The Fraud Part I: Lance Armstrong's Long Fall
Part 3: The Hunt for Dopers
Armstrong, knowing how bad it would be for his reputation if he were associated with Ferrari, always met with the doctor in secret locations. They once rendezvoused in the parking lot of a gas station near the highway to Milan. "Why here?" asked Betsy Andreu, who was sitting in Armstrong's car with her husband. "So the fucking press doesn't hound him," Armstrong replied before disappearing into the doctor's van. When he returned after an hour, he was excited and said: "My numbers are great." On the trip back, he teased Andreu for not using Ferrari's services. Andreu said nothing. When he and his wife got out of the car, he said to her: "I don't want that shit in my body."
Ferrari followed Armstrong everywhere, always staying in hotels nearby, even when the cyclist was attending training camps in Switzerland, the United States and the Canary Islands. It gave Armstrong an important advantage. The doctor was constantly monitoring Armstrong's vital signs and painstakingly synchronizing his training and doping schedules. The only place Ferrari refused to go was France, where there are tough laws calling for prison sentences for doctors convicted of doping offenses.
The hunt for doping offenders intensified in the late 1990s. In 1998, enormous quantities of EPO were found in one of the Festina team's cars. After that, pro cyclists were generally viewed with suspicion, and they felt that they were under growing pressure.
At the same time, hardly anyone could imagine that the pros would be so brazen as to continue doping. To uphold this perception, Armstrong placed great value on secrecy. The syringes used for injections were disposed of in gym bags and empty soda cans. There was one incident, however, when a panic-stricken team doctor, fearing a police raid, flushed drugs worth $25,000 down the toilet on the team bus.
For the Tour de France, Armstrong and his main accomplices, Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingston (other cyclists called them the "A team"), hired a motorcycle courier, who they called the "motorman." His job was to provide the three top cyclists with drugs so that investigators would never find anything on the cyclists themselves.
On one occasion, a dinner at a restaurant in Nice was postponed until late in the evening because the cyclists were waiting for a courier from Spain. He couldn't cross the border until later in the evening because that was when the border inspections were less stringent. The courier met Armstrong in a parking lot and handed him the EPO in a brown paper bag. He finally had his "liquid gold," Armstrong said with a smile.
He hedged his bets in two ways. The first was through his medical care. He had complete confidence in Ferrari's calculations. When team members voiced their doubts and gave voice to fears of doping tests, Armstrong reassured them, insisting that they would be able to pass any such test. The second precaution was a sort of early warning system, so that Armstrong's team would know when drug testing was about to be done. It gave the riders enough time to take steps to mask their drug use.
On one occasion, however, a doping inspector appeared unannounced. While he was waiting in the hotel lobby, an assistant ran outside, got some saline solution out of the car and smuggled it back into the hotel under his raincoat. Armstrong locked himself into his room and allowed the solution to course through his veins. This reduced the hematocrit value, an indicator of the concentration of red blood cells, to a level that was below suspicion. The trick worked, and afterwards Armstrong and his assistants couldn't stop laughing about it.
Armstrong bought an apartment in Girona, a Spanish city of 97,000 at the foot of the Pyrenees. The building was in the historic center of town, on a narrow street leading to the Cathedral of Santa Maria. To gain access to the building, visitors had to pass through an iron gate protected with a security system.
In this seclusion, Armstrong laid the groundwork for his later victories in the mountain stages and time trials. His everyday training regimen included the use of testosterone, which Armstrong and the other riders usually took in the form of crushed Andriol pills, dissolved in olive oil, a mixture the riders called "the oil." Sometimes they also stuck testosterone patches on their shoulders when they weren't worried about being tested.
Difficult to Detect
Testosterone was an important component of the Armstrong doping system. The male sex hormone doesn't build strength as effectively as other anabolic steroids, but it has the advantage of being difficult to detect.
In addition, the small hormone surges may be short-lived but they also disappear from the body very quickly. The riders knew that if they took testosterone in the evening it would no longer be detectable in the morning. By simultaneously increasing oxygen availability in the body with EPO, the pros were able to endure maximum amounts of stress during training, giving them the strength they needed for competition.
As sophisticated as the Armstrong system was, it wasn't entirely trouble-free. During the 1999 Tour, it was revealed that Armstrong had tested positive for cortisone. Now Armstrong's helpful connections came into play. The International Cycling Union (UCI) accepted a prescription, backdated by a team doctor, for an ointment that was supposedly administered to Armstrong for sores on his buttocks. Cortisone is indeed a common medication for treating inflammation, but it's also a common doping agent, because it improves resistance and general wellbeing, making cyclists feel more resilient and powerful.
But the testers weren't clueless. The Festina affair had made them aware of how widespread EPO was among pro cyclists. It couldn't be detected in tests at the time, which is why many of the urine samples taken during the tour were frozen -- to be thawed at a time when science had developed better methods of analysis.
Armstrong's urine samples, also frozen, had become a ticking time bomb.
IV. MARITAL POISON
The US Postal team was in high spirits after its first Tour victory. The riders and their wives celebrated in Paris, but Betsy Andreu wasn't playing along. Her husband asked her several times to congratulate Armstrong, but she refused. She doubted that he had won the race cleanly. Armstrong kept away from her during the party.
Their relationship became increasingly tense. Betsy Andreu is Catholic, opposes abortion and believes that marriage is sacred. Armstrong doesn't share her beliefs. Before his marriage to his pregnant fiancée Kristin, he planned to spend a night on the town in Las Vegas, a night complete with strippers and the works.
He was talking about his plan one evening as he was having dinner in a Nice restaurant with Betsy and a few other cyclists. Betsy, also pregnant at the time, became so upset that a waiter asked if she and Armstrong were married. "If we were, we'd be getting divorced now!" Betsy shouted.
A real marital crisis ensued when, after the Tour de France, Betsy found the EPO her husband had secretly obtained in their refrigerator in Nice. Frankie justified having used performance enhancing drugs by saying that he was tired of being left behind by the dopers and that he had wanted to feel like a real racing cyclist again. When the argument ended, he promised his wife to stop using the substance.
V. BLOOD BAGS ON PICTURE HOOKS
The turn of the millennium marked a sea change in professional cycling. It had become too risky for riders to use EPO, for which tests had been developed, so they gradually switched to autologous blood doping -- the re-infusion of one's own blood -- which was undetectable.
This form of doping is relatively simple. During the training phase, riders have blood drawn and it is then refrigerated to prevent it from spoiling. The body quickly regenerates, replacing the red blood cells that are critical for endurance. Then, a few days before the most critical races of the season, the blood is re-infused, which suddenly boosts the number of red blood cells in the body, allowing more oxygen to be transported. Experts estimate that the process increases endurance by about 10 percent.
But blood doping is tricky and it requires the assistance of a medical professional to draw the blood and later re-infuse it into the body. It also involves logistics, because the blood bags have to remain refrigerated and are often transported across considerable distances.
Armstrong solved the problem in his own way, by being extremely well organized and secretive. On July 11, 2000, during the Tour de France, the US Postal Service team checked into the Hotel l'Esplan in Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux. The tranquil town in the south of France, and its three-star hotel, was perfectly suited for Armstrong's purposes. He was a regular there and the man who ran the hotel was his friend. They often ate and went cycling together.
Not Fairy Tales
The team had booked the entire hotel so as not to be disturbed on that Tuesday, after the 10th stage. As usual, Armstrong had the largest room, number 201. The two small windows were covered with thick curtains, so that hardly any light entered the room. When Armstrong pulled back the curtains, he had a view of the fountain on the Place de l'Esplan.
Livingston and Hamilton shared an adjacent room, so that they could talk with each other and see each other. It also made the blood transfusion less tedious and enabled the doctors to move back and forth between the rooms. The blood bags were hung on picture hooks or were attached to the wall with tape, while the three cyclists were lying on the beds, shivering as the cold blood ran through their arteries. As a joke, Hamilton wanted to bet on whose body would take in the blood the fastest.
But there was another incident that Armstrong was having trouble explaining. The French authorities had been investigating him since the summer of 2000 after some of his team members had been videotaped throwing away garbage bags during the Tour. The garbage contained empty packages and needles, along with traces of Actovegin, an extract obtained from calf blood. Actovegin improves the availability of oxygen in the blood, although the effect is disputed and not nearly as strong as it is with EPO or autologous blood doping.
After the Actovegin had been found, a team manager said that the drugs had been administered to aides with diabetes. Armstrong played dumb, saying that he didn't know anything about that "activo-something," and that neither he nor his teammates had ever heard of it. The investigation was suspended after two years. A few years later, several team members would state under oath that the drug was part of everyday life on the US Postal team.
In late 2000, Frankie Andreu ended his career as a pro cyclist, after he had competed in a Tour at Armstrong's side and realized that he didn't stand a chance without doping. He felt relieved over the decision, but he chose not to leave cycling, never having learned to do anything else. He spent two years working for US Postal as an athletic director, and later went to work for other teams. To support his family, Andreu also worked as a race commentator and TV reporter.
Another important event occurred at the turn of the millennium: the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was created. Richard Young, a Stanford graduate and native of Colorado Springs, worked for Bryan Cave LLP, an international law firm, and was assigned to work as an attorney for USADA from day one. While his fellow lawyers read the business section of the paper in the morning, Young began by reading the sports pages. But he believed in the law, not in fairy tales.
Please click here for part II.
BY DETLEF HACKE, MARC HUJER, UDO LUDWIG, ANDREAS MEYHOFF, FRIEDER PFEIFFER and MICHAEL WULZINGER
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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