Posted: Tuesday September 12, 2006 10:39AM; Updated: Tuesday September 12, 2006 3:26PM
The specter of doping rumors chased Lance Armstrong even as he raced to his seventh straight Tour de France title in 2005.
E.M. Swift will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
Is the truth finally catching up with Lance Armstrong, and is this one race the seven-time Tour de France champion may not be able to win?
In Tuesday's New York Times, two of Armstrong's former U.S. Postal Service teammates admitted to having used EPO, an illegal performance-enhancing drug, at some point in 1999, the first year Armstrong won the Tour de France. While neither said they saw Armstrong do the same, the implication was that the drug use was common knowledge within the team. "The environment was certainly one of, to be accepted, you had to use doping products," said one of Armstrong's teammates, who requested anonymity, fearing reprisals from the notoriously vindictive Armstrong, who still wields considerable power in cycling.
The other teammate was 39-year-old Frankie Andreu, a domestique who competed professionally for 12 years and was once Armstrong's close friend and roommate. He's now a motivational speaker and real-estate dealer in Dearborn, Mich. He said he only used EPO "for a couple of races" and was speaking out in hopes of cleaning up his tainted sport.
More interesting -- to me, anyway -- was the testimony the Times uncovered that Andreu and his wife, Betsy, gave last fall during a lawsuit between Armstrong and SCA Promotions. The company had withheld a $5 million bonus it owed Armstrong after he won the '04 Tour because of doping allegations.
The suit was eventually settled out of court in Armstrong's favor, but in their sworn testimony the Andreus said that when they visited Armstrong in the hospital after he'd been diagnosed with testicular cancer, they'd heard him tell his oncologists that he'd used "steroids, testosterone, cortisone, growth hormone and EPO." Their testimony was disputed by the doctor who administered Armstrong's chemotherapy at Indiana University Medical Center. In the same trial, Armstrong testified that his doctors never asked him if he'd used performance-enhancing drugs, and that he'd never used those substances.
Which testimony is more credible? The Andreus' or Armstrong's? Ask yourself which party had the most to gain by lying. And why is that particular testimony significant? Because one of the possible side effects of prolonged steroid use is testicular cancer. It's impossible to prove, but if what the Andreus testified to under oath is true, than Lance Armstrong, role model and hero to so many cancer survivors, may very well have helped bring about his own cancer through his use of performance-enhancing drugs. Young athletes tempted to go down that road need to know if that's the case.
None of what was reported in the Times is a shock to me. In 1999 I went to see Willy Voet, the Belgian trainer of the French-based Festina cycling team who was at the center of the '98 Tour de France scandal when he was arrested while crossing the border with literally hundreds of vials of EPO, growth hormones and testosterone.
Voet ended up spending time in prison, and by the time he talked to me he was a man filled with remorse. He, too, was interested in helping to clean up his sport, and had written a book in French, the title of which translates as ChainMassacre: Revelations of 30 Years of Cheating. It made him an outcast in cycling but painstakingly chronicled the drug culture that only now is recognized as having infected the sport.
In the 1970s, Voet said, the drug of choice was amphetamines. In the '80s it was anabolic steroids and cortisone. In the '90s it was growth hormones and EPO. He described leaning out a car window to give a shot to a cyclist in the middle of a race. He recalled hiding condoms of clean urine in the anus of cyclists to fool drug-testers. He spoke of dripping IV bags of saline solution into their bodies after a race to lower the ratio of red-blood-cell volume to total blood volume to avoid EPO detection in the event of a surprise drug test.
Of the 500 cyclists he'd worked with over the years, only two had ever failed a drug test. "A racer who gets caught by doping control is dumb as a mule," Voet told me.
And how many of those 500 cyclists he worked with did not take drugs to enhance their performance? "I can count them on two hands. Maybe two hands and two feet if I'm generous," Voet said.
And where did the clean ones finish? I wondered.
"The back of the pack," Voet said.
Armstrong never finished at the back of the pack. Neither did his onetime teammate, Tyler Hamilton, the '04 Olympic champion who was suspended for two years for blood doping. Neither did another former teammate, Floyd Landis, who failed a doping test after winning this year's Tour de France. Neither did Italy's Ivan Basso, or Germany's Jan Ullrich, or Spain's Francisco Mancebo, who finished second, third and fourth to Armstrong in the '05 Tour, all of whom have been implicated in the Spanish doping investigation that rocked the start of this year's Tour. Each disputes the allegations.
There's nothing new in any of this. Voet was telling the truth, but not enough people were listening. The sport of cycling is dirty, was dirty and will continue to be dirty until more athletes like Andreu and trainers like Voet come forward and break the code of silence. Remember those names. They're the heroes.
Here's the thing about truth: It may take a while. It may take years. But truth's a tenacious battler. Eventually it will come out.