The truth has finally caught up with Lance Armstrong, writes Paul Kimmage
Four years ago, at approximately 2:15 on the afternoon of Wednesday, November 5 2008, Pete Sampras was sitting in a lounge of the Sherwood Lake club in southern California. The seven-time Wimbledon champion had been talking about his life for over an hour and had just discovered that the journalist sitting opposite had once raced in the Tour de France.
"Really? That's interesting," Sampras observed, reaching for a copy of the Los Angeles Times. "So, what do you make of this?"
'This' was a feature in the paper that morning on the return of Lance Armstrong and a visit he had made to the San Diego Air & Space Technology Center for wind-tunnel testing. A posse of journalists and photographers had followed Armstrong to San Diego and the hype surrounding his comeback after three years in retirement was building by the day.
Sony Pictures had signed up to make a movie about the project -- the first documentary the company had every bankrolled -- and the marketing men at Nike were working on a new billboard campaign . . . 'Hope Rides Again'.
If people thought the first coming of Lance (beats cancer, wins seven Tours de France) had been amazing, this second coming, at the age of 37, would be nothing short of stupendous.
"What about Lance?" was a debate I'd had regularly over the years with Andy Ripley and Eddie Jordan and Nick Faldo and Roy Keane and David Feherty and Paul McGinley and Mick McCarthy and Tony Cascarino. He fascinated the great and the good.
A week before meeting Sampras, I'd shared a memorable flight to Malaga with Pádraig Harrington.
"Have you ever interviewed him?" he asked.
"No," I replied.
"Well, I like to give everyone a blank sheet of paper but I couldn't do it with him . . . probably the most cynical, hypocritical bastard in the history of sport."
"Really?" he said, glancing nervously over his shoulder (we were sitting in economy).
"Yeah," I replied.
Pádraig, who prefers to see the good in people, had never met Armstrong, but others who had, like the Formula 1 driver Mark Webber, were not surprised by my withering appraisal. Neither was Sampras. "Don't believe the fairytale," I told him.
He didn't blink: "Yeah, that's what I've heard."
* * * * *
Twenty years have passed since the summer of '92 when I first set eyes on Lance Armstrong. My brother Kevin had conversed and competed with him several times that year and had marked him down as one to watch at the Olympic road race in Barcelona. He finished 14th that afternoon -- in the same group as my brother -- and a year later I watched him roll down the start ramp in the Tour de France.
David Walsh had travelled with me to the Vendée that summer. He was researching a book about the Tour that would explore the race and its many facets through a series of profiles. One of those profiles was Lance Armstrong, the Tour's youngest rider and the winner of the eighth stage to Verdun, who had agreed to be interviewed during the rest day in Grenoble.
David has many redeeming qualities, but throw him a story and a few good lines and he's like a dog with a bone. I waited outside the hotel for the duration of his interview with Armstrong but could have quoted it verbatim by the end of the night. And for the next week, it was all I heard.
"This kid is this . . ."
"This kid is that . . ."
A love then reflected in The Neophytes Tale, the book's opening chapter.
Lance Armstrong, a 21-year-old Texan, comes to the Tour not knowing what to expect. He has never ridden this race, not even anything like it. Damn it, he is only just getting to know Europe and here he is mixed up in one of the weirdest sports events on the calendar. Funnier still is the expectation that Armstrong can take something away from the race. Of all the neophytes, he is the one with a future.
Two months later, the kid was the world champion, but few would have predicted he would ever win the Tour. In the first time trial stage at Lac de Madine, he had conceded six minutes to the champion, Miguel Indurain, and had lost almost an hour to the Spaniard in the two Alpine stages. But the one-day classics were his forte.
In 1994, Armstrong's second season as a professional did not match the excellence of his first. The abuse of EPO, a new performance enhancing wonder drug, was spreading in the peloton and Armstrong struggled to compete in the early season classics. In July, on the eve of his second Tour de France, he alluded to the changes in an interview with the journalist, Samuel Abt.
"It's harder to race this year, cycling is harder now. In a year, I tell you, man. I hate to point fingers, and I'm not going to do that. But there are a lot of guys who are a lot better and a lot faster than last year."
Armstrong was mad, but planning to get even.
In the book, From Lance to Landis, this is how Frankie Andreu, a team-mate and mentor, describes what happened next:
"The thing about Lance was he had to be successful, he didn't want a career that was average. At this time the whole thing bugged him, it ate into him. He would bitch about it all the time, 'This is bullshit . . . these guys are flying . . . I can't believe he's doing this . . . I should be killing these guys.'
"He did not say, 'I am going to get on a program,' he never said anything like that, but, man, he was frustrated, and I am sure it was as a result of that he decided to begin working with (the doping expert) Michele Ferrari."
Armstrong moved to a new level in the two seasons that followed. In October 1996, he was ranked No 5 in the world and had just signed a new $2.5m contract with the French team Cofidis, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
On October 27, Andreu travelled to the Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis, with his fiancée, Betsy Kramar, to visit his sick friend. It was a Sunday afternoon and after lunch in the hospital cafeteria, they steered Armstrong gingerly -- he was hooked to an intravenous drip, set on wheels -- to a small conference room to watch a Dallas Cowboys game. In his affidavit to the United States Anti-Doping Agency, this is how Frankie described what happens next:
"A group of us was gathered with Lance at the hospital and two men in white coats, presumably doctors, entered to talk to Lance and began asking questions. Those present in the room with Lance and the doctors were me and Betsy, Chris Carmichael, and his then girlfriend now wife Paige, Lance's girlfriend at the time Lisa Shiels, and Stephanie McIlvain.
"I presumed the men asking questions were doctors and Betsy suggested we should leave the room so that Lance could have some privacy. However, Lance said that everyone should stay. Among the questions asked by one of the doctors was whether Lance had used performance enhancing drugs. Lance responded that he had taken EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids."
Fourteen months later, in February 1998, Armstrong returned to racing with a remarkable 15th place finish at the Ruta Del Sol in Spain. He had a new team (US Postal), a new girlfriend (Kristin Richard), and a new training base (Nice) but his friends remained the same. Frankie and Betsy had married and had joined Armstrong and his partner in Nice.
"We had lunches and dinners together, went for coffee, shopped and hung out at the beach among other things," Betsy says.
The Tour was starting in Dublin that summer, but it was too much too soon for Armstrong who was sitting safely in a TV commentary booth when 'Festina', the biggest doping storm in the history of the sport, hit. A judicial inquiry was launched in France and the fallout was devastating. But it was also a chance to start again.
In October, a young Irishman, Mark Scanlan, was whisked to a packed auditorium in Paris for the unveiling of the Tour de France and presented as the new face of cycling by the governing body, UCI. The '99 Tour, they promised, would be the Tour of Redemption. And eight months later, when Armstrong crushed the prologue to take the first yellow jersey, it was the answer to all their prayers. Who would question a man who had beaten cancer?
Six years had passed since the summer of '93 when I had last covered the Tour in its entirety. I liked Armstrong, and had followed his career closely, but was troubled by his remarkable transformation. In four previous participations, he had finished the Tour just once -- 36th in 1995. It did not make sense to me that he was now crushing the favourites.
A week before his coronation, as the race entered the Pyrenees, it was an interview he gave to L'Equipe journalist, Pierre Ballester, that convinced me he was doping.
Q. Do you believe there is still doping in cycling?
A. Medication is part of our world. You guys in the press centre on the Tour use medication, you smoke and . . .
Q. Yeah, but we don't use it to finish first or earn money.
A. I don't have all the answers. What I do know is that we don't live in a perfect world. I am true to my sport and I want people to be true with me.
Q. I'll ask the question again: Do you believe there is still doping in cycling?
A. I have no idea. There's none in my team, and never in any team or training programme that I've been involved with. The Festina affair was a huge surprise to me.
Q. So you never spoke about things like that in the peloton?
A. Now that you mention it, no.
Confession: Writing about doping in sport is a complete and utter ball-ache. I'd had a decade of it, when Armstrong won that Tour, and decided I would spend the next six summers writing about golf. David Walsh never checked out. He wrote a book, LA Confidential, and then another book From Lance to Landis. His pursuit of the kid he had once loved was relentless.
In July 2005, we shared a room at St Andrews for the British Open. It was a Saturday night, Tiger Woods had a two-shot lead but he was pummelling me with some nugget he had uncovered on Armstrong: "I was talking to Betsy today and she says . . ."
He loved Betsy and Emma O'Reilly, and was forever praising their courage for standing up for the truth, but he was driving me crazy.
"David, listen to me," I announced, "I'm saying this as your friend. You've done brilliantly on this story but you're going to have to let it go. It's hurting your family, it's hurting your health and it's hurting your job. We both know Armstrong is doping but it's not like he's the first. Forget him. Let it go. He's no different to all those other cheats who have won the Tour!"
But I was wrong. Armstrong was different.
His book -- It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life -- had portrayed him as Jesus. His ghost-writer, Sally Jenkins, had made him sound like Jesus. His fans waved their wristbands and reached for him like Jesus. And by the summer of '05, as he reached for the microphone on the Champs Elysees after his seventh Tour win, even he started to believe it.
"The people who don't believe in cycling, the cynics, the sceptics, I feel sorry for you. I'm sorry you can't dream big and I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles."
His cancer had made him untouchable. It was his weapon and his shield.
Four years later, in February 2009, I travelled to Sacramento for a press conference before the Tour of California (his comeback race) and asked him a question that had been bugging me for years: "What was it about dopers he admired so much?"
Confession: I was trying to bait him. I'd witnessed journalists with yellow wristbands sniffing his crotch for years and wanted to remind him there were a couple more like David.
He fixed me with a stare: "What is your name again?
Confession: My heart was racing. Struggling to control my nerves, I explained who I was and reminded him that he had refused my request to be interviewed. Then it was his turn to blink -- rather than address the question, he went straight for the cancer shield.
"When I decided to come back, for what I think is a very noble reason, you said: 'Folks the cancer has been in remission for four years but our cancer has now returned', meaning me. I am here to fight this disease. I am here so that I don't have to deal with it, you don't have to deal with it, none of us have to deal with it, my children don't have to deal with it but yet you said that I am the cancer. And the cancer is out of remission.
"So I think it goes without saying: No, we're not going to sit down and do an interview. And I don't think anybody in this room would sit down for that interview. You are not worth the chair that you are sitting on, with a statement like that, with a disease that touches everybody around the world."
Confession: I was rattled.
Three days later, when I sat down to write my piece, I started with a scene I had witnessed in the prologue time trial.
'It's a quarter past three on Valentine's Day in Sacramento when the man who has survived cancer, climbs the steps of the starting ramp on Capitol Mall. Ten years have passed since Matt Wilson was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease but he is still earning a living in the sport he loves. He clips his feet into the pedals, fills his lungs and prepares for the searing pain about to swamp his body. The moment arrives and he kicks down the ramp and you are struck by the muted response.
"Few of the thousands lining the route have ever heard of him. The messages of hope they chalk on the route do not bear his name. The portrait on the billboard 'Hope Rides Again' is not his face. Why not? Is he not living strong? Does he not inspire hope? What is the difference between Matt Wilson and Lance Armstrong?"
But the piece was spiked by the newspaper's lawyers. Later that summer, I wrote at length about Armstrong's return to the Tour de France and it happened again -- two weeks work, spiked by the lawyers. So it has been pleasing this week to see his face in so many newspapers. The cancer Jesus exposed. Justice finally done.