AUSTIN, Texas (AFP) — With a major moment of truth for his legacy only hours away in Europe, doping-disgraced US cyclist Lance Armstrong cheered on 4,300 bikers yesterday morning at a charity race in his hometown.
Embattled Armstrong spoke for about 90 seconds before the start of the Livestrong Challenge, a 100-mile cycling event to benefit the cancer-fighting foundation he created 15 years ago.
Armstrong stepped down as Livestrong chairman on Wednesday in the wake of detailed revelations about his role at the heart of a doping ring that helped him win seven Tour de France titles from 1999-2005.
"I've been better, but I've also been worse," Armstrong said. "Obviously it has been an interesting and difficult couple of weeks."
A record turnout of riders raised $1.7 million for Livestrong on the eve of a decision by the International Cycling Union (UCI) on whether or not it will follow through on punishments imposed by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA).
"We're so grateful even more people (than expected) are here to support the mission," Livestrong spokesman, Katherine McLane said.
USADA released 1,000 pages of testimony and evidence 12 days ago about why it imposed a life ban on Armstrong in August and stripped him of his Tour de France victories and other results when he refused to fight doping charges.
Since then, major sponsors have distanced themselves from Armstrong, and he stepped down from his leadership role at Livestrong in hopes it would not be damaged by the controversy swirling around him.
In submitting the report to the UCI, USADA chief executive Travis Tygart called the doping scheme centred on Armstrong "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".
While the cycling world awaited today's announcement in Geneva, Armstrong kept the focus on the cancer-fighting foundation during his appearance in Austin, Texas.
His T-shirt was black rather than Livestrong's signature yellow, a nod to the yellow jersey worn by Tour de France leaders.
"This is truly an honour to be here. I'm truly humbled," Armstrong said. "We have had a lot of lucky breaks along the way, but it has been a special ride.
"When we started this organisation 15 years ago, if you told me that little organisation, that little idea, would raise half-a-billion dollars, would have touched two-and-a-half-million lives around the world, I would have said you are crazy. But those are all true. That's what happened."
Many of the riders were cancer survivors just like Armstrong, who, himself, overcame testicular cancer that had spread to his brain and lungs to win the Tour de France seven times — a tale, now-tainted, that inspired millions into riding.
"I think he's probably guilty," said Challenge rider Jenni Stephenson, 32, of Houston. But she added, "I think it's important for people to support the foundation. I don't think it takes away from a good cause."
Armstrong's downfall came in part because of 11 former teammates who testified against him, many of whom said they were pushed into doping because Armstrong insisted on it in an era when dope cheating was seen as rampant.
"Regardless of whether he cheated or not, if they were all cheating, he still won," said Catherine Young, a 50-year-old bike shop owner.
If found guilty by the UCI, the financial and legal ramifications for Armstrong could overshadow even the doping shame.
Armstrong, who has denied any wrongdoing, has told sponsors and others that he was clean. Any finding against him could open the doors to court cases, even after a separate 18-month investigation by federal agents ended with no charges filed and no evidence shared with USADA.