Oslo 1993, the UCI and the switch to "high-octane" doping
A year on from USADA’s Reasoned Decision, Lance Armstrong swivels in his desk chair as he talks at length about the last 12 months and many aspects of his career starting from when he turned professional back in 1992. The now disgraced Texan has agreed to sit down with Cyclingnews Editor Daniel Benson for a face-to-face interview in his new temporary home in a sleepy suburban district of Austin.
Armstrong has seen his entire empire crumble during the last 12 months. His sponsors have fled, his cancer foundation has cut its ties, and all the endorsements have gone. All his power has diminished. Credible no longer and with a lifetime ban and several legal cases snapping at his heels, Armstrong is in a place he never thought he’d be.
We had met the evening before the interview, albeit briefly, in one of Armstrong’s favourite local bars, a case of each of us sounding the other out, perhaps. But the next morning, Armstrong, having just returned from a run, was relaxed, poised and keen to talk.
The limits: No video and an understanding that there are details he will only share with WADA, the UCI or a formal truth and reconciliation process. However, he is keen to talk.
Armstrong talks his meteoric rise and early doping, his manipulation of the narrative, his allies and foes in the press room, his apologies, how he hid behind the "cancer shield", his win-at-all-cost mentality and his bitter war with Travis Tygart and USADA.
Cyclingnews will publish the complete interview over the next four days.
Daniel Benson: Let’s start with 1993 and coming over to Europe and what that experience was like.
Lance Armstrong: It really started in 1992 because I was a stagiaire after the Olympics. I’d already gotten a sense of what pro riding was like. The highs and the lows. From the lows of San Sebastian to the experience of racing the Worlds that year in Benidorm. I had some idea what it was like, but 1993 was obviously the first full season. For a young guy, that was eye-opening for sure. But I wasn’t overwhelmed. I was competitive at Gent-Wevelgem, I was competitive in Paris-Nice, in [Tour] DuPont. I felt I was in the game for such a young guy.
DB: How aware were you of the culture of the sport?
LA: I was moderately aware. But I think everyone was, from the riders to the press room to the fans. Everyone today just acts so shocked and stunned but back then, the press room and the riders were closer I think. I think it was that way in other sports: it was like that in baseball, in boxing. Those guys [the press] knew everything, whether it was a baseball player or a cyclist, they just didn’t write it. But the media has changed. Obviously cycling has evolved, but the media has changed drastically.
DB: I definitely want to come to the media and the narrative – even Cyclingnews had part to play in it – but just going back to the issue of the culture. You were up against guys like [Miguel] Indurain, [Laurent] Jalabert, [Tony] Rominger and all these guys. When you came over, were you clean in those early races? Did you realise what was going on or were you already ingrained in that culture that existed?
LA: No. I mean as a young rider, I didn’t know then what other people were doing, but we were basically… I mean, I don’t know about [Andy] Hampsten or [Alvaro] Mejia or the GC guys at Motorola, but we were more or less a clean team. And then again, as young riders, you would be even a tier below that.
DB: You said more or less?
LA: [Laughs] That’s what I mean, more or less. Again I don’t know what others did or didn’t do, and I don’t want to get into the details, but at some point cycling switched from low-octane to high-octane. I don’t know who had made that switch to high-octane first. In Motorola, we had not in 1993. It’s well documented that we did make that switch in 1995, but in the years before, we were low-octane [Armstrong later defined "low-octane" as meaning "Cortisone, etc"– ed.] That worked okay in 1993 but it did not work okay in 1994. In that winter between '93 and '94, there was a tectonic shift.
DB: What hasn’t been documented is when you first crossed that line. If you even want to call it a line, in terms of being low-octane. Can you say when that was?
LA: That’s the kind of detail… It was before 1995, put it that way.
DB: Before you came to Europe?
LA: No. No. I mean if taking a caffeine pill for a criterium counts.
DB: Nothing like testosterone?
LA: Absolutely not. And that wasn’t even in 1995. [Armstrong confirmed later he took testosterone for the first time in 1996 - ed.] In the affidavits of these guys you can tell when there was a switch. We felt we had no choice. Of course, we had a choice, we could have bailed and gone home, but we felt that to compete at that level we didn’t have a choice.
DB: Did you win that world championships in Oslo, 20 years ago, on [taps glass of water] clean?
LA: That’s the detail I can’t get into. It was still low-octane. You know, I think, in the last couple of days I’ve read these stories about Michael Rasmussen and his interaction with [Rolf] Sørensen. That was the norm then. I think he’s spot on. I don’t know his motivation, it doesn’t matter, but he’s spot on.
DB: So it’s a slow process.
LA: At the time that was the norm.
DB: What I mean is was it a slow process in the sense that you see these riders in 1994 and they’re dancing away from you at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. You’re in the rainbow jersey and you think "we’ve got to catch up" but is it a slow process to move into that area of doping or is it just a quick instantaneous move?
LA: Well we rode in 1994 and we didn’t move into high-octane. We just suffered through the year. In '95, for a variety of reasons we just decided to make that next step.
DB: Was there a ringleader who stood out and ushered that through?
LA: It’s not my style to name names. There were certainly as a whole us American guys, to generalise that group, who made that decision together. Perhaps there were people on the team, older riders who we knew had done that, and there were others – we had to have help from the team doctor – but these are all people who have avoided any consequences. Totally.
DB: Did you think you could win the Tour in those early years?
LA: I dreamed and aspired to it. I wasn’t sure, and I wasn’t concerned because at 21, 22, I didn’t need to worry about it then. I had a few years to focus on the things that I was excelling at, like the Classics and small stage races. That kept the team happy, that kept me with a good contract and that was fine with me.
DB: The 1998 Vuelta a España was a breakthrough. What do you put that down to? I read Wheelmen but what do you put that down to? Because your GC record before then was around the mid 30s, it wasn’t a top five or a top four…
LA: That was an interesting year because I came back, then I didn’t come back, and then I came back after bailing. The only thing – obviously the Vuelta isn’t the Tour or the Giro – is that I was super light, much lighter than I’d ever been in my career. You can see that from the pictures, but that ratio of power to weight was better and I was incredibly motivated. We were still trying to scrap by as this team. Postal Service at the time was a shit team, and we took a shitty team to the Vuelta. We caught some lucky breaks too. Shit, the first day there was a split, the very first day, and 200 guys split in two, and I was the 99th guy to make it. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth. No secrets and if you look at the competition you had some explosive climbers like [José Maria] Jimenez but you also had [Abraham] Olano win…
DB: Who you said you could drop on your grandmother’s bicycle… But something must have changed in terms of the doping program that you went through.
LA: I’m not going to get into that. This is not an interview with WADA or a TRC so I’m not getting into that. If that interview comes, I’ll be happy to talk about that or I’ll tell that story myself. It would be foolish of me to tell every detail in an online interview. I had a feeling you wanted detail like that but I’m not giving that.
DB: Could I have a yes or a no?
LA: No. No. Everyone already knows. There’s not that much more to tell. And I don’t want to just talk about doping. It’s obviously an element but 99 per cent of my career isn’t about doping. Maybe it is today because that’s the tagline that gets the attention.
DB: When did you realise that the UCI didn’t give a fuck?
LA: I don’t know if they didn’t give a fuck or if they just couldn’t, honestly, and I don’t think highly of Pat [McQuaid] or Hein [Verbruggen] today, but what were they going to do? Imagine you’re Hein, and again I’m not defending him, but take yourself to '94 or maybe even '93 or before. He should have known before because high-octane existed in the late '80s and not just in cycling, in other endurance sports. You’re there, you’re the head of the governing body, you’ve got no test, no test at all – what are you going to do? And again, I know those guys are easy to pick on, but it’s 1995 for example, you’re Hein Verbruggen. What the fuck are you going to do? Hope someone gets caught at a border? There’s nothing you can do. Maybe they didn’t give a fuck, I didn’t ask them, but I do know that they could not do a thing. Just like the head of the IAAF couldn’t do a thing, just like the head of FINA couldn’t do a thing. They just did not have the tools to do anything until maybe 10 years later.
DB: But do you not think they didn’t have even the will?
LA: If they had the scientific data to protect them legally, then yeah, but again I don’t know. Ultimately we end up where we are today where we have a test that works for one compound [EPO] and guys have to decide if they want to dance around that. I’d like to think that there’s a lot less risk taking. But at the time they could only test for what they had a test for. I don’t think it’s right or responsible, and again I’m not defending them because I don’t really care for them, but cycling tried with some pressure to implement things that were just band-aids over the course of time. Whether it was just the 50 per cent rule, which was what it was – it wasn’t perfect but it was a step. But the sport got no credit for it. That led to more things like the off-score, which led to the biological passport and all the while, no credit. And every other sport that has the doping problem is sitting back and laughing, laughing their asses off, getting no attention, no criticism, no exposure and not doing a fucking thing.
DB: Okay, well what do you put that down to?
LA: Well cycling, the Tour is bigger than some cross country race, even the New York City Marathon. It’s bigger than those things.
DB: Okay, but it’s not as big as the World Cup in soccer or the Super Bowl.
LA: Well listen, the biggest difference between cycling, football and tennis is the players’ union, an athletes’ union. We have no voice, no unity. There are guys all over the place. Those sports, major league sports, they’re not letting that happen and the owners wouldn’t allow it to happen. Whereas we’ve just been living in the Wild West. The riders have no rights, ASO continues to make millions, the teams don’t own anything. The only thing a team owns is its current contract, and when that’s up you’re fucking done. You might have a couple of buses and a truck. There’s no equity and value. It’s a fucked up business model.
Stay tuned to Cyclingnews for part 2 of this interview.
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