The media scrum assembles outside the Garmin-Sharp team bus at the Tour de France the morning a news story broke alledging that team boss Jonathan Vaughters plus riders Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie had testified in USADA's investigation of Lance Armstrong.
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Garmin-Sharp's Tour de France campaign now mired in USADA investigation of Armstrong
Outside the Garmin-Sharp team bus a young French boy, no more than 8 years old, flicks through the pages of his cycling sticker album. He excitedly lands on the Garmin page and displays the full contents up his proud father. All riders accounted for, all present. The boy waits patiently as the riders begin to shift slowly from their Rouen hotel towards the team bus. The boy knows nothing of USADA, of needles, of cheating, drugs, massaged press releases or even Lance Armstrong. He's just here to collect the signatures of his heroes.
Back in the team hotel the atmosphere is hardly as enthusiastic. Jonathan Vaughters steps out from the elevator with his press officer alongside him. He's clearly tired. Hours earlier De Telegraaf ran an exclusive claiming that Vaughters, two of his riders, plus George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer would face six month suspensions for admitting to doping.
However, there will be no statements at the hotel. Just a string of no comments, except a denial from Vaughters that he and several of his riders have been handed suspensions from USADA. There's also a confirmation that his team will remain in the race. When asked if talks between him and USADA had even taken place Vaughters smiles and walks off. He can answer but he won't.
Half an hour earlier the riders had trickled down for breakfast. Most hadn't even heard the reports that Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, Vaughters, BMC's George Hincapie and Omega Pharma's Levi Leipheimer had been handed 6 months suspensions from USADA, all due to start later this year.
Dave Zabriskie, one of Armstrong's former teammates, heads to the lift, unwilling to comment. Vande Velde, another US Postal team graduate does the same, while David Millar, shocked by the news, says he can't comment without knowing the full story.
Later in the morning, once again outside the team bus, Vaughters appears; reading a statement that almost regurgitates the team's policy in light of Floyd Landis's allegations from 2010: We're a clean team, we'll cooperate with the authorities; we'll focus on the future, clean cycling and the race in hand.
Vaughters and his backer Doug Ellis run a team based on ethics and sound business acumen but stretches both principles around an ethos of clean cycling. No needles, no outside doctors, no exceptions. Yet the team is a Mecca for riders in Vaughters' mould and from his generation. He, too, rode for Postal, with Armstrong, before turning towards another path.
Last year he told Cyclingnews: "This team, from the beginning, we said we would be very transparent about everything that happens on this team. At no point in time did I say I was going to disclose anything about my colourful past. I've made my point clear a multitude of times that with regards to the past and what happened ten years ago or more ago, my position has always been, and this is the position of the team in general, that if any anti-doping authority or cycling authority, WADA, USADA, UCI, federal investigators, has any questions regarding events that took place before Slipstream, anyone that's employed by Slipstream, especially myself, the obligation is to be 100 percent honest and transparent with those authorities. I take that at face value and we're going to live and die by that statement.
"Our point has always been to draw a line in the sand and say from this point forward this is how it's going to be and anyone who is looking to advance the procedures or the cause of anti-doping and any of those authorities need information on the past about any of us, no matter what that is or pain it is, then the obligation is to tell the whole truth."
The Armstrong case is now in its second phase. The case surrounding use of federal funds closed earlier this year (with all charges dropped) but was swiftly followed by USADA insistence that they would pursue allegations of doping. It meant that although Armstrong had survived the first encounter the second could be far more testing. USADA unleashed a long letter stating they had evidence to raise charges against Armstrong and several of his party. Ten witnesses had apparently given testimony.
However there's still no proof over which of his former teammates from the current peloton have testified for or against him. Zabriskie, Vande Velde and Leipheimer, Sky's Michael Barry – who seems to have escaped almost all press attention – have remained tight lipped.
To understand why one must look to the past. The last two decades are littered with the wounded who have attempted to clash with Armstrong – some have survived, some haven't: the Andreus, David Walsh, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, the latter who has been utterly ostracised by almost all parties in the sport. Vande Velde, Zabriskie and especially Vaughters are different though, they still have plenty to lose, their careers untarnished by suspensions.
Yet a public statement from Vaughters, or anyone else at Slipstream, admitting to have even talked with USADA, just as with the FDA last year, would be futile at this juncture.
A stupid remark, a glib jackass off the cuff comment could all be lethal and leave anyone neutered as a result. So while Vaughters and perhaps his riders empathise with the likes of Landis they must remain silent.
But there's a price. It's been two years since Landis blew this whistle and then Hamilton reaffirmed some of those allegations. Garmin, for the worse, due to both their public statements, the longevity of the case, and their own individual pasts, has already been publicly neutered. The talk over six month suspensions may be speculative but at the biggest race in the world the ‘clean team' are at the centre of a doping story and those pasts, which so many tried to put behind them when joining Slipstream, are still woven into the seams of the jerseys worn in the peloton.
So the young French lad, now with a handful of autographs in his sticker album once again shows off his pride to his father, who in return ruffles his son's hair. The young boy's innocence and faith is a touching moment, a reminder of what cycling should inspire and galvanize. Hopefully it's a reminder not lost on those riders and their manager - who hopefully have testified and told the truth - as they enter the team bus and head to the race.
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