/ 19 October 2012

A case of strong arm vs charm

Throughout his career Lance Armstrong has been a study in contrasts.
Throughout his career Lance Armstrong has been a study in contrasts.

It was on the road to Lons-le-Saunier in central France on Friday July 23 2004 that Lance Armstrong's darker side was put on full public view early on the antepenultimate stage of the Tour de France. The Italian Filippo Simeoni, a good rider who was a key witness in the trial against Armstrong's trainer, Michele Ferrari, went on the attack and forced a place in what was set to be the day's winning escape. Out of the peloton came Armstrong, bridging the gap to the group alone.

For a maillot jaune (yellow jersey) to do such a thing was unpre-cedented, to do so a few days before sealing victory was bizarre, but so was what followed: the sight of Armstrong publicly telling Simeoni that he had no option but to slip out of the escape and back to the bunch. If he did not, Armstrong told him, he would remain with the lead group, forcing the peloton to chase and wrecking its chances. Simeoni was given two options: capitulate or betray his fellows. Bitterly unhappy, he capitulated.

It was the act of a playground bully, performed with a bully's lack of finesse, and had the goal of ensuring Simeoni would be put in his place. Armstrong made it clear that this was revenge. The price of going against Ferrari and, through the trainer, against Armstrong was made publicly visible.

It was not the first time, nor the last. It has long been acknowledged in cycling that the man who dominated the Tour from 1999 to 2005 – and whose doping practices were detailed in a massive, meticulous report from the United States Anti-Doping Agency, published last week – had something akin to a split personality: Dr Armstrong and Mr Lance.

On the one hand, Armstrong could be utterly charming and borderline flirtatious in a press conference; those close to him have made it clear over the years that he is well able to win over those he wants to. On the other hand, Armstrong's vindictiveness was also known, from his habit of calling and making his views known to journalists who had asked questions he did not like – doping questions, in other words – to the many lawsuits that peppered his career.

Morale in tatters
This side of him was seen in 1999 when he told Christophe Bassons that, after writing columns claiming drugs were still in use, the French cyclist had no place on the Tour de France. Bassons left the race, his morale in tatters.

Those who fell foul of Armstrong include the best American cyclist ever in the Tour de France, Greg LeMond, who spoke out after learning that Armstrong was working with Ferrari.

LeMond claimed that Armstrong had forced him to retract his statement about the Italian: "[Armstrong] basically said 'I could find 10 people that will say you took EPO [erythropoietin]' … The week after, I got multiple people that were in … Lance's camp, basically saying 'you better be quiet', and I was quiet for three years. I have a business … I have bikes that are sold … and I was told that my sales might not be doing too well if … just the publicity, the negative publicity."

The "reasoned decision" by the agency to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour titles includes a brief section titled Evidence of Armstrong's Efforts to Suppress the Truth about His Anti-doping Rule Violations. The section includes efforts to prevent witnesses from testifying, attempted witness intimidation and retaliation against witnesses.

The section includes the Simeoni story as well as an abbreviated version – told in full in Tyler Hamilton's book The Secret Race – of an episode in which Armstrong accosted his former teammate in a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado, after it had emerged that Hamilton would testify against him. The report states that "Mr Hamilton has testified that in connection with this altercation Mr Armstrong said: 'When you're on the witness stand, we are going to fucking tear you apart. You are going to look like a fucking idiot.'" Hamilton further "testified that Armstrong said: 'I'm going to make your life a living … fucking … hell.'"

An addendum in the report details Armstrong's campaign against other witnesses: Betsy Andreu, the wife of his former teammate Frankie Andreu, who gave details about an incident in 1996 in which Armstrong is said to have admitted taking drugs to doctors treating him for testicular cancer.

Bullying dope
"In response, Armstrong and his representatives have vilified Betsy Andreu, insisting in numerous forums and to many journalists that her testimony about Armstrong is motivated by 'bitterness, jealousy and hatred' due, allegedly, to Frankie having not been signed again to the United States Postal Service squad for the 2001 season."

Another who was targeted was Prentice Steffen, a doctor who spoke out against Armstrong after the newspaper L'Equipe claimed that EPO had been found in five samples from the American from the 1999 Tour when they were retested for research purposes.

The report states: "Armstrong and his lawyers promptly followed up with TIAA-Cref, the cycling team with which Dr Steffen was employed at the time. Due to Mr Armstrong's stature in the sport of cycling, the management of the TIAA-Cref team ultimately concluded that if they did not remove Dr Steffen from his position with the team that the TIAA-Cref team might suffer repercussions. As a consequence, Dr Steffen was removed from the team for a period of time."

As well as litigation and intimidation, Armstrong had the natural protection provided by celebrity and national hero status, but he had a shield against his critics that was hard to penetrate: the place on the moral high ground given to him by his cancer charity work through the Livestrong foundation, which he founded while fighting testicular cancer. No one could deny his impact on the cancer community, no one could deny that he inspired those who had suffered from the disease and that, in turn, meant that those who criticised him could be accused of attacking a man engaged in charitable work.

That duality was perfectly illustrated this week when the president of Livestrong, Doug Ulman, attacked the agency's report and stated: "Lance Armstrong's legacy as a cancer fighter is literally second to none. Because of his leadership and vision, the Lance Armstrong Foundation has served more than 2.5-million people affected by cancer over the past 15 years."

The bullying dope cheat and the cancer fighter. Dr Armstrong and Mr Lance. – © Guardian News & Media 2012