Note to Readers: This is part I of a two-part story on Lance Armstrong and his history of using performance enhancing drugs. Please click here for part II.
Lance Armstrong was a lot of things in his life: a loudmouth, a superhero, terminally ill, cured, a role model, a bogeyman, a tyrant, a demigod, an asshole, an anti-cancer lobbyist, an egomaniac, a savior and a fraud. Usually he was all of these things at the same time, a man who seemed like a good person but was in fact closer to bad.
For Betsy and Frankie Andreu, he was a curse that threatened to destroy their lives. Frankie, a professional cyclist, rode at Armstrong's side for seven years, and they were "best buddies," as he says. Then doping destroyed their friendship and turned them into enemies.
On a November day, the Andreus are sitting at the dining table in their eat-in kitchen in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Both are speaking energetically, and the more indignant they become over what they have been through, the louder they get. Betsy, 46, has black hair and is wearing gray sweatpants and a purple top. She has her hands wrapped around a large mug of coffee. Frankie, also 46, wearing a baseball cap, is slouched down in his chair and has his stocking feet on the table and his hands in the pockets of his cargo pants.
A few weeks prior, Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France victories and permanently banned from professional cycling. For the Andreus, this means that the period in which they had to justify their actions has now been declared over.
How are they doing now? "We are much more relaxed," says Betsy. She is practically shouting at this point. It isn't easy to shift to a softer tone when you have felt embroiled in guerilla warfare for so long.
Lying not an Option
The Andreus' house was ground zero for the civil resistance movement against Armstrong, a hub for information and contacts, exchanged through emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings. The couple didn't choose this role. Seven years ago, they stated under oath that Armstrong, after one of his cancer surgeries, had confessed to doctors that he had used performance-enhancing drugs. Everything would have gone more smoothly for them had they not done so. But they didn't see lying, especially under oath, as an option.
After that, they fought against Armstrong's efforts to publicly slander them. They fought for the truth, against isolation, for an unclouded family life with their three children, and for their marriage, which suffered during the ordeal.
In 2012, the situation shifted within just a few short months, and this year it has taken yet another unexpected turn. The world now knows what was true and what was deception. Armstrong took performance-enhancing drugs and cheated. After a long period of silence, during which he refused to give interviews and probably spent most of his time in his house in Austin, Texas, hidden behind sandstone walls and wrought-iron gates, Armstrong has given an interview to Oprah Winfrey which will air on Thursday. In it, he finally admits to having doped.
The admission is a far cry from the recent stubbornness he had exhibited in the face of accusations that he had doped. In November, Armstrong tweeted a photo of himself lying on the sofa, with his seven yellow jerseys on the wall above him, individually framed and illuminated by spotlights. It was a defiant greeting from an impostor.
The story of Lance Armstrong, 41, including his rise and fall, sounds like a fairy tale. It's the story of a man who almost died, and who conquered his disease and went on to achieve, in the Tour de France, what no cyclist, not even one who was perfectly healthy, had ever done before. His success seemed so breathtaking that even many with no ties to cycling came to greatly admire Armstrong.
Last Summer's Implosion
He was a hero for all of America. He grew up poor and was beaten by his stepfather. He was a high-school dropout and yet managed to rise to great heights, entering the limelight next to important people in politics, business and show business. Armstrong was fascinating, and not just to fellow cyclists in his native Texas. He was seen as an icon from coast to coast.
But within this fairy tale, the hero has turned out to be the villain. Armstrong developed and surrounded himself with a doping system that worked perfectly for years and was almost impossible to expose. It was operated and held together by Armstrong, his racing team and his doctors, and it also appears that officials and politicians helped to conceal the fraud. Positive tests were covered up while adversaries were intimidated, pressured and swept out of the way. The system could thus remain intact for a long time.
But it imploded last summer when a number of accomplices revealed what they knew to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). When Armstrong's pursuers had collected enough evidence to hunt him down, they realized that what they had discovered was big enough to qualify as a "conspiracy."
Today a large number of statements and documents serve as evidence of the tools and methods that were used to condition Armstrong and his team. Eleven former team members have described the system in detail. Their sworn affidavits and those of other witnesses form the basis of the indictment against Armstrong and give USADA reason to believe that it has a strong case against him.
The hero has fallen, but the story of the biggest doping scandal the world has ever seen continues. Armstrong is in free-fall, and just how far he could plunge before hitting bottom is anyone's guess. He could face extensive lawsuits, and he could very well lose a lot of money, possibly his entire fortune of more than $100 million (€75 million) -- and maybe even spend time in prison.
Armstrong's story is one full of those who were attracted to and those who were repelled by him, people like Tyler Hamilton, a former teammate who initially worshipped Armstrong and accepted doping as a fact of life, but who eventually came clean when the grand delusion could no longer be upheld.
The remains of the crumbled Armstrong universe include the Andreus, as well as USADA attorney Richard Young, a member of the small team of investigators who caught Armstrong. "We just did our job," says Young.
I. HOSPITAL CONFESSION
Armstrong was 25 when, on Oct. 2, 1996, he was diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer. The disease had spread from a testicle to other parts of his body, metastasizing in the lungs and the brain. His career as a professional cyclist seemed to have come to an abrupt end and his only goal at this point was to stay alive.
He had two operations. Tumors were removed from his head, and Armstrong was scheduled to undergo chemotherapy. His close friends had gathered around him, including Frankie Andreu. The two men had been cycling together on the Motorola team for the previous four years. On Oct. 27, Andreu and his fiancée, Betsy Kramar, travelled to Indianapolis, where Armstrong had been admitted to the Indiana University Hospital.
Betsy and Frankie were in the room with Armstrong, along with four other people, when two men in white lab coats walked in. Betsy told Frankie that they should leave so that Armstrong could have some privacy with the doctors. Frankie replied: "Why? Lance said we can stay."
So they stayed. It was a decision that would change their lives.
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.
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