Lance Armstrong and the Lost Boys

Closing the book (we hope) on bike racing’s drug-fueled era of excess

Lance Armstrong.     Photo: Creative Commons

After a while, the stories in the USADA report start to sound like the memoirs of Keith Richards.

Here’s what was so surprising about Wednesday’s Lance Armstrong evidence dump from the United States Anti-Doping Agency: not all that much.

Sure, USADA filled in many shocking details about Armstrong’s doping practices, but the basic outline of this story has been known since 2004, when David Walsh and Pierre Ballester published L.A. Confidentiel, a groundbreaking investigative work that was mostly ignored at the time. But their book made it clear that something about the Armstrong juggernaut was Not Normal, as Lance himself would say.

Since then there’s been a steady drip of allegations, from Floyd Landis’s 2010 whistle-blowing to The Secret Race, the recent tell-all by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle that stands as a worthy companion to the USADA report. Over the years, most of what came out had to be greeted with skepticism because there was never solid proof. That’s why Armstrong could survive as long as he did—and why he became the longest-running Rorschach test in sports. Either you believed in him, like thousands of racing fans and Livestrong supporters did, or you doubted him, a group that grew larger with every passing year.

On Wednesday, at last, the image crystallized: Armstrong was the ringleader, ruthless enforcer, and prime beneficiary of what USADA’s Travis Tygart called “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” As ESPN’s Bonnie Ford put it: “After today, anyone who remains unconvinced simply doesn’t want to know.”

In its 202-page summary, USADA outlined Postal’s doping program as it evolved, year by year. For Armstrong, the conspiracy to cheat dates back to at least 1995, when he and his teammates on the Motorola squad got stomped at Milan-San Remo, an important early-season event. “Coming home from the race, Lance Armstrong was very upset,” George Hincapie recalls in his USADA affidavit, where he admits for the first time that he also cheated. “He said, in substance, that he did not want to be crushed anymore and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO.”

Like kids in junior high, the Motorola boys started experimenting with the drug. But when Armstrong came back from cancer treatments to join the Postal team in 1998—which, by then, already had a doping program underway—he got very serious about it. By 1999, the year Armstrong won his first Tour de France, he and his key lieutenants, including Hincapie, Hamilton, and Jonathan Vaughters, were taking EPO. It worked, too. According to USADA, in June 1999, Armstrong’s hematocrit was a measly 41, far below the high-40s level required to win the race.

The program grew from there as new riders like Christian Vande Velde and, later, Floyd Landis were recruited—though, in some cases, seduced is probably a better word. The riders branched out to human growth hormone and testosterone, the hors d'oeuvres of elite sports back then. Apparently, the team practice was to take testosterone dissolved in a dropper full of olive oil. Very Food Network.

After that things got more elaborate, with regular blood transfusions the mainstay. Transfusing one’s own blood is, of course, undetectable, so it’s not too surprising that nobody on the team ever tested positive. Johan Bruyneel and Michele Ferrari, the Italian physician who designed Postal’s doping program, ran a tight ship. The riders’ lips were sealed. And they were clearly winning a doping arms race. They also ended up derailing the sport.

Armstrong’s first defense has always been that he “never tested positive.” Like The Secret Race before it, the USADA report explains how he stayed ahead of his pursuers. It wasn't just the undetectable blood transfusions. When a direct test for EPO was introduced in 2000, Ferrari figured out how to beat it, by injecting EPO directly into veins rather than under the skin. That way, riders could reap the benefits of the drug and it would be out of their systems in 12 to 24 hours.

That little tidbit depressed me more than anything else in the USADA report, because it means that athletes are probably still doing EPO and getting away with it. I’d like to think they’re not, thanks to better testing methods that look for other signs of doping—and thanks to a new generation of riders who were lucky enough not to get signed by Armstrong and Bruyneel's Postal, Discovery, or Radio Shack teams. But with everything we’ve seen, it’s hard to believe anything at all.

HERE'S WHAT IS SURPRISING in the report: Apparently, Team Armstrong believed it could keep the lid on the story forever, with Armstrong continuing to be adored by the public, kowtowed to by the media, and lavished with sponsorship contracts bigger than anything the sport of cycling had ever seen (or ever will again, probably). And with nobody believing the scattered tales coming from his accusers, who were persecuted and derided as “bitter,” “jealous,” “haters.”

That worked for a while. Aided by a conspiracy of silence among former teammates, Armstrong managed to deny that he’d doped for more than a decade. And even though every journalist who paid attention had to know something was wrong, the story was pure kryptonite. Nobody would talk. If you asked questions, you were ostracized, unable to do your job. People you trusted would straight-up lie to your face. Magazines (including Outside) continued to splash Armstrong on the cover, year after year, as a hero and role model. Editors had little interest in pursuing the unpleasant truth, especially since the Armstrong camp was not shy about filing lawsuits. Besides, most readers didn’t want to hear it anyway.

In this light, the most interesting and poignant documents in the USADA file are the affidavits from other riders—the accusers, who are still derided as lying rats by Armstrong partisans. Their firsthand accounts give us our best window into the madness that consumed cycling during the Armstrong era.

They all tell pretty much the same story. Rider X decides, at age 13 or 15, that he wants to race in the Tour de France someday. He turns out to be good on a bike, winning races, going to national championships, and eventually ending up on a pro team where, inevitably, he is offered performance-enhancing drugs. Sometimes it’s a team doctor or coach. Johan Bruyneel himself played a key role, encouraging his riders to dope and calming their fears. A modestly talented ex-rider who turned out to be a skilled Svengali, Bruyneel knew how to manipulate his young protégés.

They reacted in different ways. Zabriskie, who turned to cycling to escape a nightmarish childhood with a substance-abusing father, suddenly discovered that he was expected to use drugs. He was barely hanging on to his job at Postal, since Bruyneel was paying him just $15,000 a year, well below the UCI-mandated minimum salary. “I felt cornered,” he says in his affidavit. “I had turned to cycling to escape a home life torn apart by drugs, and now I was faced by this.” He went to his apartment, called home, and cried. Then he got with the program.

Christian Vande Velde was similarly seduced. The young phenom of the 1998 Postal squad, Vande Velde says he was just 22 when he was offered “recovery” by a USPS team doctor. At the world championships that year, he recalls, Armstrong’s then wife, Kristin, handed out cortisone tablets wrapped in foil, for use during the race. Vande Velde describes himself as a difficult patient: “I was both nervous about needles and apprehensive about being caught.” This earned him a dressing-down from Armstrong and Ferrari. He wasn’t doping enough. He wasn’t doing the drugs that had been prescribed. He needed to fall in line.

Others had fewer reservations. Levi Leipheimer, for one, jumped in eagerly. “By 1999, I had come to believe that, in order to be successful in professional cycling, it was necessary to use performance-enhancing drugs,” he says in his affidavit. He’d already tested positive for a banned stimulant at the U.S. national championships in 1996. Now he went all the way, first on the Saturn team in 1999, and soon with Postal.

Hincapie made a similar calculus, realizing as early as 1995 that it wasn’t possible to race competitively without drugs. It all could have ended for Hincapie in 1996, when he was stopped by U.S. Customs with EPO in his bag. He said it was prescription medicine and was released. He continued to dope for another decade.

AFTER A WHILE, THE stories in the USADA report start to sound like the memoirs of Keith Richards: pills, needles, glass vials, close calls with law enforcement, the sheer rock-star brazenness with which the riders behaved. Even when Postal’s racers moved on to different teams, many of the core group stuck together, buying and selling drugs from each other, sharing advice on how to use them, shacking up in hotel rooms or rented apartments to do transfusions, and lying to the world. One rider would move out of an apartment, and the next guy would find vials and syringes strewn under the bed. They were like a tribe of junkies, except the riders had lower resting heart rates.

Of course, junkies have to worry about getting caught. For a long time, it seemed, Armstrong’s soldiers did not. At races, the Postal boys walked around with chemical burns from testosterone patches. They used EPO freely, even after a test had been developed. And there’s no test for a blood transfusion, so none of them ever tested positive for that.

But here’s the thing: Many of these guys kept doping long after they left Postal, when Armstrong and Ferrari and Bruyneel were no longer putting pressure on them. Nobody held a gun to their heads and forced them to cheat at a sport they claimed to love. That’s another depressing aspect of the affidavits. Under oath, the riders tended to go into much greater detail than in the public confessions some of them have made. And they give at least some credence to Armstrong’s argument that his accusers are equally guilty.

There’s one key difference, of course. By now, the teammates have admitted what they did. Some of them have done so belatedly—Leipheimer signed his sanction agreement on Tuesday. But they’re finally on the record, with appropriately remorseful words. (All except for Kevin Livingston, who at last report worked for Armstrong's Mellow Johnny's bike shop in Austin.)

For some the reckoning began years ago. I was in a hotel bar one night a few years back during the Tour of California when Hincapie walked in. He had left Discovery, and he was riding for the avowedly clean High Road team, where his job was to mentor young racers. I watched him mingle with fellow riders, smiling and joking. A journalist friend remarked, “He seems so much happier now that he isn’t doping.”

It was true. His face had lost its strained, sad-hound-dog look, and he seemed taller. He had clearly reached some kind of peace with his past, and with himself, by the time he retired this year. Several other Postal veterans have worked more vocally to help clean up the sport, including Vaughters, Vande Velde, and Zabriskie. Rather than introducing young athletes to drugs, the way Bruyneel and Armstrong did, they see their job as steering the new guard away from their own sad path.

It seems to be working, at least for now. The sport has been infused—with new teams, more transparency, and a new generation of riders who appear to be far less inclined to take the low road. Although doping has obviously not been extinguished, performance data from recent Tours suggests that it is much less prevalent. Ironically, riders who are in their twenties now would have been inspired, as teenagers, by Armstrong’s victories. Unfortunately, Armstrong’s downfall means that they’ll probably be facing a very tough job market for the next few years as corporate sponsors shy away from cycling and the mainstream sports media go back to ignoring or ridiculing it like they used to.

One way that Armstrong and his enforcers used to keep people quiet was by insisting that asking questions or telling the truth would destroy cycling. This week it looks like the sport’s worst enemy was always Armstrong himself.

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