What a grandspectacle it will be! On July 7 the first rider will roll down the ramp for theprologue of the Tour de France. This year's Grand Boucle, or Big Loop, beginsin London. Cycling fans are advised to focus on the pageantry of the brightlycostumed athletes or on the Gothic grandeur of the Palace of Westminster, notfar from the starting line. ¬∂ Better that, of course, than to dwell on the grimreality that on the eve of its Super Bowl, this sport finds itself at itsnadir--lower, even, than it sank in 1998, when a masseur for the Festina teamwas caught driving a car that contained a dispensary's worth of dopingproducts. The Tour de Dopage, as the '98 race came to be called, pulled backthe curtain on a sport gone horrifically awry, with riders pooling theirearnings for black-market purchases of EPO, amphetamines and human growthhormone, to name just a few performance-enhancing drugs.
Nearly a decadelater cycling has yet to heal itself. "The current situation is worse thanin '98," says three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond, "for the simplereason that '98 happened and nothing has changed."
That's notentirely true. Whereas the red-blood-cell booster EPO was all the rage in the'90s, advances in testing have limited its use. Now, leading riders have turnedto good old-fashioned blood doping: storing their own blood, spinning it in acentrifuge to rid it of plasma, then reinjecting the "packed" red bloodcells to dramatically increase stamina. In May, Ivan Basso of Italy, therunner-up in the 2005 Tour, allowed that, yes, his was among the estimated 200bags of blood found a year earlier in the offices of Eufemiano Fuentes, thedoctor at the center of the Spanish doping investigation called OperaciónPuerto. Basso was suspended for two years by the Italian cyclingfederation.
But let's notforget synthetic testosterone, a pharmacological staple of manyriders--including, apparently, Floyd Landis, who tested positive for thatbanned hormone during his unbelievable (as in not believable) victory in the2006 Tour. Basso's confession came one week before the start of Landis'sarbitration hearing, which came to resemble a lost episode of One Life to Live.The night before LeMond was to testify about a phone conversation he'd had withLandis after the positive test, he got a call from Landis's business manager,Will Geoghegan, who impersonated a pedophile and threatened to discuss LeMond'schildhood sexual abuse, which LeMond had earlier admitted, privately, toLandis. The next day LeMond recounted the conversation in his testimony, andonly then did Landis, who had been present when Geoghegan made the phone call,fire him. (The arbitrators have yet to rule on whether to uphold the positivetest and strip Landis--who has vehemently proclaimed his innocence--of his Tourtitle.)
A week after thatsurreal scene, Danish hero Bjarne Riis admitted that he'd doped to win the 1996Tour de France. Riis, now the director of Team CSC, won that Tour riding forTeam Telekom, which in 2004 became T-Mobile. His confession capped a week inwhich a half-dozen former Telekom and T-Mobile riders conceded that they'ddoped during their careers. Not fessing up was that team's best-known rider,the now retired Jan Ullrich, whose protestations of innocence were undercut bya former Telekom trainer who told reporters in May that he'd injected Ullrichwith EPO.
The Diesel, asUllrich was known, powered his way to victory in the 1997 Tour. A year laterthe Tour de Dopage was redeemed--such, at least, was the popular story line--bythe panache of il Pirata (the Pirate), Marco Pantani, a pure climber who scoredthe difficult double of winning both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France.Alas, Pantani died of a cocaine overdose in 2004. In the book The Death ofMarco Pantani, author Matt Rendell writes, "There is incontrovertibleevidence that Marco's entire career was based on [EPO] abuse."
Thisdrug-drenched sport has been so dirty for so long that the question is nolonger, Who will win the Tour? It is, Can anyone win it clean? Cycling is"reaping what it has sown," says Dick Pound, chairman of the WorldAnti-Doping Agency and a critic of the sport's governing body, the UnionCycliste Internationale (UCI). Doping, Pound asserts, has been "soendemic" and the UCI so "unable or unwilling to control it that now,every time [a cyclist] does something really spectacular, instead ofcelebrating it, you're left to wonder."
Pound believesthe time may be ripe for, in his words, "a South Africa-typetruth-and-reconciliation program" such as the one chaired by ArchbishopDesmond Tutu to heal the wounds of apartheid. "You pick a date and say, 'Ifyou come forward before this time, say what you did, who did it, how you gotit, then you are dealt with mercifully.' After the date, if we catch anybody,you're toast."
The seven yearsbetween Pantani and Landis constituted the Rule of Lance Armstrong, aninterregnum of wholesome, drug-free victories. Right? Armstrong was a cancersurvivor--no way he'd put that crap in his body. Would he? Of course not, heassures SI. Asked if he won his Tours clean, Armstrong replies,"Absolutely. One hundred percent. I won the Tour de France once, twice,seven times because I was the most talented person in the field. I agree thereare some f------ rats out here, with all the stuff we've seen. But sometimes,people come along with 12 cylinders."
Those forcefulassertions of innocence by the 12 Cylinder Man are being tested by a disturbingnew book, From Lance to Landis, by David Walsh, the Irish investigativejournalist whom Armstrong has called a "little troll." Such antipathyis understandable: It was Walsh's last book, LA Confidentiel, which waspublished in French but not English, that persuaded a company called SCAPromotions to withhold a $5 million bonus the Texan had been promised if he wonhis sixth straight Tour in 2004. Armstrong sued and got his money--plus $2.5million in punitive damages. But the confidential depositions in that case,widely leaked, gave Walsh a rich source of grist for this latest book.
From Lance toLandis contains no smoking gun, but it repeatedly implicates Armstrong and histeammates in doping activities. There is Armstrong giving Emma O'Reilly,masseuse for his U.S. Postal Service team, a bag of used syringes (which, Walshadmits, could have been used to inject vitamins) and asking her to dispose ofthem on the road because he doesn't want them left at their hotel; there isO'Reilly delivering testosterone to another USPS rider and, on a differentoccasion, covertly being handed a bottle of unidentified pills for Armstrong byUSPS director Johan Bruyneel.
What Walshestablishes beyond doubt is the doping culture that surrounded Armstrong fromearly in his international cycling career. In the first chapter we meet GregStrock, a former rider for the junior squad of the U.S. Cycling Federation(USCF). Strock later recalls being injected in a motel room in 1990, when hewas 17, with what he was told was "extract of cortisone" by a youngUSCF coach named Chris Carmichael, who would go on to greater renown asArmstrong's personal trainer. Strock would later discover that there's no suchthing as "extract of cortisone," and he assumes he was injected withcortisone, which was banned as a performance enhancer. (USCF coach René Wenzeltold Walsh, "Chris Carmichael gave a vitamin injection, nothingmore.")
We meet themembers of the talented Motorola team, for which Armstrong rode from 1992though '96, frustrated by their inability to win races against European teamsthat used EPO. Thus does Walsh lay the groundwork for Armstrong's decision,following the '95 season, to work with the notorious Italian doctor MicheleFerrari, who'd said of EPO, "I don't prescribe this stuff. But . . . if arider [uses it], that doesn't scandalize me. . . . EPO is not dangerous; it'sthe abuse that is. It's also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice."Former Armstrong teammate Steve Swart tells Walsh that in early 1995 somemembers of the Motorola team made the decision to take EPO. "No one forcedus to dope, but in the end you were either in or out: You couldn't survive inthe sport without doing it."
We hear PrenticeSteffen, former team doctor for the USPS team, which Armstrong joined in 1998,recall being approached by two Postal riders, Marty Jemison and Tyler Hamilton,and being told by Jemison, "We need to talk about the medical program. . .. As a team we are not going to be able to get where we want to go with whatwe're doing." Walsh writes that Steffen refused to accommodate what heconstrued to be a request for performance-enhancing drugs and was subsequentlylet go. (Jemison says he has no memory of the conversation, Walsh notes, andHamilton, who has served a two-year suspension for doping, denies it tookplace.)
Later in the bookan unnamed USPS rider recalls the day that about $25,000 worth of medicalproducts were disposed of in a team camper van during the 1998 Tour. "Thegendarmes were all over the field, and at one moment it seemed as if they wereall moving toward our camper," says the rider, "and so the stuff wasflushed down the toilet."
If Armstrong isever proved to have doped, he will have abetted his own unmasking. On Oct. 25,1996, doctors opened Armstrong's skull to cut two cancerous lesions off hisbrain. Two days later the 25-year-old cyclist was in a conference room at theIndiana University Hospital. His Motorola teammate Frankie Andreu and Andreu'sfiancée, Betsy Kramar, were among some half dozen of the Texan's friends in theroom. When two doctors entered, Betsy's inclination was to give Armstrong hisprivacy, but, she testified at the SCA hearing, he bade her to stay.
One of thedoctors, Betsy recalled in her testimony, asked Armstrong, "Have you everused any performance-enhancing drugs?" Recalling the scene for SI, Betsysays that Armstrong was seated, gazing downward and holding his IV stand withhis left hand, as he ticked off five drugs: EPO, growth hormone, cortisone,steroids, testosterone. Frankie Andreu, who married Betsy in December 1996,backed up her testimony.
Armstrongdismisses the Andreus' account as "100-percent" fabricated. Betsy, heclaims, is motivated by "bitterness, jealousy and hatred"--she saysArmstrong pushed Frankie out of USPS in 2000--while Frankie, Armstrong says, is"a good guy" but has been forced to perjure himself in order to supporthis wife.
Also in thehospital room that day was Stephanie McIlvain, a friend of Armstrong's whoworked for Oakley, one of his sponsors. She testified that she never heardArmstrong give that list. But SI is in possession of a recorded telephoneconversation between McIlvain and LeMond in which she says, "I was in thatroom. I heard it." Asked to reconcile her conflicting accounts, McIlvaintold SI, "Yes, I do stand by my [court] testimony." She says that atthe time of the taped conversation with LeMond (who had told her he was notrecording the call), she was "in a bad place in my life.. . . The wholething was a complete nightmare, and I don't want to relive it." Finally shevolunteers, "I've never seen Lance Armstrong do drugs, never heard of himdoing drugs."
Armstrongresponded to a list of questions from SI with a query of his own. Pointing tothe hundreds of drug tests he passed, he asked, "If I cheated, how did Iget away with it?"
That question mayhave been answered by Jonathan Vaughters, a former teammate of Armstrong's, inthe following exchange of instant messages with Frankie Andreu in the summer of2005, shortly after Armstrong won his final Tour.
Cyclevaughters:yeah, it's very complex how [they] avoid all the [doping] controls now, butit's not any new drug or anything, just the resources and planning to pull of[sic] a well devised plan
Cyclevaughters:it's why they all got dropped on stage --no refill yet--then on the restday--boom 800 ml of packed cells
FDREU: they haveit mastered. . . .
Cyclevaughters:they draw the blood right after the dauphine
FDREU: how dothey sneak it in, or keep it until needed
FDREU: i'm sureit's not with the truck in the frig
Cyclevaughters:motorcycle--refridgerated [sic] panniers
Cyclevaughters:on the rest day
Cyclevaughters:floyd has a photo of the thing
FDREU: crazy! it'[sic] just keep going to new levels
This spicy littleback-and-forth was printed by Betsy Andreu and entered into evidence at the SCAhearing. What it suggests is that members of Armstrong's team had their ownblood drawn after the Dauphiné Libéré, a warmup race before the Tour de France;that they saved it to reinject during the Tour; that they did poorly in Stage 8of the Tour because they hadn't received their blood packets; and that theblood was brought in by motorcycle, in refrigerated panniers, and injected intothe riders on their rest day.
Soon after the IMexchange came to the attention of Armstrong's people, Vaughters heard from oneof the Texan's lawyers and hastily produced an affidavit explaining that he'djust been passing on second- and third-hand gossip.
It is cycling,unfortunately, that cannot be taken seriously. Vaughters's recantation does notchange the fact that his sport is awash in pharmaceuticals and doped blood.Vaughters, in fact, has emerged as a powerful force against doping in cycling."Obviously the sport is enormously tarnished," he recently allowed."This is, beyond doubt, the darkest time since I've been incycling."
But there ishope. Vaughters retired from racing in 2003, at age 29. With $50,000 of his ownmoney he started a team of young U.S. riders. Four years later Team Slipstream,based in Boulder, Colo., is generating serious buzz in velo circles. Yes, itraces in the equivalent of Triple A cycling, but it's also drawing praise foran antidoping program that is considered a model for the sport.
All ofSlipstream's riders submit, at least once a week, to blood and urine testsadministered by the independent Agency for Cycling Ethics. "It's nothingscheduled," Vaughters explains. "You get a call, you have this manyhours to go in." The tests establish baseline blood levels for each rider.Should any of his levels fluctuate suspiciously, the rider facessuspension.
Among the teamsthat will take the start in London on July 7, only CSC and T-Mobile havesimilar in-house testing programs. Which means that 19 other teams don't. Sothere will definitely be doped riders in the race. Again. What's a cycling fanto do?
I'm going back tothe Tour. It is that intoxicating. For all of cycling's pathologies, I can'tthink of a more inspiring sight than a group of climbers clawing their way overthe Col du Galibier. And when I'm looking for a sport with more integrity, I'llgrab the remote and surf for some pro wrestling. ¬±
Out in Front
More from Austin Murphy on the Tour doping allegationsand Lance Armstrong's response.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Betsy (with kids Stevie, left, and Marta) and Frankie Andreu (in '00 Tour)implicate Armstrong.