Lance Armstrong: the case as it stands

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The charges laid at the door of Lance Armstrong, and the testimonies that back them up, have blown a great crater in cycling history.

There can be no light made of the damage he has done to the sport, assuming the accusations hold true, nor can we allow Armstrong and his alleged partners-in-crime to slip into the shadows. We must know exactly what he did and how, to ensure it is never repeated.

The pace of the investigation has slowed, as both sides consider their next moves. So we can take some time to sit back and consider what we know already, and what is yet to be confirmed.

What we know…

1) From 1996, 14 of the 17 Tour de France winners have doped or been sanctioned for doping. From Bjarne Riis (a confessed doper who has since headed up several Tour teams) to Alberto Contador, this has been a deeply troubled period in cycling – and sporting – history.

From pills to blood transfusions, the peloton was rife with cheating. It seemed to most – including Scot David Millar, who has since campaigned against cheating in cycling – that the only way to get anywhere in the world of cycling was to follow the crowd.

There were exceptions (for example, Scott Mercier, who says he quit Armstrong’s US Postal team when pressured to dope), but it would appear that the offences of which Armstrong is accused were the icing on top of a doping-infused cake.

2) The system of dope testing was not effective during this period. Some doping cyclists were caught, Millar being one of them, but we can hardly start to guess how many were not.

Blood doping releases more red blood cells, which carry oxygen, into the body, increasing an athlete’s speed and stamina. One method of doping is to take the performance-enhancing drug EPO (Erythropoietin). It is detectable for several hours afterwards, so users would need to ensure that they were not tested during that time.

According to Tyler Hamilton, one of the key witnesses against Armstrong, this was quite easy to do. He said that Armstrong and his US Postal team mates would use all kinds of tricks to evade or fool the testers, or possibly even had insider information. They worked out where and when was best to dope and were helped by one tester phoning ahead to say he was coming. Drinking a lot of water or a saline solution could speed up the fading of the EPO trace in their bodies.

Armstrong claimed to have failed none of his 500 drugs tests. According to Hamilton, he did, but it was explained away or hushed up.

3) Several of Lance Armstrong’s team mates have been convicted of doping. The ‘winner’ of the 2006 Tour de France, one year after Armstrong retired (for the first time), was Floyd Landis, ex-team mate of Armstrong. But he was found guilty of doping and stripped of his title. He then claimed doping was rife in Armstrong’s team, but cycling’s world body the UCI said he was a liar and shut him up.

Now that the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) have published their report, we know other ex-team mates also doped. George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and David Zabriskie are among those to have admitted cheating. Hincapie said that the only way to achieve anything in the sport was to join the cheats. Besides, it appears that Armstrong and US Postal demanded that their riders train and dope in line with the others. No drugs, no contract.

4) USADA have a wealth of witness testimonies against Armstrong. Besides those riders who have testified against Armstrong in return for a shortening of their own bans (a travesty in my opinion – you cheat, you pay the full penalty), others involved in the Armstrong winning machine have come forward.

One of them, Emma O’Reilly, Armstrong’s ex-masseuse, has called Armstrong a “bully” and admitted knowing about his drug-taking. With such a great deal of evidence and testimonies, USADA have Armstrong in a corner.

5) Armstrong has few friends left. 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins has spoken of his shock at the report’s findings, while Sir Chris Hoy told the BBC it was “frustrating and sad”. While some – like Roger Hammond – have spoken in favour of Armstrong, most cannot find it in themselves to dispute the evidence and have condemned the American rider, with British Cycling and Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford saying he had caused great damage to the whole sport.

Today, it was announced that Armstrong had lost his sponsors. Nike, cycle brand Trek and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch have cut their ties, making it clear that they believe Armstrong to be dead in the water as far as this case is concerned.

On a wider scale, Armstrong has lost the people. Cycling fans and many others besides were inspired by his recovery from cancer and return as a champion, as well as his Livestrong charity work. They now feel let down. His charity efforts besides, it all appears to have been a scam. For me, hero has turned villain. Initially I was stunned. Now the overwhelming likelihood that he is guilty has sunk in, not that it makes it any less painful.

6) Cycling is determined to change. Already Johan Bruyneel and Matt White – both involved with Armstrong – have departed their management posts at the RadioShack and GreenEDGE teams respectively. Cycling appears determined to close ranks against the cheats and look to the future.

At the forefront of that cleaner future are Team Sky. They have always held up clean racing as one of their mantras, and they have now adopted a pledge for all their riders and staff to sign – ‘I have never doped and I never will’. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have been seen by many in this country as a clean break (in more ways than one) with cycling’s guilty past. That pledge affirms that belief.

And what we don’t… 

1) What Armstrong will do now. At the moment, there is silence. He has stepped down from his position at the head of his Livestrong foundation, claiming that he does not want that charity to be implicated in the controversy.

Livestrong was his stated reason for refusing to fight USADA in court back in August; for some, that decision there meant the game was up. We’ve heard from USADA, others involved in cycling, even the UCI (who are to give their verdict on Monday), but not the man himself. He remains the last of the US Postal men to admit doping.

His lawyer has described the USADA report as a “one-sided hatchet job” and suggested the witnesses against Armstrong take lie detector tests. It smacks of desperation, but the case will continue to writhe until Armstrong himself speaks and – quite possibly – confesses.

2) Why these accusations have only come out now. We have no idea how big a problem doping was in the ‘Armstrong years’ because not enough was done about it at the time. There were problems with testing technology, yes, but there was a bigger problem in attitudes. Armstrong, and perhaps other big names, were allowed to get away with this.

We must ask who knew about this – Landis cannot have been the first doper to have tried to implicate others once found guilty. Either the web of drug-use did not reach Armstrong and has only done so now, or it did, but that knowledge was not allowed into the public domain.

Cycling was struggling at the time, with drug cheats widespread and team sponsors dropping out as they realised cheating and scandals did not sit well with their customer base. Had Armstrong been outed as a cheat, it might have been a fatal blow to le Tour and the other races. If the UCI did know about Armstrong, how much did they know and why did they cover it up? To save themselves?

3) Whether there are still cheats in the peloton. Whatever happened and why, Armstrong’s shadow looms large over today’s sport. Doping was not tackled for too long, allowing it to put down roots.

Sky and others look towards a brighter future. But still the drug bans continue. Andy Schleck is one of cycling’s clean hopes. Yet his brother Frank had a positive drugs test during the last Tour. Has Andy doped as well?

There remain methods of blood doping that are undetectable, so the battle between cheats and testers goes on. For all Sky’s pledges and the condemnations of fallen champions, cyclists have a long road ahead of them in order to dispel doubts that their sport is clean. That destination seems as far off as ever now.

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