Lance Armstrong's final Tour de France just keeps getting worse. Over the weekend, after a series of crashes on a stage in the Alps, he lost some twelve minutes to the race's overall leaders and is virtually out of contention. (Learn way more than you ever wanted to know about his most unfortunate of Tours here and here.) Then on Tuesday, news surfaced that grand-jury subpoenas had been issued in a federal investigation into whether Armstrong doped and encouraged doping by his teammates during his reign of seven Tour de France wins from 1999 to 2005. The next day, before hopping on his bike to ride 111 miles, Armstrong went to the press to deny the charges, though he said he is cooperating with investigators and has not received a subpoena yet. "As long as I live, I will deny it," Armstrong said to the Times. "There was absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated. Absolutely not. One hundred percent."
Notice that Armstrong didn't address whether he himself had doped; that denial was a given. Armstrong is possibly the most scrutinized American athlete regarding possible use of performance-enhancing drugs this side of Barry Bonds. As a measure, in the six months between announcing his comeback from retirement in September 2008 and the end of March 2009, he was subject to 24 random drug tests. And that was the off-season. His Twitter feed is littered with news of surprise visits by drug inspectors, usually from the International Cycling Union (UCI) or the French Anti-Doping Agency (ALDF; both names are in French, hence non-linear acronyms).
Armstrong has never failed a drug test, but he has raised plenty of suspicion. On the 24th of those inspections, Armstrong, who had just come back from a long training ride, took a shower while his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, checked the credentials of the man from ALDF. He tested negative, but the ALDF made a stink, saying the twenty-minute delay likely compromised his results. During the 1999 Tour, traces of corticosteroid were found in his urine, but the amount was not enough for a positive test result, and Armstrong produced medical records showing he'd been using an approved cream containing the banned substance to treat saddle sores. More damning, in 2005, L'Equipe, the French sports paper, claimed they'd tested six of Armstrong's fourteen "archived" urine samples from the Tour of 1999 and they'd come in positive for EPO, a hormone used to increase red blood cell production. (The UCI didn't have a urine test for EPO until 2001, two years after the samples were taken.) Armstrong fought back, questioning the testing methods, the motives, and the integrity of the samples, and since the tests didn't meet UCI standards for a positive result (two separate samples, A and B, would have had to have tested positive, and the A samples were destroyed in 1999), the matter eventually went away. He's also faced accusations from former teammate Frankie Andreu, who testified under oath that he'd heard Armstrong tell his cancer doctor he'd used steroids, testosterone, and EPO, and from three-time TDF winner Greg LeMond, who said Armstrong threatened to defame him and destroy his business interests after LeMond questioned Armstrong's associations with the Italian doctor Michele Ferrari, who was convicted in an Italian court for administering performance-enhancing drugs. Two years later, Ferrari's conviction was overturned.
This most recent round of controversy started in May when Floyd Landis, who lost his 2006 Tour de France title after failing a drug test and who was teammates with Armstrong for a number of years on the now-defunct U.S. Postal Service team, alleged to The Wall Street Journal and cycling officials that Armstrong's longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel had spearheaded an elaborate cheating operation with Armstrong's cooperation. In cycling, "doping" means taking EPO and undergoing blood transfusions, both of which increase increase endurance by increasing blood's ability to carry oxygen. According to Landis, Bruyneel schemed to set up secret hotel rooms as blood banks and faked bus breakdowns to give riders transfusions by the side of the road.
So, who to believe? Back in 1999, when Armstrong first started his streak of Tour wins, it was impossible not to be on his side. The man had just beaten cancer and become the greatest cyclist not just in America but in the world. Of course the Europeans were pissed off at him and willing to do anything to discredit those wins. But against them was scientific evidence that Armstrong is a freak of nature with a better heart and better muscle fibers than his competitors. He'd had two years of almost total rest, meaning his age no longer coincided with his riding ability, and in those two years he'd had to lose muscle and rebuild himself into a different kind of rider — thinner, more agile in the mountains — than he'd been pre-disease. On top of that, he had a mental edge over the field: Compared to beating cancer, a 22-day bike race was nothing. And then there was the very logical question: Why would a guy who'd gone through that much chemotherapy risk putting more crap in his body?
Public perception of Armstrong has deteriorated drastically since then. On the personal side, he dumped the wife who nursed him through cancer and went out with Sheryl Crow, then dumped her and went out with Kate Hudson and Ashley Olsen. In the biking world, he committed the cardinal sin of coming out of retirement and jumping into a rivalry with a then-25-year-old Alberto Contador, winner of the 2007 and 2009 Tours de France, who was not unjustified in thinking Armstrong was selfishly sucking away Contador's attention and his ability to win. In the wide world of sports, he's up against mounting evidence that nobody is clean. It's all but been proven that pretty much everyone in baseball and everyone in track and field dopes. And in cycling, it might be easier to count the riders who haven't confessed to doping than those who have; just in 2007, Danish rider Bjarne Riis and seven (seven!) of his Telekom teammates admitted to doping, and Riis gave back his title in the 1996 Tour. If this is the case, then what makes Armstrong exempt?
For now, what makes him exempt is that we need him to be. Armstrong has to be clean so he can inspire people to beat their own cancer and inspire others to give hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research. He has to be clean so that all the American kids who started cycling because of him don't wake up one day and realize that their childhood hero was a liar.
Speaking to the press on Wednesday, Armstrong said the investigation was a "witch hunt" and a waste of money. He said he had "no control" over what his teammates might have been doing and clarified a "misconception" that he had an ownership stake in the team during the years in question and therefore had any agency or knowledge of what might have been going on. The feds are considering doping a potential crime if it helped the team win prize money and sponsorships under false pretenses. Fraud is hard to prove, as is the kind of cheating so prevalent in cycling (the EPO-detection test has been successfully challenged for producing false positives, and there is no test yet to see if an athlete is transfusing himself with his own blood). It's horrible to think that in the best-case scenario, this will end inconclusively, while tarnishing Armstrong's legacy and his ability to raise money for cancer research. It's also a hell of a shitty way to end a career.