Could designer jeans mogul and Rock & Republic founder Michael Ball be the key to cracking the doping scandal that has enveloped the pro cycling world and is ruining Lance Armstrong's chances at a quiet retirement? The Daily News reported yesterday that FDA investigator Jeff Novitzky — the same pit bull behind the BALCO investigation that implicated Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — was already looking into Ball before confessed doper Floyd Landis brought Lance Armstrong's name into the mix in May (by saying Armstrong and his longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel were running a systematic doping operation in the U.S. Postal Service Team during at least some of the years Armstrong won his seven titles in the Tour de France). Novitzky's interest in Ball may explain why the grand jury is in Los Angeles, a city that has no strong ties to professional cycling or to Armstrong.
It's unclear, but it seems likely that Ball's legal troubles from earlier this year prompted Novitzky's interest. First Ball's label went bankrupt. Then days later he got accused of arranging a sham visa marriage for Mexican soap star Fernanda Romero to an American pizza deliveryman and musician back when Romero was modeling for Rock & Republic. Finally, about a month ago, the News reported that Novitzky obtained a search warrant to raid Ball's luxury apartment in Marina del Rey, presumably to look for documents and evidence relating to Ball's cycling team, Rock Racing.
Back in 2007, Ball decided he was going to use his branding acumen to launch a cycling team of controversial but popular riders. Some were heavily tattooed. All wore black. Sometimes they didn't even wear spandex. Ball hoped to use the team's "bad boy" image to sell merchandise.
But the main through line for the team was that an inordinate number of its riders had been convicted of using performance-enhancing drugs. These were riders coming off of several years away from the sport and unable to find a home on any other professional cycling team. Many had been involved in Spain's massive 2006 anti-doping investigation, Operación Puerto, which involved 200 cyclists and ended the career of two-time Tour de France champion Jan Ulrich. Rock Racing's team manager is Rudy Pévenage, who was fired as manager of Ulrich's Team Telekom during Operación Puerto, and then later fired from Team T-Mobile for having maintained contact with Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, whose clinic in Madrid was the center of the Puerto scandal. One rider, Tyler Hamilton, who rode on the U.S. Postal Service team with Armstrong — the main team in question since it was federally funded and it was the team on which Armstrong rode for six of his seven Tour de France wins — has already been subpoenaed in the Novitzky probe. Hamilton served a two-year suspension for doping, returned to the sport via Rock Racing, and then received an eight-year ban from the sport when he was caught doping again in 2008.
After the Hamilton incident, Rock Racing installed an internal anti-doping program developed by respected anti-doping researcher and Scott Analytics founder and president Paul Scott. It remains to be seen whether that internal data will come back to hurt Ball. That the team felt it necessary to have its own anti-doping program is rather troubling in its own right.
Most notable, though, is the team's employment of Landis, who, by the way, is currently upstate riding in the Tour of the Catskills. Landis gave up his 2006 Tour de France title and was banned from the sport for two years after testing positive for synthetic testosterone, and when that ban was lifted in 2008, Ball's Rock Racing team hired him as a consultant. Landis, who still has no team affiliation (he's riding the Tour of the Catskills "unattached"), was never an official member of the Rock Racing roster because his contract allowed him to opt out if the team lost its professional license, which it did in 2010. Investigators have also reached out to Rashaan Bahati, who rode for Rock Racing and then started his own cycling team (hiring Landis). Bahati cut Landis off in May after he made his doping accusations public.
Given Rock Racing's plethora of convicted dopers, at least one of whom was on the USPS team with Armstrong, it's likely that Ball is sitting on something that will prove useful to the Armstrong case. A grand-jury investigation gives Novitzky and prosecutors incredible latitude to "follow the evidence," as a former federal prosecutor quoted by the News explains. And according to ESPN, prosecutors are offering "sweetheart" deals to cyclists with evidence that Armstrong doped, even if they have to implicate themselves in the process. It's unknown what Ball has on Armstrong, or if he will find himself implicated in the criminal charges Armstrong and Co. face about using federal funds to run a doping operation and defrauding sponsors by winning through cheating. What is clear is that Ball is in deep. Ball last spoke about the case on May 26, when he publicly lauded Landis for finally coming clean about his doping after years of denial, and said he was confident the feds had no interest in Rock Racing. Too late for that. Bet he wishes he'd just stuck to designing $200 jeans.