Some friendly advice for the greatest cyclist in the history of the world.
It’s been a long time, almost ten years. Maybe you remember; I did a story on you in July 2001 for TEXAS MONTHLY. We rode around Austin together and shared a few beers at the Hula Hut not long before you won your third Tour de France. Since then, of course, you’ve won four more and gone from well-known cyclist to global superstar. It’s impossible to overstate how big you are. This year Forbes called you the most influential athlete in America. You hang with Bono and share the stage with guys like Bill Clinton. Your cancer foundation has raised$350 million. You have 2.6 million followers on Twitter. You’re so inspirational that when some of your fans—especially cancer survivors—meet you, they weep. Here in Texas you’ve even talked about running for governor. You’re everywhere, from website ads (“Tired of being tired?”) to billboards, such as the one near my house on which you’re riding a bike while wearing a pair of Oakley sunglasses (“Undeniable”), looking down at the rest of us as we chug along. You are a god.
It’s also impossible to overstate how much trouble you’re in. Federal agents, apparently convinced that you’ve used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), are hot on your trail. These sorts of accusations have haunted you since you won your first Tour de France, but they got a lot scarier in May, when your former teammate Floyd Landis went public with some pretty damning claims about you.
As I’m sure you know, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds go on trial in federal court next year for lying to Congress and a federal grand jury about their use of PEDs. To be clear: They’re not in trouble for using drugs but for lying about using them—in particular, lying to people who workfor the federal government. Sure, that seems ridiculous. I mean, members of Congress and federal investigators lie all the time, right? But they’re the feds, and they make the rules. So if a federal agent darkens your Austin door in the near future and asks, “Have you ever used PEDs?” here’s my advice:
Tell the truth.
Now, you can, and you probably will, give some version of the answer you’ve given since 1999, which is, “I can only assert my innocence. I’ve never tested positive; I’ve never been caught with anything.” All through your career you denied and denied and denied as you were tested and tested and tested, arguably the most tested athlete in history. You did it again at this year’s Tour de France. “As long as I live,” you declared, “I will deny it.”
But what if you’re not so clean? It’s not such a crazy thought. When I wrote my story, I talked with five people—a former teammate, a doctor and a trainer who had worked for other teams, and two journalists—who were certain you had doped. None had any proof. But just look at this guy, they said: He was a really good one-day, short-distance racer who won a couple of stages at a couple of Tours, in 1993 and 1995, but had trouble making it through the mountain stages and finished only one Tour (in thirty-sixth place). Then he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996, almost died when it spread to his brain, came back less than three years later, and all of a sudden was an incredible long-distance rider, the best cyclist ever, winning the Tour from 1999 through 2005.
And you did this during the era of rampant abuse of synthetic erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone that stimulates the production of red blood cells and helps cyclists train harder, race faster and longer, and recover quicker (it’s also given to cancer patients, including you). By various accounts, in the mid- to late nineties, anywhere from 60 to 99 percent of the peloton was using EPO. Most cyclists didn’t want to take it, but they felt they had to; if they didn’t, they would be left in the dust. They also learned to lie about it. “The reason they’re such good liars is that their consciences are clean,” University of Texas professor John Hoberman told me. “It’s a psychological phenomenon from being forced to lead double lives.”
In a story I wrote for Outside magazine in 2008, the Scottish cyclist David Millar told me he refused to dope until 2001, when he finally gave in. “I was too tired to fight it anymore,” he said. “I thought, ‘No one cares.’ I could get away with it and it would guarantee results.” He told me about the incredible circus atmosphere in hotels during the Tour. “There were doctors going between rooms, bags of medical waste being taken out, soigneurs [team assistants] dropping off ice each night to put inside flasks and keep vials of EPO cold. Syringes were sitting out.” Almost everyone did it, and many were caught.
But not you. You’ve always claimed you’ve never failed a test, but that’s a less impressive claim than it sounds. Throughout the nineties, EPO was virtually undetectable; cycling officials could only try to gauge its effects. If the percentage of red blood cells in a rider’s blood was unusually high, he was suspended from the Tour. A better test arrived in 2000, but it was still flawed. In 2005 a more refined version finally came along, but if a cyclist measured his injections right and timed them properly, he probably wouldn’t get caught.
Your version of the truth has certainly taken hits over the years from former associates. Back in 2001 I talked with Stephen Swart, who rode on the Motorola team with you in 1994 and ’95. Swart would speak to me only off the record, but in a recent conversation, he confirmed, on the record, what he had told me then. He said you guys were good but needed something extra to compete with the top teams. “No one wanted to get into it,” Swart told me, “but we knew we were just getting left behind. We had to do what we had to do.” He claims that eight of the team’s nine cyclists took EPO during the 1995 Tour. I asked him, Was Lance one of the eight? “Well, he’s lying if he says he wasn’t,” Swart said. “It’s like Bill Clinton saying he didn’t have anything to do with Monica Lewinsky.” In 2006 two of your teammates on the 1999 U.S. Postal Service team told the New York Times they had doped. A few months earlier, one of them, Frankie Andreu, and his wife testified that in 1996 they heard you tell your cancer doctors that you had used EPO, human growth hormone, and testosterone. Your former personal assistant Mike Anderson testified that while cleaning out your Girona apartment in 2004, he found a white box labeled with the name of a steroid.
But none of these people ever said they’d seen you do something illegal, which is why Landis’s testimony is so stunning. Landis was your teammate on Postal from 2002 through 2004; he was a headstrong young rider, and you were his mentor. He won the Tour in 2006 but had his title stripped after he tested positive for testosterone. To everyone’s surprise, he denied that he’d doped—he even wrote a book denying it. But this spring he changed his story and confessed to several cycling and anti-doping officials. It was all true, Landis said: EPO, steroids, HGH, testosterone, transfusions. And he wasn’t just talking about himself: He implicated you. He told of long training-ride discussions with you about “the evolution of EPO testing.” There was plenty of detail—his first EPO, which he says was given to him at your place, “was Eprex by brand, and it came in six premeasured syringes.” He told of a closet refrigerator in your Girona apartment full of blood. He talked about the doping as something the entire team took part in; on one occasion the team bus stopped and each rider took a transfusion “in plain view” of one another. He has no physical evidence, but I wouldn’t find that too reassuring; eyewitness testimony alone can be enough to send someone to prison.
At some point Landis began talking to the feds, which is when your trouble really began. The Food and Drug Administration has begun a federal inquiry, headed by Jeff Novitzky, who also led the lengthy investigation of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), a company that supplied illegal steroids and HGH to athletes. Landis has been talking to anti-doping officials and law enforcement agents “several times a day,” according to the New York Daily News, which, along with the Times, is being fed information about the case. Sources told the Times that the feds are looking at possible “fraud, drug distribution, tax evasion, money laundering, and breaches of employment law” charges.
According to the Times, the investigators have talked to a number of former Postal cyclists, at least one of whom apparently said you encouraged riders to dope. The names mentioned include an honor roll of your former teammates: Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie, and Kevin Livingston. Obviously the investigators are trying to get the testimony of a group of all-American cycling heroes to shore up the testimony of their main witness, Landis, who—as an admitted liar—has some serious credibility problems. Will they play ball? Will they finger you? We won’t know unless the grand jury that has been hearing testimony returns an indictment, which, the Times reported, could be by January.
Now, all these people could be lying. Who knows why—it could be envy of your success or anger at your famously demanding personality. Everyone is innocent until proved guilty, and I won’t pretend to know the truth for sure. But I know this: If your version of the truth has ever been in need of some tinkering, now is the time to get to work on it. Novitzky is no pushover. In the BALCO investigation, he told potential witnesses that lying under oath was a federal offense and if they did it they would go to prison. So the witnesses talked. He spent at least five years on BALCO, even going through garbage for evidence. The head of the company, Victor Conte, finally pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to distribute steroids; Bonds and Clemens face years in prison. Novitzky also nabbed three-time Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones for using PEDs and steroids without any actual evidence of it; all he had to do was wave over her head a check-fraud scam she had been involved with and she pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents. Novitzky plays hard; he was once chastised by a federal court for overextending a search warrant to collect information on baseball players (“What happened to the Fourth Amendment?” asked a judge). “He is a nightmare for anyone that he’s focused on,” says a defense lawyer. He is tenacious and ruthless. He sounds, in fact, a lot like you.
You’ve gone and hired some pretty tenacious people for your defense team too, people like top Los Angeles defense lawyer Bryan Daly and communications consultant Mark Fabiani, dubbed by Newsweek a “master of disaster” because of his work for the Clintons during the Whitewater scandal. Fabiani’s attacked Landis, he’s questioned Novitzky’s methods, and he’s raised doubts about the federal jurisdiction in the case. “Cycling events are primarily international events regulated by international authorities,” he told me. Then he allowed that the feds can do pretty much what they want, before adding that they shouldn’t stretch things out for years. “Don’t let it drag down LiveStrong,” he said. “Don’t let it hurt the good things Lance has done.”
So far you seem to be weathering the storm. “LiveStrong remains a powerful foundation,” says Fabiani. “It’s stronger than ever. Lance’s sponsors and his business partners and others have loyally stood by him.” But cracks have begun to appear, according to Zeta Interactive, which (by tracking millions of blogs, tweets, and web message boards) has seen a major change in the way you’re perceived by the public. Before Landis started making headlines, people used words like “hero” and “legend” to describe you. Now they go with “steroids,” “scandal,” and “lie(s)”/“liar.” As Novitzky presses forward, it might get worse. You might reach that tipping point where sponsors, allies, and the public begin to back away and then flee. Granted, you’re different from guys like Clemens, Bonds, and Tiger Woods. They never saved anybody. But this is bad.
I know you’re not going to take any advice from me. You hated the story I did nine years ago. You thought that I gave too much credence to your skeptics, that I basically called you a doper. I, of course, thought it was pretty evenhanded. My conclusion then, and my belief now, is that you’re a great champion, one of the greatest ever. If it turns out that you doped, many will call you one of the greatest frauds. But if there’s one person who can get away with being both, it’s you. You would be in for a hard fall, for sure. Survival—of your brand, your foundation, your reputation—wouldn’t be guaranteed. Still, you survived cancer of the brain; you could survive this. If you doped, just say and do the right things and do them as quickly as possible. “If he is guilty,” says Jonathan Bernstein, the president of Bernstein Crisis Management of Los Angeles, “I’d advise him to do a Tiger Woods, a public mea culpa. It’s better to do it proactively than to be caught. It’s much more dangerous if you’re outed by someone else than by yourself. The public is very willing to forgive humans for being human. When our icons fail in a human way, we are receptive.”
Start with the position that virtually everyone you were competing against was doping. Remind them of the years you spent riding clean, the frustration you felt as you watched lesser riders pull away from you because they had doped. Say something like “In order to compete in the sport I loved, I chose to enhance my body’s ability to process oxygen—with, by the way, the same drug that helped save me from cancer.” Emphasize that it wasn’t a moral decision, it was a tactical one. In football, offensive guards hold on almost every play; if they don’t, their quarterback gets creamed. It’s part of the game. It was the same with cyclists and EPO. It was part of the game.
Next, remind everyone of something we all know: Nobody trained harder than you. On a playing field leveled by so much doping, you were still the hardest-working cyclist in the peloton, training six, seven hours a day, even in the off-season, when so many others were sleeping in. “I wanted to be the best I could be,” you could say. “So I did what I had to do.” Doping was just one part, an inevitable part, of your intense drive to be the best.
Finally, remind everyone how, from the beginning of your comeback in 1999, you rode to inspire cancer survivors. “Everyone fights to be the best in his or her own way,” you might say. “I went too far, but that is my nature, to be ruthless against my enemies, whether in the peloton or the hospital bed.”
And then apologize. Sincerely.
Andy Pettitte did that after he was named in the Mitchell report, baseball’s official steroid investigation. He was welcomed back by the sport, made the All-Star team this season, and someday may be inducted into the Hall of Fame. By contrast, Clemens, who was also named in the Mitchell report (82 times), denied using steroids and then went before Congress and denied it again. Then came the grand jury and the indictment for perjury and making false statements, and now the trial that begins in April. Clemens could get thirty years in prison. And though he’s one of the game’s greatest pitchers, he’s by no means a lock for the Hall.
The scary thing is, you’re a lot more like seven-time Cy Young winner Clemens than Pettitte. You love to win and you pride yourself on being able to bull your way up and over anything and anyone in your way. You love a fight, especially when everyone thinks you can’t do something. “I’ve always been better when I’ve had things stacked against me,” you told me in 2001. Cheating death was one thing, winning the most grueling physical contest on the planet seven times was another. But beating the federal government? Innocent or guilty, that could be the toughest ride of your life.