Riding the wave of power, apologies and being the witch in a witch hunt
In this third part of an exclusive interview with Cyclingnews, Lance Armstrong talks about how he rode a wave of power and deceit as he dominated the Tour de France to become one of the biggest sports stars in the world.
Armstrong confirmed that he tried to apologise to many of the people he attacked and hurt, including Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly. He denies remembering the famous moment in hospital when, according to Andreu, he confessed to doctors that he doped in front of several friends.
Armstrong has been banned for life by USADA but claims he has not been treated fairly, with Travis Tygart perhaps leading a vendetta against him. He suggests he competed on a level playing field during his career because almost all of his rivals also doped but that he has been singled out by USADA. We ask directly ‘if it was a witch hunt, perhaps he was the witch.’
However, Armstrong adds that he hopes cycling can move on from the past via a Truth and Reconciliation process.
You can read part one of the Armstrong interview here and part two here.
The final part of the interview will be published on Friday. Armstrong talks about Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, his hopes of doing charity work with Livestrong in the future, and his seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, which he vows to put back up on his wall once he completes moving house.
DB: I’d like to go back to the relationships you had in your career. What did it take for you to trust people and to let them into that inner circle?
LA: That’s hard. It’s one of the things that makes cycling so messy. If it’s a circle of 25 riders at the team, 9 at the Tour, the whole operation is maybe 60 people. It’s not like tennis for example where it’s one player and his trainer. It’s a lot of people involved.
DB: What does it take for you personally to let people in?
LA: Well it’s a different answer today than to back then.
DB: What was it back then?
LA: Back then, and I think people on the team can testify, I was never a warm and fuzzy person who wanted to trust everyone. I viewed everyone as having an agenda. I didn’t totally trust a lot of them. A lot of that you just had to deal with as you’ve got to have a team and teammates. Looking back on it, there were a handful of people who should never have been on the team but you have the roster and you have to field the best team you can. The characters are well known.
DB: I mean away from cycling, away from the rosters. One guy that stood out in Wheelmen was JT, who was really supportive of you. What sort of figure was he to you?
LA: He was my landlord but he also looked after me and was a big brother figure.
DB: Did something switch because it seemed you became distant and he never seemed to fully understand why.
LA: I got married and started a family. I didn’t read the book but it’s normal that when you start a family then with your buds that dynamic changes.
DB: What now makes you trust someone?
LA: I don’t trust anybody.
DB: No one at all?
LA: A handful of people.
DB: Fewer than before?
LA: Of course. What do you think? Friends and family. I don’t think that any of us who have gone through this have the same level of faith that we did 12 or 24 months ago. Forget me, pull my name out and put someone else’s in, it’s the same.
DB: Why do you think everyone has an agenda? Is that in life or just in cycling?
LA: I didn’t say they have an agenda, I just said I don’t trust them.
DB: Before you said that people have an agenda.
LA: Well, when you’re on top of the world like that, there are people who have agendas. I was extremely loyal. I kept the same inner team, you plug and play with new riders but the structure of management whether it’s [Bill] Stapleton or [Bart] Knaggs, [Mark] Higgins or Johan [Bruyneel], the same core group was always the same. Despite this team taking off like a rocket. It’s easy to say I cast people out, but if you stand back and look at it you could almost say I’ve been loyal to a fault.
DB: When it all took off, your success I mean, was it easier or harder to control once that momentum built?
LA: It didn’t feel hard at the time. It was busy but the main thing was being able to still focus on my job. If I felt that the hysteria was getting too much, which I never really felt, but you see it with some athletes, they have a couple of big victories and then they have those off season parties and all of a sudden the season comes around and they’re fucked. All I really cared about was getting back to July. I could still do some of the stuff in the winter, meet the sponsors, do the fun stuff but when it was fucking time to work, I went to work.
DB: Did it feel like you were clinging to power and some of your actions came from fear of losing everything or was it a case of just wanting more and more?
LA: I always worked off the assumption that I could lose everything. Which may still happen now. But the way I was raised, I was just sure that I was going to go broke the next day. It was definitely more about assuming I would go bust. Like I said it may happen.
DB: But how did you try and control the narrative?
LA: I controlled the narrative but I think the wave of momentum helped to control it. I was at the front of it, but whether it’s the sport, the industry, the cancer community, there was this wave of momentum that was the narrative. And along the way there were people that had different opinions and that momentum rolled over them.
DB: You bullied people. How did you do that?
LA: This wave did a lot of it but I was at the front of it. It’s on me. But certainly that wasn’t a popular opinion at the time. So for me to say one little thing, the force behind it was perhaps… I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t want to get into that.
DB: Why not?
LA: I’ve said what I’ve needed to say and I’ve reached out to the people that were affected. Some took my calls, some didn’t. Those were personal conversations and I don’t know what else I can do other than say I’m sorry, if you’ll take my call. There were many that refused, still to this day. Maybe I need to say sorry a thousand more times.
DB: Did Betsy [Andreu] take your call?
DB: How did that go?
LA: It went well.
DB: Was she one of the ones, together with Emma [O’Reilly], that you….
LA: I had the conversation. I said I was sorry and I really meant it.
DB: Did she believe you?
LA: I don’t know.
DB: I have one question on Betsy. Was Betsy telling the truth about what happened in that hospital room?
LA: I don’t remember that happening. It was 17 years ago, two days after brain surgery. I do not remember that happening. I don’t.
DB: Do you think she would have made it up?
LA: You said you were going to ask me one question.
DB: Come on…
LA: I did what I could to apologize. LeMond wouldn’t take my call. Hamilton wouldn’t take my call, Landis I couldn’t call. I paid Walsh back, and I tried to make that right.
DB: Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni. How do you feel you acted towards those two individuals?
LA: They are two very different situations: Bassons, I really said, because he didn’t seem happy. So I said, ‘If you’re not happy, do something else.’ I didn’t say, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ I posed a question. Then that got translated with my English and somewhere along the way it was translated into ‘Get the fuck out of here.’
DB: You weren’t aggressive in the tone?
LA: No. I posed a question.
DB: The reality was that he was ostracised by the sport.
LA: You’re blaming me for that?
DB: Not individually, you’re not [Française des Jeux manager Marc] Madiot or every rider in the peloton who shunned him.
LA: I asked him if he’s not happy then he should do something else.
DB: He was standing up and talking about the culture in the peloton but what about Simeoni?
LA: The Simeoni episode was a mistake. There was no reason for me to act that way. To get on his wheel when he’s attacking was uncalled for and a big mistake. It made too big of a statement and there was no need for that.
DB: Was it a mistake that you did something publicly or a mistake that you even went for him?
LA: All of it was a mistake. I should have ignored it but there are more than one of those examples. That attitude, that mentality, that brashness.
DB: You thought you were untouchable.
LA: Exactly and that sense of invincibility was there and it was also a huge mistake. Look, there are those moments that I would do anything to go back and change.
DB: What was the biggest mistake?
LA: Any time talk of my diagnosis mixed with a doping denial. That makes any other affair minor. That was so far over the line, and so desperate to keep it rolling and keep controlling the narrative, that’s totally unacceptable. It’s unacceptable in the cycling world but the ramifications it had in the cancer community, I deserve to be where I am at today. It was unacceptable.
DB: How did you rationalise it at the time?
LA: I didn’t even think about it. It is the true definition of hubris. It was one of the most stupid things I could have said.
DB: Where does that sit with the Paul Kimmage press conference?
LA: Kimmage was asking me about Landis and the guys back in the race. Do I welcome them back? I defended them. I always did. I defended Landis until 2010 but again in typical fashion I took it way too far.
DB: Was there anyone around you at the time that was saying…
LA: No. No. That would have been good.
DB: Why do you think that was?
LA: I don’t know but it would have been good.
DB: Do you think they were but you just didn’t listen or didn’t hear them?
LA: I didn’t hear it if they said it.
DB: Do you think you were a pawn at some point? There was this whole machine, and you were the face of it but there were all these companies, like Trek, like Oakley; all making money.
LA: Well, again when I talk about this wave of momentum that’s what I’m talking about, whether it was the growth of the sport, the growth of the industry. You cite Trek as an example, they go through the roof and that’s Trek, but I think Specialized would tell you that they had a similar growth curve. So the whole sea rose with this. It wasn’t just that our boat was rising, everyone’s rose. So yeah, that’s a powerful thing, but again I made some major mistakes as the head, as the guy filling the pool with water.
DB: Did you see them at the time, these mistakes?
LA: No, but for the record I don’t feel like a pawn.
DB: I ask because how many of those sponsors stayed with you? John Burke, who made money at Trek from your success, won’t talk to us. That’s just an example. Where are they now?
LA: I don’t know. They’re onto the next thing. But I accept responsibility for that. Do I wish there had been a different situation where some of us has stayed together to try and rebuild and help? Of course. But I have to be responsible for my mistakes. They’re gone, every one of them.
DB: I watched the Oprah interview and what I want to know is whether you’re sorry you got caught or if you’re sorry for what you did?
LA: Maybe both. It was a perfect storm at the time back then. You had things going on that were incredibly beneficial and if you didn’t make that decision [doping] you went home. Now the debate will be how many people went home. I don’t know. Everyone I knew stayed. So we all make our own decisions for ourselves. To answer your question it was an unfortunate set of circumstances that all of us were put into. This is where Travis [Tygart] is lying about protecting the rights of clean athletes. I love it and believe it but in 2013. Back then, it doesn’t hold water because there were none. So while I support him on that today, back then you’re not protecting anyone.
DB: There were some clean athletes who went home. You line up everyone from the 96 Tour and the 01 Tour, they’re all the same, but below that there were riders who chose not to.
LA: The playing field, those who were on the field would agree it was level. Justice as we’ve seen in the last 12 months hasn’t been level. I’m not whining or complaining, I’m just observing. I’m the one who is serving life and others who made the same choices get a complete pass. I don’t know. That doesn’t feel right. I don’t think it feels right to you either.
DB: Why do you think it happened?
LA: It was an initiative by him and them. It was certainly a big story and set legal precedent for them. I wish [USADA lawyer Bill] Bock, who said they offered me the same deal as everyone else, I wish that was true.
I wish Bock called me and said, ‘You’re not going to get suspended and this is what we’re going to talk about.’ I wish. Maybe I still would have told him to screw off but what I’m telling you is that it wasn’t presented to me – no suspension, we want to talk about this, clean up the sport and effect change. We want a comprehensive effort to clean up cycling. I wish that would have happened but it didn’t. They said that to [Jonathan] Vaughters, [Tom] Danielson, [Ryder] Hesjedal, [David] Zabriskie, [George] Hincapie and Levi [Leipheimer]. First words were six months, and then ‘here’s what we want to talk about.’ Now all I’m saying is that if we’re all going to sit around and tell the truth then let’s tell the truth. They never said that. They didn’t offer me anything. ‘We expect him to come in here and talk.’
The last communication was us asking for a meeting, they refused and then came the charging letter. It was an interesting time, too. There was a real sense of urgency from them all of a sudden. They’d talked to guys in April and May, I think George in May, me in June. I was in France and all of a sudden there was this urgency: ‘We have to talk to him, we expect him to be in here.’ I had a week to go before Ironman France, which may mean nothing, but was a big deal to me. My point is that it was different for me. If we’re going to tell the truth then let’s just say. They told these guys they weren’t getting suspended, up front.
DB: They made an offer saying that you could keep some of your Tours.
LA: That was the same sound bite from Bock. That is 100% untrue.
DB: Would you have taken such a deal?
LA: I don’t know, maybe. It’s hard to go back. Sitting here today, fuck yeah. But I don’t know how I would have responded at the time. All I’m saying is that I want to be accurate about what happened. I want to do everything I can to help and I think people are really upset that I was offered the same deal and I refused. That was not true. So where do we go from here? If there’s an international setting, convened by the UCI or WADA, let me know. I will be there.
DB: Are you saying USADA are liars?
LA: I’m the last person to be calling someone a liar. What I’m saying is that, that chain of events did not happen. And time has confirmed to me that there was a different set of decisions for others. So the playing field level, the justice was not level.
DB: You did try to fight USADA, you put in two injunctions.
LA: Once the charging letter came we had no choice. It was done. We asked for the meeting in June and then there was no communication. We were dug in on both sides.
DB: Could you have argued with the charges though?
LA: Yeah. Parts of them. There are parts that I viewed as inaccurate.
DB: Can you pick one?
LA: Well, 2009.
DB: You called it a witch hunt but would it be fair to say that it was a witch hunt but you were the witch?
LA: Was I singled out? Yes. Was there collateral damage with other guys? Yes. Again, it’s all my fault. Of course I’m the guy they went after. Of course. It wouldn’t make any sense to go after anyone else. I get that. All I’m saying is that the initial claim from USADA that they're trying to make a comprehensive claim to clean up cycling isn’t true. I wish it was. They were going after one person, which is also fine but say it and call everyone in at the same time, within the same 48 hours. I was getting antagonising tweets from the UCI Overlord about what Travis was planning. How is it that the UCI Overlord knows what Travis is doing and I don’t? It all fed through Jonathan [Vaughters]. That’s not a comprehensive way to clean up the sport.
DB: We’ll get to that but going back, do you agree with that statement, that it was a witch hunt but that you were the witch?
LA: I don’t know. I might say it was a vendetta between me and Travis.
DB: Why a vendetta? That would suggest bad blood between you two.
LA: Maybe that’s not the right word but I still hope to be part of a solution. My phone, it’s on, but I’ve not been called.
DB: Do you think you will?
LA: By the UCI?
DB: Anyone. The UCI, WADA?
LA: I’m cautiously optimistic. I feel for them. It’s a challenging and daunting prospect. On this one I can be patient. I’ve been adamant that I’ll do what I can in that setting.
DB: What can you offer them?
LA: To answer their questions. Honestly and transparently.
DB: Why do you want that because it seems hard to…
LA: I agree with [Velonews journalist Matthew] Beaudin that this will be a death by 1000 cuts. Slice, slice, slice.
DB: But what I’m getting at is why do you care? What’s the point? It’s seems hard to grasp that someone, whether there was a level playing field or not, did cheat, and now wants to come through and help [the sport] after fighting for so long.
LA: All I’m saying is that if you don’t get it all out in the open this will continue to happen.
DB: But do you really care?
LA: Regardless of what anyone thinks, I do care about the sport. I still love the sport and I still pay attention to what you guys write, what other outlets write, I still ride for fun. Despite everything, cycling has been great to me and I have a lot of appreciation for that. If I can do something to instigate the process I will.
If we don’t, I think we’re facing a decade of this mess. Well see how the fans like that, or the sponsors, or the events or the media. They won’t like it. This is the perfect opportunity with Cookson and a new leadership for him to say: ‘I wasn’t there but I want to learn.’ Then we can draw a line in the sand and we’re going to move on.
DB: What if they call you in and they want you to be truthful but they say there will be no reduction on your ban. Would you do it?
LA: And everyone has no penalty again?
LA: Listen it’s got to be level justice.
DB: What’s level? Six months, six years? What do you think you should have received?
LA: I don’t know. The majority were offered zero, some were offered six months. Take away the results and the balance sheet and the story, the decisions we made were all the same. I understand there should be a sanction but for everyone. That’s for them to decide and I’ll be there.
DB: What will you do if you don’t get the call?
LA: Keep working on my golf game.
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