What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?
This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2012 issue
—Lance Armstrong, 2001 Nike commercial
It was a brazen but brilliant ad, a way for Armstrong to mock anyone inclined to believe the gathering evidence that he had doped his way to his Tour de France titles. At the same time he could burnish his image as a cancer survivor whose journey seemed to place him beyond reproach. As he darted through the most drug-saturated period any sport had ever known, Armstrong defended himself the same way he raced—aggressively and sometimes recklessly. Every cyclist but one who shared the Paris podium with him between 1999 and 2005 would be directly implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but Armstrong always blustered his way clear, as if faithful domestiques would clean up after him in the courtroom or the lab as they did on the road.
The force of his denials kept his accusers on the defensive—or did until two months ago, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that it would strip Armstrong of his seven Tour titles and ban him from any future involvement in sanctioned sports. Last week, with the release of its "reasoned decision" for doing so, the agency pulled the last thread from the fiction that Armstrong had painstakingly woven: that he had been the lone clean champion during cycling's most corrupt era.
In 164 pages punctuated by chilling detail, and more than 850 pages of addenda and documentary evidence, USADA lays out what it calls "a massive fraud now more fully exposed." During his run of Tour victories, Armstrong was, in fact, on all sorts of things besides his bike. He was on erythropoietin (EPO). He was on testosterone. He was on corticosteroids. He was on transfused blood. More than that, he lobbied other members of his U.S. Postal Service team to use "Edgar" (EPO, after Edgar Allan Poe) or "the oil" (for testosterone mixed with olive oil). He introduced teammates to his notorious doping doctor, Michele Ferrari, and urged them to follow Ferrari's regimen. He insisted Ferrari work with no other Tour contender, and he continued his relationship with the Italian medicine man long after Armstrong testified under oath to have ended it. Sometimes Armstrong himself provided drugs to teammates. And to keep his secrets, he intimidated those who might spill them—one of the "aggravating circumstances" that USADA invoked to reach back beyond the eight-year statute of limitations.
Some 15 cyclists ignored the sport's omert to cooperate with USADA's investigation, including 11 who rode alongside Armstrong. Of them, 10—Frankie Andreu, Michael Barry, Tom Danielson, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters and Dave Zabriskie—admitted, some for the first time publicly, to having doped themselves. Documents and sworn testimony also implicate USPS team director Johan Bruyneel; team doctors Pedro Celaya and Luis García del Moral; and José (Pepe) Martí, the trainer who allegedly served as the team's drug courier.
Like Armstrong, del Moral and Ferrari will not go to arbitration, thereby accepting their punishment. Bruyneel, Celaya and Martí will contest USADA's findings. The six active riders who admitted to doping but cooperated will forfeit results and serve six-month suspensions.
It would have been much easier to process last week's news if we were European. Across the Atlantic they have long known the truth about a sport that took root in France at the beginning of the last century. "For Americans, doping is entwined with questions of character, with goodness and evil," Daniel Coyle wrote in his 2005 book, Lance Armstrong's War. "For Europeans, doping is simply something cyclists are known to do.... [It's] the same divergence that occurs when a politician is caught out with a mistress: Americans get outraged—How could he? while, Europeans shrug—But of course." Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil of France, who rode in the 1950s and '60s, once said, "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants."
But then, bike racing in Europe is a way out for working-class kids, who were willing to do almost anything for a place in the peloton. Many of the men who plied the roads of Europe a generation ago run the sport today. Why should they deny their successors the pharmaceutical relief they enjoyed?
In the U.S. bike racing is a way out too: a way out of high school hell for geeky middle-class boys. They take up cycling for the romance or, like Dave the Cutter in the 1979 movie Breaking Away, for the refuge. American pioneers arrived in Europe during the 1980s lashed to this ideal, but they eventually faced a reckoning. You can leave Colorado or California with your water bottles and Clif Bars, but you discover, as Dutch TV journalist Mart Smeets puts it, "if you want to dance, you put on your dancing shoes."
By 1995, according to former teammates, Lance desperately wanted to dance. So he shrewdly began to broadcast on two frequencies—one within the sport and another to the millions back home who would become deeply invested in the notion of an American winning clean after triumphing over cancer. Within the guild, Armstrong was a but-of-courser to the bone, bullying riders who spoke out against doping. At the same time he was careful to cover his how-could-you flank. If pro cycling is known to the typical Stateside sports fan at all, it's through one event, which to casual followers exists only to supply over-the-top movies of the week like Texan Dominates Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys After Cancer Racks Body. "Once it's entertainment," says U.S. cyclist Andy Hampsten, who retired rather than compete after EPO hit the sport, "do we really want to know that cyclists are on drugs? It would ruin people's fun."
Jeff Novitzky, the investigator with the Food and Drug Administration who built the doping cases against Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, heard a variation on that line—Do we really want to know?—after he launched a federal probe into Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Service team in 2010. The U.S. attorney's office in Southern California chose not to pursue a criminal case against the Texan last February, leaving USADA and its executive director, Travis Tygart, to begin its doping investigation. Tygart invited witnesses to reiterate under oath what they had already told the Feds. After years of keeping secrets, and of what the USADA report calls significant pressure and attacks from the Armstrong camp, the truth-telling came as catharsis. According to a source familiar with the government probe, the investigators' challenge had been less to get Postal riders to talk than to get them to stop crying so they could talk.
Armstrong is silent now, but in the past he has talked plenty. What follows are his own words, with annotations based on SI's reporting, the USADA findings and other publicly available sources. The Texan has chosen not to face the evidence. But we can if we want, if we dare.
As I passed into unconsciousness, my doctors controlled my future. They controlled my ability to sleep, and to reawaken. For that period of time, they were the ultimate beings. My doctors were my Gods.
—It's Not About the Bike, Armstrong's 2000 memoir, on his cancer treatment in 1996
Doctors and drugs helped save Armstrong's life. Doctors and drugs helped him win seven Tours. While he rode under two separate team physicians for the Postal team, del Moral and Celaya, Ferrari remained the one medical constant.
Armstrong's relationship with Ferrari, which began in 1995, became widely public in 2001 with a report by David Walsh in The Sunday Times of London. Until then Armstrong had concealed it, even from some on his own team. After Walsh's report, Armstrong defended the connection, even as Ferrari stood trial in Italy on charges of directing cyclists' doping programs.
In the meantime Armstrong inflated the role of Chris Carmichael, the coach who dated back to his predoping days. But in his book, The Secret Race, Hamilton quotes Vaughters saying, "In two years, I never heard Lance refer to Chris one time." Adds Landis, "Carmichael was a beard."
Michele Ferrari ... was a friend and I went to him for occasional advice on training.... He wasn't one of my major advisers.
—Every Second Counts, Armstrong's 2003 memoir
Armstrong in fact had no more essential adviser than Ferrari. USADA spoke to 15 cyclists, six of them Armstrong teammates whom Ferrari also served, and each confirmed that the doctor supervised Armstrong's doping program. Financial records show that Armstrong paid Ferrari more than $1 million in consulting fees between 1999 and 2006, during which he won his Tour titles. The USADA report includes so many instances of Armstrong's meetings with Ferrari that it takes nearly a page of footnotes to list all of the relevant citations from witnesses' affidavits.
As a result of today's developments, the USPS team and I have suspended our professional affiliation with Dr. Ferrari.
— Armstrong on Oct. 1, 2004, after Ferrari's conviction in Italy
Ferrari was found guilty of "sporting fraud" and "illegally acting as a pharmacy." While the ruling was later overturned on a statute-of-limitations technicality, Ferrari remains banned from working with Italian cyclists. In 2005, Armstrong testified in a U.S. court case that he had had no professional contact with Ferrari since his public break. But USADA reports that Armstrong paid Ferrari at least $210,000 after claiming to have severed ties and that the relationship continued at least until two years ago, into Armstrong's triathlon preparations.
You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari and ... when you sued me.... I can destroy you.
—Armstrong to Italian rider Filippo Simeoni at the '04 Tour, according to Simeoni's affidavit
In 2000, Simeoni had testified in an Italian criminal proceeding that Ferrari had supervised his regimen of EPO and testosterone. In a later interview with Le Monde, Armstrong had called Simeoni "an absolute liar." That day at the Tour in 2004, Armstrong, wearing the yellow jersey, chased down Simeoni's breakaway during the 18th stage and reeled him back to the pack, whereupon other riders abused and spat at him. "[Armstrong] was in charge of cycling, and nothing was done," Simeoni told an Italian radio interviewer in August, after USADA first announced its findings. "I paid for things that weren't just. I only told the truth."
People are smart. They will say: "Has Lance Armstrong ever tested positive? No."
—Armstrong to the AP, July 23, 2001
In fact, long before Armstrong became a global brand, his testosterone levels had tested abnormally high. As SI reported last year, a June 4, 1999, letter from UCLA's Olympic Analytical Laboratory to USA Cycling documents eight of Armstrong's testosterone tests from 1991 to '98, with a gap in '97 when he was still recovering from cancer. At that time a ratio of testosterone to the hormone epitestosterone (the "T/E ratio") exceeding 6 to 1 constituted evidence of doping; a normal ratio is 1 to 1. In 2005 the threshold was lowered to 4 to 1. Six of the eight test results reported in the UCLA Olympic lab's letter are higher than 4 to 1, and three are higher than 6 to 1. The highest value is 9 to 1, from a sample taken on June 23, 1993, barely two weeks before Armstrong won his first-ever stage in the Tour. In the letter, lab director Don Catlin says two of the tests that exceeded 6 to 1 couldn't be confirmed. There is no reference to any attempted confirmation of the third. A confirmation failure, Catlin has said, occurred only "once in a blue moon."
Armstrong's next analytical stumble would coincide with another career milestone, his first overall Tour victory, in 1999. Days after he had seized the yellow jersey by winning the prologue, Postal team staffers learned that Armstrong had tested positive for corticosteroids.
Emma O'Reilly, a soigneuse with the Postal team, had already been in situations that made her uncomfortable—disposing of Armstrong's used syringes, covering his needle marks with makeup, and retrieving pills in Spain to relay to Armstrong in France. She was giving Armstrong a massage when he and team officials decided how they would wriggle out of the positive corticosteroids test. "It was just a couple of staff members and myself in the room," says O'Reilly, who's now a massage therapist in England. "So they decided they actually needed to get a backdated prescription [from del Moral, for therapeutic use of a steroidal cream] and pretend it was something for saddle sores. [Cycling officials] accepted that, even though it breached protocol." Hincapie, Hamilton and Vaughters all told USADA that they believed the cover story to be a sham. Vaughters added that team members told him that Armstrong had in fact received a cortisone injection.
After O'Reilly shared her account with Walsh and The Sunday Times, Armstrong sued her and the paper for libel. (A settlement was reached, but O'Reilly paid no money.) "I did nothing but tell the truth, and got sued," O'Reilly says. "It was just his bully-boy tactics."
The 2002 USPS team was made up of like-minded riders.... Johan and I had spent the previous five years carefully identifying, recruiting and signing the kind of people we wanted to work with.
—Every Second Counts
Armstrong's Postal contract guaranteed him "extensive input into rider and staff composition," but that clause only hints at his power over his teammates. In 2002, after his fourth Tour title, Armstrong summoned Postal rider Christian Vande Velde to his apartment in Girona, Spain, for a meeting with Ferrari in attendance. Armstrong made clear that Vande Velde needed to more faithfully follow Ferrari's program, taking more drugs more often. "I was in the doghouse," Vande Velde's affidavit reads, "and the only way forward with Armstrong's team was to get fully on Dr. Ferrari's doping program."
Dave Zabriskie, who had joined the Postal team in 2001, testifies that at a meeting with Bruyneel and del Moral in Girona in 2003, Bruyneel broached the subject of doping with Zabriskie and teammate Michael Barry. Zabriskie at first balked. Having pursued cycling to help recover from the loss of his father, who died young from drug abuse, he had vowed to ride clean. But he soon found himself in Barry's apartment, where del Moral administered Zabriskie's first EPO injection. That night, back in his room, Zabriskie broke down in tears. But he did what he felt he had to do to fit in. One day on the Postal bus, he serenaded Bruyneel and teammates with a knockoff of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Haze: "EPO all in my veins/Lately things just don't seem the same/Actin' funny, but I don't know why/'Scuse me while I pass this guy."
Growing up in a devout Mennonite family in Lancaster, Pa., Floyd Landis decided to become a cyclist, over his parents' objections, after watching Armstrong's first Tour win and reading It's Not About the Bike. A raw and powerful rider, Landis joined the Postal team in 2002. Before that year's Tour, Armstrong gave him testosterone patches; Ferrari, in Armstrong's European apartments, extracted blood to be reintroduced into Landis's body later in the race. Landis left in 2005 to lead his own team, and a year later he would win the Tour himself but be stripped of the title after testing positive for testosterone.
I've practically lived out of the same suitcase with George Hincapie.... He was true-blue, like a brother.
—Every Second Counts
One rider's testimony carries more weight than the others', and Hincapie is the et tu, Brute figure in this story—the only cyclist to have ridden alongside Armstrong in each of those seven victorious Tours. He told investigators that Armstrong used EPO and testosterone during every one, as well as banned blood transfusions in each Tour beginning in 2001. On two occasions Armstrong provided Hincapie with EPO. It's Hincapie who identified the moment that Armstrong began to advocate for doping: in 1995, when both were members of the U.S.-based Motorola team and on their way back from a poor showing at the Milan--San Remo race. Hincapie testified, "Lance said, in substance, that 'this is bulls---, people are using stuff' and 'we are getting killed.' He said, in substance, that he did not want to get crushed anymore and something needed to be done. I understood that he meant the team needed to get on EPO."
I made myself available around the clock.... Whatever they asked for I provided.
—Armstrong on Aug. 23
If the U.S. Postal case proves anything, it's that the claim "I've never failed a test" is practically meaningless. Clean or dirty, Armstrong shouldn't have failed a test. As Hamilton says in The Secret Race, "It took the drug-testing authorities several years and millions of dollars to develop a test to detect EPO.... It took Ferrari about five minutes to figure out how to evade it."
Postal riders told USADA that Ferrari taught them to inject EPO intravenously, rather than subcutaneously, to make it less detectable. They took to microdosing, to ensure that any trace would disappear quickly; according to Hamilton's affidavit, Ferrari schooled Armstrong in this technique in 2001. With testosterone, a rider would microdose by using a patch, or putting "the oil" under the tongue, and the substance would quickly become undetectable. If taken in the evening, either drug was likely to have "cleared" by morning. Postal riders marveled that at races, team staff often seemed to have up to an hour's notice before testers descended, enough time to use a saline infusion to bring down a high hematocrit, a technique Celaya used on Armstrong at the '98 world championships, according to Vaughters's affidavit.
If all else failed, there was the time-honored low-tech method: hide. If a tester showed up at your home, you simply didn't answer the door.
I have been dealing with claims that I cheated and had an unfair advantage in winning my seven Tours since 1999.... I know who won those seven Tours, my teammates know who won [them], and everyone I competed against knows who won.
—Armstrong on Aug. 23, declining to contest USADA's findings
It's worth asking: If everybody was on EPO, how could anyone seize an "unfair advantage"?
First, because of biological differences, people respond differently to drugs, be they Tylenol or heroin. Stephen Swart, Armstrong's Motorola teammate during the '95 Tour, told SI that after he took EPO at Armstrong's urging, "straightaway it actually made me perform worse."
Although no test for EPO existed when the drug began to infest the peloton, the UCI by 1998 set a 50% hematocrit cutoff, above which a rider would be held out of a race to protect his health. The hematocrit is a measure of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Riders with the biggest gap between their natural hematocrit level and the doping limit could realize the greatest relative benefit from EPO. In his book The Secret Race, Hamilton notes that his natural level was 42%, so he could add 19% more red blood cells without worrying about a positive test. "That might be one of the reasons Hamilton's performance increased so rapidly when he started taking EPO," co-author Daniel Coyle writes in a footnote.
O'Reilly, the former Postal soigneuse, showed SI the June 10, 1999, page from her diary, in which she recorded a conversation with Armstrong during the Critérium du Dauphiné Liberé in France: L. was 41 today + when I asked what could he do about that he just laughed + said you know what everybody does. From a hematocrit of 41%, Armstrong could increase his proportion of red blood cells by 22%.
Anyone who thought I would go through four cycles of chemo just to risk my life by taking EPO was crazy.
—Every Second Counts
There's a reason doctors at the Indiana University Medical Center wanted to know from Armstrong—who was in Indianapolis to be treated for stage III testicular cancer in October 1996—whether he had used performance-enhancing drugs: We're still learning precisely how athletes' health is affected by drugs they might have abused. According to affidavits by Frankie and Betsy Andreu, Armstrong told doctors that day that he had used EPO, human growth hormone, cortisone, steroids and testosterone. Apparently even Ferrari wondered about their effects. Landis (far right, with Armstrong) previously told SI, "When we were on a training ride in 2002, Lance told me that Ferrari had been paranoid that he had helped cause the cancer and became more conservative after that."
A 2006 paper in the journal Clinical Endocrinology, cited on Livestrong.com, raises concerns about the use of human growth hormone, which can elevate levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a substance that has been linked to cancer in lab animals and humans. There's nothing to confirm Ferrari's reported fear that doping actually caused Armstrong's cancer, but IGF-1 and EPO, which is also classified as a growth factor, might well have caused the illness to spread as rapidly as it did. According to Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, both substances may hasten the growth of an existing tumor. In fact, some cancer drugs, known as angiogenesis inhibitors, work by blocking the action of growth factors.
Travis Tygart's unconstitutional witch hunt ... [is] in opposition to all the rules.
—Armstrong on Aug. 23
In fact, in response to Armstrong's legal challenge to USADA's standing to press its case, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks affirmed that the USADA protocol—neutral arbitrators in an open forum, weighing evidence that must meet a standard of "clear and convincing"—conforms to due process. In accepting a license to compete from USA Cycling, Armstrong consented to those very disciplinary procedures. And as an elite triathlete after he retired from cycling, he remained subject to USADA's jurisdiction until Aug. 23, when he was banned.
Back when the FDA and Jeff Novitzky were building a criminal case against him, Armstrong seemed to welcome USADA's scrutiny. As recently as January 2011, after SI ran a story pegged to the FDA probe, Armstrong tweeted, "Great to hear that @usada is investigating some of @si's claims. I look forward to being vindicated." Now that USADA has published its report, Armstrong's attorney Tim Herman last week denigrated its witnesses as "axe-grinders" and "serial perjurers."
"There will not be a hearing in this case because Lance Armstrong strategically avoided it," the USADA report says. "He voluntarily gave up his right to cross-examine the witnesses against him."
Or as World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey puts it, "To refuse the charges can only leave the interpretation that he is a cheat."
Regardless of what Travis Tygart says, there is zero physical evidence to support his ... heinous claims.
—Armstrong on Aug. 23
In fact, there's substantial physical evidence, and USADA cites much of it to corroborate volumes of "nonanalytic" testimony from witnesses. In 2004, using a recently developed test for EPO, the French Anti-Doping Laboratory began a research study on urine samples from the 1999 Tour. The lab found that six of Armstrong's samples from that race tested positive. A year later a Dutch lawyer, appointed by the UCI to investigate those findings, criticized the French lab for its handling of the samples, and cycling's governing body declined to sanction Armstrong. But Andreas Briedbach, former head of the EPO testing group at UCLA's antidoping lab, told SI, "If there was a lab that could test for EPO at that time, it was the Paris lab." And USADA, provided access to lab reports for the samples, declared the test results to be "resoundingly positive."
In 2001, Hamilton and Landis say, Armstrong failed an EPO test during his victory at the Tour of Switzerland. In The Secret Race, Hamilton says Armstrong told him, "I got popped for EPO." Hamilton writes that Armstrong laughed it off: "No worries, dude. It's all taken care of." Landis says Armstrong told him that he and Bruyneel struck a deal with the UCI to conceal the positive test, and last year 60 Minutes reported that a UCI representative had wanted the matter of the suspicious test to go no further. The UCI vigorously denied both stories. It later accepted $125,000 in donations from Armstrong, money that was spent on a youth antidoping initiative and a blood-testing device. Hein Verbruggen, who led the UCI at the time of Armstrong's donations, said, "Lance Armstrong has never used doping. Never, never, never." But the UCI declined to share with USADA its '01 Tour of Switzerland test results. Current UCI president Pat McQuaid told Cyclingnews.com in July 2010 that "Lance does all the tests like everyone else, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with his biological passport."
But in 2009 and '10 Armstrong did have a problem with his biological passport, the program that tracks fluctuations in blood values over time. In '09, for instance, Armstrong posted on Livestrong.com the results of 33 drug tests he had taken from August 2008 to July 2009. No single test suggests a positive finding, but taken as a time line, the results are strongly consistent with blood doping. Blood plasma expands as a cyclist participates in a multiweek race, diluting the proportion of red cells in the bloodstream and lowering hematocrit. Armstrong's hematocrit dropped from 43.5 to 38.2 during the Giro d'Italia. But a few weeks later, during the Tour de France, Armstrong's hematocrit began around 43, hovered around 40 or 41 and then returned to 43, which happens when red blood cells are artificially added.
A second sign suggests that red blood cells are being supplemented from outside the body: Bone marrow will slow down the production of new red cells known as reticulocytes. While Armstrong's reticulocyte count hovered around the normal 1% in most of the tests posted on his site, it dropped to 0.5% after the Tour began. "When Armstrong published his results online, frankly, I couldn't believe it," says Dr. Michael Ashenden, a former member of UCI's biological passport expert panel. Christopher J. Gore, head of physiology at the Australian Institute of Sport, told USADA the chances of Armstrong's low reticulocyte counts occurring naturally were "less than one in a million."
I am sorry for you. I am sorry you can't dream. I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles.
—Armstrong to all his critics from the podium in Paris after winning his seventh and final Tour, in 2005
How are we to believe? How do we celebrate the next great clean rider if drug tests mean little or nothing? How does the honest cyclist certify his innocence?
If you're the patron of the peloton, as Armstrong was, it's easy. You test clean not just in the lab but also in symbolic, nonanalytic ways: By supporting the Simeonis of the sport in public and in private. By encouraging and cheering the repentant riders, support staff, antidoping officials and journalists who work to expose fraud, rather than ostracizing and intimidating and suing them. And by meeting with the Ferraris as often as necessary, but for one purpose only: to tell them to keep their hands off your sport.
In sport you're always on record for what you've done, for what you've said, the way you've acted.
—Every Second Counts