By: Jen See
Welcome to my first column for Cycling Illustrated. I plan to show up here every couple weeks and write about cycling. So you should show up, too. Simple, right? As some of you know, I’m not especially good with days of the week, so I don’t dare claim that I will show up on a particular day each week. I like to keep you guessing. Routine is pretty overrated. So are deadlines. Sorry editors! I love you! Really, I do!
In 2001, Lance Armstrong attacked on the Alpe d’Huez and as he bounded up the road, he turned, and over his shoulder, gave his rival Jan Ullrich “the Look.” The moment became one of the key episodes in the Armstrong mythology that grew, larger than life, out of the American’s seven Tour de France victories.
He was the ultimate competitor. He trained harder than his rivals, he had a bigger heart, he had the best team. He never tested positive. He was on his bike six hours a day. Or so the mythology claimed.
In those days, I watched the Tour at a local bike shop. Nice dope, a friend said as Armstrong took his famous dig at Ullrich. I thought my friend might be right, but we could not then know for sure. Now, of course, we know exactly how Armstrong achieved that victory on the Alpe d’Huez. He was on the bike, it’s true. But he was on a whole lot of other things, too.
Last week, the USADA released their long-awaited judgement on Armstrong’s career, the result of a lengthy investigation into Armstrong and his team’s systematic doping program. Taken together, the documents serve as a damning indictment of Lance Armstrong and the dope-riddled era he dominated. Little wonder Armstrong chose not to contest the case.
It is no longer possible, if it ever was, to believe that Armstrong won seven Tours on talent and determination alone.
The report reads like a doper’s liturgy. There were the required elements, the EPO, the HGH, the “oil,” the “recovery” shots. The riders hid the used EPO needles in Coke cans. They carried their EPO in thermos containers filled with ice. Ferrari taught them to shoot it straight into the vein. That way the UCI’s vampires wouldn’t catch them.
With the news of an imminent EPO test in 2000, Armstrong and his team switched to blood doping, and blood doping brought its own set of rituals. The riders removed the pictures from the walls, and hung their blood bags from the nails. Armstrong borrowed a coat hanger from his teammate George Hincapie, and transfused. Really, you can’t make this shit up.
At the same time, there is a frighteningly amateurish quality to the whole thing. Floyd Landis spends the weekend babysitting Armstrong’s blood bags against the possibility of a power outage. A team staff member panics and flushes the stash down the team camper’s toilet. Jonathan Vaughters leaves his EPO wrappers and used syringes under the bed in the apartment at the end of the season.
There must surely be a special place in hell for the doctors, who hardly deserve the title. For they provided the substances and they taught the riders to dope. In his affidavit, Christian Vande Velde recounts a story from 2001 at the early season race, Milano-Sanremo. The team doctor, Dr. Del Moral, injected him with an unknown substance before the race.
“When we asked what the substance was, Del Moral refused to tell us,” says Vande Velde. “After the race, he asked us how we felt and what we thought of the substance. I never learned what the substance was.”
Del Moral was experimenting, and the riders were his human test subjects. To say that he acted irresponsibly is to understate the case.
This is one thing the USADA investigation certainly did right: The case targets the doctors and team managers who encouraged and enabled the riders to dope. In return for the evidence necessary to remove these parasites from the sport, the riders received reduced sanctions. We can — and no doubt will — argue about whether the riders have paid enough for their sins. But certainly, the doctors deserve the lifetime bans coming to them.
By now, the doping part of the story is no longer much of a revelation. Pieces of the story showed up in the reporting of David Walsh, Paul Kimmage, and Damien Ressiot, among others. Operation Puerto and the Italian sporting fraud case against Ferrari shed light on the role of doctors like Fuentes and Ferrari. Hamilton and Landis were sanctioned after long, drawn-out arbitration cases that cracked open the lid of doping’s snake box.
The publication of Hamilton’s book last month opened that crack still wider. The Hamilton revelations were detailed and specific. Hamilton alluded to the centrality of Armstrong’s role, and he portrayed doping as the norm at the elite level of the sport.
The USADA’s report shines a blinding light into the sport’s dark corners, where the snakes hiss and snarl. The findings reinforce the impression of pervasive doping. Talent and determination alone did not get anyone very far during the Armstrong years. Clean riders like Christophe Bassons, in the main, went out the back.
Even with so many riders following doping regimes, it was never a level playing field. In 2000, the U.S. Postal Service team began blood doping with the help of Michele Ferrari, who served as the Rasputin to Armstrong’s court. Leonardo Bertagnolli, a less well-favored and less wealthy Ferrari client, did not learn how to blood dope until 2008. His best result was a stage victory at the 2009 Giro d’Italia.
The relationship between Armstrong and Ferrari is fascinating in its co-dependence. Ferrari obsesses about every detail. Armstrong demands the doctor’s constant attention. During the 2009 Tour, Armstrong emails Ferrari for help through the Italian’s son Stefano. Stefano relays to Armstrong the instruction to raise his saddle 2 mm for the Ventoux stage, and “keep taking ibuprofen.” Apparently, Ferrari doesn’t have to say call me in the morning.
How did Armstrong get away with it? He got away with it in part by bullying anyone who dared to criticize him. The bullying was incessant and likely does more to shatter Armstrong’s public image than the doping revelations would alone. Fans seem willing to forgive athletes for doping, at least the athletes they like.
But it is impossible to square the way Armstrong treated his critics with his carefully built public image of philanthropist and beacon of hope.
Armstrong also got away with it, because all along the way, cycling’s authorities allowed him to do so. The USADA report makes clear that Armstrong owned the UCI lock, stock, and Sysmex machine. His positive test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse disappeared with the wave of a magic wand full of euros.
It’s going to take a big broom to clean up the mess at the UCI. It’s all but impossible to read the USADA report and see anything other than complicity. How will the UCI respond? The answer should come in approximately two weeks time, but it’s unlikely that the story will end there.
When that answer comes, you can forget everything you ever knew about bike racing results. The USADA report takes a scythe to the sport’s history, chopping down results row after row.
Erase Armstrong’s results starting in 1998. Erase Zabriskie’s results between the years 2003 and 2006. Vande Velde’s results? Gone. Levi Leipheimer’s results? Also, gone from 1998 to 2006. George Hincapie’s second place finish at Paris-Roubaix? Well, it turns out that one is gone, too.
Wake me up with David Moncoutié wins the Tour. In fact, Christian Prudhomme, the race director at the Tour de France, has said they do not plan to reassign Armstrong’s victories. If the UCI accepts the USADA decision, the record books will show no-winner for the years 1999 through 2005.
That seems fitting. Those empty spaces, where there was once a race winner, should stand empty. They should stand as a memorial to the hopes of riders like Christophe Bassons — and the many whose names we never knew — who quit the sport rather than eat from doping’s poisoned table.
When an earthquake on the sea floor causes a tsunami, the tide swings from high to low and back again for days and weeks afterward. Like shaking a bowl of water, the motion continues long after the original shock.
So it is also with this Armstrong case. There are scores of riders and team staffers mentioned in the report and many more are redacted, their names concealed at least for now. Matt White, one of those implicated in the report, has already stepped down from his role as sports director at Orica-GreenEdge. He is unlikely to be the last as the case rolls through the sport for some time to come.
For the riders who gave evidence, they will lose their results and serve a six months ban during this coming off-season. Though they gave detailed accounts of their experiences with Armstrong, the affidavits stop in 2006, the year of Armstrong’s final Tour victory. The riders were not the principal concern of the investigation. That distinction belonged to Armstrong, the team management, and the doctors.
Amidst the piles of empty EPO wrappers and the used syringes, it’s worth remembering that there were riders who said no. Some of them signed for big contracts, then gave up the money rather than put their bodies and their careers in the hands of men like Ferrari and Del Moral. Others raced in the United States for lower salaries. They switched to mountain biking or they raced cyclocross. Many of them left cycling completely.
“You know what takes more courage to do than coming forward and admitting ones mistake?” Ryan Trebon asked last week on Twitter. “Having the fortitude to not do it in the first place.”
During the Armstrong years, that fortitude was in short supply in cycling. The UCI failed in its responsibility to enforce the rules, and allowed Armstrong to grow into a larger than life figure. The team doctors abandoned the imperative to do no harm. They injected whatever magic serums they believed would create faster bike racers and watched their bank accounts grow. The riders accepted it all as the price they had to pay to compete at the sport’s top level.
“Show me the perfect human,” wrote Zabriskie in reply to Trebon. People make mistakes in their lives, it’s true, and perfect humans are few and far between. But it should not have required perfection to know that doping was wrong. And it should not have required perfection for the people in positions of authority to try to make it stop. The riders who tried to compete clean deserved better. They still do.