Austin, Texas – His victories against cancer and the French Alps inspired a generation of American cyclists and survivors, many of them ready to stand by Lance Armstrong despite his fall from grace.
Doping rumours dogged the seven times Tour De France champion throughout his career, and in Europe his reputation was already in shreds, but his remarkable life story protected Armstrong's from attack in his homeland.
Always known as the man who never gave up a fight, whether it be against testicular cancer or the peloton of competing riders, Armstrong threw in the towel on Thursday and abandoned his battle against drug-testing authorities.
One word, in bright red dominated the homepage of the Huffington Post news website: “Disgraced.” On the rival Drudge Report the term was “Stripped,” over a picture of Armstrong wearing the tour victor's yellow jersey.
Later, Drudge updated this to the more dismissive “Tour de Fraud.”
But the headlines did not tell the whole story.
Armstrong's post-cancer victories in the Tour de France inspired a cycling renaissance in his homeland, and his cancer foundation has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the struggle against the disease.
His fans here brushed off or ignored previous claims that his astonishing performances in the bike race were fuelled by banned substances and American patriots celebrated his dominance of a sport seen as typically French.
Peter Flax, the editor in chief of Bicycling Magazine, spoke for many when he said he was sure that Armstrong was guilty of doping but felt that the rider been unfairly targeted long after his top-flight career ended.
“I'm absolutely convinced that he did (dope) but I'm also convinced that he is the victim of a witch hunt,” Flax said on CBS, noting that 95 percent of commenters on his magazine's website were still supportive of Armstrong.
“He is guilty but in a lot of people's eyes, he's still an inspiration.”
Some commentators thought Armstrong's leading role in the battle against cancer would be enough to save his reputation, despite the apparently strong case put together against him by the US Anti-Doping Agency.
ESPN reporter Darren Rovell compared Armstrong's fall to the shock fans felt when golfer Tiger Woods lost his family man image or when Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was accused of turning a blind eye to child sex allegations.
But he also said Armstrong's career had transcended his race wins.
“Sure, we came to know him as the guy who nobody could beat on a bicycle, but his legacy has to be the lives he improved, the lives he saved,” he argued on the sports news network's widely-read website.
“Judging Lance Armstrong by any other statistic than that he has raised almost $500 million for the fight against cancer in the past 15 years just seems small,” he said.
The vice chairman of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Jeffery Garvey, said the cancer charity was standing behind the man whose trademark yellow bracelet campaign became a massive fundraising machine.
“Lance's legacy in the cancer community is unparalleled,” Garvey said. “Lance could have left cancer behind him and never looked back.
“Instead, before ever winning the Tour de France, he established a foundation that today has served 2.5 million cancer survivors with its free patient navigation services.
“Lance has unfailingly stood by the cancer community and we will always stand by him,” he said.
On Sports Illustrated magazine's website, columnist Michael Rosenberg took a more jaundiced view of Armstrong's legacy, arguing that sports fans suspected that something was up but didn't really care.
“If athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs are criminals, then Armstrong pulled off the perfect crime,” he said.
“Most Americans only cared about the Tour de France because Armstrong won it; if you take away those wins, then we don't care about the event anymore. Genius,” he said. – Sapa-AFP