I love cycling. I love riding my road bike and I love watching the pros, especially on the Grand Tours (France, Italy, Spain). I’ve seen every moment of every Tour de France since 2002, and Lance Armstrong for me has been a true inspiration, an almost freak of nature in his ability to suffer more than others and dominate his sport – and doing so before and after recovering from near-fatal testicular cancer. Truly amazing.
So, I couldn’t help being completely mesmerized, despite writhing in pain, at watching Tyler Hamilton’s interview on 60 Minutes this past Sunday. Tyler, in the most believable exposition of the dirty side of pro cycling yet, proceeded to explain how he and many of his teammates on the 1999, 2000 and 2001 USPS team, including Lance Armstrong, used a systematic performance enhancing drug (PED) doping system including injections of EPO and blood transfusions in training and during major races. This interview occurred after Tyler testified, under subpoena, for the Grand Jury investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs where Lance Armstrong is the focus of the investigation.
There have been others who have told stories of systematic doping on Lance’s teams, including Floyd Landis, a teammate of both Lance and Tyler on the USPS team. Floyd’s allegations for me seemed at the time to be easier to dismiss, in part I think because he raised significant sums of money from thousands of people for his legal defense, denying his guilt for nearly four years and when he finally did admit to doping, then allegedly started sending letters and emails to Lance’s camp and cycling officials that “felt” like a desperate attempt to take others down with him. And that’s exactly how Lance and his legal team dealt with these and other accusations – these guys are cheats and liars and are simply not credible, we have testing and the facts on our side.
Yes, Tyler is also an admitted cheat in pro cycling having served an 8-year ban from the sport due to doping. And he’s denied using PEDs and implicating others, keeping his mouth shut until the moment he was forced by subpoena to testify under oath. And, he’s writing a book so the 60 Minutes piece certainly serves his interest for generating book awareness.
Despite these facts, what makes his situation different and far more believable for me? A perfect storm of 3 things in my mind:
- Timing and Momentum. With a Grand Jury investigation going in the background, it brings focus, attention and credibility to the PED problem in professional cycling, especially with Jeff Novitzky, the investigator that uncovered the BALCO scandal that ultimately exposed Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. And its not just Lance under investigation, its entire teams, coaches and the governing body of professional cycling itself (UCI)
- Terms of Tyler’s Deposition. Tyler’s deal with investigators during his deposition – immunity from prosecution, but if he is found lying about anything related to his testimony, he goes to prison. It’s important to understand that Tyler didn’t just do the 60 Minutes interview, but he also told the same story under oath and under the threat of going to prison for lying.
- Hincapie’s Nail in the Coffin. Simultaneous to Tyler’s Grand Jury testimony, it was reported by CBS News that George Hincapie, Lance’s closest teammate for every one of his 7 Tour de France wins and who Lance has described as “like a brother to me”, told Federal authorities under oath that both he and Lance used PEDs during their time together. Here’s a guy who’s never been implicated in PED scandal, has never been tested positive for PEDs and has absolutely no reason to admit to such a thing – except that he was under oath in a federal investigation. Just like Tyler.
It’s easy to come to Lance’s rescue given he’s the most tested athlete in history. Over 20 years and 500 tests with not one positive test, although Tyler alleges Lance did test positive in 2001 and the governing body in cycling (UCI) “made it go away”. It’s easy to come to Lance’s rescue, that is, until you hear Tyler talk about the ease with which testing for PEDs can be beaten. According to Tyler, there’s a manageable difference between doping enough for performance enhancement and doping too much for detection.
So what does all of this mean for pro cycling and for Lance? For cycling, I believe it can only bring about positive results, albeit painful in the short term, provided the investigation is thorough and the truth is rooted out sufficiently to result in real reform within the sport. The success of the code of silence over so many years in cycling is astonishing. Perhaps exposing the truth and reform also sends a vivid message to our children about right, wrong and consequences about illegal doping in sports.
For Lance, I fear a far worse outcome. Lance has done not only miraculous things for cycling, but as a philanthropist he has inspired millions worldwide – both through his personal story and by his ability to leverage his brand to raise incredible sums of money for cancer research. If his story is a lie and his brand is predicated on cheating his way to the top, won’t that have repercussions among those affected by him now if not certainly in the future?
I also fear that despite how strong the prosecution’s case, that Lance will forever deny any wrongdoing. There is simply too much at stake for him to admit guilt. And this will result in a long and difficult-to-watch fall from grace the likes my generation has never seen, certainly in sports. I would argue that if its true, its in Lance’s interest to get in front of it now, take a massive painful hit and at least attempt to put it in the rear view mirror. A slow, defiant march to the bottom, potentially ending in prison for obstruction and fraud, eliminates any hope of rear view mirror.
I still hope the investigation turns up facts and data that proves innocence, as much innocence as possible. But I believe in my gut, based on the facts revealed to date, that we are way beyond the fantasy of innocence.
I hope I’m wrong.