Ghost Riders

With the Lance Armstrong era over, a generation of cyclists who insisted on racing clean comes to terms with what was lost.
Illustration by Nigel Dennis
Illustration by Nigel Dennis

For more than fifteen years, I followed the accusations, denials, and endless debates regarding Lance Armstrong. I made up my own mind about him long ago, but now the world finally has a verdict. In October the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency ( USADA) released more than one thousand pages of evidence, including testimony from eleven of Armstrong’s former teammates and friends, that identified the most celebrated American cyclist in history as the ringleader of a sophisticated doping operation that spanned most of his career. The report left little doubt that when Armstrong competed in the Tour de France, one of the sporting world’s greatest spectacles, banned substances coursed through his body. He cheated, and for a long time, he won. Now Armstrong no longer owns the record seven Tour titles. He’s stepped down as the chairman of the Livestrong Foundation. He’s lost his treasured relationship with Nike. And millions of former fans feel duped and heartbroken.

There can be no question that the past decade of professional cycling was dominated by riders whose performance was enhanced by illegal drugs. In its reasoned decision on Armstrong, USADA stated that 20 of the 21 podium finishers in the Tour from 1999 through 2005 have been linked to doping. An era of cyclists played dirty, but buried in the scandal is a lost generation of American pros who stayed clean during a period rife with cheaters. In fact, no top American cyclist who was born after 1980 has ever received a doping sanction. These athletes played by the rules, but they had their careers stunted by a pharmacological glass ceiling. One of them was my childhood friend Pat McCarty. 

In the late nineties, back when we were awkward teens, Pat and I shared a common goal: to race bicycles professionally. I was from Southlake and Pat was from Allen, where a labyrinth of country roads ripe for exploring sat just beyond a grid of suburban neighborhoods. Like a lot of kids in the area, we worshipped Armstrong, who grew up in nearby Plano, and we began racing for the Richardson Bike Mart, where Armstrong had gotten his start ten years earlier. The store’s buoyant owner, Jimmy Hoyt, had given Armstrong a free bike, and he gave Pat one too—a bright-yellow special-edition Trek, with Armstrong’s signature emblazoned on the frame.

In 2001 Pat and I ranked among the top racers in the nation for our age group. We joined the national team, USA Cycling, and got shipped off to Europe, where races became a form of Darwinian selection that spit out all but the strongest and most tenacious riders. I frequently got spit out and eventually reenrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. Pat, just nineteen years old and whippet-thin at six feet and 140 pounds, quickly proved he belonged with the world’s best—even earning a rare compliment from the team’s no-nonsense director, Noel Dejonckheere, who said, “He is not bad, eh?” 

The following year, Pat put off college to chase a cycling career. His parents, Jon and Nancy, the first in their families to earn degrees, struggled with his decision but ultimately asked themselves, “How do you keep a kid from pursuing his dream?”

Their concern was not simply about school. Even casual cycling fans knew that many professional racers doped. In 1998 the top French team, Festina, had been booted from the Tour de France after police discovered a treasure chest of syringes, EPO, and anabolic steroids in the trunk of a team vehicle. When I was on the national team, we passed around a book detailing the doping scandal, Breaking the Chain, like a dirty magazine. In the exposé, the Festina assistant nabbed in the bust detailed prerace butt-cheek injections and racers who couldn’t fathom competing clean. 

In 2000 USA Cycling had instituted a no-tolerance policy toward doping. “We didn’t even allow supplements,” said Jim Miller, vice president of athletics. Each new doping scandal led to renewed reinforcement from our coaches and parents that we should never cheat. Before Pat left for a second stint in Europe, his parents called a family conference at their home. “It’s our expectation that you don’t use drugs,” they said. “If you find out that doping is going on, you can come home. We’ll help pay for your college.” They told Pat the offer stood until he was 25.

For three years, while his high school buddies partied at college keggers (full disclosure: guilty), Pat rode his bike upward of thirty hours a week and lived a monastic life at the national team house in Belgium. The masochistic training and personal sacrifice paid off, especially in the multiday events across Europe’s mountains. In 2003 USA Cycling participated in a four-day race in the Pyrenees called La Ronde de l’Isard. Pat’s parents flew to France to watch. On the hardest stage, Jon and Nancy stood at the summit as Pat ascended the road alone. He won the stage and secured the race’s overall lead. 

At the end of August 2003, Pat sat second in the world rankings for racers under the age of 23, and later that year he received the call he had dreamed about: he was asked to join Armstrong’s professional team, the U.S. Postal Service. Pat headed off to a training camp in Austin, where he recalled his hero showing up to the team rides in a Suburban with blacked-out windows, then barking out orders. “He carried out the role of the elusive captain really well,” Pat said. “I was so nervous around him I didn’t even know what to say.”

The following year Armstrong raced to his sixth consecutive Tour victory, and Pat started to understand why so many riders considered drugs an unfortunate but necessary part of professional cycling. Many of Pat’s interactions with team staffers seemed rife with innuendo. After one race in which, he said, “I got my ass kicked,” the team’s friendly Polish masseur offered him an awkward consolation. “Your first year you don’t get results—you have to die every race,” he told Pat. “Your

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