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