Seven-time Tour de France champ and cancer activist Lance Armstrong is back in the news, but not for great physical feats.
This time, he’s defending himself against doping charges that could strip him of the seven Tour de France titles that he won from 1999 to 2005.
While many of the allegations have been raised before, and were the subject of a federal investigation that concluded several months ago with no criminal charges, there is some surprising new evidence that Armstrong continued to dope during his "comeback" to professional cycling from 2009 to 2011.
“It seems odd he would continue,” said Thomas Brenna, professor of nutritional science at Cornell University and researcher into the use of steroids in sports.
Brenna says that even though Armstrong did not fail any doping tests, his biochemistry may have been suspicious enough to raise alarm bells by U.S. Anti-Doping Agency officials.
“They are charging that he was flying under the radar,” Brenna said. “That indicates that they believe that based on the totality of the evidence that he has been systematically been doping and avoiding detection in same sense that the BALCO folks (the San Francisco Bay Area lab linked to doping violations by Giants’ slugger Barry Bonds and Olympic sprinter Marion Jones) were keeping track of when one could dope and take a test and pass it.”
According to the allegations by USADA, Armstrong figured out a way to get a performance benefit from blood-boosting drugs without tripping the wire.
“Yes, there are ways to fool the test if you know what you are doing,” said Brenna. “I’m not going to say how.”
The charges against Armstrong and five former team officials and team doctors were contained in a June 12 letter from USADA. The letter’s existence was first revealed by The Washington Post and has been published by the Wall Street Journal.
It outlines a "long-running doping conspiracy" of practices conducted and supported by Armstrong and team leaders during the time he was winning an unprecedented seven Tour titles from 1999 to 2005. The letter says that USADA will present eyewitness testimony by former team riders and officials that Armstrong used erythropoietin (EPO), corticosteroids, testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH). He also withdrew bags of his own blood that were stored for later use during competition. All of these drugs or practices are forbidden under international cycling rules.
In addition to his own use, the USADA letter charges that Armstrong and team manager Johann Bruyneel encouraged the entire team to use performance-enhancing drugs and threatened team members to keep it quiet. It says Armstrong continued to dope after his comeback in 2009 with the Radio Shack-sponsored cycling team.
Armstrong ended his cycling career for good in 2011, but recently said he plans to attempt to win the World Championships in triathlon, an endurance contest that combines swimming, running and cycling. Triathlon officials Wednesday suspended Armstrong from further competition in that sport. Armstrong issued a statement yesterday strongly denying any doping use and saying that USADA was pursuing a “vendetta” against him.
“These charges are baseless, motivated by spite and advanced through testimony bought and paid for by promises of anonymity and immunity,” Armstrong said in a statement released on his Twitter account. “I have never doped.”
Some experts say that Armstrong, 40, may have tried to game the system for too long.
“I think he’s going to regret that comeback,” said Charles Pelkey, a long-time cycling journalist and attorney based in Laramie, Wyo. who covered several of Armstrong's Tour victories. “If he had shut up and gone away, they would have let him keep his seven tour wins.”
Pelkey noted that Armstrong has enough money and a strong enough legal team to fight the charges and will likely try to impeach the testimony of the riders that will likely speak against him. Former teammates Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis both said publicly that Armstrong participated in doping. The two were criticized for lying about their own drug use for many years before coming clean.
Other teammates expected to testify include Frankie Andreu and longtime Armstrong friend George Hincapie, who said he will be retiring from the sport at the end of this year.
Pelkey says that even though Armstrong never failed a drug test, the mass of evidence presents a strong case.
“There was no smoking gun,” Pelkey said. “But there was a lot of other stuff.”
If Armstrong is stripped of his past Tour wins, it might be difficult to pass the coveted “maillot jaune” or yellow jersey down the podium steps. Nearly all the second, and many third place riders have been implicated in doping scandals since then.