It was more than five years ago when Lance Armstrong went on Oprah, looked her in the eye, and admitted to the world that his iconic comeback story was fueled by the most comprehensive doping regimen in cycling history. The seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor had spent his career brashly denying that he’d ever doped, going so far as to shoot defiant commercials about how clean he was and shouting down his detractors in public. Armstrong was a fiery champion, one who had succeeded in making Americans care about a far-flung sport simply because he was so dominant and so unapologetic in his mastery of it. And then there he was, flagellating himself on the nation’s biggest talk show, to the nation’s foremost public confessor, and admitting that he’d deceived everyone. It seemed like it was as low as he could go.
It was not.
Until yesterday, Lance Armstrong was set to go on trial against the federal government. Had he lost that trial he would have been on the hook for a penalty of up to $97 million dollars, which is three times the amount he made as a professional cyclist while representing the United States Postal Service. It’s been years since Armstrong was one of the most famous athletes in the world, but that lawsuit had hung over his head for eight years. As stupid and grandiose as it sounds, he was more or less on trial for the crime of deceiving his country. It’s no exaggeration to say that having been found guilty would have ruined him.
On Thursday, he avoided that fate when his lawyers settled with the government for $5 million. If you’re the sort who thinks Armstrong was not punished enough for taking drugs and lying about it, then the nature of this lawsuit, if not the result, probably seems like cosmic justice. What stands out about the doping program Armstrong presided over is the way he coerced others to take EPO and other banned drugs, and the threats he made if they wouldn’t comply. Armstrong was sued almost exactly eight years ago by his former right-hand man Floyd Landis, and the crux of the case is not whether or not he doped, exactly, but the extent to which Armstrong both covered it up and enforced a code of silence. The long legal nightmare that started just before his second retirement followed from Armstrong’s last days of defiance to his strained confession on Oprah to his recent public reemergence. No matter how far he worked towards reconciling his legacy, the lawsuit always loomed.
By this point in his story, we know how and how much Armstrong cheated, and how and how much he lied. But the story of how the greatest and most reviled American cyclist of all time ended up here isn’t as simple as that.
Most casual observers know Armstrong from his USPS teams, but to understand where he ended up, it helps to understand what cycling was like when he first made a name for himself within the sport. When he turned pro in 1992, Armstrong was a very different sort of rider than the Tour de France-winning machine he’d become with USPS. The young Armstrong made a name by succeeding in Europe’s notoriously difficult one-day classic scene in a way that no other American has come close to replicating since.
Take, for example, the 1993 World Championships, where Armstrong soloed away from a pack of chasers and showed off the elite time-trial skills he developed during his time as a triathlete. Or the 1995 Clásica de San Sebastián, which he remains the only American ever to win.
“I don’t know where Lance has found the legs from at this stage in the race!” commentator Phil Liggett exclaimed as Armstrong sped away in the decisive move. According to former lead Motorola soigneur John Hendershot, we have an answer—Lance found his legs thanks in part to a regimen of “EPO, HGH, blood thinners, amphetamines, cortisone, and testosterone.” Armstrong’s ascendance to cycling’s elite came at the tail end of cycling’s last great drug heyday, before the Festina Affair embroiled the sport in controversy in 1998. As former Armstrong teammate George Hincapie later told investigators, the pro peloton initially embraced EPO around 1995, before there was a reliable test for it. According to Hincapie, Armstrong was tired of losing to riders on EPO, and so he actively encouraged the team to start using the drug. EPO became the drug of choice throughout the USPS’s heyday, and USADA’s core evidence against Armstrong is primarily EPO-related.
Armstrong’s history of cheating can best be understood as an extension of an entrenched doping culture, not as an outlier. Cyclists have looked for ways to chemically enhance their performance since the sport’s inception, and have in different eras sought that advantage through cocaine, wine, strychnine, various amphetamines, a wide variety of synthetic hormones, and anything else that would help them overcome the brutal physical realities of riding hundreds of miles a day for three weeks.
When the Tour de France introduced the first drug tests at the 1966 Tour, riders protested and chanted “No to pissing in test tubes!” But no matter how much they resisted it (or kept eating drugs) pissing in test tubes was coming to the sport. Riders were nabbed for cheating here and there, but no drug scandal really shook the very structure of cycling until Festina team soigneur Willy Voet was arrested at the France-Belgium border trying to smuggle drugs and various paraphernalia into the country three days before the start of the Tour de France.
The fallout of Voet’s arrest came swiftly: the entire Festina team was booted from the race, which enraged the peloton. Police raided the headquarters and vehicles of several teams after a document found in Voet’s car exposed Festina’s doping as systematic and team-wide; every Festina rider at the 1998 Tour tested positive for EPO. Riders and teams were furious at what they saw as judicial overreach and quit the race en masse, shortly before it became apparent that Voet’s cargo was in fact destined for riders on several different teams. Five squads quit and several riders and staffers were arrested.
“I have shoved my finger up the Tour’s arse,”ONCE sports director Manolo Saiz said before quitting. “The police were acting like Nazis,” a TVM staffer said. The French papers questioned whether the 1998 Tour would even proceed all the way to Paris, and anger with the raids led to the spectacle of race director Jean-Marie Leblanc confronting the peloton and begging them to continue racing. Many did not, and French authorities cracked down ruthlessly on the widespread network of dopers within the cycling world. Only 96 of the 189 riders who started the race made it to Paris.
Saiz warned that the French would kill cycling by trying to police it, and there were legitimate questions about whether the race should be permanently disbanded. The Festina Affair was instrumental in the formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency a year later. It changed everything.
Lance Armstrong neither started nor finished the 1998 Tour.
It’s incredible that Armstrong was even alive when the Festina Affair went down. On October 2, 1996, shortly after signing a two-year deal with top French team Cofidis, Armstrong was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer that had already spread to his lungs and brain. His doctor told him he had a 20 percent chance to survive, but later admitted that he felt Armstrong’s cancer was “incurable.” Not only was Armstrong cured, he was able to preserve his world-class VO2 max by excluding bleomycin, a powerful chemotherapeutic drug that is hard on the lungs.
Given the intense scrutiny at the 1998 Tour de France, Armstrong’s absence from the race probably benefitted his career. The Festina Affair showed the world how organized and widespread doping was, and while they were not caught at the race, USPS was just as involved as any other team. According to a 2012 US Anti-Doping Agency report, USPS doctor Pedro Celaya “flushed tens of thousands of dollars of performance enhancing drugs down the toilet of the team’s camper during the race,” and after speaking with riders, staffers, coaches, and doctors, USADA concluded, “The staff was clearly part of the doping operation.” George Hincapie also recalled a staffer tossing drugs into the Celtic Sea on the way from Ireland to France.
By the end of the 1998 season, Armstrong was finally riding at his pre-cancer level, and while George Hincapie testified that Armstrong stopped using HGH after his cancer, that testimony also reveals the first signs of Armstrong as not just doper, but mastermind. “Now that you are doing EPO too, you can’t go write a book about it,” he told Jonathan Vaughters as he apparently injected himself with EPO in Vaughters’s room.
In purely pharmacological terms, Armstrong’s habit of using EPO, testosterone, blood doping, and cortisone is notable for its volume, though the fact that he chemically enhanced his performance during an era in which doing so was a near-universal fact of life at cycling’s highest levels is not necessarily damning. “Everyone was doing it!” really does characterize the top of the sport in the ’90s, and while it provides crucial context for Armstrong’s reign, federal prosecutors have noted that it’s also not strictly relevant to his case. “Regardless of whether every single rider on non-USPS teams was using PEDs, the question for materiality purposes under the [False Claims Act] is whether Armstrong’s compliance with the anti-doping provisions of the Sponsorship Agreement and his false denials of his own PED-use mattered to the USPS,” they wrote in a June 2017 briefing.
Legalisms aside, though, what made Armstrong’s doping extreme was neither its scope nor its efficacy. What set him apart was the way he exercised his power to abuse teammates and those around him to create the perfect winning machine.
And USPS truly was unimpeachable throughout Armstrong’s reign. Perhaps Armstrong’s greatest strategic innovation was structuring his entire season around optimum preparedness for the Tour de France. This meant fewer early-season races, and more isolated training blocks in the Alps, which is now standard for Tour contenders. USADA later noted that “by avoiding most of the early season races Armstrong would be avoiding most of the drug testing to which he could be subjected in the lead up to the Tour.”
Johan Bruyneel, a recently retired Belgian cyclist who was on the ONCE team that had pulled out en masse of the 1998 Tour de France to protest anti-doping, came on as team director. Pedro Celaya was out at Armstrong’s request, and he was replaced by Luis Garcia del Moral because Celaya “had not been aggressive enough for Armstrong in providing banned products.”
In an attempt to move on from the rupture caused by the Festina Affair, the 1999 Tour was dubbed the “Tour of Renewal” by organizers, a moniker which has really not aged well. Before the team presentation, Armstrong’s teammate Frankie Andreu noticed bruising from a syringe on Armstrong’s arm, which a team assistant covered up with makeup. Armstrong even failed a drug test in the first few days of the Tour, coming up positive for cortisone, which he took via an illegal injection weeks earlier. The team scrambled to backdate a prescription, which the UCI somehow accepted, letting him race despite the fact that even a legitimate backdated prescription excuse should have gotten him booted.
And then there is the case of Christophe Bassons, the former Festina rider who was revealed to be one of the only clean cyclists on the team and an outspoken opponent of doping.
Bassons joined FDJ in 1999, but he was treated like shit by his teammates and the peloton for speaking out against doping. On Stage 10 of the 1999 Tour, the bulk of the peloton conspired to single out Bassons and intentionally ride slow to isolate him. When they eventually caught him, he was stared down en masse, taken aside by Armstrong, and told that he should quit the sport. Jonathan Vaughters later recalled that “Lance frequently made fun of him in a very merciless and venomous fashion, much like a playground bully.” Bassons abandoned the Tour and retired a few short years later, formally ending a promising career that was effectively ended by refusing to stay silent.
Despite all the turmoil, Armstrong emerged a champion, establishing a pattern that he’d repeat over the next six Tours. His winning margin at the 1999 Tour was among the best in cycling’s modern era, and his embrace of his role as a shit-stirring American in a sport full of staid, polite Europeans won him millions of fans. He was like Michael Jordan, talking smack and backing it up, and his comeback story only enhanced his profile even further. As Armstrong made history over the next six editions of the Tour de France, he consolidated his power over the team, and imposed his system and philosophy. This meant finely tuned training schedules meant to put a formidable team around him, as well as an equally precise doping regimen.
The combined winning margins of Armstrong’s seven Tour de France wins is 39 minutes and 40 seconds. The dude went seven Tours without falling, fucking up catastrophically, or even having a bad day. Cycling is a sport about not losing as much as it is about winning, and Lance never lost. That takes luck, yes, but also incredible focus and skill, which are attributes that have nothing to do with taking or not taking EPO. What Armstrong did between 1999 and 2005 is not a mirage. He faced a cadre of worthy adversaries and destroyed them all.
You may recall his dominant attack on the Hautacam to seize his first yellow jersey, which Time called “perhaps the most dominating move in the 97-year history of the race.”
Or “The Look,” where he stared down Jan Ullrich and then buried him.
Or his impromptu cyclocross trip across some grass, where he nimbly avoided the crash that basically ended longtime rival Joseba Beloki’s career.
Armstrong’s performance was scrutinized and investigated by anti-doping authorities and the European press, but no matter how loudly he was accused of cheating, Armstrong never technically failed a drug test in his career. According to USADA’s groundbreaking 2012 investigation, that was due in large part to a coordinated effort to dodge drug testers. Hincapie says he warned Armstrong at a race in Spain that drug officials were coming to test him right after Armstrong had just taken testosterone, and Armstrong evaded them by dropping out of the race. Hamilton also notes that the UCI simply didn’t have an effective whereabouts program, and USPS riders regularly hid from testers or refused to appear. When testers did show up, riders would usually be tipped off beforehand and would take a saline injection to normalize their blood values.
The closest Armstrong ever came to actually getting caught during his career was in 2001, when a blood test at the 2001 Tour de Suisse showed “suspicious” EPO values. It wasn’t technically a positive test, although that wasn’t revealed until years later. Armstrong escaped a provisional suspension and all other scrutiny. Both Hamilton and Landis said Armstrong “implied that he had been able to make the EPO test result go away,” possibly by paying the UCI six figures of hush money. Then-UCI president Pat McQuaid—a real piece of shit—has acknowledged that Bruyneel and Armstrong flew to UCI headquarters in May 2002 and “offered at least $100,000 to help the development of cycling.” All parties involved deny it fiercely to this day.
Even if the 2001 test was not in the public record until after Armstrong’s retirement, the outrage at Armstrong played into his image as cycling’s bad boy. The contempt that he inspired abroad was part of his appeal. Consider this 2001 Nike commercial, which was iconic at the time and remains iconic now that its premise has dissolved.
Under Bruyneel and Armstrong, USPS and later Discovery featured a rotating cast of cyclists. Kevin Livingston and Tyler Hamilton first served as Armstrong’s top lieutenants before giving way to Floyd Landis. Eventually, Alberto Contador surpassed him. On each of Armstrong’s Tour-winning teams, his leadership was defined by an obsessive control over his team, and the way he ruled USPS is part of why it was him alone facing the government at trial. Armstrong was “unique,” they explained in June 2017.
Christian Vande Velde told investigators in 2012 about a meeting Armstrong called him in for a decade earlier. Vande Velde had been following the program set up by Armstrong’s friend and shadow USPS team doctor Michele Ferrari, but he said that by 2002, he began to stray away from Ferrari’s rigid program out of fear of needles and getting caught. He was not selected for the 2002 Tour de France team, and the pressure of the secrecy was wearing on him by the August 2002 meeting with Armstrong.
The purpose of the meeting was simple: Vande Velde says Armstrong told him he would need to comply with Ferrari’s program if he wanted a future with the USPS team. He says it was made clear that he wouldn’t have a place on the team if he did not follow Ferrari’s instructions “to the letter.” Bruyneel was apparently on board with all this. As Vande Velde later said, “Lance called the shots.”
Testimony from a slate of former Armstrong teammates backs up the notion that USPS was really Lance’s team. You either followed orders, or you raced somewhere else. Ferrari had been investigated by Italian authorities for years, and he continued to be a presence around USPS and latter-day Armstrong teams well after his name had been sullied. Bruyneel was an integral part of the system too, and he helped enforce the doping program.
Dave Zabriskie joined USPS in 2001, and he later wrote in his USADA affidavit that he began to ride bikes competitively as a refuge from a “difficult home life” resulting in part from his father struggling with addiction. He vowed “never to take drugs” after his father died. In 2003, Bruyneel and del Moral called Zabriskie and Michael Barry for a meeting at a Girona cafe, where they brought him EPO and made it clear that the two would have to join the rest of the team on the program. Zabriskie said he felt cornered, but eventually he acceded to keep his cycling career alive. It caused him to have a breakdown.
Armstrong even apparently went as far as trying to rat out rivals who he saw as possible threats to his Tour dominance. Tyler Hamilton and Spanish rider Iban Mayo both put in strong showings at the 2004 Dauphine, which apparently enraged Armstrong. According to Hamilton, Armstrong was pissed enough that he called the UCI and told them to investigate. Cracking down on Mayo and Hamilton while leaving Armstrong alone made no sense, although Armstrong had long enjoyed a cozy relationship with UCI officials.
In a 2004 incident that echoed Armstrong’s intimidation of Christophe Bassons, Armstrong publicly went after Italian rider Filippo Simeoni for speaking out and essentially ended his career. Simeoni made the breakaway in Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France, and perhaps would have had a chance to win the stage until Armstrong rode him down and forced him back to the peloton. A smiling Armstrong then made the “zip it” gesture to a TV camera.
When Simeoni accepted his fate, Armstrong took him aside, put his arm around him, and told him, in full view of TV cameras, “You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari and you made a mistake when you sued me. I have a lot of time and money and I can destroy you.” Like Christophe Bassons, Simeoni’s career was irreparably maimed by his confrontation with Armstrong. When Armstrong made his first ever Giro d’Italia appearance in 2009, Simeoni was not invited despite being the national champion.
Cracks first started to appear after Armstrong’s first retirement in 2005. A month after the 2005 Tour, L’Equipe reported that a French lab had re-tested one of Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour and it had come up positive for EPO. There was no EPO test in 1999, and while Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc said the charges appeared credible, the re-testing of a frozen B-sample is not considered a definitive or undisputed methodology. Armstrong wrote: “Unfortunately, the witch hunt continues... [this] article is nothing short of tabloid journalism.”
Shortly after the L’Equipe report, former USPS doctor Prentice Steffen reiterated claims that he was fired by USPS after refusing to give riders doping products in 1996. Steffen was then serving as team doctor for TIAA-CREF, an American team coached by former Armstrong teammate Jonathan Vaughters. After Steffen spoke out, Armstrong leaned on Vaughters to fire him, calling him a heroin addict and threatening to get TIAA-CREF’s sponsors to leave the team. Three years later, Steffen was confronted and punched out by former USPS rider Marty Jemison because Steffen had spoken to David Walsh about the USPS’s doping program in 2001. When text messages between Vaughters and Frankie Andreu were later admitted as evidence in federal court, Armstrong personally called Garmin-Slipstream boss Doug Ellis and tried to get him to fire Vaughters.
Armstrong and Sheryl Crow, who were then engaged, broke up in February 2006, and he spent his first retirement briefly dating celebrities and demi-celebrities like Kate Hudson, Ivanka Trump, and Tory Burch. Meanwhile, Floyd Landis won the first Lance-free Tour of the millennium in a thrilling 57-second victory over Oscar Pereiro; the two had spent the last week and a half of the Tour swapping the yellow jersey. It was a fantastic race, and Landis’s winning margin would have been the sixth-slimmest of all time if he hadn’t immediately failed a doping test and lost the title within a month. Phonak disbanded, and Landis was banned for two years. It was a huge mess that came at the worst possible time. Landis fought the charges for years and eventually lost. He would later make a brief return to cycling, watched his comeback disintegrate, and eventually decide to expose the whole system to the public.
But that was still years away, and the 2006 season was also marked by Operación Puerto, a Spanish investigation into Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes which started when Jesús Manzano went to the police in 2004. Manzano passed out during the 2003 Tour due to extreme dehydration, which he thought was caused by an injection. He then nearly died at the 2003 Vuelta because of a bungled blood transfusion.
Shortly before the 2006 Tour de France, police revealed that they’d raided Fuentes’s home and found a huge stash of PEDs and a client list featuring some of the most famous riders in the world. Fuentes was arrested, and longtime cycling sponsors T-Mobile and Liberty Seguros left the sport altogether. Elite riders like Alberto Contador, Ivan Basso, and Jan Ullrich were named as clients of Fuentes and kicked out of the 2006 Tour before it started. Altogether almost 60 cyclists were named, though many were later cleared by various courts. Because Fuentes’s client list was written in code, many of the names on his list are still not known.
If the Festina Affair showed the world that doping was common practice in professional cycling, Operación Puerto showed how deeply ingrained it still was eight years after the awakening of WADA and anti-doping efforts around the world. Try as they might, drug officials couldn’t stop riders from doping, which makes sense, given that the cycling season as it’s conceived in the modern era is basically impossible to complete at the highest level without pushing the boundaries of pharmacology. Human bodies are not made to complete the Tour de France. They’ve never done so without help.
When Lance Armstrong decided to come back to cycling in late 2008, he was coming back to a sport that had begun to truly experience the fallout that was only hinted at during the Festina Affair. All the growth under Armstrong stagnated as several sponsors dropped out of the sport, including Discovery.
Armstrong declined a salary for the 2009 season, instead diverting all his bonus money towards cancer research and even rocking a Livestrong kit on occasion. Suspicion still trailed him, and things got testy between Armstrong and longtime foe Paul Kimmage during a famous press conference at the Tour of California.
Greg LeMond, a longtime Armstrong enemy, spoke out against Ferrari, and Armstrong’s teammates said this angered him to the point that he threatened to call Trek and get them to shut down LeMond’s bike line.
Floyd Landis was having a rough time during Armstrong’s comeback seasons. He spent over $2 million defending himself from the doping charges, and was even implicated in a possible hack of an AFLD database. Landis couldn’t secure a contract with either of the two top-level American teams, and in April 2010, he sent a series of emails to USADA, UCI, and USA Cycling officials, detailing the USPS doping program in which both he and Armstrong participated. The Wall Street Journal reported on the emails in May 2010, during the Tour of California.
Armstrong was initially defiant, claiming that Landis was a vindictive liar and that he only made the accusations because he was jealous he couldn’t get a job with RadioShack.
Still, anti-doping authorities took it very seriously. Armstrong had been accused of cheating throughout his pro career, but this was the first time that the call was coming from inside the house. Landis may have made himself a pariah after the 2006 Tour de France, but he was still there. USADA opened an investigation, and shortly before the Tour de France, Floyd Landis filed a federal lawsuit against Armstrong, the very same one that threatened to bankrupt him until he came to that $5 million settlement on Thursday.
Undeterred by the authorities closing in, Armstrong went back to France one last time. He began his Tour on a strong note, finishing in the top five on the opening time trial. In the end, crashes, mechanicals, and a lack of strength cost him his race, and he eventually finished an anonymous 23rd place, behind three teammates and 40 minutes off Contador’s pace. He burned out and faded away at the same time.
Armstrong’s fight then shifted from the mountains to court rooms. He moved quickly to try and shut down Landis’s lawsuit and the USADA investigation. Armstrong contacted Hincapie and other former teammates, encouraging them not to talk to authorities, and he threatened anyone who said anything. Jeff Novitzky, an ardent footsoldier in the war on drugs whose entire career was built on chasing after drug users and breaking the law at every turn in an effort to turn public opinion against them, opened a federal investigation into Armstrong, and most of Armstrong’s then-retired teammates gave testimony to a federal grand jury in 2010. Tyler Hamilton spoke to USADA in the summer of 2010, then did an interview with 60 Minutes a year later during which he corroborated much of what Landis accused Armstrong of in 2010.
Shortly after giving the interview, Hamilton attended an Outside Magazine event in Aspen. He says he checked Armstrong’s schedule to make sure he wouldn’t be there, and was relieved to see that he was supposed to be in Tennessee. He wasn’t, and Armstrong confronted Hamilton at a restaurant and threatened to make his life a “living fucking hell.”
After Levi Leipheimer testified in October 2010, he attended a dinner with Armstrong, during which Armstrong texted Leipheimer’s wife “Run don’t walk.” Leipheimer continued to race for RadioShack in 2011, and his betrayal of Armstrong earned him scorn from his teammates, who promised to “pay back” anyone who “fucked with [him].” Bruyneel didn’t renew Leipheimer’s contract for 2012, even though he had a great 2011 season, specifically because he testified in front of the grand jury.
Armstrong maintained his innocence for years, continuing to loudly deny cheating in various appearances in court and with the media.
Then, in 2012, everything finally collapsed.
That June, USADA formally accused Armstrong of doping after wrapping a two-year investigation. He did not contest the charges, and was promptly stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. On October 20, 2012, USADA released the findings of their investigation. Their 202-page Reasoned Decision document presented, in exhaustive detail, evidence that Armstrong and USPS “ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.” They procured affidavits from 26 people, including most of Armstrong’s former teammates. They covered the entire story from every angle, getting into the scientific evidence against Armstrong, the likelihood that he coerced teammates into doping, and the ways in which he intimidated witnesses in the federal case. After almost two decades of going after him, authorities had finally nailed Armstrong to the wall.
There could be no denying it, which meant Armstrong had no other recourse but Oprah. “This is too late,” he told her and her audience. “It’s too late for probably most people, and that’s my fault.” Still, he retained that defiant spark, and denied several key claims, including that he’d doped during his comeback. He later told Outside that he didn’t have the right attitude at the time, saying, “When I did Oprah, my attitude was, ‘fucking get over it.’ My feeling was, look at what we did. Look how the sport grew, look how the industry grew, and look how many people were affected because of Livestrong’s cancer work. Get over it. That was my attitude in 2013. I now understand that ‘get over it’ was not an option. People were upset, hurt, livid.”
Critically, Armstrong said he regretted not coming clean to USADA investigators when he had the chance. It’s possible he could have soothed parts of the growing legal storm against him if he had talked, but he remained defiant until the end, and it cost him. Nike, Oakley, and Trek dropped him, which cost him at least $75 million in future earnings. He’d already sold his private jet for $8 million to prepare himself for the legal battles ahead, and he had stopped renting extra houses. There was plenty of lingering legal fallout from the USADA investigation and Lance’s admission of guilt; he’s settled and lost several suits, even paying $10 million to a promotions company he’d beaten in an earlier legal battle to secure $5 million in bonus money. The Sunday Times sued Armstrong for the money they paid him over his libel suit, and he settled with them in 2013. Armstrong also earned a ticket in 2015 for hitting two parked cars, which he initially blamed on his girlfriend.
Still, he no longer faced a Justice Department investigation when he confessed. Novitzky and the federal government dropped their investigation against Armstrong in February 2012, after two years of work and several trips to Europe to uncover evidence. Novitzky helped investigate BALCO and ruthlessly pursued Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. He was working for the FDA when he spearheaded the Armstrong investigation, and as ESPN wrote in 201o, “Defense attorneys have accused him of carrying out vendettas against their clients, leaking information, fabricating evidence and intimidating witnesses along the way. More than one judge has raised doubts about the way he conducts investigations.”
Novitzky’s agency abruptly decided not to bring charges against Armstrong the Friday before the 2012 Super Bowl, but the Landis case still loomed. The timeline of Landis’s byzantine federal lawsuit against Armstrong is rather confusing, defined as it is by a stupefying series of federal injunctions and endless legal filings. The case file is comprised of 591 documents, with spicy names like “REPLY to opposition to motion re 94 MOTION to Dismiss Relator’s Second Amended Complaint, Memorandum of Points and Authorities, Request for Judicial Notice, and Certificate of Service.” The most amusing document in the file is a 2013 request from Johan Bruyneel’s lawyers to please to stop spelling their client’s name incorrectly.
Landis first filed his complaint in the United States District Court in Washington D.C. on June 10, 2010, on behalf of the U.S. Government and under the False Claims Act. The crux of Landis’s case is that Armstrong’s doping while working as a government contractor constituted fraud, which under the False Claims Act meant that Armstrong was potentially responsible for paying back three times the amount he made while working for USPS. As the whistleblower, Landis stood to get a 25 percent cut of that payment. He named Armstrong, Bruyneel, Bill Stapleton, Barton Knaggs, financier Thomas Weisel, and the USPS team’s parent organizations as defendants.
The case sat stagnant for years until February 2013. A year after the U.S. Attorney decided not to pursue charges against Armstrong, the Justice Department announced that they had joined Landis’s lawsuit. Instead of going after him again on their own after the Oprah confession, they put their weight behind the False Claims Act suit. Armstrong and his lawyers offered to settle the case for $5 million, but the government reportedly wanted twice as much. Armstrong tried to get the case thrown out in 2012, 2014, and 2017, and U.S. District Court Judge Christopher Cooper declined each time.
Over the years, every other defendant besides Armstrong has either left the case or is no longer actively defending themselves. The government declined to pursue charges against Weisel, Stapleton, Knaggs, and Capital Sports, only going after Bruyneel, Armstrong, and Tailwind. Stapleton and Knaggs offered Landis a $600,000 settlement in 2014, but it was rejected by a federal judge; they got out of the suit for $158,000 in 2017. A judge dismissed Landis’s claims against Weisel in 2014. Since Tailwind dissolved in 2007 and Bruyneel is a citizen of Belgium, they have both been declared in default for no longer answering summons.
That left Armstrong alone. The case was initially expected to go to trial last November, but due to an issue of lawyer availability, proceedings were moved back to May 7 of this year. Lawyers for both sides have spent the last year squabbling over what exactly would be admitted as evidence in the case. Armstrong’s lawyers wanted to keep Betsy Andreu and Greg LeMond from testifying, and they also asked for the USADA report to be thrown out as “inadmissible hearsay.” Landis’s lawyers sought to keep Armstrong from testifying about Landis’s own history of doping and his possible motivation in recouping as much as $20 million.
In November, Judge Cooper set evidence limits, allowing Andreu and LeMond to testify, but also allowing Armstrong’s lawyers to make the “everyone was doing it” defense. Cooper barred a government witness from testifying that the USPS recouped nothing from their $32.4 million investment, but he also denied the Armstrong team’s request to use using internal studies commissioned by the USPS that showed the government had already made their money back threefold. Both sides called Cooper’s ruling a win.
In his heyday, Armstrong was worth, quote, “100 milski.” A recent Outside Magazine profile of Armstrong dug into his finances, which, despite the loss of sponsors and some $36 million in legal fees and settlements, remain healthy. But he, like most everyone else on earth, did not have a spare $97 milski lying around. Getting off for $5 million is a pretty good deal, considering that it’s the same figure his lawyers offered in settlement talks years ago.
Other than fighting in court, what has Armstrong been up to lately? He’s been banned from most every international competition, though the cycling world is slowly starting to accept him once again. He blogged about the 2017 Tour de France with Outside Magazine, launched a podcast, and was even invited to speak at the 2018 Tour of Flanders, though he later had to cancel that appearance. Armstrong even goofed on his shady history when he appeared in the 2017 HBO mockumentary Tour de Pharmacy.
Armstrong does not seem like the sort who, during his heyday, would have been very likely to poke fun at his own downfall like this, but he seems to have mellowed. The Armstrong who gave that pugnacious half-apology to Oprah isn’t there anymore, and he’s accepted that he wasn’t someone necessarily worth believing:
“People come up to me and say, ‘Stop apologizing, you don’t need to apologize anymore,’” he says today. “I don’t agree with that. There were all sorts of people out there who had my back the whole time, even as the smoke got thicker and thicker. They said, ‘Nope, we believe him.’ For them it was even worse than a betrayal. They felt complicit. They’re in their cycling club or at church, and people say to them, ‘Look how foolish you were to have believed this guy.’ That is what I have to apologize for, for the rest of my life. And I am comfortable with that.”
However, he hasn’t mended every fence, and reporters who covered USPS during its heyday do not want the public to forget how he menaced them at the height of his power. Fred Dreier of VeloNews wrote earlier this year about intimidation tactics Armstrong used against journalists, which started with blacklisting and often escalated to outright threats. Armstrong once went after VeloNews itself, urging sponsors to steer clear in 2004 after they put a hypodermic needle on their cover. Here’s an illustrative anecdote.
“He told my boss that I was a terrible journalist and that he had a dossier on me of my earlier articles,” said Reed Albergotti, who covered Armstrong for The Wall Street Journal and co-wrote the book “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever.”
“He would message my editor insulting things about me, including stuff about the way I looked,” Albergotti added. “He knew I was a cyclist and he said I was too fat to be a cyclist.”
And then there are the people he fucked over who have not forgiven him. Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni have met with Armstrong and made amends with him for ending their cycling careers, but others have not been made whole. Greg and Kathy LeMond have long criticized Armstrong, and he retaliated by getting Trek bikes to drop LeMond’s bicycle brand.
“We lost our livelihood,” says Kathy, “and we spent $4 million in legal fees defending ourselves.” In 2015, the LeMonds and their attorneys had a four-hour meeting with Armstrong and his attorneys because there was potential litigation with Trek, one of Armstrong’s former sponsors. Armstrong’s stated intention was to apologize. But according to Kathy, that never happened.
Betsy and Frankie Andreu also had to exhaust their budgets on legal fees, and Kathy LeMond said Armstrong refused to compensate them. “I asked Lance if he would please make financial amends to them. He owes them hard cash. When I said that, that is the most he raised his voice, and said: ‘Never.’ When I asked Armstrong about the Andreus and LeMonds, he shook his head slowly from side to side.” Betsy Andreu spoke to the New York Times today, and she said she felt that Armstrong got off too easy.
“It’s a sad day for justice,” Andreu said Thursday after she heard the news of the settlement. “Honestly, it feels like he just got away with it. This will just empower him to be as ruthless and as vengeful as ever. I’m disappointed because I was looking forward to telling the truth.”
Still, I would venture that all but the most victimized journalists and former associates would argue that it would not be fair for Armstrong to face financial ruin for his transgressions. All but the most ardent drug warriors would concede that running the most sophisticated doping ring in a sport that requires a reasonably sophisticated doping ring is probably not cause for 100 million American dollars in damages, even before you consider whether the U.S. Postal Service got more than their money’s worth for Armstrong’s services. Armstrong was undoubtedly a huge asshole who took a sledgehammer to a few people’s careers and lives, and he should have to reckon with that. But to bleed him dry would have been gratuitous and draconian.
I spoke with Phillip Brown and Hamsa Mahendranathan, two False Claims Act experts who have been following Armstrong’s case, and they noted that the government usually only joins cases it thinks it stands a good chance of winning. The Justice Department recovered $3.7 billion from False Claims cases in the 2017 fiscal year, and $3.4 billion of that amount came from whistleblower cases that the government joined. Relators such as Landis made $392 million.
When we first spoke two weeks ago, neither Mahendranathan nor Brown felt confident enough to offer a prediction, but both thought Armstrong faced an uphill battle. “I think the government has a really compelling case,” Brown said. He added that he couldn’t imagine a jury responding favorably to testimony illustrating that the whole sport was dirty given “the evidence of how much of a scorched earth approach he applied to keep this from coming out.”
After news of the settlement broke, we spoke again, and they both pointed out that Landis probably came out the best of all parties involved. After waging a pitched legal war for years to clear his name, then conceding and suing Armstrong, getting $1.1 million of the settlement plus an additional $1.65 million from Armstrong for his legal fees probably feels like vindication. Brown noted that 17.9 percent of damages awarded is a “pretty good benchmark” for what a relator can expect to get back in a fraud case, and Brown felt pessimistic that Landis’s reward would reach that mark.
Landis will use the money to help kickstart his cannabis business, but, as he told the Atlantic, it was never about the money for him. Landis struggled with addiction after being stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title, and he says he went as hard as he did after Armstrong because he wanted to change his sport for the better. Intriguingly, he thinks he didn’t make a difference. “Taking me down and taking Armstrong down did nothing. It was an utter failure because the UCI and WADA are still lying to kids and making them think that they can become top athletes clean. And they know that you can’t.”
After the settlement was announced, the government put out a boastful press release, which Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Civil Division Chad A. Readler got to lead off by saying “No one is above the law.” It continued, “A competitor who intentionally uses illegal PEDs not only deceives fellow competitors and fans, but also sponsors, who help make sporting competitions possible. This settlement demonstrates that those who cheat the government will be held accountable.” Mahendranathan and Brown agreed that the United States got what it came for, even if they didn’t completely nail Armstrong to the wall.
For Armstrong’s part, he and his lawyers seemed happy to pay out the same amount they’d offered years ago, and in a press release of their own, they said the lawsuit was “without merit and unfair.” While the settlement is far from the apocalyptic scenario Armstrong faced of paying $97 million, both Mahendranathan and Brown agreed that the government got what it came for. “They get to have this Lance Armstrong-sized trophy,” Brown said. “He settled a fraud claim. He basically admitted fraud!” Mahendranathan laughed, as Brown added, “Anytime you’re paying the government $5 million to settle a case that you defrauded them, to call that meritless seems kind of ridiculous.”
Since the case never went to trial, there’s no significant legal precedent here, though Mahendranathan said it could show potential whistleblowers that they stand to gain from exposing fraud. Landis was right there in the middle of the USPS mess, and he fought his positive test more aggressively than any other doper who got caught. His big reward is a statement from the government that “whistleblowers can make mistakes and still come forward and be rewarded,” Brown said.
At this point, it is hard to imagine that Armstrong has any secrets left. Through his rise and his fall, the question Who is Lance Armstrong? hung over him even more heavily than it does other champions. He was an evil mastermind or an inspirational avatar, an unrepentant cheater who ruined his sport or a martyr for a sport that has always been dirty. He was a survivor, a beacon of hope to cancer patients, a dad, a drug runner, a podcast host, an unbelievable and unrepentant asshole or a single-minded competitor. In time, though, the answer has emerged as all those or’s melted away. Armstrong’s legacy is complicated because of the contradictions in how cycling works, how the public treats its sports heroes, and what it costs to make history. It’s also complicated because of how complicated Armstrong himself is, and remains. He is the sum of everything he has done, good and bad. With the end of his fight with the government, who he will be in the future is finally up to Armstrong to decide.