lance armstrong

Reviewing the Ever-Widening Investigation of Lance Armstrong

Sports Section bicycling correspondent Jada Yuan is sad that the Tour de France is over. She looks here at what’s next for Lance Armstrong.

On Sunday, the remarkable reign of Lance Armstrong, the most successful cyclist in American — and Tour de France — history, came to an end. Like, really came to an end, instead of the time in 2005 he declared it had come to an end but then decided three years later that it hadn’t, or the time in Stage 9 of this Tour when it came to a virtual end after he crashed three times and lost twelve minutes, or the time in Stage 16 when even the virtual end came to a virtual end when he almost succeeded in a final stage-win bid for glory but didn’t quite get there.

As far as endings go, virtual, actual, or otherwise, Armstrong deserved the quiet, dignified one he got yesterday. He rode to Paris a more humble rider than in the past, when he dominated the Tour seven years straight, or when last year he came in a solid third place. Fate and age — he turns 39 in September — had delivered some hard knocks, including a crash in Stage 1, a crash in Stage 2, a flat tire and a delay behind a crash in Stage 3, a near-crash, a really bad crash, and a silly crash in Stage 9, another crash before the start in Stage 13, and a valiant breakaway effort to win Stage 16 in which his legs abandoned him. He closed out the Tour in 23rd place, 39 minutes and twenty seconds behind Alberto Contador, who had been his fierce rival in 2009.

Armstrong had said he’d come out of retirement to raise awareness for his cancer foundation Livestrong, and in that he seemed to have succeeded. Every day of the Tour, he bore the name of a different cancer patient on his bicycle. On Sunday, his Team RadioShack caused a minor scandal by attempting to start the race in special black jerseys bearing the number “28” to signify the 28 million people worldwide living with cancer. Race officials ordered RadioShack to change into their regulation jerseys or be disqualified, delaying the start of the stage by six minutes. Armstrong, clearly annoyed with the officials, changed out of his “28” jersey without dismounting, carelessly pinning his race number (21) to his back and letting it flap in the wind until the team car rode up next to him and fixed it. The whole spectacle was quite a publicity coup. And the team got to wear the “28” jerseys later when they stepped on the podium to accept the prize for the competition’s best team.

Armstrong is headed off on vacation with his family immediately, then there’s talk of mountain-bike racing, or the Ironman triathlon, which was Armstrong’s original sport before cycling. But what lies ahead of him most urgently is a federal doping investigation. On Wednesday, the night before the most important stage of the 2010 Tour, news broke that Armstrong had hired L.A.-based defense attorney Brian C. Daly, who specializes in white-collar crime and once worked for the same U.S. Attorney’s office that is prosecuting the case. Daly said his first order of business would be to determine “what, if anything, this investigation has to do with Mr. Armstrong.” The answer is, probably, a lot.

The investigation was triggered in May by accusations from Floyd Landis, Armstrong’s teammate on the U.S. Postal Service–sponsored team for which Armstrong rode during his TDF victories of 1999-2004, that Armstrong’s longtime manager Johan Bruyneel ran a secretive doping operation, with Armstrong as a fellow organizer and participant. As Armstrong has pointed out numerous times, Landis has huge holes in his credibility, having been stripped of his 2006 TDF title for doping and spending four years fighting his drug suspension before confessing. Landis also has no future in professional cycling — he asked Bruyneel for a slot on RadioShack this year and was denied — and seems more than a little motivated by vengeance. This hasn’t stopped Landis from repeatedly taking his whistle-blowing public; last week he gave ABC’s Nightline his most blunt accusation yet: “I saw Lance Armstrong using drugs.”

This isn’t the first time Armstrong has been accused — in painstaking detail — of drug use, but these are the first allegations from inside Armstrong’s camp. (Correction: during a 2004 investigation by a Texas company into whether Lance deserved bonus money, former USPS rider Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy testified that they’d heard Lance tell his cancer doctor that he’d used “growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone.”) And while Landis’s credibility may be questionable, his story is seemingly too detailed to have been made up. (Freakonomics author Steven D. Levitt has an interesting theory about why Landis might not be lying this time.) And both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal claim to know of several people who were on the USPS team or working with it who can corroborate Landis’s stories.

This investigation is also far bigger and carries far more serious penalties (jail time, for one) than anything Armstrong has faced in the past. It’s being headed by Food and Drug Administration Criminal Division investigator Jeff Novitzky, the man behind the BALCO case that implicated Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Marion Jones. And it’s starting to make BALCO look small. Landis named American cyclists Armstrong, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, and David Zabriskie, all of whom rode in this year’s Tour, as dopers. He also implicated riders and team leaders in Australia, France, Canada, and Belgium (Bruyneel’s home country), and International Cycling Union president Pat McQuaid has asked the national cycling federations in all those countries to open investigations.

In the U.S. investigation, which is currently before a grand jury in Los Angeles, Novitzky’s office used a search warrant to enter the home of Rock & Republic designer Michael Ball, onetime owner of the Rock Racing team, for which Landis was an unofficial adviser and which sponsored several past USPS members and riders who’d been in doping scandals (sometimes one and the same). Most recently, the grand jury subpoenaed former USPS rider Tyler Hamilton, who in 2004 received a two-year suspension for homologous blood doping and later got an eight-year ban for a second violation. Hamilton has said he’ll cooperate with investigators.

This coming Friday, Greg LeMond, the first American cyclist to win the TDF, will have to provide the grand jury with any documents he had relating to Armstrong’s four teams (why LeMond would have had contact with those teams is unclear to this correspondent). That the grand jury seems to be looking at Armstrong beyond his USPS years seems to signal, troublingly, that the investigation may focus in particular on bringing him down, rather than concentrating on a doping operation he may or may not have been involved with in a particular team. LeMond was ordered to produce documents regarding Trek Bicycle Corporation, a major sponsor of Armstrong’s. Trek had distributed LeMond’s signature bicycles, but the business relationship soured after 2001, when LeMond publicly voiced suspicions that Armstrong was doping. LeMond sued Trek for breach of contract, and Trek countersued, before the matter was settled out of court. LeMond has long maintained that Armstrong bullied him into issuing a public apology after threatening to ruin his reputation, and he escalated that claim very recently, telling a German paper that Armstrong had offered an unnamed, still-active member of the cycling community $300,000 to say LeMond had used EPO, a blood-boosting hormone, in 1989, the year he won the Tour by eight seconds. LeMond has not yet been asked to testify, but he and his wife Kathy told the Daily News they would relish the opportunity to do so. “We’re overjoyed,” said Kathy upon getting subpoenaed. “I hope the truth will come out.”

Trek, too, has been subpoenaed; Landis has said that the USPS team sold bicycles from Trek, a sponsor, to pay for the doping operation. Trek told The Wall Street Journal they were aware the bikes were being sold, and that they’d sometimes randomly come across bikes they’d given USPS on eBay, but that they did not know where the funds from those sales went.

Armstrong maintains his innocence and has been throwing the accusations right back at his accusers. “We are going to have an opportunity to tell the truth to the authorities, and I hope Greg LeMond will tell the truth about 1989,” Armstrong told French TV. “He’s going to have to tell the truth. I have nothing to hide.” He’s also taken pains to distance himself from claims that he had an ownership stake in Tailwind Sports LLC, parent company of the USPS team, during the time in question. When, exactly, Armstrong’s ownership stake in Tailwind began — Armstrong says it was after the USPS team dissolved — could become a crucial point if the riders themselves are indemnified in the fraud charges but the team managers and owners are not. Armstrong says he has not yet been contacted by investigators or subpoenaed for testimony, but those both seem to be eventualities, and if BALCO is any gauge, it will be very hard for him not to get steamrolled for the next many years. Roger Clemens, for instance, is now being investigated for possibly perjuring himself during his 2008 congressional testimony, when he said he did not use steroids or human growth hormone.

The larger question, though, seems to be who, exactly, benefits from this probe playing out? Armstrong certainly comes out on the losing end, regardless of the result — at some point, even if his name is completely cleared, the damage in perception will have been done. If the investigation proves true, then who wins, besides those who hate Armstrong on a personal level, riders who rode clean at the time but won’t ever get a rematch, and Novitzky, who gets another notch on his belt? A guilty outcome means Armstrong was doing the same thing everybody in the sport was doing at the time — a practice that anti-doping regulators insist has almost been eradicated in the past few years thanks to regulations stemming from the French team Festina’s 1998 scandal. And if that’s the case, then how does a probe into past doping, among riders who have since retired, using techniques that supposedly are impossible to pull off now, make the sport cleaner in the future? There’s also the ethical dilemma a wise person posed to me: If Armstrong used artificially enhanced athletic prowess both for personal wealth and to prompt unprecedented fund-raising for cancer research and cancer-patient support, can all of those gains be considered ill-gotten? And what will happen to American cycling if we so thoroughly destroy our greatest hero? Perhaps the best hope is that this investigation will be an atom bomb to the sport of bicycle racing, flattening everything that has come before so that someday another set of mutants can rise from the ash and build anew.

Reviewing the Ever-Widening Investigation of Lance Armstrong