Can’t we get to the more important questions?

June 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

This is not the conversation I want to have any more.   I’ve had this argument at work, on group rides and in countless online forums.  “Did Armstrong dope?” My answer is yes. But that’s not the important question.  The important questions are the implications of his doping.  From a sporting perspective I no longer care; it’s like caring whether they use steroids in the World’s Strongest Man competition. They all do, and yet I’m still amazed when they pull a freight train 50 feet. It is spectacle, and the fact that they all dope levels the competition.  But Armstrong is more than an athlete, and if he doped, there are ethical/moral implications beyond sports (particularly given his public comments about doping and dopers.) I want to talk about that, but I can’t. Because I keep having to talk about this first. Did Armstrong Dope?

I used to say no. No Way!  “He’s never tested positive.” “He might have before cancer, but after cancer he would never risk his health that way.”  I was a Fanboy; I wore the yellow bracelets, I read his book, I wore a replica US Postal jersey (the dark blue one.) I cheered his TDF wins, held my breath as he cyclocrossed past a broken Joseba Beloki, and nearly had a heart attack when a fan’s errant musette bag jerked him to the ground.  But sometime between 2007 and 2009 my faith crumpled against mounting allegations and increasing evidence that he used a variety of banned performance-enhancing drugs.  True the allegations are hearsay, they are not proof, and no one allegation by itself is terribly damning, but in total they paint a picture that is more consistent with Armstrong doping than not.  As the allegations continued,  I started reading.  Paul Kimmage’s “Rough Ride.” The Sports Scientists Blog.  Articles in Velonews, CyclingNews  ESPN.com, SI.com, an interview with Michael Ashenden.    The more I learn, the more implausible Armstrong’s narrative becomes, the more it is clear that he must have, and in fact did use PEDs during the peak years of his athletic career.

And he’s not alone. Cycling has a long inglorious history with doping. Fausto Coppi freely admitted to using amphetamines,  Jacques Anquetil too.  Eddie Merckx tested positive three times.  The Festina Affair  and more recently the Puerto Investigation revealed the systemic, organized nature of modern doping.  As the battle between dopers and testers has heated up during the past decade, multiple riders, even whole teams (Astana, pre-Armstrong) continue to be caught, further evidence that doping in the peleton is not limited to a few isolated cases.  I believe that a genuine effort is being made to change the culture in pro cycling, but I harbor no illusions that the entire peleton is now clean, nor that there are elements resistant to change.  The history of doping is too long and too entrenched to think it has vanished, particularly given that many current managers were cyclists in the heavy-doping eras.

So what’s the evidence? Why am I convinced he doped? Let’s start with what some view as the weakest evidence, his multiple accusers. The list of those claiming first-or-second-hand knowledge is long: There’s the obvious, probably well-known to readers; Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Frankie&Betsy Andreiu.  The older: Emma O’Reilly (former soigneur who co-wrote LA confidential), Ron Jongen (former soigneur),   Mike Anderson (personal assistant),  Steven Swart (teammate on motorola).    I’ll add George Hincapie with a question mark.  CBS reports that he implicated Armstrong in Grand Jury proceedings; Hincapie’s carefully-worded response stops short of denial. Armstrong’s defense is that his accusers are Haters, motivated by jealousy, publicity and money, and/or that they have a history of public deceit which invalidates their accusations.  I’ll speak to this more below, but I will point out that both the Andreius’ and Hamilton’s accusations resulted directly from subpoenaed (ie legally compelled) testimony given at risk of perjury (felony) and that none of the three had accused Armstrong of doping prior to their testimony.

Two others worth mentioning for their investigative work are David Walsh (formerly of the Sunday Times, Co-author of LA Confidential) and David Epstein (ESPN). Theirs is obviously not first-hand knowledge, but both have solid credentials as investigative journalists which lends credence to their opinions/conclusions.  Separately, they have uncovered reports that retesting of Armstrong’s 1999-2000 samples using updated tests reveals that he used Epo (the Epo test was not used in cycling until 2001). Epstein brought to light Armstrong’s ethically dubious bribe donation to the UCI, the very organization overseeing drug testing.

Armstrong’s response to his accusers ignore the substance of their accusation and attack their credibility.  He claims that prior lies, personal vendettas and  financial conflicts-of-interest (books sales) delegitimize any statement they make.  I should not have to point out that the same logic applies to everything Armstrong claims; he has far greater financial and social risk, placing even greater pressure on him to refute (accurately or not) the doping allegations. So too, the majority of his supporters face great personal risk from the current FDA investigation.  By way of background, the investigation is NOT (repeat NOT) targeting Armstrong as a doper.   Novitsky is investigating illegal drug trafficking and organized distribution.  This includes governing bodies that may have facilitated drug use through covering-up tests (UCI, IOC, USOC) and the principals in those governing bodies.  I will exclude Armstrong’s paid spokesmen and attorneys from this list of his public supporters, as they have obvious conflict-of-interest and are essentially paid specifically to support him. Of the others (Johan Brunyeel (DS), Chris Carmichael (coach), Michele Ferrari (gynecologist/coach/Blood-doper-to-multiple athletes),  Bart Knaggs (President of Tailwind – owned US Postal Team), Kevin Livingston, Levi Leipheimer, Yaroslov Popovych (teammates during the TDF era), Bill Stapleton (former VP of USOC, CMO of Livestrong, Armstrong’s long-time agent), Thom Weisel (founding sponsor of Tailwind/USPostal, all around financial bad guy),  John Korioth (longtime “friend and confidant”, employed by Livestrong) and Mark MacKinnon (advisor and on Livestrong board), only Korioth and MacKinnon get a pass, and a weak one at that.  If Armstrong is found to have doped, they all stand to lose a great deal; some could face jail time if implicated in distribution.  The incentives  to protect Armstrong from allegations of doping are quite strong.

The bottom line is this: all the reasons not to believe the accusers are the same reasons not to believe Armstrong and his defenders.

Armstrong’s defense rests principally on two things: “I never failed a test,” and the outcome of the Tailwind suit.  The first is a laughable defense for this reason: we don’t know the sensitivity of antidoping testing, but it is VERY LOW. Virtually every cyclist who has ultimately admitted to doping (Landis, Hamilton, David Millar, Bernard Kohl, Jorge Jascke, Erik Zabel, Patrik Sinkewitz, Rolf Alstaag, Bjarne Ris) has related stories of beating drug tests multiple times.  WHILE DOPING! Indeed it is clear that the majority of dopers never test positive.  A history of negative test results has virtually no negative predictive value with such a low sensitivity.

In the “Tailwind Defense” Armstrong essentially extrapolates having negotiated  a favorable settlement (without a court judgment) to being vindicated and proved to have been clean. The argument is obviously invalid.  The basics of the case is that Armstrong had a contract that pain him a $5-million bonus if/when he won his fifth tour. The bonus was withheld, claiming he’d doped. Armstrong sued, and the case was settled out of court, with Armstrong being paid his bonus.  It was in this case that the Andreiu’s were supoena’d; Armstrong has used the outcome of the settlement as evidence they lied.  In reality, there was no finding of fact in the case.

Lance’s own actions have shown his character to be suspect.  His relationship with Michele Ferrari is an example: He openly worked with Ferrari, beginning in 1999. Prior to 2002 he defended the relationship, saying that despite rumors, Ferrari had never been convicted of doping and deserved the benefit of the doubt. Fair enough. But in 2002, Ferrari was banned by the Italian Federation for doping activities. And Armstrong continued to work with him.  In 2004 Armstrong finally stated he would stop working with Ferrari, but subsequent records, including documents seized in a 2010 raid on Popovych’s Italian home, have shown that this was a lie; he allegedly has continued t o work with Ferrari, meeting him as recently as the runup to the 2010 ToC.

Lance’s defense of Ferrari includes an incident involving Pippo Simeoni. In 2003 Simeoni  testified that Ferrari had previously prescribed doping products to him, testimony that contributed to Ferrari’s ban.  Armstrong took exception to this, despite no first-hand knowledge of the Simeoni-Ferrari relationship,  and retaliated, both in public statements and in by actions on the road during the tour in 2004.

Then there is the matter of Armstrong’s “donation” to the UCI, given while still a rider subject to UCI rulings and sanctions.  While not publicized at the time of the donation, it later came to light amidst some confusion. Given the apparently (according to UCI officials) clear rules prohibiting this, the charitable view is that Armstrong saw himself as above the law, and made the ethically dubious decision that the donation was justified by the intent to support antidoping efforts.  A more cynical view is that this was payment to help bury a positive test result.

None of the above is conclusive evidence. It  demonstrates that Armstrong is not as ethically pure as the image he tries to project. He is willing to bend and break rules as it suits his needs.  He has acted dubiously at times and is not scrupulous about the company he keeps.  His accusers are not just 2 or 3 has-been athletes, but are a variety of people who present plausible, if arguable, stories.  His supporters have the same motivations to lie as his accusers.  But that doesn’t mean he has doped.

What has me convinced that he must have doped, is the context of his Tour wins and the analysis I have read of the science and physiology behind his physical performances.  Let’s start with his competitors.  During the years 1999-2005 there were 21 podium spots for GC contention  With repeat winners, these were occupied by just nine individuals (Armstrong, Alex Zulle, Fernando Escartin, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki, Raimondas Rumsas, Alexandre Vinokourov, Andreas Kloden, Ivan Basso), six of whom are dopers (convicted, admitted and/or sanctioned.)  Only Armstrong, Escartin and Kloden* slip through the stringent criteria used above.  If you look at the top eight in each year, on average 5 were dopers (6 if you include Armstrong.)  So Armstrong beat a field of dopers seven times in a row. Well, how much does doping in the Epo era help? About 54% improvement is seen in 13 weeks, according to this article by The Sports Scientists.  At the top levels of sport, we talk about a 1-2% difference separating first place from not-even-in-the-game. Let’s be generous and say that Armstrong is extraordinary, he’s naturally 20% better than everyone else.  That still doesn’t come close to the boost in physiology from Epo.  And in TT and climbing (Armstrong’s fortes) it’s all about physiology.

Just how good is Armstrong’s physiology? The standard measure of maximal workload is VO2max.  You and I have a VO2max between 40-60. Elite athletes are typically in the 80’s, a few in the 90’s. Armstrong’s is variously listed as 82  84 or 85. In cycling, the standard unit is watts produced per kg of body weight (watts/kg) over a given time interval.  In a very nice discussion of some SRM data from the Tourmalet climb in 2010, Ross Tucker calculates that Schleck and Contador climbed at about 5.9-6.0 watts/kg for a duration that makes this equivalent to 85% of power at VO2max. He then calculates at VO2max between 83-87  ml/kg/min (World class.)  A small bump to 6.3 watts puts VO2max into the 92-93 range – rarified air. Lance himself reported training under Ferrari to a goal of 6.7 watts/kg at threshold (about 85% of VO2max.) The corresponding VO2max is, well, unbelievable. Unless it was “aided.”

In the end, we have this picture:  Cycling, particularly European cycling, is a sport that with a long history of entrenched doping practices. Armstrong raced during a period widely regarded as The Epo Era, when, by all accounts, most riders and virtually all the contenders used Epo, a drug shown to provide substantial performance benefit.  Although he never officially tested positive, doping controls during that era were weak, and the predictive negative value of a test result is virtually zero.  Multiple people report first-hand knowledge that he doped and encouraged others to dope as well (I expect Novitzky is cross-referencing stories for consistency.)   Virtually all of his serious competitors between 1999 and 2005 have been found to have doped. The power output he himself claims is highly improbable without doping, based on our understanding of human physiology (I’m sorry, but neither cancer nor chemotherapy changed him from Peter Parker to Spiderman.)  I don’t know whether the evidence will legally “prove” that he doped (that will likely be decided by the Novitzky Grand Jury,) but when faced with the question myself, I find it very hard to support any position other than that Armstrong used prohibited performance enhancing drugs during his run of Tour de France victories.  I can’t wait to get to the important conversations.

My thanks to BikeMonk for providing me the space and forum for this essay.

§ 3 Responses to Can’t we get to the more important questions?

  • bikemonkey says:

    but neither cancer nor chemotherapy changed him from Peter Parker to Spiderman.

    C’mon, my extensive Marvel comic readings show quite clearly that if you irradiate a dude he gets super powers. QED.

  • bikemonkey says:

    If you look at the top eight in each year, on average 5 were dopers

    and of course you mean “established dopers”. the rest could have been too.

    For me this is the strongest case against Armstrong, frankly. As each near-competitor is determined to be a doper, the “feat” of Armstrong’s seven wins becomes less and less probable for an undoped rider.

    For all we know, the reason he’s never tested positive is that he has some sekrit, private kind of dope that he’s managed to keep proprietary to himself. Could happen. Unlikely, but it could be so. And as you point out (and as should be obvious from all the confessed riders who *were never caught* during some instances of their declared prior doping) doping controls for known substances were porous during Armstrong’s career anyway.

  • SurgPA says:

    Are you speaking of hemassist?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemoglobin based_oxygen_carriers#HemAssist

    I’m aware of the rumors that LA managed to purchase/stockpile a quantity. At this point I’ve seen nothing but rumors and speculation.

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