The long uphill chase for the truth

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00

CYCLING/LANCE ARMSTRONG DOPING SCANDAL:FLOYD LANDIS, the cyclist who had denied doping for years despite being stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for failing a drug test, went to a lunch meeting in April 2010 with the director of the Tour of California cycling race.

As they sat down at a restaurant in Los Angeles, Landis placed a tape recorder between them and pressed record. Landis finally wanted to tell the truth: He had doped through most of his professional career. He was recording his confessions so he would have proof that he had blown the whistle on the sport.

“How do you expect people to believe you when you lied for so long?” Andrew Messick, the race director, asked Landis. “Have you told your mother? Have you told Travis Tygart?” Landis, raised as a Mennonite, said he had not yet told his mother. Nor had he told Tygart, the chief executive of the US Anti-Doping Agency, with whom he had clashed for more than two years as Landis publicly fought his doping case. But, Landis said, it was time.

“Lance Armstrong never came up,” Messick said in an interview last week. “But he did make a comment on the mafia. He said, ‘When you’re in the mafia and you get caught and go to jail, you keep your mouth shut, and the organisation takes care of your family. In cycling, you’re expected to keep your mouth shut when you test positive, but you become an outcast. Everyone just turns their back on you.”

Anti-doping officials had pursued Armstrong for years, often quixotic efforts that died at the wall of silence his loyal team-mates built around him as the sport’s global king. Armstrong managed to keep the dark side of his success quiet, investigators and cyclists said, by using guile and arm-twisting tactics that put fear in those who might cross him. But the lunch conversation between Landis and Messick would eventually be seen as the first significant crack in Armstrong’s gilded foundation, a critical turning point in anti-doping officials’ quest to penetrate the code of secrecy that endured in cycling.

It set in motion a series of events that led to the revelation that Lance Armstrong and his US Postal Service team were engaged in what anti-doping officials called the most sophisticated doping program in history – one covered up by cyclists who banded together to protect themselves, one another and the ugly, deceitful underbelly of the sport.

Armstrong, who vehemently denies ever doping, did not fight the charges the anti-doping agency brought against him. Last week, in the wake of anti-doping officials’ making public their evidence in the case, Armstrong stepped down as chairman of his cancer foundation and lost nearly all his endorsements.

Today, cycling’s world governing body is expected to announce whether it will appeal the anti-doping agency’s ruling. If the group does not appeal, Tour de France organisers will officially strip Armstrong of his Tour titles.

Interviews with more than a dozen riders, their wives, lawyers, anti-doping officials and team executives revealed that Armstrong’s undoing was the culmination of an inquiry that played out over more than two years – but that dramatically turned over the course of several weeks this summer.

At that point, anti-doping officials hardly had an airtight case. Tygart was hurriedly approaching cyclists from Armstrong’s United States Postal Service teams. “Look, the system of doping in the sport is coming down, and all the riders, including Lance Armstrong, are going to be given an opportunity to get on the lifeboat,” he told them. “Are you on it?” Rider after rider asked, “Am I going to be the only one?” It would take months for them to find out.

The anti-doping agency knew its case against Armstrong had the potential to be a blockbuster. Landis’ doping confession and claim that Armstrong and other Postal Service riders were involved in team-organised doping became public in May 2010. A federal investigation into Armstrong relating to doping-related crimes, including fraud and drug trafficking, ensued.

David Zabriskie – a five-time national time-trial champion and one of Armstrong’s former team-mates – showed up on the doorstep of the federal courthouse in Los Angeles, finally ready to tell his story.

Zabriskie said that he had gone through some bad things in life, but being pushed to use drugs was one of the worst. The day he first used EPO, he said, Johan Bruyneel – the Postal Service team director and longtime Armstrong confidant – had told him “everyone is doing it”.

Hearing that had crushed him. His father had been an alcoholic, drug user and drug dealer and died young because of it. His father would push his mother around, prompting the young Zabriskie to step in and try to protect her. Cycling became a refuge. Bruyneel took Zabriskie under his wing shortly after his father died in 2002.

Soon, he was pressing Zabriskie to use performance- enhancing drugs, Zabriskie said.“What Johan did to me, I consider it a form of abuse because it was so horrible and affected me for the rest of my life,” Zabriskie said, choking up. “I know I was the first person to tell my story because Johan, he doesn’t need to be around young cyclists.”

Bruyneel, who has an open doping case against him, could not be reached for comment. By then, Armstrong was trying to keep his former team-mates from cracking. He listened in on at least one call his former team-mates had made to Bruyneel about the investigation, Zabriskie said. He assured them that everything would be okay.

In public, he seemed unfazed. After Landis’ accusations came out, Armstrong responded indignantly. “It’s just our word against his,” he said. “And we like our word.” Within days, though, unbeknown to Armstrong, that would no longer be true. Zabriskie and at least one other rider had quietly taken Landis’s side.

The evidence against Armstrong was mounting, though slowly. Tygart and the anti-doping agency backed off from their investigation while the federal authorities moved ahead. Riders offered his testimony to prosecutors, but some – like Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer – opened up only when a subpoena for a grand jury compelled them to.

Meanwhile, Armstrong or his representatives worked to wrestle control of the situation. They reached out to former riders to offer legal representation. Early on, George Hincapie, the only rider who was at Armstrong’s side for all seven of his Tour de France victories, retained a lawyer in California but quickly learned that the lawyer might not be serving his best interest – the lawyer was a fan of Armstrong’s and a supporter of his Livestrong charity – so he hired one based in New York.

Hincapie met with federal investigators voluntarily in August 2010 to tell them he had doped and that Armstrong had used blood transfusions, EPO and testosterone. After Leipheimer testified to the federal grand jury, he said, Armstrong had sent his wife a text message saying, “Run, don’t walk,” which Leipheimer took as a threat. All those riders kept quiet about their testimony and waited to see what would come of it.

Nothing came of it. Without explanation, the federal inquiry was dropped in early February, stunning Tygart and the riders – and even the investigators involved in the case. The riders, who believed they had risked their reputations to confess their doping to help shed light on their tarnished sport, were disheartened. Armstrong, who had fought off doping accusations for more than a decade, had won again, some said.

Tygart asked the federal investigators to share some evidence they had uncovered outside the grand jury, to no avail. The Justice Department would not comply, he said. For Tygart, time was running out. The London Olympics were fewer than three months away, and some of the former Postal Service riders were likely candidates for the US team.

More than two years had gone by since Landis broke the silence about the Postal Service team, and Usada’s case was languishing.

The anti-doping agency started calling the riders they knew had cooperated with the federal case. Jonathan Vaughters, a former team-mate of Armstrong’s and now the team manager of the Garmin-Sharp team, decided that it was time to urge his riders to deliver on a promise. The night Landis’ accusations became public in May 2010, Vaughters had gathered his cyclists in his hotel room on a stop in the Tour of California, and said they should tell the truth if they were contacted by any authority.

He knew that Zabriskie, Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde – former Postal Service riders – had used performance-enhancing drugs and had hired them despite it. Vaughters himself had used performance-enhancing drugs while on the Postal Service team and had once seen Armstrong inject EPO, he said.

As early as 2004, when Tyler Hamilton had tested positive at the Olympics, Vaughters started meeting with the anti-doping agency, telling them ways to catch riders who were cheating while only hinting that he had firsthand knowledge of doping.

Vaughters continued working quietly with anti-doping officials, waiting for an opportunity to come clean with several others so it would be difficult for Armstrong to dismiss their accusations. “So I waited and waited,” Vaughters said. “It took a whole lot of patience and, frankly, it hurt me a lot over the years to hear people say I was weak for not speaking up. But I was waiting for an opening, and that opening was Floyd.”

In 2010, Vaughters said he received increasingly desperate emails from Landis, who had just come off his two-year doping suspension and could not find a job in the sport. “I felt like he was either going to commit suicide or tell all,” said Vaughters, who knew the truth about Landis’ doping.

Vaughters was right. Less than a week after Landis had lunch with Messick, Landis found himself sitting across from Tygart in a conference room, telling him everything.

This spring, riders were invited to help the anti-doping agency in its investigation. Tygart and Bill Bock, the anti-doping agency’s general counsel, wanted them to come clean. They visited rider after rider in May and June, gathering testimonies. Among the final witnesses was Hincapie, one of the most respected riders in cycling. Anti-doping officials met with him in June, just days before the anti-doping agency notified Armstrong of his potential doping violation.When Hincapie confessed and said Armstrong had doped and encouraged it, the anti-doping agency knew it had its case.

Hincapie, Leipheimer, Vande Velde and Zabriskie agreed to take their names out of consideration for the Olympics. They and Danielson agreed to a six-month suspension that would begin September 1st, after the cycling season.

In the weeks afterward, Armstrong pressed to know the names of the witnesses, but the anti-doping agency would not release them, fearing he would intimidate and silence them before they could testify at an arbitration hearing.

In August, Armstrong gave up. He said he would not fight the charges. It sent the anti-doping agency scrambling yet again to gather sworn affidavits from the riders who were supposed to provide live testimony at the arbitration hearing. They managed to do so in just over two weeks.

At the last minute, the anti-doping agency contacted one more cyclist – Michael Barry – because he had recently retired. Barry joined the others and told his doping tale. “Ultimately, I was living a lie,” Barry said last week, adding that he should have been honest from the start, but he felt trapped because he would have lost his job for coming clean.

“I guess I have to apologize to Floyd for calling him a liar,” Barry said. “Because he was telling the truth the whole time.”

– New York Times Service

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