Drugs and the Peloton
Team Armstrong Responds
At the time, Armstrong was sponsored by a shop down the road and looked after by the owner, Jim Hoyt, whose role seemed to be equal parts Daddy Warbucks and Il Duce. News of their tumultuous relationship traveled fast in Dallas bike circles. One early legend concerned an abandoned car, an IROC-Z28 owned by Armstrong but cosigned for by Hoyt and registered under Hoyt’s name. Armstrong had reportedly ditched the car and the passengers—his friends—while fleeing from the police one night, and he refused to apologize to Hoyt, which damaged their relationship for years. Such tales formed my initial picture of Armstrong as arrogant and reckless.
Throughout the '90s, I focused on college and graduate school, but I still rode and raced, especially mountain bikes, which I found more exciting. Armstrong turned pro as a road racer, riding for Motorola between 1992 and 1996. His name came up a lot, but his record in Europe—including mixed results in his handful of Tour de France appearances—meant nothing to me then, and I didn’t pay much attention to bike racing again until 1998. That was the year of the infamous Festina affair, a doping scandal that nearly brought the Tour to a halt, the year I first realized the sport had a dark side.
By that time, Armstrong had been through the defining episode of his life: a 1996 diagnosis of testicular cancer, which spread to his lungs and brain and led to a series of grueling treatments, including surgery and chemotherapy. We’d both relocated to Austin by 1999, the year he became world-famous with his first win at the Tour. Armstrong not only had come back from a killer disease but appeared to be racing clean, and so his victory was billed as redemption for a dirty peloton. To me the story seemed borderline miraculous.
By late 2001, I’d dropped out of graduate school and taken a full-time job as a head bike mechanic. The shop where I worked was sent a specially painted Trek that Armstrong would ride while carrying the 2002 Winter Olympics torch through Austin. I met him for the first time when he came in to pick it up. Over the next year or two, when he was in town, he’d call me to have his bike worked on or to go for a ride on one of the mountain-bike trails in the area. We became casual friends through these informal training sessions on routes I picked, connected by sweat, blood, and a lot of good-natured shit talking.
During the next year, a mutual acquaintance named Derek Russey—whose company cleared brush and maintained the lawns of Armstrong’s numerous properties—said Armstrong had asked about me coming to work for him. The job was subsequently described in an email: he needed an assistant for the final period of his professional racing career, which (he confided) was going to end in two years. I would fix his bikes, attend to various personal needs, and deal with whatever else cropped up. I’d also drive the follow car in Austin while he trained and tend to his houses when he was in Europe. In return, he agreed to provide funding and endorsements for the bike shop I wanted to open.
There was no formal contract spelling this out, just the email explaining the job and containing Armstrong’s promise of financial help later on. I feel stupid now for not getting everything in writing, but at the time I was naive, and the need for such a document didn’t occur to me. Armstrong and I were on friendly terms, and I trusted him. From his side of the fence, I wasn’t asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement, so he apparently trusted me, too.
“We had you checked out,” Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s agent, told me once. “You’re white trash like the rest of us.” It was a jokey way of telling me I was in.
Working for Armstrong was hardly the career I aspired to, but as I saw it I was helping a buddy who needed a hand. The pay was an improvement on what I was making. I was married by then, and my wife, Allison, was pregnant. It seemed ideal in many ways.