Among my emails Wednesday morning, out of the blue, was one from Lance Armstrong.
Riles, I'm sorry. All I can say for now but also the most heartfelt thing too. Two very important words. L
And my first thought was ... "Two words? That's it?"
Two words? For 14 years of defending a man? And in the end, being made to look like a chump?
Wrote it, said it, tweeted it: "He's clean." Put it in columns, said it on radio, said it on TV. Staked my reputation on it.
"Never failed a drug test," I'd always point out. "Most tested athlete in the world. Tested maybe 500 times. Never flunked one."
Why? Because Armstrong always told me he was clean.
On the record. Off the record. Every kind of record. In Colorado. In Texas. In France. On team buses. In cars. On cell phones.
I'd sit there with him, in some Tour de France hotel room while he was getting his daily post-race massage. And we'd talk through the hole in the table about how he stared down this guy or that guy, how he'd fooled Jan Ullrich on the torturous Alpe d'Huez into thinking he was gassed and then suddenly sprinted away to win. How he ordered chase packs from the center of the peloton and reeled in all the pretenders.
And then I'd bring up whatever latest charge was levied against him. "There's this former team-mate who says he heard you tell doctors you doped." "There's this former assistant back in Austin who says you cheated." "There's this assistant they say they caught disposing of your drug paraphernalia."
And every time - every single time - he'd push himself up on his elbows and his face would be red and he'd stare at me like I'd just shot his dog and give me some very well-delivered explanation involving a few dozen F words, a painting of the accuser as a wronged employee seeking revenge, and how lawsuits were forthcoming.
And when my own reporting would produce no proof, I'd be convinced. I'd go out there and continue polishing a legend that turned out to be plated in fool's gold.
Even after he retired, the hits just kept coming. A Times report. A Daniel Coyne book. A U.S. federal investigation. All liars and thieves, he'd snarl.
I remember one time we talked on the phone for half an hour, all off the record, at his insistence, and I asked him three times, "Just tell me. Straight up. Did you do any of this stuff?"
"No! I didn't do s---!"
And the whole time he was lying. Right in my earpiece. Knowing that I'd hang up and go back out there and spread the fertilizer around some more.
And now, just like that, it's all flipped. Thursday and Friday night we'll see him look right into the face of Oprah Winfrey and tell her just the opposite. He'll tell her, she says, that he doped to win.
I get it. He's ruined. He's lost every single sponsor. Nearly every close team-mate has turned on him. All seven Tour de France titles have been stripped. He could owe millions. He might be in a hot kettle with the feds. Even the future he planned for himself - triathlons and mountain biking - have been snatched away. He's banned from those for life.
So I get it. The road to redemption goes through Oprah, where he'll finally say those two very important words, "I'm sorry," and hope the USADA will cut the ban from lifetime to the minimum eight years.
But here's the thing. When he says he's sorry now, how do we know he's not still lying? How do we know it's not just another great performance by the all-time leader in them?
And I guess I should let it go, but I keep thinking how hard he used me. Made me look like a sap. Made me carry his dirty water and I didn't even know it.
Look, I've been fooled before. I believed Mark McGwire was hitting those home runs all on his own natural gifts. I believed Joe Paterno couldn't possibly cover up something so grisly as child molestation. I bought Manti Te'o's girlfriend story. But those people never looked me square in the pupils and spit.
It's partially my fault. I let myself admire him. Let myself admire what he'd done with his life, admire the way he'd not only beaten his own cancer but was trying to help others beat it. When my sister was diagnosed, she read his book and got inspired. And I felt some pride in that. I let it get personal. And now I know he was living a lie and I was helping him live it.
I didn't realise that behind those blues was a bully, a coercer, a man who threatened people who once worked for and with him. The Andreus. Emma O'Reilly. Tyler Hamilton. Armstrong was strong-arming people in the morning, and filing lawsuits and op-ed pieces in the afternoon. We'd talk and his voice would get furious. And I'd believe him.
And all along, the whole time, he was acting, just like he had with Ullrich that day. So now the chase pack has reeled in Lance Armstrong, and he is busted and he's apologizing to those he conned.
I guess I should forgive him. I guess I should give him credit for putting himself through worldwide shame. I guess I should thank him for finally admitting his whole magnificent castle was built on sand and syringes and suckers like me. But I'm not quite ready. Give me 14 years, maybe.
You're sorry, Lance? No, I'm the one who's sorry.