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What am I on? I'm on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?
—Lance Armstrong, 2001 Nike commercial
It was a brazen but brilliant ad, a way for Armstrong to mock anyone inclined to believe the gathering evidence that he had doped his way to his Tour de France titles. At the same time he could burnish his image as a cancer survivor whose journey seemed to place him beyond reproach. As he darted through the most drug-saturated period any sport had ever known, Armstrong defended himself the same way he raced—aggressively and sometimes recklessly. Every cyclist but one who shared the Paris podium with him between 1999 and 2005 would be directly implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but Armstrong always blustered his way clear, as if faithful domestiques would clean up after him in the courtroom or the lab as they did on the road.
The force of his denials kept his accusers on the defensive—or did until two months ago, when the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency announced that it would strip Armstrong of his seven Tour titles and ban him from any future involvement in sanctioned sports. Last week, with the release of its "reasoned decision" for doing so, the agency pulled the last thread from the fiction that Armstrong had painstakingly woven: that he had been the lone clean champion during cycling's most corrupt era.
In 164 pages punctuated by chilling detail, and more than 850 pages of addenda and documentary evidence, USADA lays out what it calls "a massive fraud now more fully exposed." During his run of Tour victories, Armstrong was, in fact, on all sorts of things besides his bike. He was on erythropoietin (EPO). He was on testosterone. He was on corticosteroids. He was on transfused blood. More than that, he lobbied other members of his U.S. Postal Service team to use "Edgar" (EPO, after Edgar Allan Poe) or "the oil" (for testosterone mixed with olive oil). He introduced teammates to his notorious doping doctor, Michele Ferrari, and urged them to follow Ferrari's regimen. He insisted Ferrari work with no other Tour contender, and he continued his relationship with the Italian medicine man long after Armstrong testified under oath to have ended it. Sometimes Armstrong himself provided drugs to teammates. And to keep his secrets, he intimidated those who might spill them—one of the "aggravating circumstances" that USADA invoked to reach back beyond the eight-year statute of limitations.
Some 15 cyclists ignored the sport's omertà to cooperate with USADA's investigation, including 11 who rode alongside Armstrong. Of them, 10—Frankie Andreu, Michael Barry, Tom Danielson, Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis, Christian Vande Velde, Jonathan Vaughters and Dave Zabriskie—admitted, some for the first time publicly, to having doped themselves. Documents and sworn testimony also implicate USPS team director Johan Bruyneel; team doctors Pedro Celaya and Luis García del Moral; and José (Pepe) Martí, the trainer who allegedly served as the team's drug courier.
Like Armstrong, del Moral and Ferrari will not go to arbitration, thereby accepting their punishment. Bruyneel, Celaya and Martí will contest USADA's findings. The six active riders who admitted to doping but cooperated will forfeit results and serve six-month suspensions.
It would have been much easier to process last week's news if we were European. Across the Atlantic they have long known the truth about a sport that took root in France at the beginning of the last century. "For Americans, doping is entwined with questions of character, with goodness and evil," Daniel Coyle wrote in his 2005 book, Lance Armstrong's War. "For Europeans, doping is simply something cyclists are known to do.... [It's] the same divergence that occurs when a politician is caught out with a mistress: Americans get outraged—How could he? while, Europeans shrug—But of course." Five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil of France, who rode in the 1950s and '60s, once said, "You'd have to be an imbecile or a hypocrite to imagine that a professional cyclist who rides 235 days a year can hold himself together without stimulants."
But then, bike racing in Europe is a way out for working-class kids, who were willing to do almost anything for a place in the peloton. Many of the men who plied the roads of Europe a generation ago run the sport today. Why should they deny their successors the pharmaceutical relief they enjoyed?
In the U.S. bike racing is a way out too: a way out of high school hell for geeky middle-class boys. They take up cycling for the romance or, like Dave the Cutter in the 1979 movie Breaking Away, for the refuge. American pioneers arrived in Europe during the 1980s lashed to this ideal, but they eventually faced a reckoning. You can leave Colorado or California with your water bottles and Clif Bars, but you discover, as Dutch TV journalist Mart Smeets puts it, "if you want to dance, you put on your dancing shoes."