For more than a decade, Lance Armstrong has denied ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. But now, amid new allegations against Armstrong by former teammate Tyler Hamilton, federal agent Jeff Novitzky may have the evidence he needs to bring him down. Men’s Journal ran this story in our October 2010 issue.
by Bill Gifford
We wanted to believe in him from the beginning. It was July 3, 1999, and the man had suffered testicular cancer and nearly died at 25, but managed to come back and qualify for one of the most physically demanding races on Earth. Now he sat on his bike in the start house for the prologue of that summer’s Tour de France, a five-mile dash around a lame French amusement park called Futuroscope. As he rolled down the start ramp and gained speed, whipping his bike back and forth and sprinting out of the corners, it was clear he was on fire. No American had ever come close to winning the Tour’s prestigious first stage, and yet he won easily, thrillingly. It was the start of something huge.
Then, as required of every Tour de France stage winner, Armstrong gave a urine sample that afternoon, and it tested positive for a banned substance—corticosteroids, a catabolic agent used by athletes to aid recovery and increase endurance. That might have been it for Armstrong’s Tour and racing season, and it might have cost him his future—no seven Tour wins, no jillions of yellow bracelets. But race officials accepted his word (and doctor’s prescription as evidence) that the steroids in his urine were from a skin cream for saddle sores. And as there was no effective test for erythropoietin, or EPO, a prohibited blood-booster that pro cyclists took like candy in the 1990s, lab technicians failed to find the EPO in Armstrong’s system that day for another six years, and under circumstances that made it possible for him to discredit the finding.
Armstrong, of course, went on to win the 1999 Tour—and six more. Even more incredibly, though he’s been tested at least 200 times for performance-enhancing drugs, he had never been caught and sanctioned for doping even as, one by one, nearly all of his main rivals and several former teammates tested positive, served suspensions, or retired under a cloud of suspicion. Throughout an era of highly sophisticated doping, when the attitude was that if you wanted to win, you had to use drugs, Armstrong’s first and last line of defense against doping allegations was his clean record. If he had doped, the argument went, then why hadn’t he been caught too? But then came this spring’s fresh round of accusations from a former teammate that he did dope—and the possibility that he was simply that much better than everyone else at evading detection and covering up.
In e-mails from his former teammate Floyd Landis to cycling officials, which leaked to the press in late May, Landis claimed that he’d personally witnessed Armstrong and other teammates receiving banned blood transfusions, including on the team bus in 2004, the year Armstrong won his sixth Tour in a row. Landis also said that in 2003 Armstrong himself had given him his first EPO, in six loaded syringes, outside his apartment in Girona, Spain, as Armstrong’s then wife, Kristin, looked on.
The revelations added fuel to an ongoing federal investigation led by Jeff Novitzky, the former IRS agent who broke the BALCO steroids case, resulting in criminal charges against Barry Bonds and jail time for sprinter Marion Jones. Within weeks of Landis’s bombs, subpoenas began flying, and in early August, the New York Times reported on an unnamed former teammate who corroborated Landis’s claims that Armstrong knew about—and encouraged—doping on his teams. The investigators contacted Armstrong’s sponsors Nike and Trek, as well as numerous former teammates and even his archnemesis, former Tour de France winner Greg LeMond. LeMond’s decade-long feud with Armstrong—whom LeMond has accused of doping and of sabotaging his bike company—includes a huge lawsuit with Trek bicycles that settled earlier this year. In all, their fights have generated 70,000 documents, which LeMond happily shipped to the Feds in 46 boxes this summer.
At press time no one knew what the precise charges might be, or if the Los Angeles-based grand jury, which convened in early August, would indict anyone, but Novitzky’s team appeared too invested to let it drop. “It strikes me as an investigation in search of a crime,” says one lawyer connected with the case. “They’re devoting so many resources to it that there is pressure to come up with something.”
Using performance-enhancing drugs is not a crime in the U.S., and, as one of Armstrong’s lawyers, Tim Herman, points out, all of the Landis-alleged doping took place in Europe. But it’s unlikely the Feds would attempt to convict him of using or trafficking in banned substances, and, instead, try to catch Armstrong lying about them—or profiting from their use. Lawyers close to the case suggest that the grand jury might come down with white-collar charges like fraud, perjury, obstruction of justice, or even racketeering.
The stakes couldn’t be much higher. If a court hears Landis’s accusations and decides that Armstrong took banned substances to win the Tour de France, earn millions in endorsements and charitable donations, and become something close to a secular saint, his heroic comeback—and even his anti-cancer crusade—will be diminished forever. Which is why, on some level, nobody wants the allegations to be true.