By JOHN LEICESTER
PARIS — Lance Armstrong once said the extraordinary accusations that he doped needed to be backed by extraordinary evidence.
Well, the evidence is more extraordinary than anyone could possibly have imagined.
Page after page of evidence teased out of former U.S. Postal Service teammates and corroborated by affidavits that washed away the lies, the mythmaking, the fear and intimidation that kept secrets hidden, and the value of the sweat that Armstrong left on French roads.
Now, there is absolutely nothing left to believe — except for USADA’s conclusion: Armstrong’s team “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”
To worry about how the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency managed to bring down one of the biggest sports icons, whether U.S. taxpayer dollars should have been spent on schools rather than trawling through the past, and whether it even had the power to reduce such a giant to a speck, feels trivial in the bare light-bulb glare of USADA’s findings.
The means, fair or foul, appear justified by the ends and by the hope — and it can be only hope at this point — that this is as low as any sport can sink and that cycling could maybe build a healthier future from here, if the cancer of doping is truly excised.
Because this is the end, the end of the fabulous pretense about a guy from a broken home in Texas who took on cancer and the world’s hardest bike race and beat them both. The cancer part is true but USADA’s findings appear to leave little doubt that it wasn’t just willpower that got Armstrong to the top of the Tour de France podium a record seven times. And once you burst the bubble that Armstrong’s story was essentially one of mind over matter then it loses all power to inspire. Instead, the allegations that Armstrong not only doped for the bulk of his career but supplied and pushed drugs, too, inspire only disgust.
Livestrong? How wrong. Those of you with bright yellow wristbands should ask for your dollar back. The title of Armstrong’s biography, “It’s Not About The Bike,” now looks like a cynical private joke in the light of USADA’s 164-page “Reasoned Decision,” plus reams of testimony and other evidence, explaining why it banned Armstrong for life and stripped away his titles.
If it is to be believed, then the bike, the sport of cycling, was simply a vehicle for systematic fraud and abuse of trust. Judging from his teammates’ belated confessions of rampant drug use, a title perhaps closer to the truth would have been: “It’s All About The Spike.”
Die-hard Armstrong believers who cling to the straws that cheating was a necessary evil because practically everyone was doing it and that he still towered above a doped-up bunch must consider this: Try substituting the word “heroin” for “EPO,” ”testosterone,” ”blood transfusion” and all the other banned substances and methods Armstrong’s teammates allege they were pressured into or felt were necessary.
USADA’s report paints this not as a mere bunch of ambitious athletes who took a bit of this and that but as a drug-pushing, drug-taking, drug-supplying conspiracy that, among others, recruited and corrupted easily influenced young riders.
David Zabriskie rode for four years on Armstrong’s team. He told USADA that, as a teenager, cycling offered him an escape from a “difficult home life,” with a father who was a drug addict, and he viewed the sport as “a healthy and wholesome outlet that would keep me far away from following my father’s footsteps.”
But after joining the U.S. Postal squad, he broke his vow never to take drugs himself. Zabriskie testified that team manager Johan Bruyneel — the brains behind Armstrong’s assaults on the Tour — pushed him to dope with EPO and that a team doctor, Luis Garcia del Moral, administered his first shot of the blood-boosting hormone, in Spain in 2003.
“I felt cornered. I had pursued cycling to escape a home life torn apart by drugs, and now I was faced with this,” Zabriskie’s affidavit reads. “I went back to my Spanish apartment and had a breakdown. I called home, crying. I had pursed cycling as an escape from drugs, and here I was, having succumbed to the pressure.”
A charge leveled at USADA by Armstrong’s lawyers to shoot down its case and credibility is that testimony from Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, former close teammates of Armstrong, can’t be trusted because they lied for years about their own doping after they were caught by drug tests.
But we no longer have to take only their word for an inside story of Armstrong’s team. Most damning is the testimony from George Hincapie, a big, lanky New Yorker, because he was the only rider who stuck with Armstrong for all seven Tour wins, the loyal lieutenant and seemingly upstanding insider.
“Lance and I were friends from the start,” he told USADA.
That makes Hincapie’s testimony most damaging because it can’t be lawyered and spin-doctored away as the fabricated ramblings of serial perjurers with axes to grind.
“I was aware that Lance Armstrong was using EPO in 1999,” the year of his first Tour win, reads Hincapie’s 16-page affidavit which he signed at the bottom.
Before the 2005 Tour, “he gave me two vials of EPO while we were both in Nice, France.”
“Lance had previously provided EPO to me on another occasion following a training camp in Santa Barbara, California.”
“From my conversations with Lance Armstrong and experiences with Lance and the team I am aware that Lance used blood transfusions from 2001 through 2005.”
There’s more, so much more. Former teammate Jonathan Vaughters testified that he saw Armstrong inject himself in the stomach in 1998 and that, “from that point on, while I was on the U.S. Postal Service team, Lance was open with me about his use of EPO.”
Christian Vande Velde told USADA that doping “wore on me and took its toll” but Armstrong told him that if he wanted to stay on his team then he must follow “to the letter” the instructions of Michele Ferrari.
Nicknamed “Schumi,” after Formula One racer Michael Schumacher, Ferrari is an Italian doctor who, according to testimony from Hincapie and other riders, dispensed doping training plans — with dots and symbols to show what to take when and instructions to inject EPO into veins, not under the skin, so that it would flush faster from the body and reduce the risk of detection.
To another question waved by Armstrong’s defenders — how could he pass so many drug tests if he doped? — the report also offers an answer: with apparent ease. The testing net had more holes than mesh, holes seemingly plenty big enough for even the biggest fish to slip through, allegedly aided by Ferrari’s expertise and tip-offs that testers were coming.
Team staff, including director Bruyneel, “seemed to have an outstanding early warning system regarding drug tests,” Vaughters testified. “We typically seemed to have an hour’s advance notice” — plenty of time for riders to manipulate their blood with infusions of saline solution to make it look normal.
“Johan always seemed to know when drug testers were coming at races,” Zabriskie testified. “His warning that “they’re coming tomorrow” came on more than one occasion.”
How did Bruyneel allegedly know? Who could have tipped him off? These are among the questions cycling must answer.
And who are those other people — drug takers, drug sellers, drug facilitators — whose names have been blacked out from some of the riders’ testimony? More important, are they still in cycling today? USADA’s investigation feels like a work in progress.
USADA’s findings, which shatter the code of silence that hid doping in cycling, could be the beginning of a healthier era for the sport if it picks up these threads, answers all questions and teases out the entire truth about its past.
If the sport doesn’t go back to business as usual — doping with mouths shut — this, with reforms, could mark a chance to build a credible future.
It’s also the sport’s last chance. It won’t get another if nothing is done.
As for the past, forget it. Chuck those rider biographies that now seem to have been more fiction than fact, the photos with presidents and rock stars. Look elsewhere for inspiration on how to live strong.
American riders came to Europe’s biggest race with what seemed a great story. Now, those who say they were in on the secrets are telling us much of it wasn’t true.
That was beyond bad.
But now, by breaking their silence, they’ve also done some good.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester