October 10th, 2012 will go down in history as the official low-point of American cycling. On this day, five of the best American cyclists issued statements of guilt, coming clean about past doping use. George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie all acknowledged using performance enhancing drugs at one point in their respective careers. The details of each riders’ drug use are still unknown, but we now have confirmation that these men all partook in illegal doping on some level.
Of course there’s still one name indubitably absent from the list. More on that later. So why this day? USADA released its report containing detailed evidence in the case against Lance Armstrong in which eleven former teammates testified against him. The file also cited lab test results, scientific data and financial records that led to Armstrong’s lifetime ban by the UCI. With the testimony of Armstrong’s former teammates now officially out in the open for all to absorb, we can point to 10/10/12 as a day of reckoning.
Every cyclist’s statement has the same theme. Each rider dreamed of being a professional cyclist from a young age and achieved that dream clean. But shortly after reaching the pro ranks, an offer was made and a life-altering choice was presented: dope and continue your career or ride clean and never win a race again. Or at least those were the only two options the neo-pros saw when faced with an extremely difficult decision. This is essentially the theme of Tyler Hamilton’s recently published book, The Secret Race. He paints a clear picture that doping was more than the prevailing culture. He claims it was impossible to win without it. Whether that was true or not, it was the means used to justify the immoral acts by dozens, if not hundreds of professional cyclists in the late nineties through present day.
I don’t think anyone will condemn these men for doing what they did. These five riders have apparently been clean for several years and are perennial fan-favorites who have earned the love and admiration of the cycling community. What I find interesting is that when Floyd Landis came clean, he was crucified by the same fans who will accept the wrongdoings of Hincapie, Leipheimer and the others mentioned in the testimony. Since Landis got caught and lied, he was dragged through the coals. But he was a part of the same US Postal doping regime, which USADA called the “most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” in all of sport.
Which leads us back to the kingpin of the operation. In USADA’s case summary, Armstrong is accused of not only using EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions, he’s also accused of encouraging teammates to work with Dr. Michele Ferrari and threatening them for not following Ferrari’s doping regimen. These accusations along with countless others help solve the puzzle of what really transpired within Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team.
I’ll admit being an Armstrong admirer. I was more than an admirer, I idolized the man. When I read It’s Not About the Bike when I was 16 years old, I fell in love with cycling and Armstrong’s charisma. He was an inspiration to me and millions of others. But with mountains of evidence stacked against him, I don’t understand how anyone can still idolize him. His work in the field of cancer awareness and treatment is nobel prize worthy, but this is a man who cheated his way to the top and used his celebrity to form Livestrong, which wouldn’t exist without his Tour titles.
I don’t have an insider’s knowledge of the pro peloton, but it seems the doping culture is fading and a new age of clean racing is beckoning. Hopefully young pro cyclists will not be faced with the same gruesome decision and cycling can return to its roots as a pure sport where the strongest man wins and not the most clever doper.