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In Armstrong's world, fear, paranoia prevail

Cyclist's heroic image withstands persistent allegations of doping

09:21 PM CDT on Sunday, August 6, 2006

By MICHAEL GRABELL and CATHY HARASTA / The Dallas Morning News

Lance Armstrong rose to sporting power in a world where paranoia ruled.

He had his meals delivered in a blue cooler during his final Tour de France for fear of sabotage. His team members drove miles to dump their trash, knowing that the moment they threw something away, someone else would pick through it. And former cyclists still active in the sport were so worried about the power the seven-time Tour winner wielded that they began taping conversations with his associates.

The details from a confidential Dallas legal case decided this year provide an inside, often deeply unflattering look into a part of professional cycling far from the famous Champs-Elysées in Paris where the Tour champion is crowned. It's a shadowy, insular world that has bred rumors for years that the Plano-reared champion used drugs to boost his performance.

Plano-reared champion used drugs to boost his performance. File Skeptics have lodged allegations of

File Skeptics have lodged allegations of performance-enhancing drug use against Lance Armstrong for years.

With this year's champion, Floyd Landis, officially failing a drug test – French authorities announced Saturday that sophisticated tests had detected synthetic testosterone in his urine sample – the stories about Mr. Armstrong are circulating again.

Yet despite the incessant gossip, and the ensnaring of several high-profile athletes in doping investigations, Mr. Armstrong's image hasn't been damaged. To most Americans, he is still a hero who beat cancer to become one of the greatest athletes of all time.

"He's the most tested athlete in the history of mankind and never failed a single test," said his Austin attorney, Sean Breen. "He's been absolutely willing to go to the mat on these allegations, and he's won every single time."

That includes the Dallas legal case, which began in September 2004 as a contract dispute over a $5 million bonus for Mr. Armstrong's 2004 Tour de France win. In the end, the case morphed into the closest thing to a trial of Lance Armstrong in the U.S., with Mr. Armstrong victorious.

In the thousands of pages of transcripts, depositions and exhibits that were presented during the confidential arbitration hearings, there was no definitive proof that Mr. Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.

Instead, much of the testimony was from those who had heard stories from others or saw strange things that aroused their suspicion. Several who appeared admitted they were no fans of Mr. Armstrong.

His former masseuse testified that she traveled to Spain to pick up a box of pills and delivered them to Mr. Armstrong the next morning in a McDonald's parking lot. The wife of an ex-teammate said a trainer named Pepe handed him a brown paper bag after dinner in France.

This is a world, according to Armstrong adversaries, where top-rated cyclists traveled to out-of-the-way rendezvous in a camper van with a doctor who Mr. Armstrong called "Schumi." Where, on race rest days, couriers carried in drugs in refrigerated compartments attached to their motorcycles. Where a Belgian bike mechanic transported drugs to cyclists in their hotel rooms by hiding them in the hollowed-out heels of his clogs.

"In Europe, it is common knowledge among cycling sports fans that a large number of cyclists dope," said Jeff Tillotson, an attorney for the company Mr. Armstrong sued in the Dallas case.

"It is simply assumed as part of the sport, much like people here know professional wrestling is staged. Just like we would laugh at a Frenchman who would demand literal proof that the WWF is staged, they laugh at us when we say, 'Yeah, but you don't have any positive doping tests.' "

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Mr. Armstrong, 34, converted from triathlons to cycling as a teenager and began winning races. In 1993, he became the youngest person to win a stage at the Tour de France. And in 1996, he was ranked No. 1 in the world.

But later that year, testicular cancer was diagnosed in Mr. Armstrong. Within days, doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lungs and brain. Mr. Armstrong and many others thought he would never race again.

What happened next was a cure and a comeback. Mr. Armstrong began training again – and winning. And the drug rumors began drafting behind him everywhere he went.

Mr. Armstrong declined, through his attorney, an interview for this story. But in the legal case, he explained the rumors like this:

"I came along in 1999 after 1998, which was probably the biggest drug scandal in the history of world sport. I came along as somebody who was supposed to be dead 18 months ago. You put those two together, competing in the hardest event in the world, it's logical that if he wins, people are going to say, 'I don't believe it.'

"Well, he not only won it once, he won it again and again and again, seven times. So obviously those questions and concerns have persisted. And I've learned and grown to deal with them, and we have done what we could to try to fight them and combat them. But at the end of the day – literally at the end of the day – I sleep like a baby, and that's what's most important."

Along the way, the legend of Lance Armstrong was told again and again. And cycling went from a sport of athleticism to one of superstardom, like a kid riding on the handlebars of Mr. Armstrong's bike.

"After he won his first few Tours, he transcended a sports icon," said Andy Lee, spokesman for USA Cycling. "Americans have dominated the Tour de France the last eight years. Anytime you become more successful, the level of scrutiny will be raised."

The origins of the Dallas legal case were in a dispute between Tailwind Sports, the company that managed Mr. Armstrong's cycling team, and SCA Promotions, which indemnifies sponsors who promise prizes for athletic achievements.

Dallas-based SCA refused to cover a $5 million bonus Tailwind promised Mr. Armstrong for winning the 2004 Tour de France – his sixth straight title – until it could investigate allegations reported in a French book, LA Confidential – The Secrets of Lance Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong and Tailwind sued to force SCA to pay.

Both sides brought in former teammates, business partners, journalists and doctors to testify in a North Dallas office building near the High Five interchange.

Sources for the French book put their allegations under oath. Experts debated the credibility of positive urine test results, reported last year by the French newspaper L'Equipe. Attorneys questioned Mr. Armstrong's ties to others who have been linked to cheating.

The proceedings were supposed to be kept secret, the testimony and documents ordered to remain confidential. But in June, details of the case leaked when French newspaper Le Monde reported that a former teammate's wife had testified about a 1996 hospital visit, during which, she said, Mr. Armstrong told a doctor he had taken "growth hormone, cortisone, EPO, steroids and testosterone."

Mr. Armstrong vigorously denied it.

Two weeks later, the Los Angeles Times reported more details of the case. But public confidence in Mr. Armstrong appeared to go unshaken. He got away with off-color jokes while hosting the ESPY awards a week later and was named "Best Male Athlete" for the fourth-consecutive year.

The Dallas Morning News obtained virtually all of the documents and other records presented in the case, such as transcripts of depositions and testimony given by key participants, including Mr. Armstrong. The material was provided to The News by a source who asked to remain unnamed because the proceedings were supposed to remain confidential.

If Mr. Armstrong is the Hulk Hogan of cycling to some, to others he is Andre the Giant, the enormous wrestler who often played the evil counterpart to Mr. Hogan. And Mr. Armstrong's former conditioning consultant, Dr. Michele Ferrari, is the equivalent of the shifty wrestling manager who holds an opponent's neck under the ropes when the ref isn't looking.

SCA attorneys questioned Mr. Armstrong's relationship to Dr. Ferrari, calling him "the most notorious doping doctor of all sports."

In 2004, an Italian court convicted Dr. Ferrari of sporting fraud but acquitted him of an allegation that he distributed doping products to athletes. The conviction was overturned, but he never lost his reputation as someone who reportedly told a French newspaper, "EPO is not dangerous; it's the abuse that is. It's also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice."

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Mr. Armstrong's attorneys say that the doctor was misquoted and that he was referring to legitimate medical uses of EPO. Dr. Ferrari's critics say he knows how and when to use performance-enhancing drugs so that they won't be detected in drug tests of athletes.

Supporters say he legitimately mastered the science of cycling. He could tell a rider exactly what weight he needed to be to make the fastest climb in mountain stages. And if an opponent gained a lead, he could calculate when he would tire out.

In one e-mail entered into evidence, Mr. Armstrong tells a friend before the 2004 Tour de France, "tests are good (even schumi is psyched)."

SCA attorneys argued that the e-mail was code for performance-enhancing drugs and Dr. Ferrari. Mr. Armstrong said that they were psychological and climbing tests and that "Schumi" was simply a nickname, comparing the doctor to the top driver for the Ferrari Formula One racing team, Michael Schumacher.

In other testimony, Betsy Andreu, the wife of former teammate Frankie Andreu, described riding in a car with Mr. Armstrong and stopping in a small Italian town en route to the 1999 Milan-San Remo cycling race. She said Mr. Armstrong met with Dr. Ferrari for an hour in the doctor's camper van, which was parked in a hotel lot to avoid the media.

"I was in there for a brief meeting, check body fat and body composition," Mr. Armstrong testified. "But I understand the insinuation that I went in and got doped up the day before Milan-San Remo. I've heard that, but that's not what happened."

Several witnesses described a world not unlike the corrupt union shop in the movie classic On the Waterfront, where Mr. Armstrong can make sure "canaries" never work in cycling again.

"Public opinion is very pro-Lance Armstrong, and we take a lot of flak if we say anything negative about him, and it's difficult for our kids," Kathy LeMond said before breaking down in tears during her deposition.

Mrs. LeMond, wife of three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, testified that she and her husband began taping phone conversations with Armstrong associates in the cycling world. The LeMonds said they feared retaliation for speaking out and needed the tapes as protection.

"Everybody is trying to earn their living in the sport, and they think if they go against Lance, they're going to be out of, out of a job," Mr. LeMond said to an Armstrong associate in one taped conversation, according to a transcript.

The feud between the two most famous American cyclists began after Mr. LeMond publicly criticized Dr. Ferrari. According to Mr. LeMond, Mr. Armstrong called him and threatened to produce 10 people who could say he took EPO.

Mr. LeMond testified that he then received a series of calls from Armstrong associates. He said John Burke, president of Trek bikes, where both cyclists had contracts, told him that he was being pressured by Mr. Armstrong's associates to get Mr. LeMond to retract his Ferrari comments.

"For me, it was Lance was trying to extort me, trying to threaten me," Mr. LeMond testified.

According to the LeMonds, Julien Devriese, a bike mechanic who worked with both Mr. LeMond and Mr. Armstrong, told them that Mr. Armstrong's team kept mini-refrigerators, called "frigos," to store their drugs. They said he also told them about a training camp in the Pyrenees where Mr. Armstrong and others used "a secret product that no one else had and was undetectable."

Mr. LeMond said he also taped a conversation with Emma O'Reilly, Mr. Armstrong's former masseuse.

"She said that Julien told her that

he is the one that takes in drugs via a hollowed-out heel on his clogs," he testified.

Mr. Armstrong denied he threatened the LeMonds and called their allegations "a hundred percent made up." In a statement released in late June, his attorneys called the LeMonds liars and produced a response from Mr. Devriese denying the accusations and saying that he doesn't even own a pair of clogs.

Still, others feared Mr. Armstrong.

Mr. Andreu, who was a U.S. Postal Service team director when Mr. Landis and Mr. Armstrong were among its riders, produced a tape of a conversation he had at the 2004 Tour de France, in which Armstrong associates tried to get him to sign a statement denying the allegations made in the book LA Confidential.

"I didn't know where this conversation was going to go, and I didn't trust them," he testified. "So, I recorded it."

The Andreus also produced a transcript of an online instant message conversation Frankie had in July 2005 with Jonathan Vaughters, another former racing colleague of Mr. Armstrong. Mr. Andreu and Mr. Vaughters had just returned from France, where they worked

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the 2005 Tour de France.

In the online conversation – which was not admitted into evidence in the Dallas case after the Armstrong attorneys objected that it had not been properly authenticated – the two men seem to discuss doping regimens allegedly used by several cyclists, including Mr. Armstrong, at the 2005 Tour. They also say that Mr. Landis is aware that some Tour riders are doping and is angry about it.

"Floyd was so pissed at them this entire tour," Mr. Andreu wrote.

"anyhow – i just feel sorry for floyd and some of the other guys," Mr. Vaughters wrote.

In an e-mail to The News, Mr. Vaughters said that the online conversation did take place but that he did not believe the transcript was complete or entirely true. "That conversation was a private conversation with [a] bunch of embellishments and BS, and shouldn't be taken otherwise. I don't have any first hand knowledge of any of this stuff."

He also submitted a sworn affidavit to that effect in the Dallas case.

Mr. Armstrong's attorney, Mr. Breen, said in an e-mail to The News that the IM exchange "is unauthenticated, it has no basis in fact, it is third hand gossip, Vaughters has described it as a stupid embellishment and that it is patently un factual and only gossip."

He also said that characterizing the IM exchange as "factually based or even [Vaughter's] opinion would be incorrect and unfair."

On July 25, Mr. Andreu was fired from the Toyota-United Pro Cycling Team for missing a race.

"It seems a little extreme and a little harsh for missing one race to be terminated from a team I helped put together," he said in an interview with The News.

His wife said she was skeptical because he missed the race a month before he was fired, just as the media reports on their testimony were released.

"Is it coincidence? I don't know," she said.

Mrs. Andreu testified in the case that she feared that Mr. Armstrong had hacked into her computer, although she couldn't produce any evidence. She said that a woman who works with him told her that he had put a device on his ex-wife's computer that could monitor keystrokes.

Mr. Breen, the Armstrong attorney, said the allegations were absurd. "That gives you a crystal-clear snapshot of Betsy Andreu's credibility," he said in an interview. "She utters these allegations in the same breath and with the same fervor as all her other allegations and they should be given the same credence. None."

He disputed that people are scared of Mr. Armstrong.

"I think people that make false allegations are afraid of the ramifications, and therefore afraid of Lance Armstrong," he said.

Mr. Armstrong's adversaries even suspected his relationship with his cancer doctors.

Mr. Tillotson, SCA's attorney, questioned Mr. Armstrong's motivation for making a $1.5 million donation last fall to endow a position for the doctor who cured his cancer. The donation came two days after the Andreus gave their depositions in the case and the same day Mr. LeMond gave his.

But Mr. Armstrong's attorneys pointed out that negotiations to create the endowed chair had been ongoing for more than a year.

"I'm funding a chair for somebody who saved my life," Mr. Armstrong testified.

"You're not attempting to buy silence from someone at Indiana University Hospital with your donation, because there's nothing to keep silent. Right?" the attorney asked.

"Well," Mr. Armstrong replied. "I'm sure you would love to paint that."

When Mr. Tillotson questioned a $25,000 donation Mr. Armstrong made to the International Cycling Union to buy a blood-testing machine, he replied, "Of course, that's been viewed as Al Capone buying police cars for the Chicago Police Department, too, but it's not that."

When asked about Mr. Andreu's allegation that he once showed him little round pills that he would take at different parts in the race, Mr. Armstrong answered, "I have to confess, I'm – If you want a confession, I'm a bit of a coffee fiend." The pills, he said, were

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Mr. Armstrong's success in protecting his good-guy image partially rests on that kind of verbally agile, often sarcastic rebuttal.

"He's taken almost every single one of them head-on," said his attorney, Mr. Breen.

But Mr. Armstrong's own testimony provided some of the most intriguing details about the air of suspicion that surrounds pro cyclists. He feared that someone might try to sabotage his last race.

"This year we protected the food a lot," he said. "Everything that went into my body, we protected. So there was a lot of talk even after the Tour de France about the blue cooler. Well that blue cooler, unfortunately for the skeptics, had water, bread, pasta, butter, jam, jelly, honey, et cetera, et cetera."

Mr. Breen pointed out that Mr. Armstrong wasn't the only worried cyclist. Mr. LeMond testified that he was warned the night before the last time trial at a Tour de France that some French guys were out to get him. So he photographed and put his fingerprints on all of his water bottles.

USA Cycling's Mr. Lee said paranoia might not be the right word, but he said whatever it is, "I think that's a byproduct of the ultracompetitive atmosphere."

"Just take a look at the case," Mr. Breen said.

At one court hearing, SCA attorney Chris Compton took a trash can liner containing Mr. Armstrong's discarded chewing gum from Judge Adolph Canales' downtown Dallas courtroom, where an early part of the case was being heard. Mr. Compton then sent it to a DNA testing facility on Stemmons Freeway in hopes of later matching it up with urine samples from the Tour de France.

In the end, the gum didn't stick. And the arbitrators ordered SCA to pay Mr. Armstrong and Tailwind $7.5 million – $2.5 million more than the original $5 million bonus.

Still, for those worried about the integrity of cycling, the Dallas case raises significant questions:

If the allegations are true, why hasn't cycling's governing body sanctioned Mr. Armstrong after all these years of accusations? If the allegations are false, why would so many people risk perjury for no apparent gain?

And perhaps most important: Will the public ever be sure that Mr. Armstrong – or any other athlete – is clean?

David M. Carter, a sports marketing and management consultant in Los Angeles, said that even with the allegations now made under oath in the U.S., Mr. Armstrong's legacy probably wouldn't be affected.

"Sports fans already have an opinion of him based on his body of work today," he said. "He has handled himself so well throughout this very public process. I don't believe there's ever been an athlete who has combined the athletic achievements with such a compelling story. I think he can stand on his record."

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he can stand on his record." E-mail and 5 of 5 11/07/2010 02:58