Armstrong: The End…
During the reign of Lance Armstrong, it was essential to be careful with what was published in stories relating to him, his Livestrong Foundation, and his many achievements. He is a litigious type with access to big-time lawyers and the funding to back up any action he or his foundation wanted to take against anyone who spoke out about him. Jean-François Quenet has always been outspoken about the antics of Armstrong and his ilk; and below you can read another feature by the French journalists who has been a long-time contributor to RIDE.
We’re yet to see what impact the USADA’s “Reasoned Decision” has on his persona but one thing seems clear: there’s a feeling of liberation for those who want to speak out against him. The attacks on the former rider in the global media since the 202-page document was released on 11 October 2012 have been justifiably scathing.
Armstrong himself has been particularly coy since the USADA’s document was published online. But surely it won’t be long before he starts popping up again and pretending that everything is fine and dandy… his world, however, is in tatters. All that he build is crumbling around him. But it was a long time in coming.
At the end of his second comeback – the one that started late in 2008 and finished in January 2011 – RIDE Cycling Review published a piece about his farewell race, and subsequent retirement from competition. This was in RIDE #52 which carried the coverline “Effect and Influence”. We revisit that feature here. (You can also buy the full copy of that issue in a digital form via Zinio.)
(Original headline): The Legacy Remains
Even the good stories must come to an end.
Lance Armstrong. The name was synonymous with success. He had achieved beyond what had been done – and did so as a cancer survivor.
His story has been told over the years. We know the history and understand his influence. But did the final chapter of a remarkable career ruin the effect?
By Jean-François Quenet
(Revised headline): What’s become of the myth?
Flashback from RIDE #52 (published April 2011)
This must have been no coincidence. This word isn’t part of Lance Armstrong’s vocabulary when it comes to his media plans: the world’s most renowned cyclist announced his second – and last – retirement on 16 February 2011. This time we can believe him about this decision. The 39-year-old will no longer race a bike in a professional competition again. The declaration came during the same week that Alberto Contador was cleared of doping charges by his federation. It was the week after news broke about Riccardo Riccò apparently risking his life with a blood transfusion… with no medical supervision!
There were plenty of hot items for journalists to ask UCI president Pat McQuaid about in February when he visited the Tour of Oman. What was the Irishman’s reaction to all these shenanigans? That’s what plenty wanted to know. It was also in the midst of the endless controversy surrounding radio contact between riders and directeurs sportif. Amazingly, Armstrong’s retirement was not a topic worthy of coverage. This was a stark contrast to the year and a half that preceded his retirement when any move or any word – even just a few bytes on Twitter – were digested as though it was crucial commentary ripe for analysis and dissection. Since he announced his intention to return to racing on 9 September 2008, Lance was a one-man media circus, every action seemed relevant… and then it faded away in what essentially became an anonymous retreat.
Had Armstrong wanted to exit unnoticed, he couldn’t have done a better job if he had planned it.
The Santos Tour Down Under was supposed to be his last race outside the US. It was labelled by local media in Adelaide as “his final race for RadioShack as a ProTeam professional”. But, really, it was the end. At the time there was still a chance that he would still appear as a rider on the US national circuit, including the Tour of California and possibly the newly created Quiznos Pro Challenge in Colorado that he helped to launch. On 13 January when he turned up for a media show with his old mate Mike Rann, in the Barossa Valley where he was staying with his family, it was already obvious that Lance had one last contract as a rider to honour. But the seven-time Tour champion was no longer the fighter he once was.
“I feel alright. I can’t deny my age – that is something that, three years ago, I perhaps thought I could deny, but I can’t,” he said with a hint of nihilism.
As in any press conference involving Armstrong, questions about doping were issued. It wasn’t too much though. When allegations made by Paul Kimmage the previous day were raised, Armstrong opted for a comedic response, answering: “The last 24 hours? Or the last 24 years? I have nothing to say about Paul Kimmage.” At other times, he would have had a lot to say. He’d done so before, but the fight was gone. Previously, he’d tried to convince reporters that the former Irish cyclist – who is now an author and journalist – was totally wrong. Lance simply didn’t bother this time around.
When the topic of the federal investigation conducted by agent Jeff Novitzky was raised, Lance repeated his mantra on the topic: that he wasn’t concerned about the investigation. Then his entourage promptly put an end to the press conference, as if this matter wasn’t meant to be on the agenda.
During his penultimate press conference as a pro cyclist – on 15 January at the Hilton Adelaide – Lance was confronted with the fact that he hired a public relations expert to deal with this issue. His one-word response was: “Correct.” Lance had generally been prepared to develop his own arguments or retorts to accusatory queries. But by the end of his career, he was willing to pay someone to handle questions about a topic that he repeatedly insisted he didn’t care about.
Mark Fabiani isn’t just another sporting press officer in charge of organising his client’s time with the media. He was Bill Clinton’s advisor during the Whitewater controversy. He’s a veteran legal and communication strategist. In July 2010, while riding his last Tour de France, Armstrong also hired Los Angeles-based criminal defence attorney Bryan D. Daly to represent him in the federal grand jury probe into possible doping practices. That means he didn’t underestimate the capacities of Agent Novitzky to go after athletes.
Novitzky convicted Marion Jones of perjury for her involvement – and subsequent denials – in the BALCO affair. The multiple Olympic medallist never tested positive but she denied having taken drugs while Victor Conte, the head of the infamous laboratory in California, and her former husband CJ Hunter assured the grand jury that the opposite was true. In 2007, Jones was sentenced to six months in gaol and she had to serve it fully from March to September 2008 before starting another sporting career in basketball.
The next targets of Novitzky are former baseball players Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, aged 46 and 48, respectively. Both have been accused of doping with steroids supplied by the BALCO lab. Bonds’ court case for perjury in front of the grand jury opened on 21 March, while Clemens’ is due to begin in July. In May, Novitzky is likely to pronounce the indictment of Armstrong. He’s believed to have questioned several former associates, including Floyd Landis – who initiated this latest affair – Kevin Livingston, George Hincapie, Tyler Hamilton, Yaroslav Popovych, Allen Lim, Stephanie McIlvain, Mike Anderson, Frankie Andreu and his wife Betsy.
The investigator travelled to Europe, collected information from French anti-doping agencies, possibly including samples taken during controls at the 1999 Tour de France. That was the first year Armstrong won that race – and, according to a report in L’Equipe in August 2005, it was also the race in which the rider retrospectively tested positive six times for EPO. Novitzky worked closely with Interpol and also inquired in Italy, where Armstrong openly had ties with people strongly accused of doping cyclists, Michele Ferrari in particular.
On 24 January, in a story entitled ‘The Case against Lance Armstrong’, Sports Illustrated accused the Texan of having kept in contact with Ferrari, the infamous doctor from Ferrara, until 2009 although he insisted he stopped this collaboration in 2004. The magazine also reported that Lance used HemAssist at the end of the 1990s when the doping product was still on probation. Authors Selena Roberts and David Epstein got a new testimonial from his former team-mate Stephen Swart, a New Zealander who affirmed that Armstrong forced some riders at Motorola to dope (before he was diagnosed with cancer in 1996). Sports Illustrated also revealed that, on three occasions from 1993 to 1999, his testosterone/epitestosterone ratio went above the authorised limit but the UCLA laboratory run by anti-doping expert Don Catlin covered it up.
Earlier this year, Kimmage recorded a seven-hour discussion with Landis that included even more allegations and details of Armstrong’s doping practices over the years and explanations about various techniques employed to avoid being caught.
Marketing company Zeta Interactive tracks millions of blogs, tweets, messages and other exchanges. They noted that the words associated with Armstrong had drastically changed. While “hero” or “legend” were widely written in the past, “scandal” and “cheat” have become predominant in people’s comments about the superstar. In two years, according to Zeta Interactive, Armstrong’s popularity dropped significantly in recent months with favourable opinion comments down from 92 per cent to just 55 earlier this year.
In the past it was relatively easy for Armstrong to respond to doping allegations by suggesting that it was just an invention by French zealots. But the accusations were coming from closer to home for him and his disregard for the validity of reports from magazines like Sports Illustrated was more difficult to maintain. Since Lance’s comeback to racing in 2009, his authenticity had been questioned by highly respected media outlets in the US. In August last year, GQ magazine ran a story in which they replaced Livestrong with “Liestrong”.
“L’Amérique lâche Armstrong” – America drops Armstrong – read the headline of the edition of L’Équipe Magazine that was released on the first Saturday of March. Reporter François Inizan had been dispatched to Boulder, Colorado, to report on how the US population viewed the fading star.
Furthermore, in a stark contrast to 2009 when a number of reporters flew from the US to Adelaide to cover Armstrong’s comeback at the Tour Down Under, there was absolutely no American media for his farewell this year. “I’m definitely not flying halfway around the world to sit in the bunch,” insisted Lance before jetting into Adelaide from his Hawaiian training base. He had returned to the famous island of the Pacific after a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit the US soldiers at the end of December along with other personalities. “For training, I’ve done other stuff than riding a bike but I’ve also trained on the same climbs as both those [previous] two years. They are up to 25 per cent steep. You can’t find harder than that,” he declared at the Jacob’s Creek Visitor Centre as he conjured the illusion that he would be competitive against the young guns of professional cycling like Matt Goss and Cameron Meyer. That was quite an assumption for a rider who hadn’t raced for seven months, not since his final appearance in the Tour de France.
He was to receive a prompt reality check as soon as he put a number on his back for the opening criterium in Adelaide, the Cancer Council Classic. He was no longer able to attack and break away like one year earlier when he did just that along with another Tour de France winner, Oscar Pereiro, and the young star from Slovakia, Peter Sagan.
During the 2011 Tour Down Under, Armstrong only briefly took part in an escape… it happened during stage five, but the move wasn’t at a critical point in the race nor was it on a steep part of Old Willunga Hill like he was capable of doing 12 months earlier. Now it really was time for him to quit. He was no longer competitive. During his preparation, he suffered knee pain and cancelled his participation in a Rotorua triathlon that had originally been planned. He later admitted that he wasn’t sure anymore if he would return to the sport he did as a teenager before taking up cycling. In a quest to remain vague, he referred to “multisport events” rather than triathlon.
In February, Fabiani stated that Armstrong’s participation in the Ironman championship in Kona at the end of the year was yet to be confirmed. Until this year, there had been plenty of bravado about the prospect of doing the Hawaii Ironman. His long-time advisor Chris Carmichael got in on the act with bold statements about what Armstrong would be able to achieve. “He’s super psyched and I think he wants to do more than win his age group,” said the coach.
So, what’s next if he’s no longer a competitive cyclist and possibly not a triathlete in the re-making? Politics? “I’m often asked that question,” he said in Adelaide. In the Vanity Fair interview in September 2008 when he announced his intention to come back to cycling after more than three years without racing, he talked about many other aspects of his life. He even nominated the date of his arrival in politics: “Down the road, something like that might be possible. Probably in 2014.”
His once seemingly assured governorship of Texas seems to drift further and further away from his preoccupations. “Political commitment has a price and it’s the kids who pay,” he’s since said. He’s a father of five now after the birth of Olivia last October.
During that month, CAS whacked a two-month suspension on Armstrong cohort Johan Bruyneel because of comments made about the UCI commissaires on the final day of the 2010 Tour de France. The manager’s ban would come into effect as of February 2011 and meant he could not take part in UCI events in the meantime. The Belgian appealed the decision that was issued because of a scathing appraisal of the sport’s judges who insisted RadioShack riders could not wear special black outfits that were part of a Livestrong initiative for the last stage of the Tour. While frustrated by the ban, he at least got to be part of Lance’s entourage for the farewell race in Adelaide.
Another person who was handed a suspension because of antics during the Tour last July – Carlos Barredo, a rider who instigated a fight after a stage – would serve a ban that started in January instead. And although CAS stated that it would later explain why Bruyneel’s suspension came into effect a month later, no reason was given. Perhaps this was a parting gesture from sporting administrators to allow the brothers in arms one final fling together in competition.
At least Lance got to spent some time in the wind during the Tour Down Under, albeit thanks to the efforts of last-minute Shack recruit Robbie McEwen. The Australian sprinter took the lead of GC thanks to the time bonuses earned on day two. Armstrong’s farewell involved a modicum of sporting prowess, but nothing like what was expected from the hordes who had come to witness an abdication from the man who was once The Boss of the bunch.
Just before he flew to Australia, Armstrong had been riding in Hawaii with Jenson Button. The Formula One driver voiced concerns about the way Bernie Ecclestone runs the F1 circus. But the cyclist responded with praise for the motorsport promoter. “I looked at Jenson and said, ‘Buddy, it’s not so bad to have somebody that comes and creates something that really lifts the sport – and the organisation – for a lot of people, makes a lot of people money, gives them world-wide exposure, creates a global circuit that’s pretty respectful…’”
With his significant influence, the potential exists for Armstrong to turn his attention to sporting administration but he denies having any such ambitions. Asked about a report that he expressed an interest in buying in to the Tour, he was quick to dismiss it as little more than idle chatter. “That story, originally, was run in the Wall Street Journal,” he recalled. “I think it’s a great idea [but] it’s an expensive proposition.”
He ruled out interest in being part of the media in the future. “I’m not sure that that makes perfect business sense either,” he said of the prospect of investing in the company responsible for the Tour. “You have to consider that ASO owns a lot… not just the Tour but sporting events, and a lot of media properties. And some would look at it and say, with no disrespect to y’all’s job, but would you want to own a magazine or newspaper today?”
It was a rhetorical question and he also delivered his verdict: “You wouldn’t! It’s a tough business to be in. There’d probably be a premium in that if I came along. But there was never any serious discussion. That was the irony of the story… if we were out on a ride and I said to the guy next to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to own the Tour de France?’ That’s not deserving of an article in the Wall Street Journal – I don’t think.”
Still, he has a considerable fortune and investing in the Tour de France would give him the opportunity to take his ultimate revenge on the country he loves and hates with equal vigour. He invited French media magnate Arnaud Lagardère to follow his RadioShack team at the Tour of Murcia last year. Lagardère has invested in sporting properties and is a minor stakeholder in the Amaury Group, the parent company of ASO. He was primed to take more control but attempts from Lagardère to get more shares in EPA (Editions Philippe Amaury) faded. “It’s a family business,” Armstrong recalled. “To buy the Tour de France is a great idea, but it’s expensive and there was never a real discussion [with owner Marie-Odile Amaury].”
Now is the time that Lance Armstrong can consider what his legacy will be. For many it is different to what it would have been had he not attempted to come back to competition years after his original retirement. He’s proud of his influence on the sport and, given the chance to reflect on his achievements, he quickly recites the lines from the times when 92 per cent of stories about him were seen in a positive light. “I won the Tour de France seven times and I think I won it because we changed the way people in cycling do business.
“I’m not going to dance around the fact there has been plenty of questions about that. But the reality is we came with a whole new approach to the sport. We revolutionised the way people train, the way they build morale in the team, the way they preview the courses, the way they race, the way they sell the sport, the way they tell that story around the world.
“I leave knowing I did my best and I don’t need somebody to give me a plaque or give me a statue, it has been very good to me on a lot of levels, it has been a good ride. Anyone that says otherwise isn’t reading the same manual.”
It’s typical Armstrong: adamant that his view of the world is the right one. A believer, a survivor, a winner. He’s been all these things but he also knows it’s going to be difficult for him to reintegrate to a life with any sense of normality.
“I’m still a fan of the sport,” he insisted years ago. It’s what he said in 2005 when he quit for the first time. On the Champs-Elysées after his seventh Tour win, he felt sorry for the sceptics and gestured – one after the other – to the examples of purity for the sport of cycling, saying to the crowd: “You should believe in these athletes, you should believe in these people!” Standing beside him were Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich; neither would make the start the following year because of allegations with doping with Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes.
Armstrong stated that doping is “a by-product of the sport trying harder than any other sport”. He is not a man to talk about the past and the good old days. “I always get a little uneasy with the past,” he admitted. “I’m almost 40 years old and I’ve got another 60 years here. We have five beautiful, healthy children to raise and a great foundation to run.”
As a “fan of the sport” he’s eager to discuss the development team Trek-Livestrong he wants to keep running, although it’s been a slap in his face to witness the departure of Taylor Phinney to BMC rather than joining RadioShack, a team that has an uncertain future beyond Lance’s retirement. Phinney’s mother Connie Carpenter welcomed L’Equipe Magazine for their report in search of Armstrong’s remaining credibility in the US cycling community. She looked embarrassed and said: “We don’t see much of Lance anymore…”
Armstrong’s former right-hand man Tyler Hamilton (another old team-mate who failed doping controls after his defection from Lance’s posse) refused to talk to the reporter but others were willing to offer an appraisal. Andy Hampsten, the only American to have won the Giro d’Italia, spoke openly and commented about Hamilton, who is considered a key factor in the Novitzky investigation: “Tyler can’t have lied, otherwise he’ll go to jail for perjury.
“I’m interested to know what’s going to come out of the investigation,” Hampsten surmised. “I want the truth.”
Another former US Postal rider, Jonathan Vaughters, said: “In the US, we’re more clement with the heroes. Presumption of innocence is highly respected. But if Armstrong is proven guilty, Americans will be angry and they’ll go harder after him than the Europeans. Heroes here have no excuse.”
Armstrong’s comeback was a bit of a fairytale. Okay, he didn’t win the 2009 Tour de France as he thought he would, despite playing tricks with Alberto Contador who proved to be unbreakable – physically and mentally – but coming third at almost 38, and after three-and-a-half years of retirement, is an impressive result. “On a sporting aspect, my comeback is a failure,” he admitted. “There were riders younger and stronger than me and I haven’t won a single race.”
He crashed much more often than he won. In May last year, he went down during the Tour of California at the beginning of the fall of Armstrong – at the same time, Landis started his campaign. Since he wasn’t welcome to ride in California, he realised he had nothing to lose. The dethroned winner of the 2006 Tour de France was left with no future and no money after four years of lies and hopeless legal battles to restore his credibility. After losing them all, he logically felt an injustice that, at the same time, Armstrong’s comeback was seen as a fairytale and became a money-making machine for everyone: race promoters, managers and riders, and the media.
A gentleman of US cycling, Scott Moninger, who raced with Landis at Mercury in 2000 and 2001, had made a memorable comment when the news of Armstrong’s comeback broke. He was also sceptical. “I’m surprised, honestly,” said Moninger. “The guy [Lance] spoke with a lot of conviction when he said ‘That’s it, I’ve done everything I wanted to do – I’m out.’ And why wouldn’t he? Quit while you’re ahead. Seven Tours in a row is never going to be matched, at least not in our lifetime. It seems like a lose-lose situation.”
Prior to his comeback, Armstrong was a legend. He still is – but far from the level of blind adoration he had in the US where he had a future as a businessman, politician and leader of what is said to be a non-profit organisation. Although his fees at the Tour Down Under, the Giro d’Italia, and other appearances – as well as his contract with RadioShack and other sponsors – haven’t been made public, he has pocketed some money for the two years of the last part of his career but he wasn’t exactly in need. Had he not returned to races, the Landis revelations would have never taken place, nor the Novitzky investigation that mostly concerns the period in which he rode for a government-funded US Postal team.
Looking back at his comeback Lance insisted: “No regrets.” Is that a form of perjury?
– By Jean-François Quenet
RIDE Media publishes RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
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