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Big Trouble

This story appears in the May 31, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.

The most unwelcome guest in the five-year history of the Amgen Tour of California sat in a hospitality tent near the finish line last Saturday, his back to the bike race. As he shook hands and made small talk with fellow VIPs, Floyd Landis was asked if he felt liberated by his recent confession. "I do," he said. "I mean, I'm getting beat up pretty bad right now, but in the long run this will be a good thing."

The winner of the 2006 Tour of California showed zero interest in stage 7 of the 2010 edition, a 21-mile time trial through downtown Los Angeles. As skin-suited, aero-helmeted riders went speeding past, Landis seldom bestirred himself to take a look, ignoring the comings and goings of his former U.S. Postal Service teammates George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie, all of whom Landis had recently exposed or defamed, depending on whom you believe.

In a series of e-mails to cycling officials and sponsors, Landis accused those three and 14 others -- most notably seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong -- of doping or complicity in doping. Landis offered no documentation, though he says he kept journals that back up his claims. All of the accused parties either declined to address or denied outright Landis's allegations, which are sensational. A brief sampler:

• In an April 30 e-mail to USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson, Landis claimed that in early 2003 he was assigned by Armstrong to babysit bags of blood from Armstrong, Landis and Hincapie for future transfusion. According to the e-mail, while Armstrong was away at a training camp, Landis moved into the Texan's apartment in Girona, Spain. "I was asked to... check the blood temperature every day," Landis wrote, "to stay in his place and make sure the electricity didn't turn off or something go wrong with the referigerator [sic]."

• That same year, Landis wrote, he "personally witnessed" Armstrong, Hincapie and another U.S. Postal team rider, José Luis (Chechu) Rubiera, receiving performance-boosting blood transfusions during the Tour de France.

• Landis also described an afternoon in 2004 when the USPS team bus "stopped on a remote mountain road for an hour or so," ostensibly with engine trouble, "so the entire team could have half a liter of blood added."

Armstrong and his camp hit back swiftly, forcefully and with a smooth coordination that comes from years of practice. Landis, they said, has a credibility deficit. Stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone, he had lied for years about his own use of performance-enhancing drugs. For most of his career Armstrong has had to fend off allegations that he was not a clean champion. Nothing really stuck. This time could be different. The Texan's latest counterattack took place amid reports that Landis is cooperating with a federal probe led by Jeff Novitzky, the chief investigator in the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) case and now a special agent for the criminal division of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Two independent sources close to the investigation told SI that Armstrong is part of the focus of Novitzky's probe. The sources say the investigator is particularly interested in whether Armstrong and some of his teammates were involved in illicit drug activity while they were sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service, which helped fund the team from 1996 (Armstrong joined in '98) through June 2004.

Landis said he is admitting his own drug use and implicating other cyclists to "clear my conscience." If his allegations are true, they are some of the most damning in the history of cycling. And the information contained in various e� mails of Landis's that have surfaced may not be all that he has told Novitzky. Recently Landis sent a text message to a friend with this prediction about Armstrong: "Big Tex is going to jail."

* * *

Who you gonna believe? That was Armstrong's figurative question to the reporters who scrummed around the RadioShack team bus on the morning of May 20, a few hours after Landis's bombshell had landed on the website of The Wall Street Journal. "We have nothing to hide," declared Armstrong. "We have nothing to run from. It's our word against his word. I like our word. We like our credibility."

Armstrong has rebuffed drug allegations for years without losing his stature as a sports icon and a crusader against cancer. He has always insisted that he has ridden clean, even as two books accused him of using performance-enhancing drugs; at least five of his former teammates confessed to using or have tested positive for PEDs; and the sport he has owned for nearly a decade was exposed as rife with doping.

Besides Novitzky's FDA investigation, Landis's allegations have sparked probes by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). But the most far-reaching investigation figures to be the FDA's, given the government's subpoena powers and the track record of Novitzky, whose A-list targets have included Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Marion Jones.

In the past, Novitzky's investigations of alleged PED use have resulted in criminal charges: bank fraud in the case of Jones, steroid distribution in the BALCO scandal. SI's sources say that the feds hope Landis and other witnesses can help them answer the following questions:

• First, was any federal money used to obtain controlled substances such as steroids and HGH? The U.S. Postal Service provided a reported $8 million to $10 million a year to cover the costs of its cycling team, which was managed and operated by Tailwind Sports, a company half-owned by Armstrong. Any details Landis can provide -- including who allegedly supplied the team with PEDs -- could help the government pursue drug-trafficking charges and create a money trail. In that April 30 e-mail to Johnson, Landis gave this description of an alleged encounter with Armstrong in August 2003: "I was instructed to go to Lances [sic] place by [USPS sports director] Johan Bruyneel and get some EPO from him. The first EPO I ever used was then handed me in the entry way to his building in full view of his then wife [Kristin]. It was Eprex by brand and it came in six pre measured syringes."

Landis's mention of Kristin Armstrong, who was divorced from Lance in 2004, raises the possibility that the feds will question her. But Kristin told SI in a text message, "I have not been contacted, nor am I in communication with Floyd or anyone else." As for Landis's claim that he received EPO in her presence, Kristin wrote, "I don't remember that."

• Second, who supplied the USPS team with doping supplies and illicit drugs, and how were those items transported and distributed? If such evidence is uncovered by the feds, Armstrong, as the de facto team boss, might run afoul of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a somewhat fungible federal statute used by prosecutors to go after a broad range of crimes� possibly, in this case, drug trafficking. Under RICO, the government usually must show that a defendant partook in an underlying illegal activity and engaged in a continuous and controlled pattern of organizing others to engage in that activity.

• As the boss Armstrong might also be vulnerable to prosecution if the feds find that he pressured any other USPS rider to use controlled substances. Although Landis says he was not pressured, in the April 30 e-mail he chronicled his progression up the ladder of PEDs under the alleged tutelage of Armstrong, Bruyneel and Dr. Michele Ferrari, a controversial medical adviser based in Italy. After starting with testosterone patches, Landis wrote, he moved on to blood doping, EPO and human growth hormone. He also said he received injections of a serum consisting of testosterone mixed with olive oil. (Ferrari could not be reached for comment.)

* * *

Besides forcefully denying all of Landis's ­allegations -- or "incredible concoctions," as RadioShack's lawyers called them on the team's website --Armstrong, Bruyneel and the rest of the Texan's camp also questioned Landis's motives. They accused him of smearing Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie, among the Tour of California's most prominent riders, to punish race organizers for refusing to allow the OUCH-Bahati Foundation cycling team, which Landis joined in March, to participate in the race.

"We followed the Bahati team very carefully," says Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, which puts on the TOC, "and concluded that it didn't have a track record, and that it would be unfair, even inappropriate for us to invite [it]." Landis and his primary-care physician, Brent Kay, cofounder of the OUCH Sports Medical Center in Temecula, Calif., which cosponsors the team, allegedly informed Messick in an April 22 e� mail that if the Tour refused to invite the OUCH-Bahati squad to race, Kay might seek a refund of the $40,000 hospitality tent the foundation had purchased near the finish line of stage 7. Ultimately OUCH didn't back out, which enabled Landis to chill in the tent on Saturday, siphoning vast amounts of attention from a terrific race that was ultimately won, for the first time in four years, by someone other than Leipheimer. Michael Rogers, an Aussie riding for HTC-Columbia, beat Zabriskie by nine seconds.

Those seeking additional reasons for Landis's accusations had only to ask Armstrong's allies. Floyd was jealous of Lance, they said. Floyd was unhinged -- not all there. Bruyneel and Armstrong claimed that Landis was so addled that in the April 30 e-mail to Steve Johnson, he'd confused the chronology of events. Landis accused Armstrong of testing positive for EPO at the 2002 Tour of Switzerland, "at which point he and Mr. Bruyneel flew to the UCI [Union Cycliste Internationale] headquarters and made a financial agreement with [then UCI president Hein Verbruggen] to keep the positive test hidden." (The UCI declared in a press release on May 20 that it "categorically rejects" Landis's allegation.) Lance & Co. pointed out that Armstrong didn't even race the Tour de ­Suisse that year, though he did in '01.

While Armstrong leaped on that mistake, he himself has been caught in inaccuracies. When a reporter asked him last Thursday if he'd ever paid any money to the UCI, he replied, "Absolutely not. No." But he has given money to the organization. While making a sworn deposition in a 2006 lawsuit, Armstrong was asked if he'd made "a contribution or donation to the UCI." He said, "I have, yeah." Armstrong struggled to recall the exact amount of his payment to his sport's governing body, estimating that it was "I think, $25,000." And why had he written the check? "To fund the fight against doping." In fact Armstrong sent the group $100,000, according to current UCI president Pat ­McQuaid, who confirmed the donation on Thursday while being interviewed on an Irish radio show.

Asked if he would take legal action against Landis in response to last week's allegations, Armstrong replied, "No, my days of legal action are over. Legal action takes time, energy and a lot of money. I have sued a few people in my day and have been successful there in proving my innocence. But I don't need to do that anymore. My energy needs to be devoted to the team, to Livestrong [his foundation], to my kids. I'm not going to waste time on that."

All of those reasons are credible. However, none of them will stop cynics from concluding that Armstrong isn't suing because he has zero desire to place himself under oath and be cross-examined.

* * *

Armstrong has battled a host of antagonists through the years, from writer David Walsh, who accused him of doping in his 2004 book L.A. Confidentiel, to former Tour de France champ Greg LeMond and former friend Betsy Andreu, wife of onetime USPS rider Frankie Andreu, who confessed four years ago to having used EPO to help the Texan win the '99 Tour. And Armstrong has always emerged from the fray with his reputation and following intact. But his latest adversary is by far the most formidable. Novitzky has the power to compel Armstrong -- and, possibly, some of his former teammates -- to testify under oath, and the Texan might face charges that expose him to a prison sentence if convicted.

Landis, meanwhile, talks about clearing his conscience and about having come forward because WADA's eight-year statute of limitations was running out on some of the drug violations he allegedly witnessed. But he also seems to be after a bit of revenge. "From Floyd's point of view, Lance has always been a bully," says a friend who requested anonymity. "Now [Lance is] getting punched back."

As he sat in the gravel on the side of a two-lane road outside Visalia last Thursday, Armstrong looked as if he'd been hit with brass knuckles. Crashing hard early in that day's Tour of California stage to Bakersfield, he suffered a nasty gash under his left eye that took eight stitches to close. The bigger problem, it turned out, was the severe contusion to his left elbow. Unable to put pressure on the handlebars or to stand in the saddle, Armstrong decided to bail on the race.

As he pedaled alongside the team car, blood dripping off his face, he asked Bruyneel, "What do I do?" The cocksure Texan, the master of all situations, wasn't sure how to quit a race. Go to the side of the road, came the reply, and Eki will pick you up.

RadioShack's assistant director, Viatcheslav Ekimov, soon drove up to fetch Armstrong. X-rays on the elbow were negative. Two days later, Armstrong was back on the bike.

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