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