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.
It would be easier to accept Armstrong’s innocence if it weren’t for all the damning circumstantial evidence that has piled up around him. First, there are all the people who’ve been associated with Armstrong who’ve accused him of doping.
In 2004 Armstrong was sued by Mike Anderson, his bike mechanic and personal assistant, who alleged that while cleaning Armstrong’s apartment in Spain (to prepare for a visit by Sheryl Crow), he had discovered a box of Androgen, a popular steroid hormone, in the bathroom. Soon afterward, he claimed, Armstrong fired him. Armstrong quietly settled the case, and Anderson has not been heard from since.
Earlier, in 2002, a longtime U.S. Postal Service soigneur (or masseuse) named Emma O’Reilly told The Sunday Times of London journalist David Walsh that she had been sent to Spain to pick up a bag containing what she believed was some sort of doping product and delivered it to Armstrong outside a McDonald’s in Nice, France. And a onetime Motorola teammate named Stephen Swart told Walsh that Armstrong had expressed strong interest in doping as early as 1995 — the year he began working with Dr. Michele Ferrari, the Italian trainer who is invariably described as “controversial.” In European cycling circles, Ferrari has had a dodgy reputation since the mid-1990s, when he famously proclaimed EPO safe as orange juice. Armstrong kept mum about his work with Ferrari — not mentioning him in either of his two books — until journalist Walsh “outed” him in 2001.
Until Landis’s allegations, it had been fairly easy for Armstrong and his partisans to dismiss Walsh a crank, but less so now. For example, Walsh wrote about how Armstrong cut a check to UCI for $25,000 in 2002; in 2005 his management company, CSE, sent UCI another $100,000 — (ostensibly, or perhaps ironically) to purchase a Sysmex blood-testing machine. Walsh raised the obvious conflict of interest of a star athlete “donating” to his sports league’s watchdogs. Landis says these funds were a bribe — to cover up a positive test for banned drugs in 2002.
Walsh also unearthed one of the oddest and most persistent stories of all: the infamous “hospital-room incident.” While Armstrong was in the hospital in the fall of 1996, newly diagnosed with cancer, he allegedly admitted to doctors that he had taken EPO, testosterone, cortisone, steroids, and human growth hormone. The sources for the story turned out to be two of Armstrong’s closest friends, his teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife, Betsy. Armstrong denied the story, but it resurfaced in a 2004 lawsuit that Armstrong filed against a promotions company called SCA, which had promised Armstrong a $5 million bonus for winning a sixth Tour. In 2004 SCA had refused to pay the bonus on the grounds that Armstrong had doped to win.
The hospital-room story became a key issue in the SCA case. The Andreus testified that it happened; Armstrong said it did not, and one of his doctors submitted an affidavit saying he had never heard the cyclist mention using performance-enhancing drugs. The key witness, though, was a woman named Stephanie McIlvain, who was also in the room that day. (McIlvian worked for Oakley, the sunglasses company, another Armstrong sponsor.) Under oath McIlvain testified that the so-called “cancer confession” had never taken place. The lawsuit was decided in Armstrong’s favor. But according to Greg LeMond, McIlvain admitted to him the year before, “I was in that room. I heard it.”
It’s shaky evidence, but it suggests Jeff Novitzky could catch Armstrong’s friends and teammates, as well as associates like McIlvain, failing to keep their story straight.
Of the eight riders who stood on the podium with Armstrong during his dominant years, six have served suspensions for doping or been seriously implicated. The same goes for six of the top 10 from 2003. “That the guy who’s winning all those Tours isn’t doping, when everybody else is doing it, doesn’t even pass the straight-face test,” says one lawyer connected to the case — pointing to what, for cycling fans, is the most damning circumstantial evidence of all.
In most other sports, like track and field and swimming, athletes’ performances get better over time. Since Armstrong retired in 2005, however, a strange thing happened to the Tour de France: The riders got slower. The main contenders on the 2008 Tour rode up the Alpe d’Huez one minute and 55 seconds slower than Armstrong rode it in 2004 — in a sport where milliseconds often separate champions from also-rans. In an interview Armstrong said that watching them ride so slowly is actually what inspired him to come back.
Professional cyclists measure their ability in terms of power — how many watts they can produce for the 45 minutes to an hour that it takes to go up the big climbs. In his prime Armstrong was reportedly able to generate nearly 500 watts, or something like 6.7 watts per kilo of body weight, according to Daniel Coyle’s excellent Lance Armstrong’s War. It’s a freakish figure, like a 120-mph fastball; even Landis, on the infamous ride that won him the Tour in 2006, generated only about 360 watts. It’s such an outlandish stat that the brilliant cycling physiologist Allen Lim ridiculed Armstrong publicly in 2008, saying, “I don’t even think Frankenstein could hold 6.7 watts per kilogram at threshold.” (Awkwardly Lim went to work for Armstrong’s team in 2009.)
Tested for banned substances more frequently and rigorously than ever before, the leaders of this year’s Tour generated a lot less power — more like 5.7 watts per kilo — and still dropped Lance on the climbs.
This year’s Lance was clearly much weaker than the guy who won seven Tours — understandable, given his age and his less-than-perfect season, studded with crashes and illnesses. Lance 2010, in fact, looked a lot more like the Armstrong of 1993 to 1996, when he started the Tour four times, won two stages, and finished the race just once, in 36th place. He could break the top 30 or so but didn’t have what it took to stay with the leaders on the long climbs or come back strong day after day. He was terrific in one-day races with short, punchy climbs, but he was a lousy stage racer.
When he came back from cancer, Armstrong had not only recovered from the disease, but he had completely transformed as a bike rider and athlete. All of a sudden, he was able to drop the entire Tour de France peloton in the mountains. Various explanations were offered for this stunning improvement — theories Armstrong seemed to endorse about his aerobic capacity, power-to-weight ratio, and pedaling efficiency.
When I interviewed his coach, Chris Carmichael, in 2001, he said that Armstrong was now killing his rivals on the climbs because he had improved his aerobic system — as if no other rider had thought to try to do that (aerobic work is the foundation of every cyclist’s training). Carmichael and others also attributed the improvement to changes in Armstrong’s body post-cancer. One reason Armstrong could fly up the mountains, it was said, was that he had lost a lot of weight — more than 10 pounds. And then there was his mythic efficiency. In 2005 a University of Texas professor of physiology, Edward F. Coyle, published a study that claimed that Armstrong had improved his cycling efficiency by 18 percent between 1992 and 1999. But Coyle’s measurements were later discredited.
One interesting point remained unchallenged, however: Coyle’s measurements show that Armstrong’s weight had remained essentially unchanged, ranging from 76 to 80 kilograms, between 1992 and 1997. It was his aerobic system — which stood the most to gain from EPO — that had really improved.
This year he got dropped on the first hard mountain day, Stage 8, and after that he hardly looked like a seven-time champion. After he tried to win from a breakaway on Stage 16, he was visibly spent for the rest of the race. On the plus side, even his many detractors had to admit that this year, he certainly seemed like he was riding clean.