Scott Mercier is the US Postal rider who walked away from the sport rather than resort to doping. These days he finds himself in the unexpected role of Lance Armstrong’s mountain biking pal. That puts him in a rather unique position to offer his thoughts on that dark era in cycling, the rationales given, Armstrong’s punishment and legacy and, yes, his plans to kick Lance’s ass this Summer. (For part 1 of the interview click here.)
TS: My feeling is, if it’s a few guys, it’s cheating and if it’s the majority of the peloton, its not cheating, it’s a messed up culture. My understanding is you didn’t have an issue with the doping so much as Lance’s vindictive behavior to cover up the lie.
MERCIER: It’s still cheating, it’s against the rules, but it’s not an unfair advantage. Maybe I’m being the ultimate hypocrite but the analogy I use is, if you’re at Harvard and it’s a closed book test and the professor leaves and every student pulls out their laptop or their iPad and notes and you don’t, well, you’re either gonna have to transfer schools or you’re gonna flunk out. So I just transferred — only I couldn’t transfer to golf. I had to choose an entirely different profession.
TS: There’s the other point that the level playing field argument really work because some people will benefit more physiologically from things like EPO.
MERCIER: Let me give you an example: Darren Baker is at 50 and I’m 39-40. He’s not going to get a boost from EPO, I am. Would Lance have won seven tours without doping if nobody was? That’s pure conjecture, nobody will ever know that. But we can’t rewrite history because that’s not the environment and the set of cards he was dealt. In that environment, at the time, he was the best. Period. One thing you can say about him is he’s one of the most driven, competitive people you will ever meet. Would he have won if he was clean? Nobody knows.
TS: My feeling is, if everyone is clean, he wins seven; if everybody dopes, he wins seven. For the very reasons you just stated — he’s the most meticulous driven, aggressive …
MERCIER: I don’t know that you can say that because he got a bigger boost. We’ll never know.
TS: One of the criticisms that Lance got about his performance on Oprah was that he didn’t seem truly sorry for crushing people. You’ve spent time with him. Did you get a sense of real, deep contrition?
MERCIER: I don’t really know, I don’t want to comment on that. I will say that our conversations have been real, they’ve been genuine, he’s been introspective. You know, I’m just taking it at face value. And if he is playing me, shame on him. I’m trying to keep an open mind, trying not to be a hypocrite, trying to be fair. I’m trying to be a friend. I certainly am not going to violate anything he said to me in confidence.
Look, here’s what we’re talking about: for ten years you’ve had this guy who was deified, he was a demigod, could do no wrong. And for two years we’ve had a guy who has been demonized, But the truth is, he’s just a guy. He’s got greatness, he’s got great faults and where you stand on him, you have to make up your own mind. The problem is, people would overlook his faults — he would punish those who brought them up — and other people overlook the good things he’s done and discount that. Everybody has skeletons in their closet. We’ve all done things we regret. It’s just that his are there for everyone to see.
TS: I think it’s hard for people to grasp that range of personality — he’s done incredible things and terrible, nasty things. That kind of complexity, people can’t piece it all together
MERCIER: I haven’t been in the position he’s in and I hope I never am but I think sometimes we have a tendency to believe our own bullshit. I think that might have been true for Lance.
TS: He said it himself — he got famous and there was all this money and power and it’s easy to get swept away by it all. Once that myth gets created, its not easy to walk away from it.
MERCIER: No, one of the reasons I was able to walk away was I had options. It wasn’t the end for me. I loved being a professional, but not everyone has those options. Life doesn’t always go according to the script.
TS: Lance is a control freak and he was in control of the myth. One of his downfalls is that once the myth blew up he didn’t realize he no longer had control of the story. That has a lot to do with ego. Do you think he’s begun to understand that?
MERCIER: Honestly, I don’t know. We don’t have that type of relationship. I don’t know if he knows he can’t control the story.
TS: For example, I find his relationship with Travis Tygart fascinating. To this day, Lance has such a hatred of that guy but he fails to understand that his road to redemption runs through USADA. But he refuses to deal with Travis and that to me is all about ego.
MERCIER: I’m not gonna comment on their relationship. I will tell you I have a lot of respect for Travis as a person and a lot of respect for his organization. I also have a lot of respect for Lance.
TS: Seems to me that If you truly want forgiveness, you kinda have to go all the way. Lance is apologizing to some people but not others. Does he need to apologize to people like Betsey and David Walsh?
MERCIER: I don’t know about where he is with Landis and Walsh or Betsey and Frankie. That’s none of my business. I’ve got a family and kids — that’s not my job. I have to judge him on what I see, how he treats me and my family. That doesn’t absolve him of the bad things but that’s not my place. If there’s a couple and there’s a divorce, well, they’re both wrong or maybe they’re both right.
TS: The way he defended the lie was what you had a problem with. Where are you personally on the forgiveness scale?
MERCIER: Well, I don’t feel like I ever had anything to forgive. Nobody owed me a apology. I think you have to take responsibility for your own decisions, right? Sometimes even doing the right thing can have negative consequences — that’s what I’ve lived with. But in terms of forgiveness, my issue was not not with the doping but the way he covered up the lie. That’s still true to this day. I understand why he made the decisions he did. I don’t understand other things he did, but I don’t have the right perspective to judge him. It’s too easy to take your own experiences and form a judgement on someone else when you don’t have the right perspective to make that call.
TS: Is the lifetime ban unfair?
MERCIER: I know that he needed to suffer. I try not to get in the middle of what he says and what Travis says. He’s 42 year old anyway — should he be able to run a marathon when he’s 60? He was given a lifetime ban and if the UCI and USADA think that’s reasonable, well, I’m not the jury and executioner here.
TS: As a personal opinion, what’s your best guess on his redemption? Will the public eventually forgive and forget?
MERCIER: I think there’s still a lot of uncertainly and a lot of it revolves around this Federal lawsuit. I certainly don’t believe there’s any justice or merit to that lawsuit. The fact that they believe one guy is being sued for 100 million for defrauding the US Postal Service? I have a hard time with that. They’re using RICO statues and War Powers Acts and all this — it seems like federal over-reach.
Yes, he was the most powerful, he was the most well-paid but he was a rider on a team. When I signed with the US Postals Service I thought it was a weird sponsorship. I’m asking one of their people “what’s your strategy, why are you sponsoring a team to race in Europe?” This guy says “We got all these planes flying to Europe with mail and they come home empty. So our plan is, we’re gonna open a bunch of satellite offices in Europe and we want to use the team to give us market exposure to compete with DHL and Fedex. Then we have planes flying back with mail.” I thought, that’s genius. They got tens of millions of dollars of exposure out of this guy. I think they got their moneys’ worth. I’m not a supporter of the government in this lawsuit. That doesn’t mean that Lance should be absolved but this is bogus.
TS: Okay, wrapping up here and thanks for your time. Everybody knows Lance has a pretty good sense of humor. So tell me a funny story about Lance.
MERCIER: What sticks out is, I was vacationing in Florida and then I’m back in Colorado and we’re on a mountain bike ride up in Aspen. This climb was probably 2 hours long. At this point, he’s putting the hurt on me and he looks over at me and says “Hey, I got something to tell ya.” Yeah, what’s that? “You are hurting.” And I was on the rivet, that was funny, he was right.
On the same ride — we’re a bunch of idiots out there — we don’t have the right pump, we don’t have a CO2 or a tube, his tire had a slow leak. But this truck passes us and he says he should ask those guys if they have a pump if we see them again. So this truck is passing us and I ask them if they have a pump and they say no but I start hanging on to the tailgate and Lance yells “Watch out for that guy, he’s gonna grab onto your bar.” It was too late. I told the guy to punch it so I go flying up the hill.
TS: Last question: Did anything strike you about him now after all these years? Did he seem different?
MERCIER: What stuck out is that he’s just a guy. He was made into a myth but he’s just a guy riding a bike. That’s the perspective I try to keep. All of our shit stinks. That’s Lance — his shit really stinks. In any case, I intend to kick his ass when we ride together. I’m gonna try, I’m going go down swinging. We’ll find out this Summer.