Now that Pat McQuaid has been voted out of the UCI presidency and the troubled institution is being led by Brian Cookson, there is some reasonable hope that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be formed and testimony will take place. Given how cycling has been governed since the UCI was formed, this is a turn of events so surprising and unlikely it is befitting an Aaron Sorkin screenplay.
Let’s imagine it for a second: Someone will be willing to pay attention as Jesus Manzano speaks.
Consider that Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton will have an opportunity to sit down in the same room as members of the UCI, tell everything they saw and took part in while members of U.S. Postal and Phonak, and when finished Pat McQuaid won’t be there to call them “scumbags.”
Now that we have the faith that the UCI has a president who will actually do what he says, and that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will convene, we have a question to consider: How far back should the TRC look? Technically, the choice of how far to look back belongs to Cookson or whoever he charges with running the TRC, but that Cookson is president now owes much to public outcry. We do have a voice and the success of a TRC will rest on public satisfaction.
So who should testify? The TRC should do more than just listen to riders and team personnel. We should hear from as many doctors, pharmacists and lab techs as possible. Let’s include the odd motorcycle driver or two. This testimony will be key in corroborating what the riders say. Anyone watching social media has noticed that there’s some suspicion about whether George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Levi Leipheimer confessed all of their doping to USADA or not. Testimony from medical professionals and coaches will have the ability to confirm their previous testimony or demonstrate that they withheld some activity. It will also show just how fearful riders were of Travis Tygart, or not.
However, if the TRC only looks back as far as 1999, it won’t be far enough. We will have little reason to be satisfied. The TRC needs the freedom, resources and time necessary to take testimony from anyone with a heartbeat. That means we should listen to Belgian soigneurs from the 1950s. We should listen to guys like Lucien Aimar, who was a domestique for Jacques Anquetil. And yes, we should listen to Eddy Merckx.
Why go so far back? Because it will educate the sport’s governing body, riders, team staff, the public and sponsors—in short every stakeholder the sport has—on how entrenched doping and attitudes toward doping have been. Because it was ingrained at an institutional level, it will show that cycling takes doping not just more seriously than any other sport, but as seriously as one may take it. That is what will be necessary to win back sponsor and audience confidence.
The reality is that we won’t hear from everyone we would like to. We must also accept that the UCI is unlikely to allow the TRC to run for five years. They need to focus their effort, concentrate on the biggest part of the problem. To that end, I suggest that we do what we can to encourage testimony from as far back as 1990.
Based on everything I’ve learned about the rise of oxygen-vector doping, I think we can put a date on when doping fundamentally change in pro cycling. That date? May 18,1990. With it comes a specific location: Bari, Italy. That was the day and the location of the prologue for the 1990 Giro d’Italia, which was won by Gianni Bugno. Bugno went on to wear the pink jersey for the 19 days, all the way to the finish in Milan. It was the first time a rider had led the Giro from start to finish since Eddy Merckx did it in 1973. Because we know Bugno worked with Francesco Conconi and testing revealed a high hematocrit—for which he was sanctioned—I think it’s fair to mark this as the date when racing grand tours changed. Fair enough, that is, until we get testimony through a TRC.
Simply put, the 1990 Giro was the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO.
While EPO use changed the whole of racing, it had the greatest effect on the grand tours, where being able to stay out of the red zone thanks to extra red blood cells paid dividends as the race wore on. It was during the 1990 season that Bugno and Claudio Chiappucci stormed to prominence. A year later Miguel Indurain won his first Tour de France, and like Chiappucci and Bugno, Big Mig counted Conconi among his advisors.
The 1990 season was a turning point in that not only did it see the first grand tour won with the aid of EPO (the Giro), it also saw the last clean win in the Tour de France prior to two generations of wins tainted by oxygen-vector doping. Has there been a clean winner of the Tour since Greg LeMond’s 1990 win? Very probably, but certainly not between 1991 and 2006. The possibility of a clean winner seems to have grown more convincing with each year since 2007.
A TRC has the ability to settle this question.
Now, regarding LeMond, it’s easy enough to find comments on Facebook or Twitter from people willing to accuse him of having doped. Even without a TRC, the evidence suggests that in 1989 each of the grand tours was won without oxygen-vector doping. The Vuelta was won by Pedro Delgado, the Giro by Laurent Fignon and the Tour by LeMond. Each of those guys had won a grand tour prior to the availability of EPO. While we know that both Delgado and Fignon doped, we have reason to believe they weren’t using EPO in ’89. What’s interesting about ’89 is that this is the year Chiappucci, Bugno and Indurain began to threaten the GC. In ’89 Chiappucci finished 46th and 81st in the Giro and Tour, respectively. A year later? A remarkable 12th and 2nd. In ’88, Bugno withdrew from the Giro and finished the Tour in 62nd. In ’89 he went 23rd and 11th. In ’90, of course, he won the Giro and finished the Tour in 7th. Indurain’s rise was more gradual, less outwardly suspicious; he finished 97th in the ’87 Tour, but gradually climbed the ranks up to 47th, 17th and 10th before winning.
What makes all three of these riders of a piece is the fact that they started anonymously before rising to prominence. LeMond, Fignon, Merckx and Bernard Hinault all share in common the fact that their brilliance and potential shown early on. LeMond differs only in that he didn’t win his first Tour—he was third.
Lance Armstrong is accused of being at the center of the greatest doping program in history, the greatest sporting fraud ever perpetrated. It’s a charge we can’t really resolve. If there was a greater sporting fraud, it hasn’t been exposed. Ultimately, this isn’t a terribly important question. What the Armstrong fall has done, however, is to open the public’s eyes to the breadth of doping that has taken place. It has introduced suspicion into the cycling fan’s vocabulary. The problem before us is how to put this behind us. We may never put the genie back in the bottle, but a TRC has the ability to educate us on more than just who doped; it has the ability to clear those who did not dope.
Aside from simply dispensing the truth, a TRC will freshly frame the achievement of riders like LeMond, riders who would have accomplished more were it not for the rise of EPO. A TRC that reaches back to 1990 will give us a new way to define courage.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
In refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks unwittingly ignited a revolution in how the United States treated African Americans. It was a pretty simple act of defiance as things go, but by staying seated, Parks ripped the scab off long-simmering tensions between blacks and whites in the U.S.
In the decade that followed President Lyndon Johnson signed into law what was arguably the most radical and sweeping civil rights legislation since the Nineteenth Amendment—which gave women the right to vote—was ratified in 1920. African Americans were given the right to vote, protected from discrimination based on their skin color or national heritage and protected from discrimination in housing. What gave the civil rights movement its power was a societal epiphany, a collective dawning of consciousness about the inherent wrong of discriminating against anyone for their skin color. For reasons that we may never fully understand, sufficient numbers of Americans made their voice heard, a voice that said in effect, ‘This doesn’t work; we’re not going to accept this anymore.’
Of course, the road to equal rights wasn’t smooth or easy. There were murders, boycotts, riots, more murders and deployments of the National Guard to keep the status quo when the cops couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves.
I offer that as a backdrop to the recurring themes of today’s news. A majority of the American people have concluded they’re okay with gay marriage. What they’re not okay with anymore are priests and school teachers sexually abusing minors. They’re not okay with the Boy Scouts discriminating against gays. And they don’t seem to be okay assault weapons on the streets. The public not only wants change, they see it as necessary.
In our collective rejection of this old status quo I see a parallel to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. We aren’t willing to turn a blind eye to these crimes. My sense is that we’re approaching another societal epiphany, a large-scale sea change, one that will define us as a society that rejects discrimination of any form. Naturally, I hope that this movement isn’t marked by the violence that threatened to overshadow all the progress we were making.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? That’s easy: I see cycling confronting the same issues. I now think Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong affair is the precipitating event to wake cycling fans from their complacency about the problem of doping, much the way Parks’ defiance was the precipitating event in sparking the civil rights movement. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to see the case in this light, but there can be no doubt that the public at large is now aware of just how deeply ingrained doping has been in the sport.
Most of the cycling public ignored nearly all of the accusations against Armstrong and instead chose to believe the fairytale until the release of USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Through that I hear echoes of white America’s tacit approval of segregation. Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen are little different from the Southern politicians and police chiefs who resisted the new laws, insisting they weren’t going to change how things had been done for generations. Indeed, considering how McQuaid and Verbruggen denounced both Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton once they decided to unburden their consciences by confessing the details of their doping, they are no better than Bull Connor, the Birmingham public safety commissioner who directed the fire and police departments to turn fire hoses and attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s demonstration in the spring of 1963. Connor, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, became the public face of Southern bigotry, the quintessential example of the old guard that was standing in the way of the equality we all now take for granted.
If it seems like a stretch to compare segregation with doping, consider that there was a time when seemingly reasonable people saw nothing wrong with separate facilities for blacks and whites—it was the law of the land thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Similarly, there was a time when taking performance-enhancing drugs just to get through a bike race wasn’t the least bit scandalous. Times change.
Could it be that the new generation of riders are analogous to what my generation was to the acceptance of African Americans as equals in school and on the playground? I think so. In their outspoken denunciation of doping, Taylor Phinney, Tejay Van Garderen and Mark Cavendish are a lot like the whites who linked arms with blacks and staged protests in the South. It may also be that riders like Levi Leipheimer and Thomas Dekker aren’t terribly different from Southerners who went with the flow until they recognized the tide had turned.
In shutting down the investigation by their independent commission, McQuaid and the UCI have proven to all but those with the most reptilian of brains that learning the full scope of doping in the sport has never been their primary interest. They lack the vision, the institutional spine and sufficient love for the sport to show real courage by allowing the commission to do the job they were charged with. After being booed by the crowd assembled at the recent Cyclocross World Championships, it seems impossible that McQuaid could somehow be unclear on the will of the people, yet he persists with the obstinate bearing of a smoker who won’t give up his cigarettes even after learning he has lung cancer. In that regard we can draw yet another comparison, this time to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. It was Faubus who called out the National Guard to prevent nine black students from attending Little Rock Central High School. You can’t help but wonder what he was thinking as he tried to prevent school integration.
It would be obscene to suggest that the issues cycling faces are as serious as the fundamental issues of equality that the United States wrestled with 50 years ago. But because sport is aspirational, a place in which we invest our loftiest dreams, the drama unfolding as a result of doping has held many of us in a disproportionate crisis. Sport is supposed to be a realm free of the clutches of corruption.
Democracy has a way of pushing aside tyrants in favor of more reasonable forms of engaging the citizenry. History remembers Faubus and Connor as villains who stood in the way of equality for all Americans, men who clung to outdated ideas and refused to change with the times. McQuaid and Verbruggen have denied any wrongdoing during their tenures, instead pointing crooked fingers at the riders, the teams and even the fans. They are our Faubus and Connor. History will show them no quarter.
So what might we expect from the future? It’s not unreasonable to conclude the UCI will be freed of the misguided leadership of McQuaid and Verbruggen following their next election. Of course, that is no more likely to put an end to doping than the civil rights movement put an end to the Ku Klux Klan. The difference is that the Ku Klux Klan wasn’t a fringe organization in the first half of the 20th Century, while today it is far outside of the mainstream of social thought. Likewise, drug use was a once widespread practice, but the day is coming when athletes will see doping for what it really is—
the most basic of lies.
Journalist Paul Kimmage has filed a criminal complaint against the UCI for defamation, slander and fraud.
That’s worth repeating: Paul Kimmage is suing the UCI.
This would be where Wayne and Garth are supposed to say, “Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.”
Lo, see the winged orangutans!
Even though UCI President Pat McQuaid and his predecessor Hein Verbruggen have always been as fast and easy with insults as the Real Housewives of Orange County are, as recently as a year ago, a defamation suit would have seemed impossible, like unicorn impossible. Of course, Kimmage isn’t suing the UCI because they hurt his feelings. The papers filed on his behalf by Swiss attorney Cédric Aguet cite both slander and defamation, but that’s not what makes the suit earth-shaking. It goes on to include a criminal complaint that there are “strong suspicions of fraud.”
It’s the fraud charge that causes Kimmage’s suit to step beyond what might be merely a civil case and into something with serious teeth. Criminal. Capital C. Jail time. Should the prosecutor the case has been referred to pick it up one can expect a bunch of subpoenas.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned through this process it’s that we aren’t willing to believe the truth until someone gives sworn testimony. Richard Virenque was clean until he was confronted by a prosecutor in court. We’d never have learned Tyler Hamilton’s full story without a subpoena. The eyewitnesses who were Lance Armstrong’s undoing? Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly, Tyler Hamilton—their stories were mostly ignored until they became sworn testimony attached to the USADA investigation, which, it’s worth noting, was the second time around for Betsy Andreu. Sure Stephanie McIlvain lied on the stand, but she’s maybe the best demonstration of just how important the moral courage of people like Andreu, O’Reilly and yes, even Hamilton were to the process.
It’s why Kimmage suing the UCI for fraud is the best shot we have of finding witnesses who can tell just what happened in Aigle. But we’re going to need more, better, witnesses than the likes of Julian Devries. You may recall that Devries told Kathy LeMond that Nike paid Verbruggen—not the UCI—$500,000 back in 2001 to make Armstrong’s 1999 positive for corticosteroids go Jimmy Hoffa. While I believe LeMond, this case needs a witness closer to the action than Devries.
When Floyd Landis first started spouting off about the corruption within the UCI his charges were long on vitriol and short on specifics. Sure, he was making charges, but he wasn’t doing a lot to tell us how he knew what he knew and what facts he’d seen to support his assertions. After all, the difference between saying “the UCI is corrupt” and “I saw a check for $500,000 drawn on Nike’s checking account and made out to Hein Verbruggen” is the difference between saying “guns can kill” and watching someone shoot your mother.
As important as the testimony from each of the eyewitnesses has been, we would not be in this position without a couple of crucial acts by Mr. Armstrong. There’s a strong causal link between Armstrong’s refusal to give Landis as spot on the RadioShack team and his downfall. That simple act of charity, something alleged to have been suggested to Armstrong by a few different people, would have reinvigorated Landis’ career and life. Could Armstrong have found room in his heart to mend a fence with Landis, there would never have been that legendary tete-a-tete with USADA. And had Landis never met with Jeff Novitzky and Travis Tygart, Tyler Hamilton would never have been deposed. Hamilton was as crucial a witness as USADA ever found. It’s safe to say that if Armstrong hadn’t dropped a dime on him (this is a charge alleged by Landis that I believe to be true), Hamilton’s career would have run its course, with him winning some more big races before sailing off into retirement with us none the wiser.
A portion of Armstrong’s downfall must be attributed to his Machiavellian ruthlessness. Ironic, eh?
In interviews with the media, many witnesses in the USADA investigation made a similar, if crucial, statement: They didn’t want to be talking to investigators, they didn’t want to be on the stand. Some of the riders snared in the investigation have been slagged doing what seemed obvious: telling the truth. Despite what some think, the testimony they gave wasn’t obvious or easy, and while some cycling fans still wonder just how much of what they told was the truth, there are a few details worth noting. First, the riders did have options. They could easily have lied. McIlvain certainly did, despite contradictory eyewitness testimony. Second, they could have remained silent per the Fifth Amendment. While we don’t know for sure, it seems likely that George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde and the others were given immunity in exchange for their testimony. Any indication that they had lied to investigators would have nullified the agreement and opened them up to prosecution. Given the sheer number of witnesses, lying to investigators would have been a pretty significant risk, for a rider who lied would be facing charges for both doping and perjury.
A recent piece published by The New York Times pointed to Kayle Leogrande as the catalyst that set the investigation in motion that led to Armstrong’s downfall. The Times rarely ever gets the story wrong, but this is one of those occasions when they did. In calling him “pivotal” to the investigation, Ian Lovett missed the event that deserves remembering.
Lance Armstrong would still be (as he’s been called, occasionally ironically) “the cancer Jesus,” were it not for the efforts of Suzanne Sonye. Sonye is a former professional rider for the Saturn team who worked as a soigneur for Michael Ball’s Rock Racing squad. It was Sonye Leogrande confided in when he feared he was going to test positive following a urine test. Sonye then did the unheard-of: She reported Leogrande’s doping of her own volition.
In a recent phone interview Sonye said, “When he told me [that he might test positive] it was number one, ‘Oh my God! He’s dirty!’ and number two, ‘He can’t race.’ I knew he was going to race the national championships and this was something that was definitely going to affect his performance.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I let this go. It made me sick to my stomach. It was wrong on so many levels I couldn’t let it go.”
Sonye reported him to team management, including Ball.
“When I realized Michael Ball wasn’t going to do anything, I knew I needed to call USADA. I had to call USADA twice. The first time they didn’t respond. The second time I said I had first-hand information about a doping violation. I thought Michael Ball would do the right thing; so did Frankie [Andreu, then the team director], but he didn’t. To his credit, Travis Tygart called me back right away.
“At first I couldn’t decide if I would do it anonymously … it was hard to do because I liked Kayle, but I couldn’t not do it.
What makes Sonye unique among everyone in the Armstrong debacle is that she took action for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. She wasn’t compelled by a subpoena or enticed by an outside entity (such as a newspaper or magazine). She had nothing to gain; self-interest was a motivation that would have steered her away from reporting Leogrande.
For Sonye, the choice was as simple as it was unavoidable.
“I was on the number-one cycling team in the world and I didn’t choose to put a needle in my arm.”
Leogrande would go on to sue Sonye for defamation, and while he lost the suit (and wound up having to pay her legal bills because the lawsuit was deemed a SLAPP), the stress it put her through upended her life.
“I’d been on antidepressants and they were awful for me. I had a nervous breakdown. I went to the hospital for five days. My doctor took me off everything, then I was switched to a really low dose of a mood stabilizer for four or five months. When I came out, I was beaten. I thought, ‘I can’t beat this.’ Eventually I realized, ‘Fuck that, this guy is going down.’ It took two years.
“The mental stress I went through I can never get back. The drain on me, what it took from my life, was enormous.”
The debt cycling owes Sonye for being honest, for acting on her conscience, can never be repaid; there’s no way to make that suffering go away. The least we can do is recognize her for being the person without which Lance Armstrong would be competing as a professional triathlete.
Image: Danny Munson, Cycling Illustrated
In the summer of 1989, after Greg LeMond had won his second Tour de France, I received a copy of VeloNews in my mailbox, which was then the “official” publication of the United States Cycling Federation. In it there was a story about an American cyclist who went to the Junior World Championships and took off early in the race, amassing a huge lead, only to see it and him swallowed up shortly before the finish. The writer suggested that the name Lance Armstrong would be one to watch for the future.
I’ve followed Armstrong’s career since that day. I’ve written about him a fair amount, both for RKP and for other publications, and I still count my interview with him the most entertaining I’ve ever done with a professional cyclist. That said, I need to admit to you that it’s been a long time since I thought Armstrong was a clean cyclist.
Though I had read Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride,” I’d compartmentalized that as something true yet not terribly applicable to the pro cycling I followed and would eventually write about. As recently as 1996 I thought cycling was a pretty clean sport. Then, at a party at my home, the photographer Mike Powell, a guy who probably knows more about track and field than I know about cycling, shattered my pretty little world. He told me that doping was rife in cycling. When I doubted him, he told me how he’d learned about the doping that goes on in track and field, and how he saw all the same signs when he’d shot bike races, such as that year’s Tour. He talked about miraculous overnight recovery for riders who had been dragged from their bikes.
I began to recall stories of steroid use told to me by a friend who had been a 440 hurdler on a full ride to Alabama. He’d seen plenty of anabolic usage among denizens of the school’s athletic complex and I recalled him once saying how anabolics made athletes unnaturally lean. They had no subcutaneous fat. Sitting in my living room and listening to Mike, I suddenly flashed on my first experience being in the same room with Armstrong. It was at the opening press conference for the 1996 Tour DuPont, which I was covering for Outside. I was sitting along the middle aisle in some hotel ballroom when in walks Armstrong in cycling kit with tennis shoes. I didn’t know it was Armstrong at first, though; I was looking down at my laptop when I caught this calf out of the corner of my eye and then turned to look. It was the most perfect calf I’d ever seen. The muscles were perfectly etched. It was as if skin-colored saran wrap had been stretched across the muscle with no intervening fat to blur the muscles’ definition. At the time I’d thought there was something supernatural about his appearance; later I would amend that to unnatural.
Ah. Two plus two equals … Lance Armstrong dopes.
I wrestled with that conclusion, what it meant for me as someone who made his living writing about cycling (by this time I was working for Bicycle Guide) and how that affected my view of the sport. I figured there was only one thing I could do: No matter what I thought, if Armstrong and other riders weren’t testing positive, then they were clean enough to compete, and if they were clean enough to compete, they were clean.
To the degree that I had lingering doubts about how clean the peloton was, the 1998 Festina Scandal was Mike’s “I told ya so.” Not that he wagged a finger my way, but when the story broke, my first thought was, “Damn, he really was right. It’s everybody.” Initially, I, like many others, thought that the Festina debacle would really clean up cycling. It wouldn’t be too many years before the realists among us realized that things weren’t better, they were worse. I came to the conclusion that the UCI didn’t want clean cycling, they just wanted the appearance of clean cycling. Specifically, what the UCI needed to avoid was anything that embarrassed the sport. That meant no deaths of over-doped riders and no arrests of soigneurs ferrying portable pharmacies. Their anti-doping efforts were as vigorous as my father’s game of checkers was with me when I was a kid—he let me win a lot.
That realization—that the UCI only wanted the appearance of a clean sport—is something that I responded to in the most cynical way possible. To me, the logic was, if the UCI wasn’t really going to do the work to clean up cycling broadly, then a guy like Armstrong should find success.
I opposed the investigation into Armstrong for the simple fact that I didn’t like that one American cyclist would be torn down while so much other doping would go unpunished. Grand Tour racing remains the unlimited class and though the UCI may not have had the resources to get the job done, that’s not much of an excuse; what they have really lacked is the will, and we don’t yet know if that’s a sin the world will ever forgive.
I’ll also admit that I, like many writers, was flat-out afraid of the Armstrong machine. I’d seen the lawsuits, and while I wasn’t trying to break any stories, I didn’t want to get caught in the cross hairs.
I was critical of Greg LeMond in an open letter I wrote, not because I didn’t think he was telling the truth, but because I thought hijacking a press conference to try to grill Armstrong publicly was unseemly and beneath one of the greatest cyclists of all time. It was an event that was just a few ounces of hair gel short of becoming a Jersey Shore-style brawl. I pointed out that LeMond wasn’t part of the enforcement apparatus and then—naively—suggested he should take his conclusions to the UCI or WADA.
I’ve been critical of the USADA investigation, noting on several occasions that they were investigating doping ten years done when doping is happening right now, today. It has always struck me as a ginormous expense for an organization of limited means, Champagne on a water-fountain budget. My fear was less what would happen to Armstrong, it was how the investigation could harm cycling as a whole—for years to come. It’s safe to say we won’t see Nike in cycling again before my son is old enough to turn pro. Plenty of other companies will need even longer to come around again. I had plenty of doubts that the investigation could reveal anything that might surprise me, anything I hadn’t already guessed. There were plenty of surprises in Tyler Hamilton’s story alone.
In short, I lacked the faith necessary to see that the USADA investigation could reach beyond the Atlantic, that it could serve as the catalyst for sweeping, permanent change. On this score, I’m pleased to say I was evolution-denier wrong.
Travis Tygart, I owe you an apology. Your work has proven to be the indictment of the UCI for which I’ve been waiting a good 15 years. I was unwilling to believe that this investigation could illustrate the corruption within the UCI as clearly as it has, that we would ever see the full body of evidence collected by the federal investigation and USADA, that a “true” picture would emerge of how cycling at the top level functioned.
The USADA investigation and some of the subsequent events (such as Rabobank’s indictment of the UCI and Skins’ CEO Jaimie Fuller’s open letter to the UCI) ultimately are unlikely to lead, on their own, to the overhaul at the UCI that is necessary to restore our faith in the institution. Pat McQuaid has signaled that he will commission an independent investigation. I am suspicious of this the way I am suspicious of my son when he says he hasn’t pooped—then why does your diaper droop and the room smell? Apparently, I’m not the only one who views this with a crooked eyebrow. Brian Cookson, the president of the British Cycling Federation, has said that unless the UCI impanels a truly independent investigator, then it will lose what he called its’ “last chance to re-establish itself as a credible organization.”
I have my doubts McQuaid and company understand just how dire the situation is.
Paul Kimmage has hinted that he may file suit against the UCI, even though they have shelved their suit against him. While the UCI’s decision to back off what would almost certainly have been ruled a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) here in the U.S., backing down in the face of $85,800 in contributions (so far) to Kimmage’s defense fund suggests maybe McQuaid and Verbruggen aren’t entirely blind. The fund set up in his name must be used for legal bills, so it stands to reason that he’d go ahead and engage the fight against the UCI. This is civilized society’s version of meeting behind the gym for a bare-knuckle fight. Just because the UCI got the first lick in doesn’t mean the fight is over.
Right now the best opportunity we have to see just how corrupt the UCI has been is a lawsuit by Kimmage. Twenty years ago, had anyone suggested to me that the only way to clean up cycling right to its roots would be a lawsuit by a journalist against the sport’s governing body, I’d have laughed. I’d have said it was as unlikely as the polar ice caps melting.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Could it ever have been any other way, with the fall of Armstrong? It seems cycling has been on a collision course with this moment for the better part of its history. From riders dosing up with brandy in the early days, to the scourge of amphetamines, to modern day blood doping, top level racers have always pushed beyond the rules in search of an advantage.
And now we have, arguably the greatest grand tour rider of all-time stripped of his titles and banned from the sport. Looking back at the great champions of the past, each of them with their own sordid side story, can we say this outcome was inevitable?
Perhaps we can forgive the modern day rider for believing that dope is simply a part of the sport. Almost everyone is willing to acknowledge that Lance Armstrong, if guilty as charged, was only doing what everyone else was doing, was only following in a long line of champions before him who had employed the dark arts to stunning effect.
How is it that, after decades of sabre rattling and bluster, an authority finally stepped to the fore to apply the rules, for better and for worse? It should be lost on no one that the UCI was not the authority in question. Perhaps this also was inevitable.
We can ask if where we are now is better or worse than where we have been. We can take issue with Lance, Johan and their cohort of co-defendants. We can impugn the motives and methods of Travis Tygart and USADA, but all of this seems to me to be beside the point.
What has happened has happened. Cycling is a sport that has been rife with dope and cheating. It has been poorly governed. We have tried to find the middle way, managing outcomes, either by the authorities turning a blind eye or by prosecuting infractions. We have tried small penalties, medium penalties and lifetime bans. We have tried selective enforcement.
Cheaters evolve. Tests develop. The rules struggle to contain them both.
Fans are upset when the rules aren’t enforced, and we are upset when the rules are enforced in ways we don’t like or don’t think will be helpful, because we hate to see the sport we love self-immolate.
But if we believe in our rules, if we really think they will produce better cycling, then don’t we have to accept their enforcement, no matter the short or even medium term consequences? It seems, when you subscribe to a plan for the sport, you have to hold firm, even if the result isn’t exactly as you would have wished it.
To be sure, the calculus will be difficult for everyone involved. Some will be able to both accept the penalties levied against Lance and his co-defendants, and still remember his (their) victories fondly. We can know what happened, at least partially, without retroactively revising our enjoyment of that era.
Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The world does not arrange itself in neat packages. Human behavior and emotion are not digital, black/white or right/wrong. We are gray creatures. We are, of necessity, ambivalent, and we should allow ourselves the latitude of inconsistency. Neither, should we fear foolishness. This is only sport, after all.
You can say that, once a rider decides to break the rules, he knows what the consequences of his actions might be. There are sanctions printed in ink in by-laws and on contracts. But this is a short-sighted reading of the decision for there are myriad consequences beyond our knowing.
I would venture that when you first decide willfully to take the wrong path, you very quickly lose control of the narrative. In your mind, there is winning. There is glory. If you are unlucky, you sit out a suspension.
In reality, you are unable to begin to parse the threads of consequence that spin themselves in every direction. Did Lance and his team imagine Travis Tygart and the role he would play? Did they imagine the myriad judgements they were letting themselves in for? Did they imagine court cases and Pat McQuaids and Hein Verbruggens? Did they think of Greg LeMond or Le Monde or l’Equipe? Do you ever race the Tour de France wondering if a plea deal will torpedo your legacy?
All the PR and litigation money can buy will shift a narrative, but clearly, in this case, couldn’t alter the eventual outcome, and that’s true for Lance and for the UCI and for USADA. The chips always fall where they may. They’re funny like that.
Now, we are in the hand-wringing phase of this particular (cycling) life event. And just as the prime players could not have known that they would arrive here, we also can’t know how what has happened over the last week, or over the last decade, will play out in years to come. Is this a death-knell for our sport? Or a birth announcement?
The answer is quite possibly: YES.
There comes a point in most chess games where the outcome is essentially assured. Even though the victory has yet to take place by way of checkmate, there are so few pieces left on the board, so few choices left to the trailing player that each remaining move is but a formality. In signaling that he will not engage USADA in arbitration, Lance Armstrong has essentially conceded defeat in his protracted match against Travis Tygart.
Make no mistake, to view this case as anything other than a mano a mano battle of Tygart v. Armstrong requires a willful blindness to ego. The strategies employed by Armstrong’s legal team, which were rebuffed repeatedly for lacking any legal basis, seemed to coast on the idea that somehow the sheer fact that this was, after all, Lance Armstrong, would be enough to shut down the legal process. It wasn’t. And Tygart’s pursuit of the case has left many to wonder if maybe there weren’t more pressing fires.
While Armstrong has not yet been stripped of his wins, his decision not to pursue arbitration means that USADA can follow that course of action, unimpeded by Armstrong or his defenders. In his statement announcing his decision not to continue his defense Armstrong gains two small benefits. First, he gets the chance to play martyr, as evidenced by his “Enough is enough” quote from his announcement. He’ll receive plenty of sympathy from those who have been unswayed by the evidence against him. Second, he avoids what would be a truly bloody melee had he pursued the arbitration. The sure knowledge that some of his most loyal friends would have been pitted against him must have cut to the core.
But what of USADA? What have they gained?
“It’s a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes,” said Tygart. “It’s yet another heartbreaking example of how the win-at-all-costs culture, if left unchecked, will overtake fair, safe and honest competition.”
Tygart’s devotion to this case makes his claim that this is a sad day ring more hollow than a drum. He claims that the win-at-all costs culture has the ability to eclipse fair, safe and honest competition. In that regard, he’s right. And that conditional—”if left unchecked”—that checks and balances system, how well is that working?
It’s that part of the process that I believe is most broken. Armstrong isn’t the problem. It’s that the sport’s testing has been woefully inadequate. The UCI was so derelict in its duty that once EPO infiltrated the peloton riders were faced with the choice of either being pack fodder or cheats. It’s a hell of a choice and for those who find it so easy to condemn those who buckled to the coercion, sometimes explicit, always implicit, please let us know how life in a glass house is working out.
If any good is to come of this situation it is that the UCI may be exposed for efforts to quash one or more positive tests by the seven-time Tour de France winner. And while the worst of the UCI’s alleged questionable choices happened before Pat McQuaid took over as boss, the fact that he instigated the jurisdictional fight with USADA as regards the Armstrong case means he is equally complicit in any previous coverup by attempting to quash a thorough investigation. Exposing the UCI as a body unfit to police bicycle racing is quite possibly the only helpful thing that could come from this. At least then, if the UCI were dismantled and replaced by a new governing body, we might gain some fresh confidence—a confidence we currently lack—that racing might be properly policed.
Again, what have we gained? Doping is a present-tense problem. If Johan Bruyneel is actively managing a doping program for some of his riders, then he should be banned from the sport, but this outcome doesn’t yet assure that. And those doctors? Their names are tarnished enough that it seems unlikely a team would hire them, though it would surprise few if they turned up in, say, swimming. A ban for them seems warranted.
Once the procedure this announcement sets in motion has run its full course, here’s what the Tour de France results will look like:
1999: 1. Alex Zulle 2. Fernando Escartin 3. Laurent Dufaux
2000: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Joseba Beloki 3. Christophe Moreau
2001: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Joseba Beloki 3. Andrei Kivilev
2002: 1. Joseba Beloki 2. Raimondas Rumsas 3. Santiago Botero
2003: 1. Jan Ullrich 2. Alexandre Vinokourov 3. Tyler Hamilton
2004: 1. Andreas Klöden 2. Ivan Basso 3. Jan Ullrich
2005: 1. Ivan Basso 2.
Jan Ullrich Francisco Mancebo 3. Alexandre Vinokourov
Take a moment to consider the names that were elevated in Armstrong’s absence. With the exception of Andrei Kivilev, during their careers each of those riders tested positive for doping, confessed to doping in the Festina scandal or were strongly implicated in Operacion Puerto. Be not confused: This is not a fix for one simple reason: It does nothing to solve the doping occurring today.
Whether we speak of the 2012 Tour de France, the Gran Fondo New York or masters track nationals, there is plenty of doping going on right now, some of which—particularly the events open to amateur athletes—that has the ability to turn people away from the sport altogether.
When I think of the biggest problems that cycling faces, Lance Armstrong doesn’t make the list. Even if you despise him, on balance, he’s done more good than bad. He isn’t, as Greg LeMond would have you think, “the greatest fraud.” Bernie Madoff’s victims would laugh that out of any court you choose. Hope can’t really be cheated and he gave a great many people hope when they might otherwise have had none. And the bike industry has plenty to be grateful for. The increase in new road cyclists that began in 1999 is still paying dividends. I worked for the only all-road publication in the U.S. in 1998 and it died an emaciated, withering death even before Marco Pantani rode down the Champs Elysees clad in the maillot jaune. Today there are four different road-specific print publications; I have no doubt their emergence would not have happened without Armstrong’s victories.
The public wants cycling that is free of doping, full stop. The challenge we face is one of leadership. Adjudicating the past won’t fix today and attempts to cover up the past, no matter by what method, undermine the moral platform from which a governing body operates. More testing is required and better testing is required. To achieve those, cycling must be better funded. Given that the majority of cycling’s funding comes from outside sources, a dearth of sponsorship won’t get us there. And the public execution of Lance Armstrong has ensured one thing: That tens of millions of dollars that could have gone to sponsoring racers and races will go to some sport that’s less embarrassing to be a part of. A cleaner sport. Say, football or baseball.
Thanks Travis, we’ll take it from here.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
So the big news is that USADA is finally charging Lance Armstrong with doping—really and for true! Let’s consider this for a moment: nearly two full years after one of cycling’s greatest practically washed out of the 2010 Tour, Travis Tygart is going after Armstrong for what he claims is clear evidence of doping. Among the penalties Armstrong is said to face is the possibility that he could be stripped of all seven of his Tour de France victories. While there is some doubt that could take place, what is very real is that Armstrong’s nascent triathlon career has been encased in carbonite.
It’s an event more problematic than whether or not Los Angeles will behave itself for the Stanley-cup-winning Kings parade, but a good deal less important than, say, the civil war in Syria.
Why problematic? This will prove to be a lengthy, costly case. Armstrong has already begun to remind the public that these are tax dollars at work. The argument that this is a bad use of tax dollars is a red herring. The moment we question whether doping cases should be prosecuted with tax dollars, the whole of USADA’s mission enters the blades of the combine. The more appropriate question is what good can come of this?
Several outspoken cyclists have commented that we should pursue the case because if you gradually clear away all the dopers you will, at some point, end up with a clean rider. It’s an idiotic assertion. What you eventually end up with is a rider who just never got tested. If every rider were tested at the end of each race or each stage of a stage race, it would be another matter, but it has been possible for riders to go weeks or more without being tested. Clear away doper upon doper from the ’90s and what you are left with is a guy you just can’t prove is clean, nor can you prove he doped. What kind of improvement is that?
The problem isn’t that Armstrong is innocent. If you’re reading this, it’s highly unlikely that you believe he’s innocent. Lance Armstrong is Santa Claus for grownups. Sorta. The world can be divided into those who believe Armstrong is innocent of doping and those who believe his innocence is as possible as the elimination of the student loan debt.
Armstrong has even been called the cancer Jesus. It’s a rich vein of irony, waiting for a pickaxe. There’s the obvious miracle of his seven straight Tour wins—statistically, it’s a stunner. The miracle that no accusation could stick. The messianic quality he has in giving those on death’s door hope. And then the wry fact that Armstrong himself is an atheist. But I’m not here to poke fun at religion, or at Armstrong, for that matter.
Armstrong has not one, but two dilemmas. In a tweet earlier today I used the hashtag #roadrunnerandcoyote to point out the inevitability of Travis Tygart’s pursuit of Armstrong. Tygart and USADA are his front-burner problem. He’s got to deal with this and he has to deal with it convincingly for everyone who still puts out cookies and milk on Christmas eve. History suggests that with his batting record, he will find a way out. He has on every previous occasion. The odds seem to favor him even now.
But Armstrong has a bigger problem. Competition is his raison d’etre. He nearly spelled that out when he came out of retirement by telling the world that he was most useful to the LiveStrong foundation as a competitor. As a competitor, he’s an example of clean living (try not to snicker), and that’s what gives hope to millions. When he’s hanging out on the beach with Matthew McConaughey or dating one of the Olsen twins (which one was it?), he’s just a playboy, which is to say a rich slacker. Not exactly role model stuff.
So, to continue his role as “the cancer Jesus” he needs to stay in the public eye as a competitor, whether as a cyclist, triathlete or marathoner. It’s a tough part to play. After all, there’s a shelf-life for everyone who plays at the most elite of levels. And unless Tygart gets taken out by a band of ronin, he’s not going to tire of playing Javert.
Which brings us to Tygart’s problem. And yes, Tygart has a problem. He’s beginning to seem like Inspector Javert chasing Jean Valjean. Armstrong stands accused of much more than Valjean was, but the great tragedy of Hugo’s Les Miserables is that Javert pursues Valjean relentlessly, showing a capacity for cruelty and spite that suggests he’s more of a villain than Valjean ever was.
And that is Tygart’s problem. He risks looking like a tyrant and losing public support for his efforts. He could make Armstrong look like a victim.
The other oft-asked question is why Armstrong won’t just come clean (pun intended). The reason is Tygart. Armstrong still has much to lose. LiveStrong isn’t worth much without Armstrong, no matter what the foundation says. They need him because he is the brand, their best advertising.
So back to that earlier, unanswered question of what good can come of this prosecution. I’m going to assert that nothing good can be achieved. We can’t really change the results, not at this point. Armstrong will forever be remembered as the winner of seven Tours de France. Try and strip them away and soon enough that asterisk that says “stripped of victory” will be forgotten, the exact details washed away from the public consciousness the way no one remembers Oliver North’s specific misdeeds. Let’s bear in mind: There is doping going on today, doping that needs to be stopped and chasing the past will really do nothing to help us in today’s fight. And frankly, I know a bunch of racers who are angry enough about facing doping in masters races they are ready to do some back-alley ass whooping. A full-court prosecution of Armstrong will take a lot of human capital that could be devoted otherwise.
It seems unlikely that these proceedings will result in anything that pleases anyone. And that means we are left with a decision. How do we want to remember Armstrong? There are plenty of cyclists out there who despise big Tex. It seems that some of the dislike for him comes from his alpha-male demeanor. Others dislike him for simply dominating the Tour for seven years. And I suppose some are angry that he seems to have gotten away with stuff that sank other riders. But the most surprising group are those who have told me they feel betrayed by Armstrong, that they believed he was innocent and now they see those years of his wins as a bushel of lies. I wonder if maybe this isn’t mostly embarrassment at having been naive enough to drink the Kool-Aid.
Armstrong won in a dirty time. Stripping him of his victories won’t fix that. And unless WADA is prepared to go after every cyclist who rode at that time, the pursuit of Armstrong will be perceived as unjust because it is an unequal enforcement effort. Forgetting for a moment all the foreign riders who will never be pursued—the Spaniards especially—what of other American riders? What of George Hincapie? Does anyone really think he was clean? Is the only reason to leave his meager legacy intact just that—because it was meager?
Some of the bitterness for Armstrong smacks of the “I never loved her anyway” that follows high school breakups, which is my way of insulting some of the anger directed at him as being childish.
And so now I’m going to say something I suspect will be wildly unpopular: I cherish those years. I loved watching Armstrong win. I recall sitting near the top of the Col du Glandon in 2004 and watching le train bleu come by at the speed of freeway traffic and hearing the guys chatting and laughing within the pack—laughing! I walked back to our van with a stupid grin on my face, knowing I’d seem something special. I’d have to stop to think about all the stages that I watched with the same breathless anxiety that school girls reserved for the Beatles. I loved every minute of it.
Lance doped. He’s not gonna confess. We can’t fix the past, but we can police the present. So unless you’re prepared to see all of cycling burned down like Dresden, let’s leave it alone.
So Joe Papp is back in the news. This time it’s for a guilty plea in connection with selling doping products. Specifically, he plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy to sell EPO and HGH over the Internet.
As much as I’d like to ignore this and hope he fades into forgettable obscurity, I don’t think that will happen just yet. And because RKP has written so much about doping, we are rather obliged to give this more of a once-over than two Tweets about the subject.
Papp netted more than $80,000 between September 2006 to September 2007 selling these drugs. That’s a tidy income, especially for what I suspect wasn’t a lot of work. After all, he didn’t have any of the traditional marketing costs associated with a sales enterprise, so people found him, 187 of them, to be precise.
The income isn’t the issue. It’s the time period. It was during this same time period that USADA trotted him out as a star witness at the Floyd Landis hearing. His purpose? To testify on the remarkable recovery that one can enjoy when using synthetic testosterone. That Travis Tygart (then counsel, now CEO) of USADA didn’t vet Papp more thoroughly is deeply troubling.
Papp disputed VeloNews’ contention that he testified against Landis. He told them, “The matter for which I publicly acknowledged my guilt today in Pittsburgh had nothing to do with my appearance at the Landis hearing. I didn’t testify against Floyd Landis in that hearing,” Papp noted. “My testimony was about my own personal experiences with the drug testosterone and how it is generally perceived within the peloton. That was it. I told the story of how testosterone works and can help you as a cyclist by enhancing recovery.”
Papp’s point splits hairs. Semantically, he may be correct, but he was an instrument in the process of convicting Landis. The problem I have with this is that he was presented as a reformed doper, someone who would be candid as a result of his changed ways. Candor is an important part of establishing credibility, and Papp presented himself as someone for whom performance enhancing drugs were strictly past tense. We have learned that was not the case.
So what should Papp’s sentence be? He could be banned for life from cycling, and that ought to happen; he shouldn’t be allowed to coach or advise other cyclists given his recent industry. He also stands to serve as much as five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on June 25. Hopefully, that June date gives him enough time for him to finish his graduate degree at Chatham University, where he is a student, and (we hope) not focusing on exercise physiology. No one should be forced to starve and Papp needs a good way to reinvent himself in order to stay away from the racing end of the sport.