Phil Taylor

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

Kiwi cyclist implicated Armstrong

Eight years ago Kiwi cyclist Stephen Swart told Phil Taylor about the dope he took with Lance Armstrong to stay at the head of the pack. Today Taylor returns to the story as ripples from that explosive report finally destroyed the legendary American cyclist

Former New Zealand cyclist Stephen Swart helped lift the lid on doping in the sport, which included naming Lance Armstrong. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Former New Zealand cyclist Stephen Swart helped lift the lid on doping in the sport, which included naming Lance Armstrong. Photo / Sarah Ivey

When a radio interviewer recently stated that former Tour de France cyclist Stephen Swart accused Lance Armstrong of doping, the Aucklander bristled. "That's not correct," Swart replied. "I told my own story."

In telling his story, Swart implicated Armstrong and others. The distinction may seem subtle but it is important to Swart because Armstrong has claimed he was the target of false doping allegations because of his status as the most successful Tour de France rider in history.

But when Swart told a reporter for the first time about his experience of doping in professional road cycling, Armstrong was barely known outside of the sport. It was 1997 and Armstrong's record in the Tour de France to that point was four starts, three abandonments and a 36th place - 1 hour 28 minutes behind the winner Miguel Indurain.

That July evening 15 years ago, Swart sat in the kitchen of his suburban Auckland home talking about the sport in general terms. After a while, he answered my questions about his experience of doping.

Armstrong was part of the account he gave but was far from its focus. In that interview Armstrong was mentioned once or twice and Swart was open about his own use in 1995 of EPO - the blood-boosting drug that swept through the sport and changed its natural order. Cycling at the top had become a sport of two speeds: those who blood-doped and those who didn't.

Doping was part of cycling's history but this undetectable super-endurance drug turned it into "Frankenstein's laboratory", Swart, now 47, said back then.

Swart was the first of Armstrong's teammates to speak publicly about doping in the team, doing so in 2004 in the Weekend Herald and as part of a book published in France.

He is one of 11 riders to give statements to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) which on Wednesday released its report and 1000 pages of eyewitness testimony, email correspondence, financial records and laboratory analyses. Of those 11 cyclists, only two were ever sanctioned for a failed drug test.

Swart said he had thought about telling his story publicly for a long time but didn't have an opportunity that might be effective until 2004. Speaking out made his life difficult. Once he broke the sport's code of silence there was no going back. He became the man New Zealand media went to for a quote whenever there was a doping scandal. He copped cruel criticism on fan message boards and on sports talkback, which hurt his wife, Jan. That prompted her to ask her husband whether telling the truth in public was worth it.

"She has supported me through it," says Swart. "I'd made my mark in the sand by telling my story. I couldn't just stop telling it but it has been a long haul for seven years.

"As long as you believe in the stance you are taking and why you are taking it, then you have to stay strong with it. My motivation was that the sport, when I left it [at the end of 1995], was in a very bad state. I had a young son showing interest and asking questions. What was I supposed to tell him? You want to give him the choices but you don't want to hide it from him either. If I was to tell him one thing and tell the media something else, that wouldn't sit right with me."

Swart wouldn't have stopped his son, Logan, following in his cycle tracks so long as he had all the information. "I didn't want him to sacrifice 10 years to get to a level where he gets told that if he wants to advance any further you [have to take drugs]. That's what we all came unstuck with. None of us signed up for that when we first turned professional.

"Everyone knew how to train, everyone had the mechanical equipment which was all within cooee of each other. [EPO] was the only difference."

Even then doping is hardly equal. It can't be, says Swart. The drugs are expensive and administration, monitoring and avoiding detection requires sophisticated help that doesn't come cheap. Few could afford the best drugs and doctors. "It's [generally] the small guy trying to keep up with the big guy that gets caught. Then the UCI, the world cycling body, make an example of him and say 'job well done' and carry on as normal."

USADA says its evidence indicates Armstrong paid Dr Michele Ferrari, regarded as the world's most sophisticated doping adviser, US$1 million ($1.22 million) during his career.

"The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping program that sport has ever seen," USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said in a statement.

The anti-doping body has banned Armstrong for life and stripped him of his results from 1998 but the UCI asked to see the evidence before acting.

During all that time Armstong has been a hero on two wheels and a cancer survivor and campaigner. But the New York Times said the evidence put forward this week paints him as an infamous cheat, a defiant liar and a bully who pushed others to cheat with him so he could win.

If there ever is a hearing (Armstrong chose not to fight the charges but continues to protest his innocence), American rider George Hincapie would have been the star witness because he was a close friend of the Texan and rode for him in all seven Tour wins and because he is seen as credible. Hincapie's evidence supports Swart's account. Swart hesitates to use the word vindicated but said it is satisfying.

Hincapie adds a lot of weight, Swart says.

"George is very well respected by everyone. It would be very hard for the Armstrong camp to attack his credibility and the UCI would be very foolish if it didn't listen to George."

Hincapie testified that he and Armstrong doped throughout the latter's Tour reign, adding in 2001 transfusions of their own blood to the cocktail of drugs.

"The UCI has got to look at this as an opportunity to change things," says Swart. "But they have had opportunities in the past, such as the Festina drugs scandal in 1998 and others and they have really tucked their heads in the sand."

Swart says the sport should start with an amnesty and a cleanout at the top of the UCI, then invest in the best independent testing regime possible. Without USADA's investigation such change would have been impossible, he says.

"When Lance retired in 2005 I thought we would never get to know the truth. But when he announced his return to top level competition I knew then that this verdict would prevail. I believe his return to the sport was his undoing."

Another witness, Levi Leipheimer, an American teammate of Armstrong's who was once third in the Tour, said this week that coming forward earlier would have accomplished nothing other than end his career. "One rider coming forward and telling his story in the face of cycling's code of silence would not have fixed a problem that was institutional.

"When USADA came to me and described a solution - where my admission could be part of a bigger plan that would make the positive changes we've seen in recent years permanent - I said 'I need to be involved.' I don't want today's 13-year-olds to be discouraged by their parents from dreaming about one day riding the Tour de France."

That's what Swart did seven years ago, only the Auckland builder wasn't cornered by a failed dope test or an investigation. He was brave enough to take an unpopular course because he believed it would one day do good.

"Those who tread on the toes of star athletes and on the dreams of their fans receive no thanks and little mercy," The Sunday Times chief sports writer David Walsh wrote in his 2007 book, From Lance To Landis.

"That is why I have so much admiration for former racers such as Steve Swart and Frankie Andreu, who have sacrificed friendships ... to tell the truth about their own careers."

In 1998 Jean-Marie Leblanc, the organiser of the Tour de France said what cycling needed was "a new morality". His comment followed the discovery by police of hundreds of doping products in a Festina team car. But doping continued and the Tour got faster.

The scandal did, however, make the world decide that sports' organisations were too conflicted to be left to police doping and resulted in independent anti-doping agencies, such as USADA, being set up that were not in the pocket of any sport. USADA is a group appointed by the US government to police the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Olympic sports.

Cycling has shown encouraging signs in recent years and with this week's revelations it has the chance to reach for that new morality.

Logan Swart didn't follow his father into professional cycling but he shares his passion. Now in his early 20s, Logan is currently cycling the length of South America. His father will join him at Christmas and can't wait.

It promises to be a memorable journey, one that will be all about the bike.

- NZ Herald

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