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Armstrong Doping Scandal: Some Cyclists 'Made The Right Choice' Not To Cheat

Oct 15, 2012
Originally published on March 25, 2013 2:44 pm

Reactions to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's recently released report on cyclist Lance Armstrong's use of performance-enhancing drugs have ranged from denial to anger and disappointment. Some have said Armstrong merely did what it took to compete with pro racers, all of them chemically enhanced. But that's just not true, says Joe Lindsey, a contributor to Bicycling magazine.

"The way that it's been presented by some of the people here in the past... 'I felt like I didn't have a choice' — I'm conflicted about that," Lindsey tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

"I understand that it felt that way at the time," he adds. "But there was a choice. And there were riders who made the right choice, and there were riders who made the wrong choice."

As for the advantage that a blood-booster like EPO can provide, Lindsey says that competing against someone who has used it is like riding a race with your bike's brake rubbing the tire rim, slowing you down.

"There are some cyclists who continue to ride without resorting to doping, and I think were the most harmed by all of this," Lindsey said. "There were other riders who said no, and walked away... like Scott Mercier, Darren Baker, Brian Smith — riders who walked away and said, 'You know what, I don't want to do this; it's not worth the price of my integrity.'"

Mercier, a former U.S. Olympian, has emerged as something of a hero in the mass of evidence that shows widespread cheating, for his refusal to take drugs as a 28-year-old on the U.S. Postal Service team.

Here's what Mercier told the BBC about his refusal to undergo the steroids-and-training program he says the team doctor gave him:

"I love cycling, it's a beautiful sport, but it would have been very challenging for me to look someone in the eye and say I was clean when I knew I wasn't.

"People talk about the health aspects, but to be totally honest I wasn't so concerned about that.

"For me, it was the lying and the hypocrisy."

Mercier left the team, and professional cycling, at the end of that season. Lindsey says that riders who stayed on the pro circuit but refused to inject or swallow performance-enhancing drugs often had to change their approach to the sport.

"They were never going to win big races during that time," he says. "That was part of the calculation they made, that 'We know we're never going to win this stuff.'"

If they fell off the pace and dropped behind the main group, the riders often had to rely on other "clean" cyclists to help pace them back to the group.

In the wake of the Armstrong scandal, both the executives who run cycling's largest international group, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and the journalists who cover the sport, have come in for some blame of their own, for either ignoring or not knowing about the pervasive doping the USADA describes.

And while Lindsey admits that journalists failed to uncover what was going on, he says that even cycling's insiders were shocked at the breadth of the cheating. And he says it was difficult to break through cyclists' code of silence about doping.

"If you asked these questions, you would get frozen out," Lindsey says. "You would not be able to talk to anybody in the sport. Riders would ride past you; they would not answer your questions. And we saw a number of journalists, actually, who left the sport rather than continue to deal with that."

Two exceptions, he notes, were Pierre Ballester, the former L'Equipe reporter who co-wrote L.A. Confidentiel (2004) with British journalist David Walsh, and former racer and current journalist Paul Kimmage — who is currently facing a defamation lawsuit filed by the UCI.

As for the people who run professional cycling on the international level, Lindsey says that change is long overdue.

"At the top level of the sport, there is no one who I see who has the credibility and the authority — the independence — to come in and say, here's what's going to happen," he says. "And that's because the people who are involved in running the sport now are the same people who've been involved running the sport for the past two decades, when we saw this incredible epidemic of doping going on."

"At the very least, they were just absolutely incompetent and inept at somehow stemming the tide of what was going on," Lindsey says. "I think change needs to start from the top, and some of these people need to step down."

Earlier this month, former pro cyclist Scott Mercier wrote an editorial calling for "the overthrow of the tyrannical leadership" of UCI's current president, Pat McQuaid, and its former president, Hein Verbruggen.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On some level, last week's report on cycling from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency was not a surprise. The agency released a pile of evidence against Lance Armstrong who'd been dogged by charges of doping for years.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Yet, long time observers of cycling were stunned at how widespread that doping was. This leads to a question we put to Joe Lindsey who writes for Bicycling magazine.

INSKEEP: Does this report push you toward the conclusion that the entire sport is corrupt?

JOE LINDSEY: Well, as far as the entire sport being corrupt, I think one of the things that comes up is that for the public and the media, we're always sort of five to 10 years late on these kinds of things. So here we are discussing something that happened maybe as recently as 2009, 2010, but really focusing on 1999 to 2005. During that time, yes, I think the sport was corrupt in the sense that doping was epidemic.

At that time, there were far more riders who were doping than were far more people within the sport who knew about it, than those of us kind of on the outside who didn't. I don't know that that's really the case any more. I think that there have been some substantive changes made.

INSKEEP: So it's not just Lance Armstrong. It's not even just some of the top cyclists. It's most of the cyclists, that's how you read this report?

LINDSEY: Yeah, absolutely. There's a point in the report were they point out that 20 of 21 riders who stood on the podium for the Tour de France, from 1999 to 2005, have now been conclusively linked to doping - whether through positive tests or at their own admissions, or these kinds of investigations. And that's a shocking number.

INSKEEP: Does the devastation of the whole sport, at least to five years ago or 10 years ago, in this report, cast a different light on Lance Armstrong's behavior for you?

LINDSEY: Absolutely, I think that, for me, the thing that comes through most clearly in the report is not merely the fact that he don't, which obviously a lot of other people were doing, it was the length and the degree that he went to, to cover that up: intimidation and threats against his fellow riders, of perjuring himself in previous cases. The pattern becomes fairly obvious that he would do just about anything he could to keep the secret.

INSKEEP: Looking back on those years, as a reporter, do you feel that you knew this story, even if you were unable to put it in a form that you could report it?

LINDSEY: There's a lot of questions about that kind of thing now, you know, a lot of pressure and criticism of the people, like myself, who cover the sport. It's very easy to say you should have known this; you should have put it out there. But what you see right now is reaction, even from some people inside the sport, is that they had no idea that things at Postal worked at this degree.

If you asked these questions, you would get frozen out. You would not be able to talk to anybody in the sport. Riders would ride past you. They would not answer your questions. That's not to explain away or apologize for the fact that beat reporters didn't uncover this kind of thing. There were certainly people who didn't ask these questions or who chose not to ask these questions. For the rest of us who did ask these questions, the answers we got were basically lies.

INSKEEP: So you were asking those questions?

LINDSEY: Yes, absolutely. I was asking questions. My first suspicion about Armstrong came right around 2001 when David Walsh published the news that Armstrong was working with the coach, Michele Ferrari, who was, even at that time, a very suspicious character.

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing because even the sport's governing body has been implicated by this report. And I was thinking about the notorious baseball scandal of 1919, the Black Sox gambling scandal. There was a baseball commissioner who, for all of his flaws, stepped in and decided that he was going to make dramatic gestures to clean up the sport; banned people for life and managed to save the credibility of baseball.

Is there anybody at all left in cycling who has the credibility to do that now?

LINDSEY: You know, that is a fascinating question. And I think, right now, my answer to that would be no. At the top level of the sport, there is no one who I see who has the credibility and the authority, the independence, to come in and say here's what's going to happen. And that's because the people who are involved in running the sport now, are the same people who've been involved running the sport for the past two decades, when we saw this incredible epidemic of doping going on.

So, at the very least, they were just absolutely incompetent and inept at somehow stemming the tide of what was going on. And these are the same people in charge of the sport now. How do we say that they have the credibility and the authority to step in and clean this up? I think change needs to start from the top and some of these people need to step down.

INSKEEP: Joe Lindsey is a contributing writer to Bicycling magazine, thanks very much.

LINDSEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.