The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Armstrong Lie.
What was involved in the production of making such a visually and sonically rich film?
Gibney: At the Tour de France we had a full ten cameras, and we were able to put a camera inside the car, sometimes two, and then at every stop along the way we had three cameras in every car. We had two cars, so you take what’s called the “Outside Course” course, and you go to a place where the team’s going to ride by, and we’d stop and set up three angles. Then the race would go by and we’d pick up and move to the next spot. We had two cars doing that and we had to be very careful about where we were going to set up. Sometimes we would use different lenses, sometimes we shot in slow-motion; it was very complicated. In one case, we had a wonderful little accident, which was that the tiny little camera that we put on the bike of Popovich – one of Lance’s domestiques – had a very weak microphone. And the thing about the tour itself is that it’s very noisy, and it’s noisy in a way that’s not very appealing . . . there are all these motorcycles, huge honking trucks everywhere, helicopters above. You see it [on TV] and you think “Wow, it’s so beautiful and elegant and so quiet,” but it’s not quiet at all. There’s a deafening noise. And this little microphone on Popovich’s bike was so weak that it didn’t hear the motorcycles. Instead you could hear the spokes, the wheels turning on the bicycle, the gears changing, and it’s very powerful. We were able to get an angle of the sport that you never saw before, because the motorcycles can’t get there, which is inside the peloton, that magnificent organism of cyclists as they move through the landscape.
“He was talented and he was the best of a dirty era, but he was breaking the rules.”
The film shows how prevalent doping is in cycling. Does this make the whole sport suspect? How should Lance’s records be dealt with?
Gibney: I, as a historian, would be more comfortable if they put an asterisk next to Lance Armstrong’s record of those seven years instead of eliminating them. I think deleting them is bad history; it’s what Robespierre used to do. When we see how the cycling governing bodies were complicit in his victories, then it’s convenient for them to eliminate their own responsibilities. When it comes to doping, it was not a level playing field because Lance had power that other cyclists didn’t have, both from his sponsors and those within the cycling organization who gave him a pass when it came to rigorous tests or tough questions being asked. That being said, Lance was not the only person who was doping. I’m not one of those people who believes he was just an average joe with no cycling talent who took these drugs, sat on a bike, and watched the bike go. I think he was an extraordinarily talented cyclist. You have to remember he started doping pre-cancer, so the doping itself doesn’t necessarily explain the extent of his success. I think he was talented and he was the best of a dirty era, but he was breaking the rules. You have to take all these things into account. It doesn’t mean I approve of doping, because I don’t; it doesn’t mean I don’t think it should be cleaned up, because I do. But we all have this tendency to want to put people in a box. If we find out someone committed a crime or does something wrong, we want to say, “Well, he was just a completely bad guy; he was never talented to begin with.” But the problem with that is if Lance was the only bad guy, then you don’t really see what happened in the sport as a whole and it’s not good history.
What do you think should be the focus of any future films about cycling?
Vaughters: We love winners in our society. It’s inspiring. And winners are uniquely driven individuals, and sometimes that’s a little pathological. Everyone you see in the pelotons at the Tour de France is so motivated. With that warrior mentality and that winner mentality, it’s easy for doping to enter into the equation. A phrase I used to hear all the time is, “You don’t show up to a gun fight with a knife.” The rationale is: It’s ok, it’s an arm’s race; they’re doing this, so we have to do this. People don’t realize that these guys consider themselves at war with the other teams. It’s not friendly fundraising in the French Alps. So the focus of a future documentary on cycling should be that this sport’s gone through a tough time, and there have been massive efforts to clean it up, but also to look at how hardened these athletes are, and how hard that decision is for them to actually say, “Am I going to put the integrity of the sport and myself above the taking-a-knife-to-a-gunfight mentality?” You have to decide that every day. I think that’s an interesting look into the difficulties that athletes face and how we as a society, in a way, force the athletes to face. They end up being iconic for us, being our heroes, leaders of society, people we read about in magazines, so on and so forth. That pressure forces them into this decision-making process that not many people have to face down in their life.
Andreu: I would hope that it’s going to be how cycling cleaned up its act. We went through this super dark period, the corruption of the UCI— which I call the “Union of Corrupt Individuals”—and we have a new president now, which I think is a great achievement. That’s a testament as to the power the truth has and why it matters so much. We didn’t have the cooperation of all the federations who turned a blind eye or the governing body that just liked the money made from it. It will show the young kids who want to get into the sport that they don’t have to dope. I don’t care if it’s for baseball, tennis, football, cycling, I have young kids and no kid should ever think, “Do I have to take a supplement from the guy at the gym if I want to hit a homerun?” That’s wrong, it’s not acceptable, and I think the next film can be an uplifting one and say, “We cannot forget our past but it’s not going to define us, and our future is going to be brighter.”