It’s not about the bike
There’s a lot of misinformation out there following Lance Armstrong’s decision to accept a life ban rather than contest charges of doping. Let’s correct some of it, and show you the man behind all of the myths. As we go along, you’ll see that allegations against Armstrong have been there not just since he began winning the Tour de France, but that he’s been associated with people around doping almost since he began competing in organised sport. Be warned: This is a very long read. I intended it to be as concise as possible, and for that reason I’ve been unable to shorten it.
Lance Armstrong was 18 when he first met Chris Carmichael, in 1990. Carmichael was the new head of the US cycling team, and was an ex-professional with experience on the American 7-11 team, competing in one Tour de France which he failed to finish. Carmichael was named and sued by two other cyclists also training with him at this time, Greg Strock and Erich Keiter, for doping them with cortisone, steroids, and other various products during the 1990 season. Carmichael settled this case out of court, in 2001, but the evidence was damning - there was systemic doping and corruption in the US coaching system during Carmichael’s time there.
The doping undertaken by Carmichael and others on these junior riders posed significant health risks to both of the men, a core concern about the risks of doping in sport. Of course, Lance Armstrong was a team-mate back then. Armstrong would go on to work with Carmichael for the rest of his sporting career.
Yet this week, Carmichael’s response to Lance Armstrong’s acceptance of is ban is simple: He believes that Lance was the best athlete, but at no point does he say that Armstrong never doped - he only made a statement that he’d never seen him do so. The lack of a specific denial there is key and follows a very clear theme - Armstrong would never say that he’d never doped. Instead, he would say one of two themes, that he’d either never tested positive (note here: this isn’t correct, and we’ll go over that later), or that he’d never been caught.
Armstrong went on to race in Europe after that period with Carmichael and the US team. In 1992 he raced with Motorola, and in 1993 he won both the US national title and the World Championship in a race in horrible weather, including roads covered in a torrential downpour, rendering the road surface slippery like ice due to the diesel and oil on them. The inclement conditions resulted in one of the smallest finishing fields in history, and the withdrawal of the majority of race favourites citing the danger the weather presented.
Allegations about Armstrong’s involvement with drugs come from at least this far back. Steve Swart, team-mate of Armstrong’s on Motorola, said that Armstrong was the central figure in encouraging riders to dope. His claims were published in two books, and Armstrong sued after their publication: He dropped one lawsuit in France, and had another dismissed, being slightly more successful when obtaining a judgement in England after a newspaper there printed an excerpt about it. But where the books were published, in France, Armstrong never had a case - it was not proven the books were lying.
Armstrong enjoyed mixed success from that point onward - winning the occasional one day race or stage and podium places on a few others. There was nothing in his ability level which suggested he had the ability to win a Grand Tour - in fact it was the very opposite. In 1995 he managed to finish the Tour at the third time of asking, in 36th place.
Armstrong’s career continued along these lines, with sporadic wins, until he met (and began working with) Italian doctor, Michele Ferrari in 1996. Michele Ferrari is a doctor who has been implicated in evidence from a number of athletes, and banned for life by the Italian Olympic Committee. No Italian athlete is permitted to work with him, and breaches are punishable with bans. More on him a little later.
Armstrong famously got very ill in 1996, contracting cancer. The signs of this showed up very early in the year, but weren’t recognised. This is important: Armstrong, despite having cancer, put in some of his best ever performances. A debilitating disease (at least, Armstrong’s own foundation lists it as such) was having a chronic effect on his body and yet he was performing better than ever before, despite Armstrong’s own admission that he’d noticed abnormalities related to the cancer three years before his diagnosis.
But there’s a subscript to his cancer that hasn’t really been explored: Armstrong by his own claim is the most tested athlete on the planet, and given he enjoyed considerable success in 1996 and beforehand, would certainly have been subject to numerous doping controls. Some cancers - including the type Lance Armstrong had - cause enormously elevated levels of human chorionic gonadotropin hormone (hCG), a naturally occuring hormone in the body, but at low levels in males. Now, there are rules for the amount of hCG permitted in an athlete, because it offers a competitive advantage - not enough to overcome the deficiencies cancers cause, but a good advantage in a healthy human being, because it produces testosterone. An athlete is often considered to have failed a drug test if the urinary T/E (Testosterone:Epitestosterone) ratio is greater than 6. So the UCI would have been testing for it, and Armstrong’s cancer would have resulted in an enormously elevated T/E ratio.
But Armstrong never produced a positive sample. Compare that with Jake Gibb whose life, it could be argued, was saved by USADA’s testing, when it detected those hugely elevated levels in an anti-doping test, and advised him to see a doctor. That ultimately led to the discovery of testicular cancer, and Gibb recovered. Lance Armstrong wasn’t so lucky - so we can assume one of two things. Either the UCI’s anti-doping measures were woefully below standard, and didn’t detect Armstrong’s elevated levels of hCG, allowing his cancer to worsen while competing, or the UCI’s anti-doping discovered Armstrong’s elevated levels and didn’t report them. Either way, it’s a massive condemnation in the UCI’s ability to validate itself as a serious entity in drug testing. At best it’s woefully ineffective, at worst it’s simply corrupt.
Ultimately nobody can fight off cancer without medicine, and Armstrong’s condition worsened, until he finally went to a doctor where the diagnosis was confirmed, and Armstrong began urgent treatment.
As part of that treatment, Armstrong, scared and with nobody with knowledge to consult about his condition, was asked in hospital whether he’d ever used any performance-enhancing drugs(PEDs). His response, as detailed by npr, and in evidence given by Betsy Andreu, was to list off a reel of drugs which he’d taken.
Betsy Andreu’s deposition was given and submitted as evidence years later, when SCA promotions was taken to court by Armstrong for non-payment of a bonus. SCA’s defence was that Armstrong had used PEDs, and they obtained Andreu’s evidence to defend that claim. Armstrong, by now estranged from the Andreus , had not spoken to them for years. But when he learned that the Andreus were to be subpoenaed, he made the extraordinary step of contacting Frankie Andreu in an attempt to influence his testimony, and that of his wife, Betsy, who declined to give a statement along Armstrong’s version of events. Frankie was rattled - he said in his evidence that he hadn’t wanted to testify but had been forced to by the subpoena - but he corroborated his wife’s version of events; that Armstrong had confessed to PED use. Armstrong, in a further attempt to intimidate Betsy Andreu when giving evidence, flew to witness her doing exactly that, sitting in the back of the room during her deposition, saying nothing, and then immediately flying back home. In the process that followed he attempted to characterise Betsy as fat, ugly, obsessed and jealous. Hard to characterise any of those as true if you saw her or listened to watch she had to say.
Ultimately, modern medicine saved Armstrong. That fact has been distorted as years have gone by with Armstrong’s claim to be riding to ‘fight’ the disease - when the only time it’s been beaten is with the help of medicine and drugs. The ironic thing here is that steroid usage has been proven to cause cancer, and was suggested by a former WADA spokesman to have possible been complicit in Armstrong contracting the disease.
Ultimately, Armstrong found it difficult to find a team after recovering, and ended up on the US Postal team, which from 1999 onward would have it’s management under the direction of former ONCE rider, Johan Bruyneel. ONCE were a Spanish cycling team heavily implicated in EPO usage in investigations following the 1998 Tour de France.
In 1997, Armstrong’s agent, Bill Stapleton, became an official of the US Olympic Committee. Sports Illustrated would report years down the track that Armstrong, in three tests the 90s, produced samples that indicated doping with testosterone. The anti-doping scientist who allegedly tested these samples was Don Catlin. He was unable to confirm two of the tests - a highly irregular occurrence - and refused to comment on the third. Don Catlin would later be called to oversee Armstrong’s “transparent” testing during his comeback - a process which covered only a single test before it was aborted. Having an atmosphere where two men so closely tied in business relationships with Armstrong wouldn’t be conducive to finding a positive test against him.
With Armstrong’s return to the bike in 1998 came the return to working with Michele Ferrari. Armstrong would later state to Floyd Landis, a team-mate on the USPS team, that Michele Ferrari was paranoid that he’d helped cause the cancer through his providing the drugs Armstrong was using in 1996. Ferrari, the team doctor on Gewiss-Ballan, had been famous for his statement that ‘EPO was no more dangerous than drinking orange juice’, when suspicions began to arise about drug use due to Gewiss’ sudden exceptional performances. Ferrari immediately got Armstrong back into an intensive program of drug use. The net result was Armstrong, cancer-free and drug-boosted, beginning to suddenly make the cycling world sit up and take notice with increased endurance, producing performances in stage races. Make no bones about it: Cancer does not cause this. It doesn’t transform an athlete into a super-athlete. This has never happened before, or since. That’s because it doesn’t happen. Armstrong’s 4th placed finish at the Tour of Spain confirmed the work Ferrari had been doing. The next thing to do was to take it to the next level.
1998’s Festina scandal did produce a diamond from the rough: Riders implicated in Festina’s team-wide doping scandal all said that Christophe Bassons had been the only rider on his team to refuse to take drugs. Bassons, cleared of any wrongdoing, was invited to write newspaper articles the following year when he was to ride, for a new team (FDJ), in the Tour de France. Bassons wrote largely innocuous columns, but one in particular came to the attention of Armstrong. Bassons had written that Armstrong’s return, suddenly to the head of the pack, had ‘shocked’ the peloton.
Armstrong’s response was to question the rider during a subsequent stage, inform Bassons that "it was a mistake to speak out" about doping, asking why he’d done it. Bassons responded by telling Armstrong that he was ‘thinking of the next generation of riders’. Armstrong’s response to Bassons was to tell him "Why don’t you leave then?". Armstrong confirmed this version of events, and stated to the press that evening "His accusations aren’t good for cycling, for his team, for me, for anybody. If he thinks cycling works like that, he’s wrong and he would be better off going home."
The problem was, of course, that Bassons had seen his entire team found guilty of it - cycling did work like that, and he was the lone voice at that point to speak up about it. Armstrong’s suggestion that he leave the sport was, therefore, an admission that Bassons was, at least in Armstrong’s eyes, unwelcome. Bassons was ostracised, and forced to leave the race. Armstrong had effectively bullied him out of the sport Bassons was trying to clean up. Bassons attempted to ride on for two more years, but it wasn’t a hospitable place. He now works in anti-doping.
This wasn’t the last time Armstrong would, mid-race, seek to influence another cyclist’s view on doping. But nor was it the only relevant point in that race.
In 1999, Lance Armstrong tested positive for a prohibited substance in a urine test: corticosteroids. Armstrong produced a prescription for a cream, claiming it was being used to treat saddle sores, a common ailment amongst cyclists. The problem with this was that riders are required to produce these prescriptions prior to use, and prior to testing. Armstrong had not done so, and consequently had indeed tested positive. Not only that, but Armstrong, as corroborated by a staff member at the time, obtained and then back-dated that prescription after the positive test had taken place.
That staff member was Emma O’Reilly, a soigneur (basically a jack-of-all-trades within a team, but commonly a masseuse). She also stated that Armstrong had made her dispose of syringes, traffic drugs for him and use make-up to cover up needle marks on his arms. Armstrong, in an attempt to discredit O’Reilly, would stoop as low as he could go: He alleged she was having multiple sexual relationships with riders on the team, called her a liar, and her employment was disposed of, for telling the truth.
Perhaps out of complicity, or perhaps out of guilt for not detecting Lance Armstrong’s cancer, the UCI then decided to take no more action. Armstrong’s positive was seemingly buried into history with his repeated claims that he ‘never tested positive’.
Armstrong, fresh from that success in the 1999 tour, went on to win in 2000 and 2001, where the most serious and damning issue in his whole career took place.
The Tour of Switzerland is one of two races normally ridden as preparation for the Tour de France, the other being the Dauphine Libere, and Armstrong headed to Switzerland as part of his preparation for the defence of his Tour de France.
Armstrong, fresh with a warning from Michele Ferrari not to use EPO, as a test had been formulated and ratified, tested positive for exactly that in Switzerland in 2001. This has been corroborated by multiple people, including ex-Armstrong team-mates, and the lab director (Martial Saugy) who, although initially stating through the media that this hadn’t occurred, later corrected his stance, and told the only anti-doping agency to ask him, that it was a positive. Saugy has also stated that he was told by a prominent person at the UCI that it wasn’t going any further. The directive to make it disappear was delivered by none other than the head of the UCI at the time, Hein Verbrugghen.
This is worth emphasising: A number of people testified that Lance Armstrong testified positive for EPO, and that Armstrong’s influence with the governing body of the sport made that positive test simply disappear. That’s another nail in the coffin of Lance’s “never tested positive” diatribe. Two positive tests, two years apart. But that wasn’t to be the end.
What came out of that was the most damning evidence of corruption possible. Armstrong made two payments to the UCI, totalling $125,000. The UCI has said these were to purchase anti-doping equipment. They have never produced the receipts to corroborate this. Regardless of where that money went, it is unprecedented that an active athlete would voluntarily pay a sum of money to a governing body. If it’s happened before, or since, I’d be amazed.
In 2002, Armstrong was exposed as working with Michele Ferrari. This caused considerable consternation due to Ferrari’s history and comments about drugs in sport. Floyd Landis, a team-mate of Lance Armstrong’s, would later disclose that Michele Ferrari would withdraw blood from him, to be transfused back into his blood stream at the Tour de France - as serious a doping breach as has ever taken place.
Fast-forward to 2003, and an Italian cyclist named Fillipo Simeoni becomes enemy number one for Lance Armstrong. Simeoni had admitted in evidence that he’d (Simeoni) begun doping in 1993 and Armstrong’s doctor, Michele Ferrari, had prescribed and showed him how to use products like EPO and HGH in 1996 and 1997. Simeoni subsequently served a suspension in 2001/2002. Armstrong’s response in 2003 was to call Simeoni a liar in a newspaper interview - as though Simeoni would, for no reason, gain himself a suspension and make it up. Simeoni’s response was to then sue Armstrong for defamation, announcing any winnings would be donated to charity. Things reached a head in the 2004 Tour de France.
On the 18th stage, Simeoni put in an attack, and joined a breakaway of 6 other riders. That breakaway posed no threat to the leaders of the tour, and normally would have been let go, to be chased down later in the stage, or to win it. But Armstrong had other ideas. Vengeance was the plan, and it was exacted. Armstrong himself attacked, and immediately closed the gap to the breakaway. The riders, in the knowledge the peloton would not let Armstrong get away, knew they would be caught. The other six in the break implored Armstrong to return to the group, but Armstrong would not leave unless Simeoni did also. Simeoni sacrificed his own race, rejoined the group and Armstrong did the same. When Simeoni dropped back, he was abused, and Armstrong made a famous gesture of zipping his lips. The implication was clear: shut your mouth, or you will never get any success. Armstrong subsequently was indicted by Italian authorities and was lucky to escape charges of witness intimidation. Simeoni, due to Lance’s actions, was ostracised, spat at, abused, and finished his career as a journeyman of sorts, mostly untouched by cycling teams at the highest level. He was persona non grata, for speaking out against the man who’d helped him dope, and who just happened to be Armstrong’s doctor.
2005 brought more things to light. Armstrong’s former personal assistant, Mike Anderson saw a box of androstenone - a steroid - when cleaning Armstrong’s apartment. Anderson’s deposition in a lawsuit against Armstrong detailed systemic bullying and harassment against both Anderson and his wife, both in the period of Anderson’s employment and afterward. Armstrong settled the case out of court.
The most explosive issue though, was the discovery of Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France samples. A test for EPO wasn’t available back in 1999, and so samples couldn’t be tested for it at the time. As was practice though, samples were stored in the event they could be retested later. After an EPO test became available, Armstrong’s samples were amongst a batch to be retested. Six of Armstrong’s samples tested positive for EPO, a result one of the world’s leading anti-doping scientists verified as being almost impossible to have occurred any other way than through drug usage. Chalk that up as another nail in the “never tested positive” coffin. Unfortunately, Armstrong wasn’t prosecuted (again!) on these EPO positives - the retests were for research purposes, not anti-doping ones, and so the UCI declined to pursue the matter further.
Armstrong retired, confident in the knowledge his cheating hadn’t been punished.
Except that, in 2008, he announced a comeback. This is important today for two reasons:
1) Without this comeback, he wouldn’t have finally been caught and banned.
2) It provided the evidence that finally caught Lance Armstrong.
As mentioned earlier, Lance announced, to much fanfare, that he was going to be tested by Don Catlin, once and for all, to prove his innocence, and publish the results on his website.
Armstrong stopped the arrangement after a single test, presumably fearful of it actually turning up a positive result. He did continue to post his bio-passport figures though, including changing some of them after their publication in an attempt to make them less suspicious.
Armstrong was permitted to ride despite not having fulfilled a mandatory period of testing for the new bio-passport prior to competing - yes, that’s the UCI being complicit in shifting the goalposts again.
Regardless, science and the sport had moved on somewhat, and Lance’s blood values ultimately assisted in bringing him down - his values in the Tour of Italy in May were largely what should be expected of an athlete competing in endurance sport. But in the Tour de France, they were the opposite, and displayed evidence that he had been receiving blood transfusions during the race. This was to form part of USADA’s case against Armstrong - and he knew it.
In 2010, more bad news: Armstrong’s former team-mates began to admit their own doping histories, and when asked, admitted that Armstrong had both used doping products and facilitated the supply of them to his team, along with doctors and management. Armstrong’s response was to smear the character of the individuals - a tactic which I’ve shown was a standard response for every allegation dating back to the mid 90s.
Finally, in 2012, an anti-doping agency would finally collate all the evidence to bring charges against Lance Armstrong. Armstrong would identify the extent of his guilt, and accept the charges without contest. But he’d intentionally obfuscate, lie, and make false allegations about the entire proceeding to prevent the evidence from becoming public, and to smear those presenting them. He’d enlist the help of organisations who helped cover up positive test results, who he sent money to, and who fought themselves to try and keep it quiet.
Yellow wristbands are too important you see. Lance was never doing it for cancer. His actions prove - Lance was always doing it for himself, and by extension, he became worth a lot to other people.
If you’ve read this far, congratulations. You’re probably in one of three mindsets:
- Stunned at the extent of what has gone on and amazed. This isn’t uncommon amongst people who discover the truth. My only request to you is that you don’t allow lies and misinformation to distort the wonderful work of the people in anti-doping. They aren’t conducting witch-hunts. They’re after clean sport, and to protect the lives of athletes. They’re trying to stop cyclists dying in their sleep from EPO thickening their bloodstream.
- Completely disagreeing with everything I’ve shown you here, and labelling me a hater. If so, you’re looking for something you’ll never find. Enjoy your yellow wristbands, post on Lance’s facebook about how he’s an idol and role model. People who saw his behaviour will disagree, and they’ve a little more experience than you.
- Thinking ‘I knew this already’. Yes, but for every one of you, there’s a thousand people who don’t know it. Send them here. Show them the truth, so that we can stop this behaviour happening again.
Me? Even while writing this I was still stunned by how much there was, and I’ve known about much of it for years. I never thought I’d fill almost 4,000 words detailing bullying, harassment, and efforts to keep drug-taking in sport quiet. I pray nobody has to again. Even now, I know I missed a lot of it. I may have to do some edits to give even more detail and context.
Am I a hater? You bet. I’m a hater of drug-taking athletes the world over. Most of all, I detest behaviour that ostracises, punishes, and abuses people simply because they dared to tell the truth, to rid themselves of guilt, and seeks to ruin their lives. I hate corrupt organisations that run sports, and I hate the people who foster that corruption.
Any questions? Follow me on twitter: https://twitter.com/cavalierfc
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