Austin, Texas – Even Lance Armstrong's most die-hard fans are beginning to accept that their hero cheated his way to seven Tour de France victories after he stepped down as head of his Livestrong foundation and was dropped by major sponsors.
Plenty of people in Armstrong's cycling-mad Texas hometown stood by their man after he announced in August that he was no longer going to fight allegations from the US Anti-Doping Association.
Some began to have doubts after the association's lengthy report came out last week, and the latest blows on Wednesday seem to have convinced even more.
Armstrong may have been stripped of his titles, but his seven yellow jerseys still hang on the wall of Mellow Johnny's, his Austin cycling shop.
Terry Burgess, who shops there regularly, said he is looking at them differently now.
“From what I've learned in the past week or so, I've come to the conclusion that he was over the top, with an elaborate and apparently great organisation to pull off a doping scheme,” said Burgess, 57.
Even so, Burgess, who said he doesn't have a lot of faith that public figures won't lie and cheat, tried put the controversy into perspective.
“It's not like he killed Santa Claus,” he told AFP.
Many fans said the doping doesn't take away from Armstrong's inspirational triumph over testicular cancer, his impact on the sport and the legacy he created through his charitable work.
Armstrong's fall from grace “does make you think about what you take stock in and what you believe,” Michael Salas, 38, said as he sat on the deck of an adjacent coffee shop, Juan Pelota, which is also owned by Armstrong.
“I don't care,” said Salas, a pedicab bicyclist from New York who came to Austin to work at a music festival.
“He's still Lance and still a symbol of strength. I don't know the guy personally but I still think he's awesome.”
Chef Daniel Olivella, 51, regularly goes out on group rides with Armstrong and Mellow Johnny's employees.
“I haven't lost faith in him. He's an extremely charismatic leader and he's done a lot for cycling,” Olivella told AFP as he left the bike shop.
“Nobody is pure in this world.”
Olivella said he rode with the group on Friday, the same day the anti-doping association released its report with more than 1,000 pages of evidence alleging Armstrong was at the center of what it called the biggest doping conspiracy in sports history.
“He's all smiles and being just like a regular guy,” Olivella said.
People riding and running the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, a six-mile bike trail through the heart of Austin, had mixed opinions too.
Investment advisor Eric Davis, 50, said he “wanted to believe” that Armstrong was innocent, but with the recent reports “there's no escaping the fact that he did it.”
The doping scandal – and attempts by officials to clean up the sport – will probably result in slower times, Davis said. But they haven't dampened his enthusiasm for the sport.
Susan Manza, 35, said she hopes the scandal doesn't tarnish the good work of Armstrong's Livestrong foundation but she's worried people won't be able to separate the two.
“We all make mistakes. It would be great if the two could exist separately, but maybe that's naive,” she said as she took her dog for a walk on the bike path.
“I wish there was a better ending.”
There's no reason to strip Armstrong's name from the path, said Brian Jacobson, 33, an advertising salesman.
“He's cheated in a bunch of bike races. He's also done a lot of good things. The good outweighs the bad.”
A spokesman for Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell said the city will continue to stand by Armstrong.
“I am proud of my friendship with Lance Armstrong,” Leffingwell said in a statement.
“Lance is not only a friend to me, but also a friend to Austin, and a friend and hero to millions of cancer survivors and their families around the globe. His incredible generosity of spirit has been and remains an inspiration to me and countless others, and can never be taken away.” – Sapa-AFP