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.

Lance Armstrong. Click imate to expand.
Lance Armstrong

Even if you're not a Lance Armstrong fan, Sunday's eighth stage of the Tour de France was painful to watch. The worst part was the way his teammates, escorting him up the mountain, visibly soft-pedaling, kept glancing back at him over their shoulders: Really? Can't you go faster? By the end of the trek to Morzine-Avoriaz, during which Armstrong crashed hard and skidded across the pavement like a Sunday newspaper (at 0:03 in this spectator video), the seven-time champ had lost almost 12 minutes, likely ending his yellow-jersey hopes once and for all.

This was not the way it was supposed to go, at least not if you believed the American media hype that the 2010 Tour would be an epic showdown between Armstrong and his former teammate and rival Alberto Contador. The pecking order was clear back in March, when the two met at a hilly two-day race called the Critérium International. Contador had a terrible first day, finishing a full minute behind the winner. "He is not exactly in a very good mood," the Spaniard's team manager said, explaining that Contador was suffering from allergies. But he still beat Armstrong by nearly four minutes.

After that, Armstrong got sick and missed more racing, then crashed out of the Tour of California, scuttling a crucial part of his Tour de France preparation. And of course, Floyd Landis emerged from hibernation with a long list of accusations that Armstrong and his team had doped their way to the top. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the feds have started issuing subpoenas as part of their investigation into Landis' claims. (The Daily News reports that Trek Bicycle Corp., his longtime sponsor, may be a subpoena target.)

It's been that kind of year for Armstrong, which is why it was only fitting that his Tour would go off the rails. After a good start, he struggled in the third, cobblestoned stage, losing nearly a minute to Contador. Then came Sunday's ride, a gruesome outing that led the Texan to declare that his Tour was "finished." Armstrong was finally learning, after an amazing streak of good luck, a lesson that his competitors know too well: When things go wrong in the Tour de France, they really go wrong.

Armstrong could have crashed hard in 1999, when the race traversed a road that is underwater at high tide. He could have gone down with Joseba Beloki in 2003 or flipped off his bike into a ravine, like his team director Johan Bruyneel did in his racing days. Or he could have just clicked out of his pedals and retired to the team car, like his archnemesis Greg LeMond, who abandoned the race, and the sport, on a sad road in Normandy during the EPO-drenched 1990s. And despite a very frustrating day on Sunday, Armstrong at least avoided the cyclist's ultimate freakout, the epic bike throw.

Instead he followed his teammates in a dignified procession to the finish line, head slightly tilted, even managing a slight, wry smile at one point. He crashed, he bonked, and that was it. He was human after all. On the plus side, at least nobody could accuse him of doping—at least in this year's race.

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Armstrong obviously has much bigger problems than failing to win an eighth Tour de France. If the federal investigation goes anywhere—and if his former friends and teammates corroborate any part of Landis' claims—he might wish he'd never come back to the sport.

The hardest thing about being an alpha athlete is knowing when to retire. Armstrong tried to quit once, when he was on top, after winning his seventh Tour. He couldn't stay away. By coming back, he took a shot at reclaiming his former glory, but he also invited new scrutiny of his Tour reign.

Yes, Armstrong's own PR team could hardly have come up with a better accuser than Landis, a visibly disgruntled, self-confessed liar. But to anyone who has followed the sport over the past decade, Landis' accusations are all too plausible. Armstrong won his Tours during what we now know was a period of rampant doping, in which cyclists were found to have used blood transfusions and EPO, just as Landis alleges Armstrong did.

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.

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.