The story of Rick Crawford

Former coach to Armstrong, Leipheimer and Danielson talks to Cyclingnews

Rick Crawford grips both hands on the steering wheel of the rental car and nervously checks his mirrors.

A bead of sweat rolls down his furrowed brow as the vehicle comes to a halt at the Mexican border patrol. He exhales in readiness while on the seat next to him sits a cooler of drugs: EPO and testosterone, a merry mix of banned substances that will at a later date find their way into Levi Leipheimer's blood stream.

It's 2001 and Crawford, the coach and the man who helped Lance Armstrong on his way as an athlete, is about to move into the realms of drug trafficking.

In all, Crawford made that trip from the United States to Mexico and back again four times. On each occasion there was just one purpose: to buy drugs, whether they were for Leipheimer or Kirk O'Bee, Crawford was the mule.

Today, as he delicately prunes the plants on a late November morning at Blue Lake Ranch in Colorado where he is a grounds man, Crawford has reached a stage where he claims to be at peace with his past. A year since USADA's Reasoned Decision - a brutal epoch of America's recent cycling history - Crawford, who was a redacted name in Leipheimer's affidavit, returns to a memory of one of his trips across the border. A hot day, the windows rolled down and the small of his back saturated with sweat before he can finally accelerate to safety.

"It was scary as hell, but sometimes when I look back, I try and make it sound safer than it really was," he tells Cyclingnews.

He pauses before continuing. "I think it was more my demons haunting me for the terrible thing I was doing. I was crossing a threshold I'd never imagined I would approach."

Across the border Crawford would drive cautiously as he travelled to Mexican pharmacies. "For someone who'd not even had a traffic ticket it was a huge departure," he adds.

"I didn't even try to hide it. I had faux prescriptions that the Mexican pharmacy would cook up. The customs were the thing that scared me most. But I never had issues. Thank God it all collapsed and I never succeeded in capitalizing. I'm actually so thankful now that it was a fail."

Upon returning to the US, Crawford would provide - but never administer - the substances to Leipheimer and O'Bee. And that's where he said it ended. Crawford was dropped by the former once he made it in Europe, while the latter's career had already begun to fizzle out.

Crawford moved back into coaching young athletes, something he'd started in the 1980s and he found a certain form of solace in teaching aspiring talent. He questioned why he strayed into trafficking long before the Reasoned Decision and long, long before Floyd Landis came clean.

"I try hard not to repeat the old sound bites of how it was the culture," he replies when asked why he helped riders cheat.

"I take full responsibility. I was a pro athlete myself and the question is why does anyone ever break the rules? It's because they're overzealous, they make bad calls, the justification at the time doesn't seem to be that difficult, but in the end, in hindsight, and where I am right now, it's a no brainer: it was an awfully bad decision."

"I don't like the excuses that people put up for having cheated," he says with a shake of his head, perhaps alluding to some of the written affidavits that are scattered throughout the Reasoned Decision.

"I don't like them. I wouldn't like my kids giving those excuses. I'd want them to take responsibility. So I don't blame anyone else. I made all those bad calls and I was hell bent on success and making it to the top as coach. And athletes were knocking on the door. It was just one of those things where it all presented itself and there was a gap we could fill. Instead of keeping our noses to the grindstone and working through it, we made bad decisions. I don't want to say that either Kirk or Levi made me do it. I was complicit and I was just as eager as they were. We were all trying to make money, get the big contracts and we were determined to succeed."

With no malice, Crawford then opens up about his relationship with Leipheimer. According to the former rider's affidavit, Crawford offered him EPO in 1999 and the pair worked together successfully until 2001. Crawford tailored Leipheimer's training plans around the EPO use and by the end of 1999 Leipheimer had packed his bags, leaving Saturn for US Postal.

Leipheimer moved to Girona and soon began to indulge himself in the Postal Service's programme under the guidance of Dr. Luis García del Moral. He peaked at the Vuelta in 2001, finishing a surprising third overall and in the process boosting his market value to the point where Rabobank stepped in with an offer that was too good to turn down.

"Levi had a big result and he went on to get rich," Crawford summarises.

"I never got rich and he fired me as a coach not long after that. It just didn't work out. I never got the big job and I just thought I was done. I was disappointed in myself and the cycling world in general. I then thankfully walked into collegiate cycling and was able to carve out a niche."

 Levi Leipheimer came in third in the 2001 Vuelta a Espana

Crawford turned his back on the pro circuit. He would later dabble in training with Tom Danielson and a few others, and he even helped out with Garmin's development having worked with their team director Chann McRae at a young age. At one stage he was listed as a staff member on the Slipstream website. He denies ever doping Danielson or McRae.

It was at the collegiate level where Crawford claims he found that he could demonstrate his coaching skills without the aid of providing drugs, where he could assist young athletes who needed guidance more than a needle in the arm.

"That was healing for me and it made me bring back a little bit more self respect. It led me to do some really good things on the development side. The money, that was terrible, but I realised that none of that mattered. It was something I needed to do in order to work off my sins."

The years ticked by and Crawford went about his work. There was no grand confession - they only became in vogue after Landis set the wheels in motion - but when "other 7", a redacted name appeared in Leipheimer's affidavit, the time was right and Crawford, who then worked at Colorado Mesa University, came clean.

"When I walked into USADA I expected a lifetime ban, and I honestly didn't think about the statute of limitations applying to me. They were very fair with me though and they helped me get it all out. They were good at putting me at ease and I think what they're doing at USADA is great. That's the way it should happen. I walked in on my own, I'd given them a call and we sat down for nearly six hours and I talked the entire time."

Crawford made it clear that he'd helped two riders dope and at the time it appeared that his employers were willing to stand by him.

However, another athlete who has never been named, then stepped forward and disclosed information to Colorado Mesa University that meant Crawford's position became untenable. The unnamed individual, according to Crawford, never talked to USADA but the University had seen enough and Crawford was gone.

"They've never identified themselves and I don't know who this rider could be. I gave a complete statement to USADA. I essentially was asked to stay on at my job, and it looked like it would blow over, but the fact is that the way I began the process was to go to my bosses, and I offered my resignation. That was before I talked to anyone, before USADA or the press. I said it was going to be a big deal and I didn't want to see the programme hurt. I offered my resignation and they basically said it was okay and said they were behind me."

"I came forward and then someone came forward but didn't identify themselves. How can I fight that? It's like going up against a ghost. There was nothing I could do. I don't know who this person is."

"What it really came down to in the end was that CMU wanted to let me go. That's what it really came down to. The fact is that it was enough for them to do that. That's really, truthfully, all I know about the situation and I don't know what he said. I wish they'd just taken my resignation in the first place, and they basically had to talk me into staying there."

Step forward Scott Mercier. A former rider with US Postal, Mercier walked away from a career in the professional ranks because he was not willing to take drugs. His relevance here is that he was the man who fired Crawford from his position at CMU. Why had he stood by Crawford only to change his mind and force the coach's resignation?

"I just did a little digging to make sure Rick was telling us the truth," he tells Cyclingnews.

"I wanted to believe Rick. I liked him, and I still do, but some things didn't add up for me. A former teammate of mine told me he had some evidence that Rick wasn't being truthful. I spoke with the athlete in question, who had been a student of Rick's at Fort Lewis college. It involved supplying testosterone."

The athlete asked not to be named and Mercier gave his word that he wouldn't even turn the name over to Travis Tygart at USADA. Rick was wrong. He wasn't fighting a ghost. He was fighting a shadow.

However Crawford counters, saying that he has been 100 percent honest and that "there is something here that is not being revealed but it's not me who's keeping secrets... I've gone into great detail to reveal my secrets. Someone else should start talking though."

A life sentence

Now, as he works as a gardener, Crawford is as far removed from professional sport as he has ever been. The statute of limitations spared him from a lifetime ban or even any formal sanction from USADA, but with his reputation in tatters and his job lost he has paid a price for his wrongs. But unlike many who have either skirted full justice for their doping, or those that are still getting away with it, Crawford at least has something refreshingly honest to add.

"I'm serving a self-imposed life sentence. There was no sanction for me. If this person who stepped up had talked to USADA, I would be finding myself with a lifetime ban, but they just went to CMU and nobody else. USADA have never pursued it and I'm out," he says, unaware of Mercier's promise.

"I do believe I deserved a life time ban," Crawford admits.

"I went into USADA expecting one, and I wouldn't have gone in there if I didn't think I deserved one. I was just waiting for the shoe to drop, but to be honest, I'd been waiting for the shoe to drop for the last few years. Life now is so much better not having that hanging over my mind. To me, a life time ban, well that would have been fine by me."

"People really need to start owning up to what they've done. From the riders to the UCI, the sponsors, and these federation people. They're going to hide because they're worried about being caught, and I get that because I did the same thing for a long time, but there came a point when I was done with the lying. When the Reasoned Decision came out people started asking questions and it was your own Laura Weislo who emailed and asked if I was a redacted name number 7. That made me think. I thought, 'well it's time to stop lying, because no matter what happens after this at least you're not going to be staying up at night worrying'. That's where I'm at now and I'm happy with that."

The Armstrong relationship

Yet before Crawford can return to his gardening duties there is one final topic, one final character that needs discussing. For several years Crawford coached a young and aspiring Lance Armstrong. In 1987, coach and athlete worked in tandem with Armstrong having a breakthrough performance at the President's Triathlon, placing sixth.

"He was a pistol," Crawford says with a laugh.

"His real personality is that he's always been hell on wheels. He was empowered, entitled and he had a big chip on his shoulder, but he was super talented in terms of his endurance and he was ... he was a pistol. He was constantly running off his mouth. I've been telling people for years that he's not what he appeared to be. A lot saw him as the cancer survivor and this spokesperson for cancer. That was a pretty good spin, but I knew what went on in the real world. He was a hard guy to work with and he was steamrolling people back when he was 14 or 15, too."

Armstrong, who now claims to be willing to sit down and tell his complete truth to the proper authorities, has remained cagey and guarded on when he first began doping. In a recent interview with Cyclingnews he talked about "low octane doping" but pointed to his move to Europe as the catalyst. Crawford has his own take on when his former pupil began to dope.

"That's a good one and I'm waiting to hear that, but I don't know. I can tell you that what we were doing together was very innocent. I was just discovering coaching and he was the first athlete I'd worked with. I was older by 12 years and when we met he saw something in me that he wanted and we started hanging out. Honestly, it was wholesome as it gets. There was nothing dodgy going on."

"I always assumed that doping all started when he was going around the world and on the circuit as a pro. That would be my assumption. They're starting to chip into the story, but the reason why people haven't talked about that yet is because there's just a whole cascade of powerful people who stand to get hurt there. He's still guarding his words on what happened in the early part of his career."

Does Crawford believe that Armstrong doped before his move to Europe?

"I'd probably say no. In the late 80s and early 90s I don't think it was going on here a lot, at least at a sophisticated level. I don't really think he would have had the recourse or the information until he was with USA Cycling. Now there's some reason to believe that when he hanging out with Eddie B [Borysewicz] and Chris Carmichael and those things like the '84 blood programme, and Lance walked into that era with those guys. I'm still waiting for that all to drop. Someone really needs to drill down there. I know I'm not the only coach… but so far I'm the only who has stood up."

Lance Armstrong in 1993

To the future

Crawford has at least stood up and come clean with a part of his life he is ashamed of. The Reasoned Decision, with all it's unsolved and unanswered questions remains, despite it's personal ramifications, a positive step.

"I think it was critical. I'm excited about [UCI President Brian] Cookson and his apparent desire to seek the truth, and that's exciting but short term there's a lot of ugliness still to come out. I know that Lance might not think it's appropriate to go back ten years to find out who these people are, but the fact is that a lot of these people are still working in the sport. I don't think it's too long to go back.

"I know what I did was a long time ago and according to the statute of limitations I'm all safe, but that doesn't mean it's right. It doesn't mean it's right. If I just took advantage of the statute of limitations and just kept on working, I couldn't live with that personally."

Crawford returns to tending his gardens with the 2014 racing season fast approaching. There are team managers, doctors, and riders still involved in the sport who have not been held accountable, who have never held their hand to anything, and Mercier, despite what he has uncovered, has a level of sympathy for the man he once trusted to coach college students.

"I don't think he's a bad guy, but while this is a story about one of the little guys who has been kicked in the teeth it's also about someone, who in my opinion, has not been truthful about what happened in the past. I just don't believe him.

"The whole thing, it's just sad, it's heartbreaking, but this story, it's just indicative of what's happening in our sport. It's sad for Rick, it's sad for the athletes but most of all it's sad for our sport."

"I will say this though: I read a tweet from Danny Pate a while back and I think it said that 'a half-truth is the most cowardly of lies'. That struck a cord."

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