Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Doping: The bicycle thieves

Sports writer Dan Coyle tells Phil Taylor about his long battle to cut through the PR myths surrounding Lance Armstrong and organised doping in cycling.

Lance Armstrong (in yellow) and compatriot Tyler Hamilton, who helped author Daniel Coyle lift the lid on doping in cycling. Photo / AFP
Lance Armstrong (in yellow) and compatriot Tyler Hamilton, who helped author Daniel Coyle lift the lid on doping in cycling. Photo / AFP

Back in 2004 Daniel Coyle spent 15 months in Spain, orbiting a phenomenon called "Planet Lance".

Coyle, an American author and former editor of Outside Magazine, his wife, Jen, and their four children took up residence in Girona, a 10-minute stroll from the fortress-like building where the newly divorced cancer hero and cycling pin-up Lance Armstrong lived with his then-girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow.

Armstrong was preparing to win the greatest bike race on Earth a sixth consecutive time. Coyle was allowed to speak to whoever he wanted but Armstrong insisted on copy approval for the book that resulted: Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France. It is perhaps the best insight into the pugnacious character of the Texan son of an absentee father and a working-class solo mum, who beat cancer then won the Tour de France a record seven times and, who, was last month stripped of those results and banned for life after he chose not to contest doping charges.

The book sold well but Coyle was nagged by the thought that a significant part of the story remained hidden. More so, as doping scandals piled up. Tyler Hamilton, who was regarded as a nice guy and a clean rider and who rode as a wingman for Armstrong in his first three Tour wins, was caught blood-doping during the season Coyle documented.

Then in 2006, Floyd Landis, another former Armstrong lieutenant, tested positive to the male steroid testosterone and became the first Tour winner to be stripped of victory for a positive drug test.

Like Armstrong, Landis was an all-rounder, with special ability in climbing, time-trialling and descending. Like Armstrong, he had quite a back story. As a youth, his devout Mennonite parents loaded him with chores, aiming to deny him time to train because they thought cycling (and bike pants) would lead him to hell. Landis rode away from home in Famersville, Pennsylvania, through the pain of osteonecrosis (for which he eventually had hip-resurfacing surgery) and found fame and infamy.

Coyle dedicated a chapter, "The Book of Floyd", to the story. Soon after Landis was exposed as a doper, Herald colleague Andrew Austin wrote to Coyle explaining that the book had turned him on to pro-cycling but that he now felt duped.

"Do you know how widespread drug use in cycling is?" Austin asked, "and when are you going to write about it?" Where British Sunday Times journalist David Walsh (From Lance to Landis) had confronted the issues, "you seem to have skirted around them".

Coyle emailed back: doping was a huge issue that he still struggled to reconcile with what could be seen on the road. "It's tempting to throw up our hands and say it's all a joke, a spectacle, and perhaps that would be right. And, yet, if we did, I think we'd be missing a larger human story."

"In the wake of all this," wrote Coyle, "I'm not champing at the bit to write about the sport again. Unless someone were to come clean and let me inside - paging Floyd? - it remains in the shadows."

Five years later, in August 2010, Hamilton agreed to open that door. The result is The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs, co-written with Hamilton and released here yesterday. Hamilton details his own doping and implicates a host of others, primarily Armstrong, who he claims to have witnessed using EPO and transfusing blood.

"You would see glimmers, you would have hunches, but you can't operate on hunches," says Coyle, speaking to the Herald this week from his home in Ohio. "In the first book I went as far as I could. I showed readers both sides of the facts. I hung out with Ferrari [Dr Michele Ferrari, nicknamed Dr Evil, now banned for life from working in sport], I spent time on Planet Lance.

"As a journalist, the ultimate is to uncover a hidden world and it doesn't happen very often that there is a hidden world in plain sight, in open view of millions of people. I didn't have much hope that would ever happen."

Coyle sensed an opportunity when Hamilton was subpoenaed to testify in a Federal investigation into whether Armstrong's US Postal Service team had misused US Government sponsorship money to fund doping. (No charges resulted but the United States Anti-Doping Agency used much the same evidence to bring doping charges against Armstrong, team director Johan Bruyneel, three doctors and a medical assistant).

"Appearing before a Grand Jury means you have to tell the truth or you will get charged with perjury. It's a very sharp blade for uncovering the truth." That nudged Hamilton into a place where he was prepared to tell the secrets, says Coyle.

In May 2011, Hamilton admitted that he had used banned substances in competition, and returned his 2004 Olympic time-trial gold medal.

Coyle describes The Secret Race as a cautionary tale about a world that got out of whack. Not only in sport. Look at the financial sector excesses leading up to the world economic crisis. "It is also a time when the governors of cycling let things go. It's the story about the culture. It's not the story about one villain or one person. It's a story about a group dynamic, where the forces that were promoting the sport and the forces that were policing the sport were combined. And that's a big, intrinsic problem. It's easy to point fingers and call them villains but that's a cultural problem, that's a structural problem."

It also coincided with an era when doping became extremely effective, particularly in endurance events. Erythopoietin, or EPO, a naturally-occurring hormone that promotes production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells had been commercially developed in the late 1980s to help dialysis and cancer patients who suffered from anaemia. It is estimated to improve world-class athletes performance by about 5 per cent, or roughly the difference between first place in the Tour and the middle of the pack.

Combine such drugs with a win-at-all-costs attitude and cycling became a whole new game. "A certain doctor, a certain dosage at a certain time made a massive difference," says Coyle. "You ended up with this chess game, essentially. A chess game of who had the information, a chess game of access, a chess game of who had the money, a chess game of who had the guts to take these huge risks ... because it means you are taking huge risks with your body and with your soul."

Twelve years after it was first published, Armstrong's inspirational book It's Not About the Bike, is still a bestseller (currently Whitcoulls' number two sports book). It ignores doping even though his return from cancer to cycling in 1998 coincided with the Festina scandal that prompted the establishment of an independent overseer, the World Anti-Doping Agency. Doping has been the elephant in cycling's front room ever since.

Armstrong's book doesn't mention his positive test for cortisone in the 1999 Tour but states: "I can emphatically say I'm not on drugs." In the dedication, he thanks five teammates. Four have since testified to the USADA about doping within the team.

USADA says its evidence includes Armstrong's blood profiles from 2009 and 2010, which are "fully consistent with blood manipulation including EPO use and/or blood transfusions", urine sample results from the 2001 Tour of Switzerland, which "were indicative of EPO use" and admissions from "more than 10 cyclists".

Armstrong cites the hundreds of drug tests he passed as evidence he did not dope but the same can be said of up to eight of those 10 cyclists who have now testified there was a doping conspiracy.

In the acknowledgments of The Secret Race, Coyle expresses his gratitude for the work of journalists Walsh, fellow Irishman Paul Kimmage and Frenchman Pierre Ballester, whose work did most to expose doping and the code of silence that protected it. "The reason I singled them out," he says, "was they were ahead of their time. They were willing to take risks and go places other people weren't comfortable going."

Coyle suggests close scrutiny is needed of cycling's world governing body, the UCI, which joined Armstrong in an unsuccessful court challenge trying to shut down the USADA case. The cycling body's intervention stunned many because information (Armstrong's blood passport profiles) that it had failed to act on is part of USADA's case and because witnesses have claimed it was involved in a cover-up of a positive drug test by Armstrong in 2001.

"The UCI is either part of the problem or part of the solution," says Coyle, "and it seems to be determined to be part of the problem. The question is - can change happen?"

Whistleblower's view
Aucklander Stephen Swart, a former teammate of Lance Armstrong, says he hopes the evidence currently emerging about doping will lead to a better sport.

Swart, who in 2004 went public in the Weekend Herald with his story about doping in the Motorola team led by Armstrong, yesterday said he no longer felt he was standing alone.

Read the 2004 Weekend Herald story here.

"Not vindicated, but maybe I don't stand alone and perhaps it's swung a few people's minds that I wasn't out to get anybody personally. I was out to expose the culture and try to make changes for the better for the younger generation."

Swart was the first of Armstrong's teammates to publicly implicate the Texan in doping. Speaking up hadn't made his life easy. "It's always stressful. I haven't done myself any favours," he said. "We can't go back and correct things. We've just got to go forward and hope things get better." Change had to come from the top, he said. The UCI (the world cycling body) had either stuck its head in the sand or worked against those trying to expose it.

Swart rode the Tour de France in 1987, 1994 and 1995 - the latter two as Armstrong's teammate.

- NZ Herald

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