Trust is an essential human quality. It can also be a liability. That’s something I’ve sadly been reminded of in recent weeks. I trusted Lance Armstrong when he said, “I’ve never used performance-enhancing drugs.” I also trusted his one-time teammates Michael Barry, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, Floyd Landis, Levi Leipheimer, Kevin Livingston and Christian Vande Velde when they swore or intimated that they raced clean.
I was wrong to trust Armstrong. And I was wrong to trust the others. It was only because I trusted them that I could write with such enthusiasm about their racing exploits in the dark decade that was the focus of the USADA investigation into Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team. I’ve always wanted to see the best in people, whether they’re friends, work colleagues or bike racers, and I wanted to believe in Armstrong and his peers.
Rumors of EPO in the European peloton were rife during the 1990s, and fingers were pointed at dozens of riders. But there was no way of detecting that drug or blood doping. So when the Festina team, ranked No. 1 in the world, was busted at the 1998 Tour, most of us, including top riders such as Stuart O’Grady, believed that that scandal, followed by a legitimate test for EPO and the establishment of the World Anti-Doping Agency, would sharply reduce, or even eliminate, the worst of those ’90s doping practices.
We were wrong. Big time.
Why did I come to believe that Armstrong and those other American riders were riding clean in the 2000s? It’s possible that my desire to see the best in everyone made me naïve. But even more, it’s because the relationship between a journalist and an athlete is often a close one, built on trust. Trust is necessary on both sides, and the more you interact, the more that trust grows.
When I sat eye to eye with Hamilton, Landis or Vande Velde, and heard them vehemently put down riders who doped, it was hard to later suspect that they were doping too. As for Armstrong, who always bristled at any suggestion that he took drugs, I believed him when he said repeatedly that he didn’t ever want to let down his kids and have them one day read that their dad was a doper.
DOPING IN THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
Like most people in bike racing, I’ve always known that drugs are an unwelcome part of the sport. My first encounter with doping came when I was racing on a French team in the 1960s and, after one event, just a criterium, I found a discarded amphetamine vial a teammate had left in the locker room. That same year, talented riders I trained with told me they turned down offers to turn pro on European teams because they didn’t want to dope.
Besides racing in Brittany, I followed the Tour de France by bike several times in the ’60s. I was thrilled to see English-speaking pioneers Shay Elliott, Barry Hoban and Tom Simpson as they climbed the Alps and Pyrénées; and I felt privileged to watch Jacques Anquetil battle with Raymond Poulidor on his way to becoming the first man to win the Tour five times. And like the vast majority of the cycling public, I was aware that Anquetil said he couldn’t win the Tour on bread and water alone.
I felt honored to meet my special hero, Simpson, on several occasions. So I was devastated at the 1967 Tour when, an hour after cheering him on from a Provence roadside, he rode himself into oblivion, collapsed, and died on Mont Ventoux. We later learned that amphetamines were part of the reason for his tragic death at age 29. So, like most others involved in the sport, I was relieved that drug testing began at the Tour in 1968—which was my first as a full-time journalist. My editor at International Cycle Sport, J. B. Wadley, dubbed that year’s race, The Good Health Tour.
Over the following years and decades, doping remained on the periphery of professional cycling. Riders sometimes tested positive for amphetamines, corticoids or ephedrine, including Tour champions Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Luis Ocaña, Bernard Thévenet and Joop Zoetemelk. But those caught out were given minor penalties in the first two decades of anti-doping controls: normally a cash fine and a 10-minute deduction from their GC times, while they remained in the race.
Even when testing became more stringent, and riders were suspended for three months at first, then six months or a year, riders would find ways to beat the controls. That included secreting tubes containing clean urine under their shorts—a ruse that caused Tour leader Michel Pollentier to be thrown out of the 1978 Tour at L’Alpe d’Huez. And 1988 Tour winner Pedro Delgado kept his title because his positive test result involved a masking agent for steroids that wasn’t due to be added to the UCI’s banned list until a few months later.
The arrival on the international scene of the first truly competitive non-Continentals, Phil Anderson, Stephen Roche, Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten, was seen as an affirmation of cycling’s romantic roots and, hopefully, a healthier future. They were all contenders for the Grand Tours, and they were all happy to share their thoughts and aspirations with the very few English-speaking cycling journalists reporting the European races.
In his hotel room at Nice before making his Tour debut in 1981, Anderson asked me how he should ride his first-ever mountain stage, which was only five days away. I advised him to follow the wheel of race favorite Bernard Hinault as long as he could. That’s what he did, finishing with the Frenchman on that Pyrenean stage to the Pla d’Adet summit—and taking the yellow jersey! Obviously, I can’t take any credit for Anderson’s amazing performance, but it’s an example of how the new wave of pro riders trusted an experienced journalist’s advice.
Another instance came in 1986, when on the eve of his winning his first Tour de France, LeMond invited me up to the hotel room he was sharing in Clermont-Ferrand with his La Vie Claire teammate Steve Bauer. It was already 10:30 at night and both of them were in bed. LeMond recounted at length the story of his battle with Hinault and winning the yellow jersey. With Bauer fast asleep, and all my questions answered, I told LeMond I had to leave—even though he was ready for more.
If LeMond, then 25, hadn’t have been shot in a hunting accident the following May, I’m convinced he would have succeeded Anquetil, Merckx and Hinault as the next five-time Tour winner. It was a shock to see him painfully thin and pale, sitting in his pajamas at his California home, just after he left the hospital. He told me how close he had been to bleeding to death from the gunshot wounds in the rescue helicopter taking him to Sacramento.
While LeMond was sitting out the most of two seasons, Roche and Hampsten emerged as Grand Tour winners. Earlier this year, I wrote a story about Roche’s 1987 Giro d’Italia in peloton magazine, including how he confided in me and photographer friend Graham Watson on the evening of his taking the maglia rosa after an attack that was considered a blatant betrayal of Carrera teammate Roberto Visentini.
Hampsten succeeded Roche as Giro champ in 1988.
Just as I’d been thrilled as a fan a quarter-century earlier to see British riders at the Tour, I was proud to shout a few words of encouragement to Hampsten as he emerged through windswept snow on the Passo di Gavia the day he took over the pink jersey. He was an emotional wreck at the end of that stage, but we chatted the next morning in his hotel room as he described every last detail of his dramatically brave ride through the blizzard, including his seeing “chunks of ice” forming on his legs as he plummeted down the treacherous, dirt-road descent.
At the following year’s Giro, in the Dolomites, I sat with LeMond on the darkened staircase outside his hotel room at Corvara; his wife and young children were sleeping inside. He told me he’d been close to quitting cycling the day before when he finished 17 minutes behind the leaders on the rain-lashed summit of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. LeMond said he was leery of needles but because he was showing signs of anemia, his Mexican soigneur Otto Jacome persuaded him to have his first-ever iron shot. Chatting on the hotel staircase the next day, he said he was starting to feel better—and the following month he scored his epic eight-second Tour victory over Laurent Fignon.
Cynics have retroactively accused LeMond of having EPO injections, not iron, at that Giro, probably because EPO was added to the list of prohibited drugs in 1990. But I’m convinced that LeMond’s three Tour wins, and Hampsten’s Giro victory, were achieved by naturally talented athletes—not drug cheats.
I’ve related these anecdotes about Anderson, Roche, Hampsten and LeMond to best illustrate the kind-of writer-rider relationships that Paris-based colleague Samuel Abt and I developed over the years, all of them based on mutual trust. Abt and I often traveled together and shared our experiences.
Abt came with me when we were in the only press car to follow LeMond in his totally unexpected second-place in the closing time trial at his comeback Giro of ’89—nine days after that first iron shot. And, five years later, we were the only journalists to visit LeMond in his motel room at Rennes the day his career ended after abandoning his final Tour on the sixth stage.
Other journalists I traveled with included Australian colleague Rupert Guinness and Irish sportswriter David Walsh—who moved to Paris in the mid-1980s to report on Ireland’s top two sports stars, Roche and Sean Kelly. One time, Walsh and I interviewed Kelly, sitting on a sidewalk outside his hotel, after he’d lost a stage of the 1984 Tour because of an irregular sprint.
When a new generation of English-speaking bike racers emerged in the ’90s, it was natural that we began to establish similar rider-writer relationships with the likes of Armstrong, Hincapie and Julich. Most years, Abt would come to the States to report the East Coast’s Tour DuPont and Philadelphia’s USPRO Championship—both of which Armstrong won in his nascent career. And most days we would both talk with Armstrong
Walsh, Abt and I all interviewed the young Texan extensively, both before and after his successful battle with cancer, and we all wrote books about him. Walsh included a chapter about Armstrong in his 1994 book, “Inside the Tour de France;” Abt’s “Up The Road: From LeMond to Armstrong,” was published in 2000; and my book, published in 2009, was and titled, “Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion.” It was based on interviews with more than 50 people—coaches, doctors, team directors, teammates, family—almost all of whom were certain that Armstrong never doped. He didn’t need to, most said.
WHO DO YOU BELIEVE?
The first suspicions that Armstrong might be doping came midway through the 1999 Tour, when he blasted the not-particularly-stellar opposition on the summit finish to Sestriere. His stage win, wearing the yellow jersey he’d earned in the previous stage’s time trial, was greeted with skepticism by many in the media. I didn’t hear the apparently cynical laughter in the press room as Armstrong rode away from Fernando Escartin and Ivan Gotti that day because I was standing in a heavy drizzle at the finish, waiting to see the Texan’s lieutenants Hamilton and Livingston. After finishing, they invited me out of the rain and into their team camper where they told me about their pace-making on the Galibier and their crashes on a slick turn at the foot of the Sestriere climb.
After that dominant stage win by Armstrong, L’Équipe reporter Pierre Ballester aggressively questioned the American about doping and EPO—and that’s when Armstrong’s public denials really began. Two years later, on the weekend the Tour started in Dunkirk, Walsh, now with London’s Sunday Times, published his full-page story that connected Armstrong with the controversial Italian sports doctor, Michele Ferrari.
That article was the catalyst for three years of investigative journalism by Walsh and Ballester that resulted in their bestselling French-language book, “LA Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong,” which was published a couple of weeks before the 2004 Tour. When extracts from the book were published (in English) in the Sunday Times, defamation proceedings were brought against the newspaper by Armstrong’s legal team.
A couple of days before the Tour prologue in Liège, I met Walsh at a pre-race press conference. By that time in his journalism career, Walsh was the chief sportswriter of The Sunday Times, covering many sports, including golf, rugby, track & field and other Olympic sports. He usually came to the Tour for a few days before covering golf’s British Open, and he expected that he would again travel with Guinness and me in the VeloNews press car.
Knowing this, I’d already spoken about the situation (Walsh’s publication being sued by Armstrong) with the American owners of the magazine—in which I was a minority shareholder. They said that, in view of the lawsuit, it would not be wise to have Walsh riding in a vehicle rented by the company and stickered with VeloNews logos. The decision, which I related to Walsh, had nothing to do with getting access to Armstrong and his entourage during the Tour, as Walsh has suggested. In fact, VN colleague Andy Hood and I were not invited to any of the special press get-togethers with Armstrong.
I read Ballester and Walsh’s book, and discussed its conclusions in a chapter on doping in my book on the Tour de France, “23 Days in July,” putting forward the “for and against” arguments on whether Armstrong doped. I wrote in the book: “ Most of all, [Armstrong] cannot let down the folks in the cancer community, who see him as the ultimate symbol of hope and inspiration. He knows that they would be devastated should he be identified as a drug cheat.”
Talking about his and Ballester’s book, Walsh told mutual colleague Abt: “There is no smoking gun in the extract or in the full book to prove that Armstrong engaged in doping. We don't actually prove anything. We just set out the facts and let the reader decide for himself who's telling the truth.”
In the years after that book appeared, others attempted to find the smoking gun. I was often contacted, but I didn’t have any more information than Abt, who wrote recently that “when various reporters, some good friends, got in touch and said they were working on Armstrong doping investigations, [I couldn’t help]…Although I heard the same rumors they did, read the same books they did, and listened to the same speculation they did—and had done for years—I had nothing to add to the conversation. I reported what I knew, which was admittedly not much if all the [USADA report] charges and testimony against Armstrong are true.”
We weren’t the only ones fooled by Armstrong’s denials. Even the world’s greatest-ever cyclist Eddy Merckx—who famously visited with Armstrong in Texas when he was recovering from cancer, and was a close friend for 20 years—said this week that he had no idea Armstrong was doping. “I met Lance many times and he never spoke to me about doping, physicians or other things,” Merckx told Le Soir. “He didn't have to report to me; it was his problem, but I fell into the trap. I'm amazed [that he doped], above all after what he went through,” Merckx said, referring to cancer.
I think that was the main reason I trusted Lance too. Both he and his doctors had told me that after coming so close to death, he would never risk his health by using performance-enhancing drugs. I also believed—and still believe—how deeply he loved his children and wanted to earn their respect.
Like Abt, Merckx and so many others, I trusted Armstrong. We were all wrong.
These past few weeks have brought forth a slew of confessions and apologies. I want to add mine and say to the cycling community: I’m deeply sorry that in my desire to always see the best, I prevented myself from seeing the truth.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson