yarmouth. “He was phenomenally physiologically superior to everyone else.”
And not, she believes, because he was blood doping or using performance-enhancing drugs.
Armstrong said Thursday he’s stopped defending himself against those very allegations. Taking that as an admission of guilt, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency is attempting to have him stripped of his Tour de France championships and ban him for life.
“I feel disgusted at the witch hunt,” said Elias, referring to the scrutiny Armstrong has faced. “I feel bad for him because I don’t think he’s received his due process.”
Elias isn’t a face in the crowd. The Readfield native and University of Maine graduate was an elite cyclist herself. She finished fourth in the 1989 Tour de France de Feminin, a shorter version of the 20-day, 2,000-mile men’s race. A rider for the U.S. national team, she was the tour’s most consistent finisher in the daily stage races, winning the overall points jersey. She failed to finish in the top 10 in only one stage race.
She was 26 years old and the top women’s road racer in the U.S. in 1989. She won 20 races that year. Velo News, a cycling publication, named her its Woman Rider of the Year. She once had dreams of making the U.S. Olympic team, and the 1992 trials for the games in Barcelona were in the near future. She raced in 1990, then decided to wind down her career, going back to school to get her masters degree in wildlife science at Virginia Tech.
Now she’s a biologist at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute and the mother of twin boys heading into their sophomore year at Yarmouth High. Her former husband, John Gerken, was a member of the U.S. men’s team when Armstrong was coming onto the scene.
“I think our race was 14 stages and one rest day,” said Elias. “You spend hours and hours in the saddle. At the end of the day you try to get as much sleep as you can, but sometimes you’re so tired, you can’t. I remember being at the start of a stage, my arms over the handlebars of my bike, feeling like I could go to sleep right there. The (Tour de France) is the pinnacle of grueling in capital letters.”
Allegations or suspicions of doping followed the women almost as much as the men. Riding in the main pack of riders, Elias admits she sometimes looked at the others. Who was doping?
Jeannie Longo, the French cycling legend, won the women’s Tour de France three times, including 1989. Elias finished more than 14 minutes behind in accumulative time. More recently, Longo was caught up in doping accusations but was cleared last year.
The temptation to cheat is prevalent in all sports. Athletes will make their pact with the devil to gain an advantage, real or perceived. Baseball fans woke up this month to the 50-game suspensions given to San Francisco outfielder Melky Cabrera and Oakland pitcher Bartolo Colon.
“I didn’t. It’s all about speeding your recovery time because your body wears down so much. I wasn’t tempted,” said Elias. “I was too afraid I’d blow up my heart or something. But I was naive, too. I didn’t know the first person to go to if I decided to use.”
The USADA admits it can’t prove that Armstrong used drugs. It does say it has former teammates who will testify that Armstrong boosted the number of red blood cells in his bloodstream, which is blood doping.
Elias wants more proof, more evidence. She considers the man who beat testicular cancer and the 50-50 odds that he would live and understands an irony: the wonder of medical knowledge and chemicals saved his life. Now the medical knowledge Armstrong is accused of using may tarnish his legacy at the least and at worst, destroy it.
Armstrong dropped his attempts to clear his name. Elias doesn’t see an admission of guilt. In fact, her admiration for him went up a notch. Let the court of public opinion decide if he cheated or not.
“The Grinch,” said Elias, referring to the USADA, “can’t steal Christmas.”
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: