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A Conversation With Bill Strickland:Postscript

Posted by bikezilla on May 6, 2011


Part 1, Emma O’Reilly’s Anger at Bill Strickland, Part 2, Part 3, Bill Strickland’s NPR Interview, Part 4, Part 5, Postscript

This is Part Final; The article about the articles.

But more than that, what came before this was my conversation with and interview of Bill Strickland. That ended with Part 5: The Damning Question.

This is my conversation with you, my readers.

Before I began talking to Bill Strickland I’d had a couple disappointing experiences with interviewing cycling professionals or cycling celebrities.

Jonathan Vaughters, owner of Slipstream Sports and Garmin Cervelo invited me to interview him, then blew me off (and going on 2.5 months he’s still blowing me off).

Then I was invited to interview Greg LeMond, but my interview happened to reach him just as he was preparing to take a long trip out of the country, along with his wife, Kathy, to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

That one, of course, is entirely understandable. But, damn, talk about frustration.

It was starting to feel like the Universe had set in motion this evil plot against me, where no one I contacted ever got back to me. The maintenance crew here at my apartment complex got in on it, the Realtor I wanted to talk to got in on it. Even the loan guy I tried to contact got in on it.

Then this opportunity came up and I was thinking, “Ok, great, another hotshot blowing smoke up my ass.”

I fully expected to, again, be blown off.

It’s not paranoia if they’re really trying to get me, right?

— Bill Stickland’s access to Lance Armstrong has brought him a lot of success. It’s also the originating point for a lot of the grief he endures. Because, it looks like he’s betrayed the truth and forgotten his obligations as a journalist on behalf of that access.

One thing that helped me sympathize with Bill, though it didn’t sway my opinion, is the idea of access vs no access and how when you don’t have it, it’s no big deal, but when you do have it, it quickly comes to matter.

Being close to someone big can soften your view, or your willingness to present or pursue the topic aggressively.

I have those two big (that is, big for me) interviews going (though it’s been an excruciating lesson in patience). The one with JV and the one with Greg LeMond that I’ve already mentioned. Then this interview / extended chat with Bill.

You come to like and respect them more, partially for the access, partially because you’ve gotten to see and understand more of them.

In the (planned) interview with Jonathan Vaughters there are things that I specifically wanted to ask him about, things that were the entire point of wanting to do the interview (which is about doping and his history in and around it). But once the opportunity was there . . . “Damn, if I ask this, will he tell me to get fucked?”.

I was surprised that I found myself in a debate with myself over whether or not I should be so bold regarding what I knew were very sensitive but also critically important issues. Should I ask what I really needed to ask?

Again, with the LeMond interview. Once I was able to send the questions I wanted to ask, that I thought and still think need to be asked, I wasn’t sure that I should.

In both cases I had read and researched and found out certain things that required questions. But once I had the access to ask those questions I had to push myself at times not to be softer where things were potentially contentious, ugly or unpleasant. It’s hard to be fair to both the subject and the topic.

You’ll have to be the judge as to weather or not I’m successful at that.

It’s a lot different writing about real people when you’re actually exchanging words and thoughts with them, than when you’re simply analyzing this and that about them independent of their input (as I frequently do in writing Bikezilla).

It’s easier to be courageous and “in your face” when you have nothing to lose, nothing at stake.

I first emailed Bill about our interview the Friday before Easter. I didn’t expect so much as an acknowledgement until at very least the following Monday.

But Bill got back to me that night. Not his secretary. Not his assistant. Not his media rep. Him.

He thought he would even be able to get started on our interview by Saturday. When he couldn’t he wrote me to let me know that he got tied up with other obligations, and that he’d reply to my thoughts within a couple days.

I was shocked. I was impressed. And expecting “a couple days” to drag out to a couple weeks, or even a couple months.

But he was true to his word.

That set of circumstances went a long way toward building my impression that I could trust him, and toward leaving my mind open to the possibility that he wasn’t lying about what he knew about Lance Armstrong and when he knew it.

I wasn’t even close to belief, but I felt I had reason to leave that door open.

I was even more impressed because my writing about him, and my initial conversation with him on Twitter were antagonistic, even belligerent.

He as easily could have told me to piss off. Or just ignored me entirely.

His level of courtesy, consideration, professionalism and respect by themselves reduced the level of irritation and distrust I felt toward him.

He never spoke to me as if I was just some pissant blogger (which I am) and he was an important magazine editor (which he is). Just the opposite. It was almost as if I was the important writer and I was doing him a favor by writing about him. He was that polite, considerate, respectful and available. Seriously. No exaggeration.

It was the antithesis of my experience with Jonathan Vaughters.

Bill never knew and never asked what my intent was with this interview, nor with any individual part of it. He didn’t ask or know where the narrative was going or how it would get there. He had no information until each part went up. Just like you.

Early on, Bill let me know that certain things he told me would be off the record. Some of those things were sensitive, but most of them were because he doesn’t feel that it’s right for a writer to debate his writing with his readers. It’s a quirk of his, and one I had to work with or around.

That made the writing interesting and difficult at times.

At some point during almost every part of the interview series I ended up pushing those “off limits” boundaries.

There were times when I simply leaned hard against that invisible line. There were others where I not-to-stealthily tip-toed across it.

Only once, when I knew that the ground I wanted to tread was especially sensitive and forbidden, did I write him to discuss what I wanted to do.

As a courtesy, and so he would not feel that I’d ambushed him, after publishing each part I always gave him a heads up about where I pushed things and how. But except for that once, I didn’t ask ahead of time. He never wrote and said that he wanted to see something prior to it going up. He never chastised or berated me for my choices and decisions.

That one time when I did write to discuss using “off limits” material, he responded by expressing his reluctance, but still giving me more than what I’d requested.

In every instance Bill handled things graciously, even generously.

He’d told me from the beginning that he trusted me to be fair, and he never backed away from that.

— As I was putting the parts of this series up I heard some great comments and had some interesting conversations about peoples’ thoughts on Bill.

I finally came to the realization that no matter how I objective I am, or no matter how lopsided I might instead choose to be, that people feel so strongly about Bill, about his failure to admit or realize that Lance Armstrong is a doper, or their view that he betrayed Lance, that I won’t be changing any minds in either direction.

I’m ok with that. I never wanted to tell you that you should or shouldn’t believe Bill. I wanted to give you the information. You can use and interpret it the way that best satisfies you.

But I did begin the interview series with a definite mindset: Bill was a liar and I wanted to “hear” him tell me the truth.

Really, that was the one driving force and regardless of my opinion at any specific point in the interview that never changed. I wanted one unequivocal answer. No hedging.

But, I wrote most of the series with mixed feelings. On one hand, I got my unhedged, unequivocal answer. On the other, I couldn’t use it. It was “off limits”.

You have no idea how many times I muttered “shitshitshitshitshit . . .” under my breath as I went over things with the knowledge that I couldn’t include that one all important piece of information.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Going in to the interview, I felt like Bill thought of me, and of readers in general, as fools, suckers, like he could play us and we wouldn’t notice it because we were too stupid. I resented that. A lot.

Though it was difficult to understand, to “get my head around”, as I think I mention during the interview series, I did eventually come to accept that he honestly believed, or at least that he tried and wanted to believe, that Lance had raced clean.

He wasn’t trying to cheat us, he wasn’t lying to us, he really believed.

I presented some of what convinced me already, throughout the interview, and I won’t waste time going over it again, here.

A great big part of the rest, and maybe even more of an influence, was realizing that Bill STILL believes, really in his gut believes, some things that just make no sense to me.

He still believes that Lance rode clean during his first Tour, and that even Lance’s most critical detractors believe that, too.

I believe that Lance doped from as early as 13 and that THAT, in fact, was the cause of his cancer. I also believe that it’s almost impossible for a thinking person to see it differently.

Yet, Bill does.

He also believes that Lance rode Comeback 2.0 clean.

I think Lance just knew how to beat the system and did so with microdoses of EPO and with undetectable autologous blood transfusions, and with some help form UCI (for instance, during the 2009 Tour de France, Astana was always tested last, UCI once delayed testers for 45 minutes when they were already with Astana, and Astana members frequently stalled testers). Again, it seems to me that no thinking person could possibly believe differently.

Yet again, Bill does.

— During the interview, one thing Bill never did was tell me that I was wrong. And he never said or implied that I was stupid, nor that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

He always acknowledged that my views were every bit as valid as readers who believed him, readers with opposite views, and his own.

In short, he was never defensive and he never gave me reason to be defensive or feel like I needed to guard or protect my views and opinions. That made it easier to honestly evaluate and consider his views and opinions.

— When I found myself believing him, it caused me a problem.

I began this interview with a certain intent and in a certain frame of mind. What’s more, the majority of my readers were already attuned to my way of thinking and my way of presenting things.

It would not make sense, nor would it be credible, if I were to write this series from the standpoint of belief. It just wouldn’t work.

But, accepting that he didn’t lie didn’t change that I don’t “get” how he can still believe some things. And, even in my previous angry state I had resolved to write as objectively as possible, to try to present not only my side of the debate, but Bill’s.

I wanted to do both in a way that was respectful of my subject, but that still honored the topic and that didn’t force any view or opinion down readers’ throats. I want to allow them (you) to make their own decisions and choose to believe what they would.

I decided to present the interview in an approximation of my own journey from angry and accusing to perplexed understanding and reluctant belief.

I didn’t come to accept that Bill was misguided but truthful and that Bill didn’t lie to us about what he knew, all in a breath. I couldn’t go into the writing assuming that my readers would accept it any more readily than I did. Why should they, just on my word, especially when the last thing they knew was that I was not a fan of Bill’s version of journalistic integrity or ethics?

I had been incredulous (at very least) until very deep into my conversation with Bill. So that’s how I would go about revealing everything to my readers.

It wasn’t that hard. Because my feelings were already laid out in the questions and statements of the interview. I just had to be true to them.

— If there was one great difficulty with this interview, it was the conversation style and tone.

It would have been easier to edit a straight Q & A piece, with related sections all neatly clumped together and flowing one into the other.

But the way this interview was done I had to match things up and then shuffle them around so that they would make sense.

I’ve said that I wish I could share everything with you, so that you’d get to see and evaluate all the information that I had available to me. Purely as a matter of discovery that’s true.

But from a writing perspective that was a bad idea. There’s a lot of gabby junk in there, a lot of asides and rambling, from both of us, that would make a piece this long and involved drag on mercilessly (and some of you may think that it already has).

What made it in is a majority of the most readable stuff, the most interesting bits, the most accessible relevant thoughts.

It doesn’t have the full breadth and depth of the entire exchange, but it’s a lot easier to follow and understand than if I’d posted the uncut and unedited content of all our emails.

There will always be things that I wish I was able to include, or that I wish I could have shown you in a different way. But what came out is pretty close to what I’d hoped it might be.

And of course, I’m happy, because in the end I was able to not only have, but print the equivocal statement that drove me throughout the interview.

True, it wasn’t the identical statement that I was chasing when things began, but it explains the same thing; what Bill Strickland really believed about Lance Armstrong and Armstrong’s history of doping.

I accept it to be the truth.

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