The process of officially stripping Lance Armstrong of his record-breaking seven Tour de France titles began in earnest last night when the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) formally sanctioned the world's best-known cyclist for doping offences.
In the wake of Armstrong's decision not to contest the charges, USADA announced the 40-year-old, who retired last year, is to receive a life ban but more tellingly have the honours he accumulated since August 1998 struck from the records. When that happens is now dependent on the UCI, cycling's governing body.
Armstrong has been sanctioned for five violations of the anti-doping rules, including use and/or attempted use of prohibited substances, possession, trafficking and an attempted cover-up. USADA outlined "aggravating circumstances including involvement in multiple anti-doping rule violations and participation in a sophisticated doping scheme and conspiracy. In addition to the lifetime ban, Mr Armstrong will be disqualified from any and all competitive results obtained on and subsequent to 1 August, 1998, including forfeiture of any medals, titles, winnings, finishes, points and prizes".
"Any time we have overwhelming proof of doping, our mandate is to initiate the case and see it to conclusion as was done in this case," said Travis Tygart, chief executive of USADA.
John Fahey, head of the World Anti-doping Authority (Wada), bluntly summed up Armstrong's decision to stop fighting USADA as admitting he is a "drug cheat".
"[Armstrong] had the right to rip up those charges but he elected not to, therefore the only interpretation in these circumstances is that there was substance in [them]," said Fahey. "It leads to the conclusion that he is a drug cheat. My understanding is that when the evidence is based upon a career that included seven Tour de France wins then all of that becomes obliterated."
Armstrong's reputation may be on the verge of ruin but it is by no means the end of a sporting saga that has stretched over more than a decade. It is for the UCI and the organisers of the Tour to implement USADA's decisions and that is unlikely to happen with any great alacrity. The UCI wants to see USADA's case against Armstrong in full before announcing its next course of action and there remains a strong possibility the case will end up before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne next year. The Tour authorities will in turn wait on the UCI's decision.
USADA says it will release the details as it is bound to do under Wada guidelines when there is no hearing. There remain clouding issues, including Wada's eight-year statute of limitations on bringing doping cases. Of Armstrong's seven Tour triumphs, only the 2004 and 2005 wins fall within those terms although USADA insists evidence from before then can be acted upon.
The UCI is a signatory to the world anti-doping code. Under its terms it has to recognise USADA's findings. The case is built around testimonies from 10 former team-mates, including former dopers Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. USADA claims to have tests taken in 2009 and 2010 that are "consistent" with blood doping.
Five officials connected to Armstrong or his US Postal Services team, including Johan Bruyneel, his former sporting director, are also the subject of USADA charges. "Lance has never withdrawn from a fair fight in his life so his decision underlines what an unjust process this has been," said Bruyneel, who, like the others, denies the allegations.
Armstrong himself continues to deny he ever doped and says he is the victim of a "witch-hunt". He has previously vigorously contested any allegations but decided not to contest USADA's charges because of the "toll this has taken on my family". It follows a federal court in Austin, Texas, rejecting his legal application against USADA on Monday. Thursday night was the deadline for Armstrong to submit his case to USADA, instead he released an 871-word statement.
It began: "There comes a point in every man's life when he has to say, 'Enough is enough.' That time is now. I have been dealing with claims that I cheated in winning my seven Tours since 1999. Over the past three years I have been subjected to a two-year federal criminal investigation followed by Travis Tygart's unconstitutional witch-hunt. The toll this has taken on my family and on me leads me to where I am today – finished with this nonsense."
It continued: "If I thought for one moment that by participating in USADA's process, I could confront these allegations in a fair setting and – once and for all – put these charges to rest, I would jump at the chance. But I refuse to participate in a process that is so one-sided and unfair. Regardless of what Tygart says, there is zero physical evidence to support his outlandish and heinous claims. The only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls I have passed with flying colours. I made myself available around the clock and around the world. In competition. Out of competition. Blood. Urine. Whatever they asked for I provided. What is the point of all this testing if, in the end, USADA will not stand by it?"
Fahey, president of Wada, dismissed Armstrong's rejection of USADA's authority – the Texan says it is for the UCI to decide whether titles won in its sport should be stripped – and its case against him.
"They have acted on rules which are compliant with the Wada code," said Fahey. "Now Mr Armstrong has endeavoured to shoot the messenger. He's never gone before a tribunal. There has never been a hearing related to this behaviour, so what is he tired of?
"You've got to look at the facts and the evidence that has only been collected in the last couple of years. There are 10 riders and several other witnesses with evidence. There can be no other interpretation. To refuse the charges can only leave the interpretation that he is a cheat."
One consequence of a rewriting of cycling history will see Bradley Wiggins elevated on to the podium for the 2009 Tour, in which Armstrong finished third, so becoming the first Briton to make it there – three years ahead of his victory this summer.
Tour de farce: Who takes Lance's titles?
1999 Who finished second? Alex Zülle (Swit) who admitted to doping as part of Festina Affair in 1998. Banned for year but returned for 1999.
2000 2nd: Jan Ullrich (Ger). Five-time runner-up was given a two-year ban in February this year after the Operation Puerto doping scandal in 2006, with his races from 2005-2007 banished.
2001 2nd: Ullrich
2002 2nd: Joseba Beloki (Sp). Clean.
2003 2nd: Ullrich
2004 2nd: Andreas Klöden (Ger) Connected to a 2006 doping programme, the rider eventually paid a €25,000 fine. German ADA announced an investigation into Klöden and others on doping suspicions.
2005 2nd: Ivan Basso (It). Acquitted in October 2006 in Operation Puerto, but reopened in 2007 and proved guilty. The Italian was banned for two years after he admitted to attempting doping.