Cycling: Drug tests, lies and 'liquid gold'
Lance Armstrong and his team-mates got away with doping with a shocking degree of ease. And the secret to their success more often than not was the simple act of evasion
Friday 12 October 2012
How did he get away with it? Years of hiding from testers, dumping drugs and tip-offs
Later they were to laugh about it, but for a while it was deadly serious. It was at the 1998 world track championships that Lance Armstrong enjoyed one of his closest escapes from the men vainly trying to combat doping in cycling. The American, two of his US Postal team-mates, Jonathan Vaughters and Christian Vande Velde, and the team doctor, Pedro Celaya, were staying in a bed and breakfast in the Dutch town of Valkenburg. One morning a dope tester from cycling's governing body, the UCI, arrived unannounced and set up his equipment in the communal area outside their rooms.
It did not phase Celaya. The doctor coolly walked to his car, collected a litre of saline, returned to Armstrong's room and administered the solution. The other two were tested first, then Armstrong. The solution had done its work and flushed out his system; he was clean in the eyes of the authorities.
Armstrong is accused via testimony after testimony from former team-mates of doping through each of his seven Tour de France triumphs – and getting away with it with a shocking degree of ease. There is no great secret to Armstrong's evasion of sporting justice for so long. At times it is almost comical; once on the Tour of Luxembourg the team were on their bus heading for their hotel where they were informed police were waiting. The bus stopped and an incriminating bag was buried in a nearby wood. "Those trees," said a team official, "will be big one day."
The doping regime exercised then is very different to the one in operation today. Its apparent laxness is startling. The simplest way for Armstrong to avoid a positive test was not to be tested. In the build-up to the Tour de France, Armstrong would avoid racing to avoid testing.
Even when he raced he was able to evade it. In 2000, during an event in Spain, Armstrong told George Hincapie, his team-mate, that he had taken some "oil" – as testosterone was known. Later Hincapie discovered drug-testing officials at the team hotel, texted Armstrong and Armstrong dropped out of the race, another test dodged.
Dodging was not difficult. As Tyler Hamilton put it: "We had a time-honoured strategy for beating the testers – we hid." There were "three rules" for using EPO: inject intravenously, do it in the evening and don't answer the door. And there were other ways – inject at a friend's house where the testers would not find you. Armstrong would disappear to the Hotel Fontanels Golf in Puigcerda in Spain when he wanted to drop out of sight, or give misleading information on his whereabouts. During races, teams – not just US Postal – would post lookouts to watch for testers.
There was also, Usada believes, inside knowledge of the testing system. Vaughters said: "We typically seemed to have an hour's advance notice." Another US Postal rider, David Zabriskie, said that Johan Bruyneel, the team's director, would say: "They're coming tomorrow."
There is one occasion when Armstrong did fail a test, according to Usada. In June 2001, he won the Tour of Switzerland. Soon afterwards he told Hamilton and Floyd Landis he had tested positive. Hamilton recalls a conversation with Armstrong in which Armstrong said "his people had been in touch with the UCI, they were going to have a meeting and everything would be OK". Landis claims Armstrong told him "a financial agreement" was made to make the test go away. In May 2002, Armstrong and Bruyneel visited UCI's HQ and offered "at least $100,000" towards the development of cycling. The UCI accepts the meeting took place but denies it involved any deal surrounding a positive test.
Who helped him? Armstrong Army's doping campaign
"Mr Armstrong," states Usada's exhaustive report, "did not act alone. He acted with the help of a small army of enablers including doping doctors, drug smugglers, and others within and outside the sport and on his team."
The job of the army was to provide Armstrong and his team-mates, a number of whom were effectively pushed into doping – the report calls it "grooming", with "liquid gold".
The first step was getting the gold. Testimony, from Betty Andreu, wife of one of the riders, describes a meal in Nice. It started late because Pepe Marti, a US Postal team trainer, had waited until dark to cross the Spanish border with a package for Armstrong. He arrived in Nice and handed it over to Armstrong after dinner. Armstrong held up the bag containing EPO and said "liquid gold".
Armstrong's first Tour de France triumph came in 1999, and it was built, according to the testimony of five riders in his US Postal team, on a doping programme designed by Dr Michele Ferrari, an Italian with a long association with dopers. Ferrari supervised their preparation, one that was focused on climbing and three men, Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingston. EPO was administered regularly, always intravenously and usually at night so it would not show up if a tester came calling in the morning.
And it did not stop when the Tour began. Jonathan Vaughters, a US Postal rider, described how it worked: "Dr Celaya would deliver EPO to the riders in US Postal Service water bottles with EPO vials packed in ice in the bottles. On the side of the bottle would be the name of the rider and the doses of EPO in the bottle. For instance, I might receive a bottle that would say 'Jonathan – 5x2' meaning that the bottle held five vials of EPO containing 2,000 international units each."
After 1999, as testing improved, the focus switched to an improved blood doping programme. Ahead of the Tour, Hamilton was told by Johan Bruyneel, the team director, that 500cc of blood would be withdrawn to be reinfused during the race itself. That would boost the oxygen capacity of the riders' blood and aid their stamina and ability to recover. It took place in Spain and the riders flew by private jet to Valencia where the process took place in a hotel.
During the Tour, transfusions took place in the team hotel or on the bus. Floyd Landis testified that in 2004 the bus driver pretended to have engine trouble between the finish of a stage and the team hotel so the riders could have a blood infusion undisturbed.
A year earlier, Armstrong asked George Hincapie if he could use his apartment in Girona. Armstrong had guests staying at his so needed privacy. Hincapie watched Armstrong and Dr Luis del Moral, then the team doctor, enter the room. He said Del Moral appeared to be carrying a blood bag. The doctor asked to borrow a coat hanger – the usual means of hanging up a bag during a blood infusion.
There was also widespread use of testosterone, taken with a dash of olive oil, and the use of "cortisone as a doping substance". According to Vaughters, Armstrong asked his wife, Kristin, to wrap cortisone tablets in tinfoil and hand them out. "Lance's wife is rolling joints," one rider is supposed to have remarked.
There was a song David Zabriskie used to sing on the team bus, one that used to make Bruyneel laugh. It went to the tune of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze": "EPO all in my veins/ Lately things just don't seem the same/Actin' funny, but I don't know why/ 'Scuse me while I pass this guy."
How was it discovered? Minor bust sets major inquiry in motion
It was in November 2008 that the US Anti-Doping Agency opened a hearing against a low-key Californian professional cyclist called Kayle Leogrande. It did not involve a positive test, rather an admission and despite Leogrande then denying the charge he was banned for two years. It was to prove the first loose, and distant, thread that has finally and dramatically unravelled Lance Armstrong's defence this week.
At the start of 2009, Usada received information about how Leogrande might have been supplied with EPO. The inquiry began to broaden into drug use and distribution in southern California. The report states: "Usada came to understand that Floyd Landis might have information useful to this effort." The agency were contacted by Paul Scott, described only as an "individual residing in Southern California", and in April 2010 Scott "described in great detail the doping program [sic] on the US Postal Service team". Scott named Armstrong, Michele Ferrari, Johan Bruyneel and others, including Landis, as having been involved. How Scott knew is not clear.
A week later Usada officials met Landis and the rider agreed to co-operate, only for US authorities in California to open a grand jury investigation into the US Postal team in early 2010 which meant the doping agency put their enquiries on ice. When this later inquiry was shelved, Usada resumed its own case – the 1,000 pages of evidence do not include anything gathered by the grand jury. In March and June of this year, interviews began with riders from the team – in all, 11 former team-mates were to testify against Armstrong. The net was closing.
Armstrong continued – as he still does – to deny all and any allegations that he had doped, but on 12 June he was informed that Usada was opening proceedings against him, Bruyneel, two former team doctors in Luis del Moral and Pedro Celaya, Jose Marti, a team trainer, and Ferrari. In July, Armstrong made one last bid to fight off the charges but a complaint to a federal court was dismissed. At last, on 23 August, he announced he would not contest the charges. It was over.
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