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.
Initially Jeff Novitzky was not interested in Armstrong. After BALCO, the crusading detective, dubbed the “Eliot Ness of doping,” moved from the IRS to the Food and Drug Administration to focus on steroids. Late in 2009 Novitzky began looking into the flamboyantly skeevy Rock Racing team, whose founder, Michael Ball, made a point of hiring convicted and suspected dopers.
Tall, bald, and impassive, Novitzky, 43, is a former college basketball player who is not above rooting through a defendant’s trash for evidence. One defense lawyer calls him a “thug” who bullies and intimidates potential witnesses. Others praise his bearing and determination. “He’s an impressive person,” says one individual who has spoken to Novitzky over the course of the current investigation surrounding Armstrong. “He was somebody I didn’t want to disappoint by lying to him or not being wholly truthful.”
The Rock Racing inquiry brought Novitzky in contact with cycling’s shadow world of doping, which makes baseball’s worst steroid junkies seem relatively wholesome. One prospective Rock rider was Landis, the disgraced top finisher at the 2006 Tour de France who tested positive for testosterone and had his title stripped. Prior to 2006 Landis had been a member of Armstrong’s Tour de France winning teams from 2002 to 2004.
After two years in the wilderness, Landis was about to sign with Rock Racing this year when the team went bankrupt. After being denied an invite to the Tour of California, Landis began to ponder his options — and the lie he had maintained for so long. For reasons that have never been fully disclosed, he wrote a series of e-mails to cycling officials confessing his own use of banned substances and lying for years, and describing alleged cheating on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service–sponsored teams.
Landis’s claims were blistering and detailed. For example, Landis said he’d been assigned to babysit a refrigerator in Armstrong’s Girona apartment that was filled with bags of transfused blood. He was supposed to make sure that the blood temperature stayed constant and that the power didn’t go out (which would have let the blood spoil, a potentially life-threatening situation).
The e-mails went public on May 20, in the middle of the Tour of California — a key prep race for the Tour de France. Speaking to reporters the next day, Armstrong bashed Landis, who had fought a pitched legal battle — and written a book — proclaiming his innocence. “One word to sum this up: credibility,” Armstrong said. “Floyd lost his credibility a long time ago.” Then Armstrong crashed out of the race and went home early.
Within days Novitzky had shifted his focus from Rock Racing to Armstrong. He began looking at the doping allegations, but because Landis apparently offered no concrete evidence to support his claims, it was left to Novitzky to find some. He was soon making calls to the dozens of cyclists who had ridden with Armstrong over the years, many of whom Landis also accused of doping, including current RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer, longtime Armstrong lieutenant George Hincapie, and Garmin-Transitions rider Dave Zabriskie, who counted himself among Landis’s best friends.
While generally refusing comment to reporters, some of the accused appear to be cooperating with the investigation. Hincapie has already been contacted, and his lawyer, Zia Modabber (who represented Michael Jackson), says he plans to talk to investigators. Tyler Hamilton, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and is now effectively banned for life due to a 2009 doping conviction, has been subpoenaed, and his lawyer, Chris Manderson, said he plans to co-operate. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Armstrong has been desperately phoning possible witnesses, trying to ferret out the sources of the leaks out to the press and lobbying them for support. He also hired Mark Fabiani, the former White House special counsel and self-described “master of disaster” for his savvy representation of Bill and Hillary Clinton during the Whitewater scandal. (Armstrong refused to comment for this article.)
On August 5 the New York Times reported that another Armstrong teammate confessed to doping and said that Armstrong had encouraged it. This last piece of news prompted Armstrong’s newly retained criminal lawyer, former prosecutor Bryan Daly, to issue a statement that revealed how serious the investigation had become.
“This is a story full of anonymous sources and more inappropriate leaks of grand jury testimony designed to create a circus-like atmosphere,” Daly fired off later that day. “We understand that riders may be being offered sweetheart deals to change testimony that they have given in the past, under oath. The power of the federal government is being abused to pursue dated and discredited allegations, and that’s flat-out wrong, unethical, un-American, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. To the extent that any riders are suggesting that Lance Armstrong violated cycling rules or doped, they are either mistaken or not telling the truth. Lance has ridden with hundreds of riders over the years who will support his position, and over all that time, he has never failed even a single test.”