Until the autumn of 2012, Lance Armstrong was almost universally heralded as a champion of the human spirit and a sportsman whose personal and professional accomplishments were nothing short of heroic. Handsome, intelligent, charismatic, seemingly fearless and thrown into adversity from infancy, he was tailor made from the fabric of rags to riches American folklore. When Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer he was a young professional who had already managed to capitalize on his personal appeal in a sport that was on the margins of America’s collective consciousness. But emerging from the grip of death imbued Armstrong’s story with a powerful humanitarian and spiritual dimension, laying the groundwork to transform an American folk hero into the centerpiece of an international mythology. In an economic climate that coincided with the rise of globalization and the dawn of the information age, Armstrong’s transcendent appeal presented corporations and marketing firms with an enticing opportunity to build a heroic twenty-first century brand. They did, and with each of his seven Tour de France victories the Armstrong brand accumulated financial and political resources previously unseen in the sport of cycling—sustained in large part by a semblance of virtuous idealism affording Armstrong the kind of moral currency traditionally reserved for martyrs and saints.
But the mythology, the brand, the wealth, the humanitarianism and the sainthood were built on false pretenses. This month Armstrong testifies under oath as part of a fraud case filed against him by SCA Promotions, a Dallas-based sports insurance company. For the first time since USADA’s (United States Anti Doping Agency) Reasoned Decision organized a mosaic of eyewitness accounts and isolated claims spanning almost two decades, Armstrong is being confronted by the force of law. In 2005 he won a suit against SCA, when they refused to pay him $12 million in bonuses, arguing that he won the Tour de France from 2002 through 2004 by cheating with the use of performance enhancing drugs. SCA’s defense relied on a rigorous private investigation and the sworn testimony of former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy, both of whom knew of Armstrong’s drug use. As was the case for so many years, he and his legal team were able to silence the truth, with Armstrong asserting under oath that he “never” took performance-enhancing drugs. “How many times do I have to say it?” he asked SCA attorney Jeffrey Tillotson, “I race the bike straight up fair and square.”
The legal dispute between Armstrong and SCA is just one example of how Armstrong and his allies, like the rulers in Plato’s Republic, used “a throng of lies and deceptions” for what they presumed was “the benefit of the ruled.” Though many who were close to Armstrong knew the truth, they collectively agreed that the truth was in nobody’s best interests. Once the USADA report and Armstrong’s televised interview with Oprah Winfrey exposed the blueprint of his epic rise and fall the deconstruction of his myth began, along with the abandonment of the same corporations, marketers, fans and followers who had elevated him to a godlike status. It was a status he could never live up to, yet as the threads of his fraudulent career began to unravel the headlines and sound bites announcing his demise only scratched the surface of a collective moral failure, pointing to deeper problems in competitive athletics writ large.
To begin to appreciate the scope of that failure, two preliminary considerations are in order.
The first has to do with money, and the extent to which sports are perceived as a diversion from the reality of life. Athletic enterprise has traditionally been considered a concrete reflection of human aspirations, related at the highest level of performance to the realization of human flourishing. But as Jon Baskin has argued in this magazine, the growing consensus in the twenty-first century is that “sports are, first and foremost, an entertainment business.” Without an appreciation of sport as a substantive human activity, and therefore an inherently moral exercise, the motive of profitability can subsume the noblest endeavors. In an interview for Alex Gibney’s documentary, The Armstrong Lie, Armstrong illustrates just how profitable the entertainment value of his story became. “Everybody was making money, everybody. And I mean, everybody! Trek bicycles in 1998 does $1 hundred million in revenue, now they’re pushing a billion. We all made money.” So much so that Armstrong’s inner circle and cycling’s power players were willing to cover up the truth whenever it threatened their burgeoning financial empire.
The second relates to the conflation of money and heroism in a culture that has lost an ethical notion of virtuous athletic achievement. If sports in the twenty-first century primarily function as an entertainment business, then heroic status is linked inextricably to the procurement of a major contract, with winning becoming merely a secondary or instrumental good (since it helps pave the way for such a contract). In an age of advanced pharmacology the use of performance enhancing drugs becomes an obvious temptation to expedite athletic success. Cycling’s particular vulnerability to the convergence of money, heroism and PEDs is well captured by former Tour champion Jacques Anquetil, who once mused, “the bike is a terrible thing that drives you to make excessive efforts, inhuman efforts.” While there’s no doubt that riding a bike into the thin air of the Alps and Pyrenees is a remarkable challenge, to announce that cycling drives one to make inhuman efforts invites its participants and observers to assume a mythos that overlooks the concrete human realities that form the essence of athletic competition. Of course the use of hyperbole is common in athletics, but success in bike racing is largely determined by one’s ability to endure pain, and over time suffering as suffering has become a celebratory aspect of the sport for both riders and fans. As such, the conceptual framework of Anquetil’s poetic assertion—accidentally or by design—justifies the mechanization of human subjects who succumb to the use of performance enhancing drugs as a means of maintaining their professional viability in the face of inhuman challenges.
The logical conclusion of this mythos became apparent in the twilight of the twentieth century, when PEDs were becoming more sophisticated and available. At the same time, race directors and sponsors were feverishly working to create more dramatic and commercially appealing spectacles. If pushing riders to unrealistic extremes could generate more revenue, the sport’s leaders were willing to furnish a Tour de France mountain stage with four major climbs on a Tuesday, and six on a Wednesday, in spite of the fact that the physical burden was nearly impossible for riders to bear. In an interview with the New York Times in 2006, World Champion Tom Boonen said he supported “the battle against doping,” while simultaneously predicting that “with these sorts of stages, the battle will never be won.” With no respite from cycling’s governing authorities, many in the peloton sought relief in a variety of artificial supplements, limiting the natural effects of pain to accommodate the unnatural expectations of their profession.With few regulations in place, the obvious rise of PEDs went largely unchecked, proving that the humanity of cyclists could be sacrificed for the same reason that the truth of Armstrong’s story had to be overlooked: commercial profitability.
No stranger to the lure of profits or excessive extremes, Armstrong and his myth thrived. But as the excavation of the demythologized narrative continues, it has become abundantly clear that the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong is not simply a story of one man’s moral failures. To understand Armstrong you have to understand the people who use their money and power to shape the culture of competitive sports. And if you follow the trail of money and power in this particular case, it will lead you to Thomas Weisel, which is where the real story begins.
Tyler Hamilton would eventually shepherd Lance Armstrong up the harrowing climbs of Europe’s great mountains, but years before the two joined forces as teammates he got a phone call from an ambitious financier who needed his services. In his memoir, The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France (with Daniel Coyle), Hamilton’s description of Thomas Weisel’s resume reads like the intersection of a most eligible bachelor profile and a bio-pitch for a spot on The Apprentice: “fifty-something Harvard-trained millionaire investment banker, former national-level speed skater, masters bike racer, and, above all else, a winner.” When Hamilton and Weisel first crossed paths American riders had already achieved success in Europe’s legendary races, but Weisel wasn’t interested in helping another American achieve greatness in Europe: he wanted to “build an American team to win the Tour de France.” Hungry for a new challenge, he ventured into the mercurial realm of professional sports with confidence that the United States was overflowing with untapped cycling talent. He also believed a groundswell of commercial opportunities would present themselves if that talent could elevate cycling’s profile in America. History would prove him right, but at the time it was a gamble that some likened to “starting a French baseball team and attempting to win the World Series.”
When Weisel reached out, Hamilton was one of the rising stars of the national racing scene. A shy New Englander and gifted skier, he dreamed of competing in the winter Olympics until a freak accident ended a promising downhill career. He had done some bike racing in his teenage years, but he only took to it earnestly during his sophomore year at the University of Colorado, while in search of a replacement for the adrenaline rush of the mountain. For Hamilton the transition proved seamless. First, because bike racing “combined the thrill of skiing with the savvy of chess,” utilizing both his courage and his intelligence. And second, because it rewarded his unusual “ability to suffer,” something he came to appreciate on a whim in the mountains of New Hampshire when he was just eleven years old. Skiing on a day with “horrendous winds, stinging sleet, and freezing rain,” he decided to forgo the convenience of a chairlift and make the ascent by foot. His family and friends watched with bemusement, but the gag turned into an occasion for self-discovery. Hamilton vividly recalls “feeling the pain burning in my legs, feeling my heart in my throat, and also feeling something more profound: I realized that I could keep going. I didn’t have to stop. I could hear the pain, but I didn’t have to listen to it.” When, later in life, Hamilton shifted his focus from the slopes to the road his ability to manage pain gave him an immediate advantage. Soon he was a collegiate national champion, invited to train with the National Team, and his Olympic aspirations flipped from winter to summer. “It was crazy, unlikely, and it felt like I’d found my destiny.”
But unlike his counterparts in baseball, basketball or football, who are groomed within a minor league or university development system, Hamilton was essentially on his own. And though he was ascending the ranks of domestic racing at an alarming pace, he supported himself by running his own all-purpose fix-it/haul-it/clean-it/paint-it business under the slogan, “No Job Too Small or Tough.” In truth, scraping together enough money to compete across the country was a tall order, and it was tough work. As Weisel—whose credo was “get it fucking done!”—set out to build the great American cycling team, Hamilton was desperate to land a pro contract. When he finally got the call in 1994, all Weisel needed to know was how much it would take to sign him to his new team, Montgomery-Bell. Though $30,000 dollars was a modest request, it made Hamilton a professional bike racer, which beat loading sheet metal into the back of a pickup truck.
Like many cycling post factos of the era, Hamilton’s account follows a relatively predictable path. Young, naïve and talented bike racers are given a chance to work their dream job, knowing the sport provides enormous psychological and physical challenges. If they do well they also know that the grueling European race calendar—a series of one-day races, which can exceed 250 km, and the epic grand tours of Italy, France and Spain, each covering more than 3000 km in three weeks—will stand between them and their paycheck. Historically the sport is affected by the occasional doping scandal, when riders have sought to relieve some of the stress on their overworked bodies. But as Hamilton points out, most pros start out determined to ride clean and confident they can do it, even if it means a lower salary, fewer wins and less notoriety. In 1996, when Weisel secured the financial support of the U.S. Postal Service, providing the platform to race in Europe and eventually win what he liked to call “the Tour de fucking France,” Hamilton and his teammates would soon find out how naïve they were.
Planning to race in Europe may have given the team a sense of accomplishment prior to crossing the Atlantic, but once they arrived—even before they could find a decent café—they “were getting crushed.” First they blamed jet lag, inexperience and homesickness. Then they began to doubt themselves: What if they simply weren’t good enough? But as their European counterparts defied the laws of nature, exhibiting strength and endurance Hamilton says he had “never seen, or even imagined seeing,” the U.S. team’s wonder and self-doubt turned to suspicion.
For instance, they could attack, alone, and hold off a charging peloton for hours. They could climb at dazzling speed, even the bigger guys who didn’t look like climbers. They could perform at their absolute best day after day, avoiding the usual peaks and valleys. They were circus strong men.
Stateside U.S. Postal could dominate the field in almost every race without an extra dose of vitamin C. In Europe, the young Americans were riding what cycling journalists and aficionados called the slower of “two races.” The race in Europe was simply too fast, and thanks to the potent blood booster erythropoietin, otherwise known as EPO, Europe’s circus strong men were getting faster.
EPO, originally conceived as a supplement for anemic dialysis and cancer patients, took the world of endurance athletics by storm in the late Eighties and early Nineties. In 1996 former Giro de Italia champion Andy Hampsten was one of the few veterans riding for U.S. Postal, and could testify to the devastation confronting those who wanted to ride clean. “In the mid-Eighties,” he recalls, “riders were doping but it was still possible to compete with them. It was either amphetamines or anabolics,” and while both had their upsides, according to Hampsten, the downsides were equally powerful. “Amphetamines made riders stupid—they’d launch these crazy attacks, use up all their energy. Anabolics made people bloated, heavy, gave them injuries in the long run, not to mention horrid skin rashes.” Neither offered consistent or predictable benefits for cyclists, so the age-old necessities of training long hours to build strength and improve lung capacity, eating well and resting, remained the primary objectives of most professionals. “EPO changed everything”:
All of a sudden whole teams were ragingly fast; all of a sudden I was struggling to make time limits. By 1994, it was ridiculous. I’d be on climbs, working as hard as I’d ever worked, producing exactly the same power, at the same weight, and right alongside me would be these big-assed guys, and they’d be chatting like we were on the flats!
Once EPO took full effect, assimilation to the new ethos would test the physical adaptability and moral boundaries of the sport’s key players. Many, like Hampsten, witnessed the sea change underway, refused to compromise their personal and athletic integrity, and opted to retire prematurely from a career they loved. With the average speed of the Tour de France increasing from around 37.5 kph in the early Nineties to 41.6 kph by 2005, young riders were on the wrong side of a rising tide. If they had a choice in the matter, it was between succumbing to the lure of PEDs or settling on mediocrity and eventually professional extinction.
As reality set in, the dream of an American team winning the Tour de France was becoming a nightmare. But Weisel’s resolve only grew—his feelings, as Hamilton claims, “intensified by the structure of the sport.” While pro athletes in other sports have their own contractual challenges, the economics of cycling present unique vulnerabilities, which would not have been difficult for a Harvard-educated investment banker to appreciate:
In baseball or football, the league lends stability to each team. Pro cycling, on the other hand, follows a more Darwinian model: teams are sponsored by big companies, and compete to get into big races. There are no assurances; sponsors can leave, races can refuse to allow teams. The result is a chain of perpetual nervousness: sponsors are nervous because they need results. Team directors are nervous because they need results. And riders are nervous because they need results to get a contract.
With disappointment mounting, Weisel’s resolve turned into belligerence. Hamilton can still hear the echo of his demands: “We better see some good numbers tomorrow, or somebody’s gonna be seeing the door. You guys gotta step it up, starting now! That was fucking pathetic. What’s the problem with you guys?” Considering the distinct disadvantages his riders were up against, there was nothing wrong with the guys. But Weisel didn’t really care about the guys; he wanted to win. So he chose to employ a new investment strategy.
Beginning in 1997, U.S. Postal activated that strategy and was soon running on a new engine. New riders, yes, but more importantly a new training staff of cycling specialists who understood how races were being won—and how the winners were getting away with it. While the collective drama of bike racing resists statistical analysis, the microscopic details of individual performance and preparation invite it. Natural gifts, experience, tactics, courage and/or luck are significant factors, but even more important to a rider’s success is his ability to pump enough blood and generate enough oxygen to fend off fatigue. More blood and oxygen yields more power and endurance, which results in more riding at the front of races, more camera time for sponsors seeking exposure, and inevitably more chances to win. Predicting how races will take shape is virtually impossible. Measuring the capability of riders based on blood levels and lung capacity is not. This was why, in the late Nineties and early Aughts riders and team directors were flocking to specialists.
Like the experts in the world of finance, the specialists (some of whom had medical backgrounds, while others were simply handy with a syringe and didn’t have any moral objections to the work) were playing a high risk game. If the game was played just right, there were races to be won and money to be made. But one false move and all the wins, sponsors and money could vanish in a whir of disqualifications, voided contracts and legal fees. As Hamilton puts it, “one glowing molecule” was all that stood between a pro cyclist and their ultimate “ruin and shame.” Love for the sport is what brought them into the profession, but no amount of love could change the fact that to pursue a career in cycling meant turning your passion into a science project where you are the lab rat. If a mad scientist with a syringe could discover a winning formula that also created a dramatic spectacle—which kept corporate sponsors invested—PEDs had to be a part of the game.
Many riders and commentators (Malcolm Gladwell among them) have advanced the notion that although doping may be unpleasant, it levels the playing field and creates the conditions for a fair fight. Leading doping expert Michael Ashenden exposes the laziness of that position. For Ashenden, “the winner in a doped race is not the one who trained the hardest, but the one who trained the hardest and whose physiology responded best to the drugs.” Not every cyclist’s body did, and in Racing Through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar (with Jeremy Whittle), we see just how tumultuous succumbing to PEDs could be.
Millar, like Hamilton, “loved bike racing,” and began his career “blindly optimistic” that he could race clean, but after watching less talented riders race by him at unnatural speeds he eventually gave in. At first he convinced himself he “could just stop the doping and put it behind [him],” but he couldn’t, and soon his life was spiraling “further out of control.” Yes, he noticed favorable results from EPO and other concoctions, but he also experienced dangerous weight loss and skin rashes; and he feared being caught, which led to a perpetual state of panic and then depression, sleep deprivation, sleeping pills, alcohol and recreational drugs. Eventually he began to feel a sense of “emptiness” and a “pointlessness that wouldn’t go away.” Millar also witnessed wild emotional swings among his teammates and he worried about the possibility of overproducing red blood cells—a common side effect of EPO—which has caused the deaths of numerous pro riders and some amateurs as well. In essence, the benefits he received from PEDs compromised his quality of life, long-term health and personal integrity. But again, Millar’s mental and physical well-being were not priorities for most fans, reporters, corporate sponsors, or team directors.
While many, Armstrong chief among them, have tried to paint a picture of universal acceptance within the pro peloton, Millar’s testimony suggests otherwise. In fact, once he started doping he claims to have felt a divisive split between his mind and body, a painful disconnect between the longings of his soul and the cruel mechanics of his career. Taking part in the arms race was a race against what he held to be true, against what he loved, and ultimately against himself. The more he doped, the more he “hated cycling.” But whatever moral ambiguity Millar experienced was subsumed in deafening silence, otherwise known as omertà. In the pro peloton omertà was the collective agreement that what happened in the team bus and hotel, away from the cameras and doping controls, would remain unspoken. While the rolling circus of pro bike racing was a “technicolor caravan,” behind the veneer was a world of corrosive secrecy, fear and paranoia.
Though he claims ignorance now, it’s clear that Weisel had few misgivings once he grasped the stakes of the PED arms race. With a deeper understanding of Europe’s cycling ethos, the inability to trust opposing teams, and the complicit behavior of the UCI (International Cycling Union), he was not about to let his dream be undone due to pharmacological deficiencies. In 1997 Weisel hired Pedro Celaya to address those deficiencies by managing U.S. Postal’s doping regiments and blood manipulation in compliance with UCI prohibitions. In the late Nineties those prohibitions were loose to say the least. For example, there was a test for hematocrit (the percentage of blood containing red blood cells), which was marginally capable of identifying whether or not a rider was benefiting from artificial enhancement, but there was no test for EPO. Further, the UCI would only punish a rider if their hematocrit level exceeded 50 percent, which Tyler Hamilton likens to “allowing everyone to go into a bank and steal as long as they kept it under $1000.” Even when riders were caught above 50 percent their punishment was little more than a fifteen-day suspension, or what then-UCI president Hein Verbruggen called “a hematocrit holiday.” With Celaya’s support, U.S. Postal came to appreciate that “as long as your hematocrit stayed under 50, nobody would care.”
When Hamilton met Celaya for his first consultation he was struck by two things. First was the Spaniard’s complete disregard for the moral reservations he and some of his teammates harbored about participating in doping procedures. Second was his reductive and dehumanizing response to Hamilton’s hematocrit level. “You are 43,” he said. “It wasn’t, ‘You scored 43’ or ‘Your level is 43,’ it was ‘You are 43.’ Like I was a stock, and 43 was my price.” Which is precisely what it was. As Hamilton would learn, his price would need to go up if he wanted to compete at the top.
In the years to come U.S. Postal (which would eventually become Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team) promoted a culture that demanded systemic participation in chemical enhancement. In short order the convenience of cheating and lying gave way to mass manipulation for the financial gain of individuals, teams, organizations and sponsors, and with it cycling became a monstrous Faustian gamble. For those with no inhibitions and whose bodies responded well to the drugs, their stock was going up. For those whose bodies resisted the required regiments, or who possessed naturally high hematocrit levels and therefore could not benefit from EPO in the same way as their competitors, their stocks struggled to adapt to market conditions. And for the morally circumspect who questioned the ethical conditions forced upon them, their choice was between integrity and survival. Some thrived, some sputtered, some retired, and some paid with their lives, found dead in homes or hotels, with blood as thick as molasses from overuse of EPO. Wherever riders found themselves on the spectrum, cycling was riding itself into a dizzying world of secrecy and abuse. Both Hamilton and Millar’s accounts take the form of Augustinian confession, revealing the burden many riders assumed in testing the conceptual and chemical boundaries of their humanity. But they also show how greed and EPO drove the ravenous expansion of those boundaries.
As professional cycling gained national notoriety through U.S. Postal, the European race scene spun at a furious pace, presenting lucrative business opportunities for U.S. companies. With a team of their own, in a thriving international marketplace, American viewers and investors tuned in and anted up. And once American corporate interests entered the equation there was little anybody could do to stem a rising tide of drugs and money. Which brings us back to Armstrong, the Armstrong myth, and how the hubris associated with it ended up exposing nearly universal corruption in pro cycling. As U.S. Postal prepared for the 1997 season, Weisel made it clear he would no longer be content to knock on Europe’s door; he wanted to “kick the bastard off its hinges.” Which is precisely what they were about to do. But while Lance Armstrong lay in a hospital bed receiving treatment for testicular cancer that had metastasized to his brain, nobody could have predicted exactly how.
If you were looking to do some door kicking in the mid-Nineties, Lance Armstrong was your man. In a sport steeped in Occidental custom, unwritten rules and unspoken protocol, he had little patience for convention. If the race was about winning then decorum could be sacrificed, which often turned his Herculean efforts into shark-chum for seasoned veterans. In 1993, Armstrong won the World Championships in Oslo by launching a characteristically unconventional attack. In the final ten kilometers a furious chase group, including five-time Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain, hunted Armstrong to no avail, as he turned inside out to the finish. He had been a professional for only fourteen months, and it didn’t take long to realize his hunger for domination over competitors, coaches, teammates and women could produce as much excitement as it could destruction; when things were good they were nothing short of epic, but when they bad they were usually beyond repair. His pursuit of fame and fortune proved no different.
In his early years as a professional Armstrong never met a sponsor he didn’t like, but he was a good salesman and he struck a hard bargain. In Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell’s, Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever, we see how his bargaining ability and business acumen helped build what would become a sportsman’s empire. After winning the World Championship and becoming the youngest American to win a stage at the Tour de France in 1995, he quickly amassed the trappings of new money, but a fancy car and nice house were simply coming attractions. Armstrong would surround himself with a team of financial and legal experts whose job it was to ensure that his talent and celebrity would continue to appreciate. For example, after hiring agent Bill Stapleton he had renegotiated deals with Giro (a helmet manufacturer), Nike and Oakley, all guaranteeing an immediate $1 million bonus, “plus another $2 million in possible long-term endorsement—if he won a gold medal in the upcoming 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.” In the cloistered world of American cycling Lance Armstrong was already big business.
He was also a figure of Oedipal complexity, who Hamilton describes as being “incapable of passivity.” With a riddled personal history—resentful of an absent father, hostile toward his father’s surrogates and regularly at odds with his mother and other authority figures—Armstrong still managed to present himself with supreme clarity, which would serve him well when scandal eventually threatened his growing empire. Like another prominent Texan who spent the early twenty-first century in the Oval Office, he made few apologies for who he was, and entertained little, if any, scrutiny for the controversies that surrounded him. If cycling’s moral canvas needed Jasper Johns to supply appropriate shades of gray, Armstrong painted in black and white. You were either for him or against him.
Thomas Weisel was against him. The two had fallen out in the early Nineties after Weisel, who was involved with Armstrong’s first pro team, Subaru-Montgomery, lost patience with his rash race tactics and self-indulgence. Before being diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Armstrong had signed a massive contract with the French giant Cofidis, but he soon took note of the sharp contrast between the team’s public pronouncements and their actual support. Once he was healthy enough to compete, Armstrong expressed interest in joining U.S. Postal. But according to Albergotti and O’Connell, Weisel “worried that Armstrong would become a divisive force on the USPS team bus.” Worried as he may have been, Weisel also knew the value of a good story. Seeing as Armstrong had already proved to be a major draw in American cycling before his bout with cancer, if the fiery Texan could come back from his death bead and win on a U.S.-based team in an international sport the possibilities for financial capitalization were immeasurable.
Weisel’s instincts were right but Armstrong and his inner circle were well ahead of him when it came to manufacturing the Lance Armstrong brand. In Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong, agent Bill Stapleton is quoted as saying that “a post-cancer Armstrong was a marketer’s dream.” In fact the cancer was hardly in remission when Armstrong pitched his autobiography (what would become It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life) to the highest bidder. In Stapleton’s mind this was an offer publishing houses could not refuse; “Lance isn’t just a cyclist anymore,” he said. “Because of the cancer, the Lance Armstrong brand has a much broader appeal. Our challenge is to leverage that now.” Which is what they did in every phase of their public and contractual relations. The minimum price set for the book was $150,000. It would eventually sell for a $525,000 advance.
Even before the cancer entered the equation, Albergotti and O’Connel show how Nike considered Armstrong “a key part” of their “plan to buy legitimacy in a sport its executives knew almost nothing about.” Chief executive Phil Knight saw a $2 billion industry his company had no current stake in, which he corrected by securing sponsorship to supply the coveted yellow jersey at the Tour de France. It wasn’t long after Armstrong’s triumphant return to the sport that Nike also became the official apparel supplier for U.S. Postal, additionally cementing the future Tour champion’s loyalty for $500,000 a year. In the Nineties Nike was an outsider looking in at the European racing scene. With Armstrong as their American billboard, rolling through Europe’s romantic scenery, they were about to move to the epicenter.
Surviving cancer may have transformed Armstrong into “a business entity instead of a person” (his words), but that did not stop him from simultaneously assuming the mantle of a great humanitarian. And while his athletic abilities, cunning and tenacity helped guard against his competitors on the road, cancer allowed him to utilize what we learn from The Armstrong Lie was the most valuable asset and greatest defense he possessed: his gift as a storyteller. In developing the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which would become LIVESTRONG, the master storyteller and his management team built a bulwark infrastructure, furnished with messianic language and heroic iconography. LIVESTRONG raised money and awareness for cancer research, which gave Armstrong the platform to dine with CEOs, heads of state and celebrities around the globe, feeding his lust for power well beyond the confines of his sport. It also allowed him to create the compelling illusion of virtue, repelling skeptical advances on his empire with the saintly platitudes the organization professed—gratefully received as gospel by millions of fans and followers. But those close to him—friends, teammates and lovers—knew that Armstrong was no saint. He was a tyrant, and as he reached the height of his power, LIVESTRONG gave him what every tyrant longs for; the luxury of ruling over a reality of your own making.
Armstrong also reinforced his narrative powers by solidifying favorable journalistic relations. According to David Walsh in Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, the master storyteller “saw the system, understood it and … played it beautifully.” Walsh, reporting for the Sunday Times, witnessed firsthand how Armstrong could lasso a “small intimate roundtable press conference with American journalists … who would be flattered to be texted a summons.” Those reporters happily sold “the myth in return for limited access,” and their papers struggled to find the ink to print an inquisitive account of his suspicious prowess. When skeptical journalists questioned the legitimacy of Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory, one American reporter went so far as to claim, “we have every right to feel good about it, about him and his place at the top.”
But to assume his place at the top he needed to do more than secure the financial support of Thomas Weisel, Nike, Oakley and Trek, the journalistic protection of the mainstream media, or the political and moral fortification provided by LIVESTRONG. He also needed to win on the road. And when he joined U.S Postal in 1998 he was poised to do that as well. Though his bullish narcissism and ambition were only growing, his overall approach to the sport had changed. He possessed a deeper appreciation for the nuances of the profession. His stubborn resistance to cycling’s tactical dimension was gone, and his distaste for team dynamics was waning too. Both changes demonstrated a psychological maturity appropriate to his ultimate goals, which meant his chances of winning would improve. Moreover, the unanticipated benefit of cancer was losing muscle mass, which afforded him the unusual opportunity to rebuild physically, quite literally, from the ground up. While his inner circle used the rebuilding phase to create a groundswell of commercial interest in the grand narrative of a conquering human spirit, Armstrong rebuilt his body with a specialist who had no rival. His name was Michele Ferrari, but inside the peloton the reclusive Italian doctor was known as Il Mito, The Myth.
According to Walsh, the Armstrong myth would have been impossible without the assistance of Il Mito. Their relationship began in 1995, in one of Ferrari’s more public moments, when Armstrong and his Subaru-Motorola teammates were trounced by a handful of the doctor’s clients. After the race, reporters questioned Ferrari about the success of his riders and the dangers of EPO, to which he famously replied, “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink ten liters of orange juice.” Armstrong was furious. Up to that point he claims to have ridden clean, though first-hand accounts suggest otherwise. What is certain is that if he had doped he’d never done so intelligently or efficiently, and Ferrari was the master of efficiency. In Hamilton’s words, bike racing was nothing more than “a math problem” to the legendary specialist. Millar, who also met with Ferrari early in his career, confirms Hamilton’s report. Cycling, according to The Myth, “was simply about numbers … weight, watts—and wads of cash.”
Tired of losing to what he viewed as athletically inferior “Euro-pussies,” Armstrong was rejected in his first attempt to connect with Ferrari, who refused to work with a client that had “too much useless muscle.” But he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. Eventually Armstrong was on his way to Italy, wowing Ferrari with his lung capacity, pain tolerance and hunger for knowledge. Their relationship would mark a turning point in the sport’s history. When Armstrong joined U.S. Postal there may have been other specialists around—Pedro Celaya would eventually give way to Luis Garcia del Moral—but according to USADA’s report, subscribing to Ferrari’s doping program became a team mandate. When Ferrari was under investigation for doping fraud in the late Nineties and early Aughts Armstrong defended him as a “great mind in cycling.” He and his teammates were also his top clients, and for Hamilton, with Ferrari as their “invisible” team member, the sky was the limit for an American outfit that once looked like the Bad News Bears of the peloton.
Many, Armstrong chief among them, still contend what happened behind closed doors, hidden in team training camps, and smuggled across international borders, was the common denominator of cycling’s EPO era. But there was nothing common about U.S. Postal’s powerful doping machine. For Hamilton, Ferrari’s system was so sophisticated that U.S. Postal riders were well ahead of testing methods, and maybe even “two years ahead” of their competition. Il Mito’s fees also ensured a certain level of exclusivity. Given Armstrong’s growing commercial appeal, he and his team were able to pay what others could not. According to USADA, transactions from Armstrong to Ferrari alone exceeded $1 million from 1996 to 2006, and that’s just what’s on record.
Beyond that, Armstrong and Weisel built strategic relationships within the sport that helped cultivate powerful disincentives to police the American champion, who quickly became cycling’s most powerful financial and commercial asset. During the dotcom boom Weisel “was the hottest investment banker in Silicon Valley,” and according to Albergotti and O’Connell he wasn’t inclined to “accept investments from just anybody.” But Armstrong was friendly with UCI president Hein Verbruggen, who had already established financial ties with Jim Ochowicz, a broker who was also a key figure in American cycling and the godfather of Armstrong’s son. Not surprisingly, Weisel found room for Verbruggen’s money and a job for Ochowicz at Thomas Weisel Partners in 2001, gaining “powerful influence over the UCI, which controlled the business and, significantly, all drug testing during the Tour de France.” Finally, Armstrong made multiple donations to the UCI (even in retirement), which the organization should have denied based on a clear conflict of interest. When USADA was presented with similar offers, they refused. The UCI never did.
Adding one more layer to Armstrong’s remarkable defenses, when a test to detect EPO was finally commissioned by the International Olympic Committee, the leader of the initiative was none other than Francesco Conconi, one of Michele Ferrari’s professors and confidants, whom Albergotti and O’Connell note “had himself been involved in the doping of Italian Olympic athletes.” Thus Ferrari possessed invaluable intelligence, which gave Armstrong and his team greater freedom in planning and executing their doping procedures.
Armstrong’s power and spiritual appeal afforded U.S. Postal the luxurious gears of a Swiss watch, as they morphed into drones of efficiency. His sponsors and supporters always pointed to the presumed fact that he and his team never tested positive, but Armstrong now admits to multiple positives tests and to gaining inside information from Ferrari about the particulars of test methods. He also admits to having received “dozens, if not hundreds,” of advance warnings about future tests and specific information about test results from the UCI. In Albergotti and O’Connell’s account, a clean record was purchased at a high price. There’s reason to believe “that Armstrong arranged for $500,000 to be wired to the UCI after his positive corticosteroid test in 1999,” which former U.S. Postal team mechanic Julien De Vriese has said came “from either Thom Weisel or Nike.” The test results were mysteriously overturned after the team provided a back dated prescription. In 1999, Le Monde revealed that Armstrong’s blood levels in that year’s Tour de France were highly indicative of EPO use, which he eventually tested positive for in the Tour de Swiss of 2001. As Hamilton recounts, Armstrong responded to the news like it was water under the bridge. “He was kind of chuckling,” says Hamilton, “like someone had told him a good joke. ‘You won’t fucking believe this,’ he said. ‘I got popped for EPO.’” As Hamilton’s “stomach hit the floor,” Armstrong was unfazed. “No worries, dude. We’re gonna have a meeting with them. It’s all taken care of.” It was.
So doping may have been widely accepted, but no one was doping as well as Armstrong and his team, and no one else had the instruments or the financial and legal tools to persuade the sport’s governing body and a gullible public that they were above scrutiny, even when they tested positive. At the pinnacle of his career Armstrong and his team were capable of manufacturing their own “noble lie,” justified and protected from the top down and the bottom up, capable of persuading “in the best case, even the rulers, but if not them, the rest of the city.” As a global icon of athletic and humanitarian dimension Armstrong persuaded the rulers like no other; he also persuaded the citizens, and within the tightly wound community of professional cycling, he ruled the city.
If Weisel could have known he was pursuing such an airtight investment when he envisioned the great American cycling team, he might have secured enough sponsorship to found a great American cycling league. Either way, when Armstrong raced to his first Tour de France victory in 1999, Weisel’s dream had finally come true; his French baseball team had won the World Series. Yet as David Walsh and his fellow journalists watched America’s hero obliterate his opposition during an effortless Alpine ascent of Sestriere, eyebrows lifted and sarcastic tones entered the conversation. Witnessing the genesis of the Armstrong myth, their collective disbelief was expressed in traditional French skepticism: “pas normal.” The rest is history.
Pindar once mused that sometimes “the seeming even overpowers the truth.” In Armstrong’s case, what seemed to be heroic exploits and a virtuous narrative overpowered the truth of his moral corruption, cowardice, fear and arrogance. But the success of an empire requires more than one man’s hubris, and as Alex Gibney’s closing comments in The Armstrong Lie remind us, while Armstrong “deceived his fans,” those fans “were willing to be fooled. So many people, from cancer survivors, to reporters, to sponsors, to myself loved the beautiful lie more than the ugly truth.” And so did the sport of cycling, whose leaders were willing to put riders between their career and the point of a needle for the sake of financial gain.
Today’s cycling officials argue they’ve moved beyond the painful history of the EPO era, but the duration and scope of the sport’s collective failure justify further skepticism, as well as doubts about its long-term viability. If athletics today are simply preserved and promoted as “an entertainment business,” then the question becomes: How much corruption and scandal can be endured before they become unwatchable, or worse, inscrutable? In Armstrong’s case fans, sponsors and directors were focused on protecting mythology and profitability, and in turn cycling descended into a darkness defined by its own participants. As a member of what would become the most successful team in the history of the Tour de France, Hamilton says he had everything he ever wanted—“every victory, every accolade, every big moment”—but “it nearly ended up destroying” him. On the surface he was rich and famous, but behind closed doors and on lonely training rides he was “utterly miserable.”
But Hamilton’s misery was a result of choices and agreements that had become second nature in cycling’s culture. As history and culture are defined by what we make of them, the sport was given a chance to remake itself in July of 1998 after a Festina team car was caught crossing the French border with a trunk full of performance-enhancing and recreational drugs. Now known as the infamous Festina Affair, the Tour de France was brought to its knees, and race director Jean Marie Leblanc responded by promising to lead cycling on a new course. The race in 1999, he promised, would be drug free, even if that meant compromising speed. But the “Tour of Renewal” was the fastest in the race’s history. It was also Armstrong’s first Tour de France victory, creating an irresistibly dramatic story of resurrection and ascension. The appeal was overwhelming, and while conventional wisdom still suggests everyone racing to the Champs Elysees was doping, the reality is more complicated. In fact Christophe Bassons, who rode for Festina, had such a pristine reputation for racing clean that Le Parisien commissioned him to write a column throughout that year’s Tour. According to Hamilton, Bassons was “a massive natural talent (his VO2 max … was two points higher than Lance’s score),” who embraced the opportunity having witnessed firsthand how PEDs had corrupted his team and the sport. If Leblanc didn’t have the will to champion the truth, Bassons did.
The essence of his message during the Tour of Renewal was quite simple. “The Festina affair had changed nothing.” But that message threatened the legitimacy of the sport and breaking cycling’s omertà created a “real problem, from Lance’s point of view.” With Armstrong on his way to international superstardom, Hamilton now acknowledges, “riders could have rallied to Bassons’ side,” collectively speaking out for the good of their profession. But Armstrong had other plans and “decided to fix things. The day after his win as Sestriere, he rode up to Bassons during the race and told him that his comments were hurting the sport; Bassons replied that he was telling the truth. Lance suggested that Bassons go fuck himself, and that he should get out of the sport.” In a culture defined by lies and ruled by Armstrong’s tyranny, Bassons had no ground to stand on and nowhere to turn for help. Bullied and isolated he abandoned the Tour the next day, quietly retiring from road racing two years later.
When David Walsh witnessed what Armstrong did to Bassons, along with the complicit behavior of the peloton and the UCI, it was clear to him that cycling was willing to overlook “the perversion of sport, the abuse of the health of athletes,” while duping its own spectators, so long as a blind eye could enhance profitability. In Walsh’s estimation Bassons was the hero, not Armstrong. So when Armstrong’s Olympian fable came crashing down Walsh reached out to the brave Frenchman for comment. Undoubtedly, Bassons would have benefited from a more virtuous competitive culture, but when he heard the news of Armstrong’s demise he says it brought him “no great joy … just an appreciation that justice had been done.” While Armstrong’s behavior “was a reflection of his character and the manner in which he imposed his will on the peloton,” Bassons harbors no bitterness toward the shamed champion, who he says, “was the only one to say to my face what other riders were thinking of me. If they had had the opportunity or the intelligence to create the empire he made, they would have done exactly the same. They weren’t any more honest than he was.”
“Today,” Bassons says, “I feel more pity than contempt for him” as “his is a story of failure and nothing else.”
In deference to Bassons’ interpretation, there may be no better conclusion than allowing Armstrong to define failure in his own words, under oath. Take this, from his testimony in the suit he brought against SCA almost ten years ago:
If you have a doping offense or you test positive it goes without saying that you’re fired from all of your contracts. Not just the team, but there’s numerous contracts that I have that would all go away … and the faith of all the cancer survivors around the world, so everything I do off the bike would go away too. And don’t think for a second I don’t understand that!
Perhaps he did understand it, but that understanding didn’t stop Armstrong from building those contracts and that faith on false claims, phony platitudes and manufactured consent. Now that we know the painful truths about Armstrong’s years of domination, cycling’s active participants have a choice: to rebuild their culture in light of those truths, or simply to use Armstrong’s dramatic rise and fall as a cautionary tale leading to more sophisticated measures of obfuscation.
We the observers of Armstrong’s narrative, and of sport writ large, have a choice as well; we can begin to appreciate the tangible human qualities of athletic endeavors, the frailty of heroism and the dangerous confluence of athletic mythology, power and money, or we can simply allow the seeming of entertaining spectacles to overpower the truth. Ultimately the future of sport is at stake, and don’t think for a second we shouldn’t understand that.