Lance Armstrong's rotten Tour de France could just be the start of his troubles.

The stadium scene.
July 15 2010 10:34 AM

All Downhill From Here

Lance Armstrong's rotten Tour de France could just be the start of his troubles.

(Continued from Page 1)

Armstrong himself has been dogged by doping allegations since his very first Tour victory in 1999, when he was attacked for using a corticosteroid cream to treat saddle sores. While those drug allegations faded away, the French newspaper L'Equipe reported in 2005 that six of Armstrong's 1999 urine samples had tested positive for EPO years later, using tests that did not exist in the late 1990s. Those results, coming as they did from Armstrong's "B" samples years after the race in question, were declared nonactionable by Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc. And for the rest of his reign, Armstrong tested clean (as far as we know).

Armstrong's long record of clean tests offers some supporting evidence that Landis is not telling the truth. But it's also noteworthy that Landis describes, in detail, a sophisticated plan to boost performance while avoiding positive tests. According to Landis, Armstrong's team used blood transfusions, which remain difficult to detect in tests even today, along with well-timed injections of the blood-booster EPO, which, Landis claims, becomes undetectable after about eight hours—a good night's sleep—while still providing a performance benefit.

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In many cases, believing Armstrong means having to throw away the simplest explanation. You must believe that Armstrong's teammates—several of whom later admitted taking or tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs—doped entirely of their own accord and not to help their team leader win the Tour (which was their job). You must believe that French lab technicians tampered with or fabricated or misanalyzed those 1999 urine samples. You must believe that he paid Dr. Michele Ferrari, his scandalous Italian trainer, huge sums of money for ... training advice. And you must believe that the ex-teammates and associates, like Frankie Andreu and Stephen Swart and Emma O'Reilly and Mike Anderson, who have accused Armstrong of doping over the years—most of whom were interviewed by David Walsh for his disturbing but inconclusive exposé, From Lance to Landis—had much to gain by accusing him. In most cases, it made their lives infinitely more difficult—as Floyd Landis is learning.

More broadly, you have to believe that Armstrong crushed all his opponents, many of whom turned out to be heavy dopers, while staying completely clean. It would be a remarkable feat if it turns out that Armstrong resisted the temptation to cheat. As one of the Freakonomics guys pointed out the other day, cycling is not like baseball, where the benefits of steroids are hard to pinpoint; it's more like weightlifting, where drugs equal power, and power means victory. For Armstrong, victory has brought enormous wealth and power, placing him among the most influential athletes in the world.

If he did race clean, then his athletic performances are nothing short of miraculous. He was competing against athletes who engaged in highly orchestrated doping campaigns, with secret labs and rigorous schedules of transfusions and injections, most notably revealed in the Operation Puerto doping scandal in Spain. (Those methods, it bears pointing out, are similar to what Landis describes.) Few of the athletes implicated in Puerto tested positive. All of them got creamed by Armstrong.

Here's the most amazing thing about Lance Armstrong: In a difficult, fickle, inconsistent sport, he was perfect, or close to it. He dominated the Tour, in overwhelming fashion, for seven years. During that time, he suffered fewer than half a dozen visibly bad days. He looked like he was working hard, but he very rarely experienced the jour sans, the "day without."

Cycling isn't supposed to work that way. Some days you feel great, and the next you can feel like crap. That's how the human body works. And it's what should make a race like the Tour exciting. The ups and downs. With Armstrong, there were only ups. This, I believe, is what has inspired his fans and followers so much: Lance would never let them down. Lance would always win. And he was doing it for them.

On Sunday, though, Lance looked fallible. His fans can handle that, we hope. But if Armstrong turns out to have been morally fallible as well, that will be devastating. As his own agent, Bill Stapleton, put it to Dan Coyle in 2004, "Can you imagine what would happen if Lance tested positive? Can you imagine what would happen if it turns out we're screwing with people on this?"

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Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.

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