The Fraud Part I: Lance Armstrong's Long Fall
Part 2: The Center of Cycling Attention
The doctors asked Armstrong all kinds of questions. Then one of the two, a dark-haired man with glasses, asked the cancer patient whether he had ever taking performance-enhancing drugs. The Andreus remember clearly that Armstrong named five: EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone, cortisone and steroids.
If Frankie Andreu was surprised to hear Armstrong listing all these substances in front of witnesses, Betsy was horrified. She had no idea that professional cyclists were taking performance-enhancing drugs and she was convinced that the drugs had caused Armstrong's cancer. After they went outside, Betsy shouted at her fiancée: "I'm not fucking marrying you if you're doing that shit!" Frankie reassured her that he wasn't.
They married on New Year's Eve, and eventually Indianapolis was forgotten. What Armstrong had said there didn't even tarnish the friendship at first. "I find it hard to say anything positive about Lance," says Frankie Andreu today, "but in the beginning we had a great time and a lot of fun."
When Armstrong came to Europe in the fall of 1992, he quickly became the center of attention among the American pro cyclists. They formed a community far away from home, initially in Como, Italy. Armstrong was loudmouthed, aggressive and larger than life, a young guy interested in nothing but his own advancement. Because many of the American cyclists were under contract with Motorola, together with Armstrong, they benefited from his ambition and the performance bonuses.
"He wanted to dominate. He would be in a lousy mood if he didn't win a race," says Andreu. "That's a good trait for a team captain."
In 1993, in his first season as a professional, Armstrong won one of the stages of the Tour de France. And at the world championship in Oslo, he pulled away from the competition in a driving rain. He was only 21, and he was already a champion.
He survived. Armstrong made it through chemotherapy and, in 1997, got back on his racing bike. Andreu accompanied him on a number of training rides in Texas. Once, Armstrong asked him how Betsy had reacted when she heard about his use of performance-enhancing drugs in Indianapolis. "She freaked out," Andreu replied. Armstrong now knew that his friend's wife, as someone who knew his secret, posed a risk.
He prepared his comeback. He also established a cancer foundation, using it as a tool to turn himself from a professional cyclist into a famous philanthropist, the Lance Armstrong brand. He was the face, brain and soul of the foundation, its DNA.
Starting in 1998, he raced for the US Postal Service team, together with a group of Americans that included George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, Kevin Livingston and Andreu. Tyler Hamilton also joined the team. Not unexpectedly, Armstrong immediately became the team leader.
At the training camp in California, he eliminated any doubts that he had recovered from cancer. "To hell with all of you!" he would shout as he sat in the saddle. "Are you wimps going to let cancer boy show you up?"
Hamilton got to know an Armstrong who was practically allergic to calm. He was a control freak who made all the decisions: which breakfast cereal was acceptable, the training routes, the right caps for water bottles. Armstrong decided which coaches gave the best massages and where to buy the best bread, and he told everyone which stock prices were about to go up. A nod meant that he liked something, and a snort meant that he didn't. For Armstrong, there was only correct and incorrect, great or terrible, but nothing in between.
Armstrong referred to people he despised with the lewd term "choads." For him, people who complained were choads, as were those who were late. People who looked for excuses and rode someone's draft -- all choads. And once Armstrong had declared someone a choad, he remained a choad forever. Armstrong divided his world into two kinds of people: choads and non-choads.
Hamilton was impressed by Armstrong's energy, his biting sense of humor and his leadership skills. He put up with the fact that Armstrong was moody and bullying.
The Americans, including their wives, spent the season living in Nice, where they would eat dinner together or go out on a regular basis. The women had nicknames for the men. Hincapie was "Parrot," because of his habit of parroting whatever Armstrong said, while Andreu was "Cranky Frankie," because he sometimes seemed sullen and contradicted Armstrong.
They also had a nickname for Armstrong: "Asshole."
III. THE PERFECT SYSTEM
When Armstrong rode in the Tour de France again in 1999, it was a time of renewal for professional cycling. A year earlier the Festina affair, a case of widespread doping, had shaken the Tour, and now Armstrong was offering a conciliatory story. He won the first stage, the prologue, and put on the yellow jersey. "Maybe I've become a better cyclist," he said, "but I'm definitely a better person."
Armstrong and his US Postal Service team rode into Paris, on the final stage of the Tour, in a victory parade. It was a perfect comeback, and Armstrong used it to whip up his own resurrection story: "This wasn't Hollywood or Disneyland. My story is amazing, but true. I'm very lucky and I have a completely pure conscience." President Bill Clinton received the new national hero at the White House.
Armstrong owed his success to an elaborate doping system. It was as structured as that used in communist East Germany, as comprehensive as that used by the pro cyclists at Team Telekom and as secret as that of the Chinese.
Ironically, what Armstrong was doing wasn't even all that innovative. The system was based on the classic methods of endurance sports. Growth hormone and testosterone were used to build muscle, delivered in pill form, as injections or through patches. EPO and, later on, re-infusions of their own blood were used to improve the cyclists' physical condition, while cortisone and actovegin were administered to enhance performance. The average cyclist on Armstrong's team had to pay about $15,000 a year for the drugs.
What distinguished Armstrong from his competitors was his determination. In addition to using drugs to boost his performance in competition, Armstrong used them in training so that he could train more rigorously, recover more quickly and, under competition conditions, prepare for mountain segments and time trials.
Armstrong also chose traditional routes in selecting his support staff. He depended on the help of Michele Ferrari, a sports doctor from Ferrara, who was nicknamed "Dottore EPO" in Italy. Ferrari had a reputation among doping investigators. They knew that he was providing pro cyclists with performance-enhancing drugs, but it wasn't until years later that, thanks to the testimony of an athlete with the Italian Cycling Federation, he was banned from professional sports for life.
As with everything that had to do with planning, Armstrong was extremely interested in Ferrari's knowledge. He urged other US Postal cyclists to use the doctor, saying that this was the only way to get "really strong." Christian Vande Velde said the pressure to dope was huge. Andreu, however, refused to work with Ferrari. Nevertheless, he took EPO on his own during the Tour de France, believing that he wouldn't be able to keep up if he didn't.
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