News & Politics

Lance Armstrong: The Straight Dope

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What a strange reunion is taking place for three cycling legends this weekend in California:  

–Lance Armstrong, the 7-time Tour de France winner who is staging a comeback at 37 in part to prove that he’s a clean rider and no doper, despite a controversial 2005 report claiming that he’d used the banned substance EPO during his initial Tour victory in 1999, and a just-as-controversial report the next year “exonerating” him from that positive test.

–Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s onetime teammate and support rider who won his own Tour de France following Armstrong’s retirement, only to have the crown taken away when it turned out he had someone else’s testosterone in his veins.

–And Amgen, the inventor of the process to clone human EPO, a miracle drug for anemics and cancer patients, but the cheater’s drug of choice in cycling and other endurance sports.  

Yes, the fourth edition of the “Amgen Tour of California” has plenty of irony for everyone, and no doubt some of the news organizations following Lance’s return to pro cycling will make at least some mention of the strange juxtapositions during the next week of racing.

With Armstrong making his first appearance in a race that’s sponsored by Amgen, I can’t help thinking back to the year 2000, when I made a visit to the Amgen ‘campus’ near Los Angeles.

At that time, EPO had already nearly ruined professional cycling, in
part because there was no reliable way to test a cyclist’s urine or
blood to show that the substance (which occurs naturally in the body)
was the cyclist’s own or something he injected. (A test would
finally arrive that year, which has helped matters immensely.)

Also
that year, Lance was following up his first comeback – his incredible
win at the 1999 Tour de France after recovering from cancer – with
preparations for his second Tour victory. During the 1999 Tour, he had
tested positive for a miniscule amount of a banned substance that he
explained away as something that was in a cream he used for a saddle
sore. It sounded plausible, but it was only natural that following the
sport’s horrendous 1998 drug scandal, which nearly ended the Tour that
year, Armstrong’s miraculous comeback in 1999 would raise questions.

As
Lance prepared to go for his second Tour win in 2000, I remember him
firing back at his critics with a Nike television commercial showing
him riding his bicycle in a driving rain. In a voiceover, Lance told us
that “everybody wants to know what I’m on,” clearly a reference to the
lingering drug questions. “What am I on?” he asked. “I’m on my bike,
busting my ass, six hours a day. What are you on?”

You had to hand it to him for that kind of bravado.  

It
was my San Francisco colleague, Matt Smith, a former pro cyclist, who
encouraged me that year to pursue a story by asking a question that we
hadn’t seen asked by the cycling press.

What, if anything, was
Amgen itself, inventor of the substance that was ruining one of the
greatest sports spectacles, doing about the worldwide abuse of its
product, which the year earlier had brought them $1.8 billion?

The
folks at Amgen, after some prodding, agreed to let me come up and look
around, but it was clear they thought the widespread abuse of EPO was
someone else’s problem. With no reliable test to catch cheaters up to
then, there had been only so much they could do about safeguarding the
substance from unethical doctors or thieves, they told me.

But
what about at least appearing to care that their
wonder drug was wrecking lives and bringing the Tour to its knees?
Other companies at least threw money at “sports institutes” and other
PR initiatives to distract people from the negative consequences of,
say, using slave labor in India to make soccer balls, or employing
children in southeast Asia to make sneakers. I mean, aren’t companies
at least supposed to pretend that they care?

I guess it took
them a while to figure that part out. Six years later, Amgen sponsored
the first Tour of California, which has turned out to be a terrific
event.

Particularly that first year, when Landis won it. You
might remember the situation at the time: Armstrong had just retired,
and there was some question as to which American would step forward as
the country’s leading cyclist. George Hincapie had surprised everyone
by winning a mountain stage in the 2005 Tour — could 2006 be his year?
Levi Leipheimer was determined to come out of Lance’s shadow and seemed
poised to do it. But it was Landis, with solid wins in both of the
early-season American stage races — the Tours of California and Georgia —
who quickly became the one many of us wanted to see win in Paris.

If
Lance’s escape from the clutches of cancer was a story for the ages,
Landis’s escape from a Mennonite upbringing was nearly as improbable
and fascinating.

Which is one of several reasons why watching Floyd race this week in California will be difficult.  

It
will be hard not to think about July 20, 2006, which, without
hesitation, I can say was the single greatest day of cycling I’ve ever
witnessed. Yes, better than Greg Lemond’s 1989 comeback in Paris (the
greatest Tour, without a doubt), or even the many
exploits of Armstrong, including his remarkable ‘farewell look’ at Jan
Ullrich on l’Alpe d’Huez in 2001, a dramatic moment to be sure.

When
you try to explain the arcane ways of cycling to the uninitiated, one
thing you have to spell out is that although a main contender might be
trailing by several minutes in a three-week road race, you won’t see
him simply speed ahead and win a day’s stage by that amount to get
himself back into contention. It just doesn’t happen. Instead, once
you’re trailing by that much, you have to wait for someone ahead of you
on time to crack, to fall back to your position — because no one, ever, simply
speeds ahead to reclaim several minutes against an entire pack of the
world’s greatest athletes over mountainous terrain that would rip the
knees off a mere mortal.

But that’s exactly what Floyd Landis
did. The day before, on July 19, when many of us believed that he
really was going to win the Tour, he’d cracked. He lost ten minutes in
a rotten day of climbing, and fell from second place to eleventh.
“Well, that’s it,” I remember thinking, dreading even to watch the next
day’s race, the 17th stage to Morzine.

But on a bum hip,
Landis performed a miracle. He jumped out ahead of the pack nearly from
the start of the 201-kilometer course and then stayed there. All day. With the sport’s top racers trying to pull
him back, he flew up mountains to get a nine minute lead, eventually
finishing with a six minute advantage and a look of anger that was not
something many of us will ever forget.

It was breathtaking.
Ballsy. Insane. He was now just 30 seconds out of
first place, with an excellent chance to win the Tour in an upcoming
time trial, when only the day before he seemed out of contention.

You
know the rest. He went on to win, but then came the news that his urine
sample for that epic day to Morzine showed “exogenous” testosterone –
meaning that it was not Landis’s own. (Experts, meanwhile, explained
that the excess testosterone in his system didn’t necessarily explain
how Landis managed his stunning ride on the 20th, but it did help explain how he
recovered so well after his bad experience the day before.) Landis was
stripped of the title, and he’s been out of the pro peleton ever since.
His return — and few seem to be celebrating it — will be this weekend’s
Tour of California.

I’m curious to see how Armstrong interacts
with him. Armstrong has said that he welcomes Landis back, that anyone
who has paid the penalty should be allowed a second chance. Those are
magnanimous words, but being in the presence of Landis — as well as
Ivan Basso, another former Armstrong protege who served an exile for
doping — can’t really serve Armstrong’s plan to associate himself with
clean living. (As does the news, in this week’s Times, that Armstrong’s
much-ballyhooed plans to follow a strict new doping program
administered by one of the world’s leading drug-testing experts has
fallen apart and won’t be happening after all.)

Armstrong is
making his comeback because he wants to spread his message about
fighting cancer. He’s also, naturally, interested to see what he can
accomplish at 37 against a field that at the moment lacks many truly
outstanding stars. But it’s also very clear that Armstrong’s comeback
is an attempt to quiet the drug rumors that haven’t gone away, even
after nearly four years since his last Tour win.

I mentioned
that a test for detecting EPO finally showed up in 2000. Ever since
then, Armstrong has always tested negative for the substance. He never
hesitates to say that he’s the most drug-tested athlete in sport,
and that for all that testing there’s no evidence that he’s ever
cheated (the 1999 miniscule saddle-sore-cream result notwithstanding).

But
with the EPO test in place, French drug testers decided it might be
interesting to analyze older urine samples which had been taken before
the test had been developed. In 1999, for example, when they knew there
was no test to catch them, had cyclists gotten away with doping?

Armstrong’s
urine samples from the 1999 Tour were subjected to the new test in
2004. The next year, news of a positive result was leaked to the most
Armstrong-hating publication on the planet, the French sporting
newspaper l’Equipe.

In the controversy that
followed, there were many questions asked, mostly around two main
themes. One of those themes interested me, the other less so. The
question I really cared about: “was the test reliable?”

Sampling
urine to find cloned EPO and identify it as a different substance from
the cyclist’s own, naturally-produced, EPO is a very complex affair.
Would it be reliable to test a sample that had been frozen for several
years? Was the chain of custody secure, so that a mistake in identity
could be ruled out? Was there certainty that the samples hadn’t been
contaminated?

The second line of questioning concerned me less, but it boiled down to this: was Armstrong being treated fairly?

Certainly
it wasn’t in Armstrong’s own best interests for the results of his
urine tests to be leaked to a publication that perennially looked for
reasons to discredit him.

But if the test had reliably
produced a positive, it was important to confirm that or rule it out. Armstrong’s feelings about the French media were secondary.

Shortly after the claims of the positive had been
leaked, cycling’s administrative body, the UCI, announced that it would
have an independent investigator, a Dutch lawyer named Emile Vrijman,
look into the affair. A year later, Vrijman announced his conclusion:
His investigation, he said, exonerated Armstrong.

It made for a
powerful headline that June, in 2006. I saw “Armstrong Exonerated” all
over the place. But few, except for the Times and a
few others, seemed interested in what the Dutch investigator had
actually found.

I was disappointed that his investigation looked
almost exclusively at the second set of questions: in other words,
whether Armstrong was being treated fairly. He wasn’t, Vrijman
concluded.

But that left the main question unanswered: had the
1999 samples produced a reliably positive result or not? For the UCI,
the matter is closed. But to me, it was an unsatisfying end to a claim
that was controversial from the start.

Because of all the
negative test results Armstrong has amassed over the years, I’d like to
believe that he’s been clean throughout his career.

But it
will be strange, at the least, to see him competing against his old
companions, the disgraced Landis and Basso, in a race sponsored by the
drugmaker of the scourge of cycling.

UPDATE: A question similar to mine – whether it would hurt Lance’s image to reunite with dopers Landis and Basso in the upcoming Tour of California – was asked in a slightly different way this afternoon by a journalist, Paul Kimmage, who had written something Lance obviously didn’t like. Saying that Kimmage had called him a “cancer on cycling,” Armstrong lashed out at Kimmage and then answered that Landis, while he hasn’t admitted doping, honestly believes that he didn’t break the rules. Watch the video here:

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