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Group standing up for "fundamental human rights issues"
Paul Willerton, a former professional cyclist who rode for the US alongside Lance Armstrong during two world championship road races, said he and a small group of athletes and cycling fans plan to show up at the Nike corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon, on Tuesday morning to protest the company's continuing support for Armstrong.
Nike released a statement supporting Armstrong on the same day USADA released its reasoned decision detailing its evidence against the embattled former US Postal team leader, and the company is scheduled to continue co-sponsoring high-profile events celebrating Livestrong's 15th Anniversary.
"We're a group of athletes who don't stand for organized crime in sports," Willerton told Cyclingnews Monday. "We don't allow bullying and intimidation inside the cycling industry or any industry for that matter. These are fundamental human rights issues. So to have a company like Nike standing there and saying they publicly support that, I can't stand for it myself, and I know I'm not alone in that."
Willerton started his professional cycling career in 1991 on Team Z with Greg LeMond. He moved to the new Subaru Montgomery team for the 1992 and 1993 seasons. He rode with Armstrong at one amateur world championship road race and at the professional world championships in 1992. But by the end of 1993 he had become discontent with what was happening in the European peloton.
"It was the feeling that everyone describes of riding in peloton that was influenced by the oxygen drugs," Willerton says looking back on his days in Europe. "It was crazy speeds. Even up category three climbs there would be 10-foot gaps that would sit there for 15 minutes trying to close. It wasn't my idea of how I wanted to make a living. I didn't feel like I wanted to do it anymore."
Willerton said he never personally witnessed any doping at the time, but he had started to hear the rumors. "In hindsight all of this stuff makes sense, but at the time we were just really confused."
Willerton moved on to mountain biking, where he finished sixth at the cross country world championships in 1994. But the oxygen drugs weren't far behind, as the cycling world learned later when Jerome Chiotti confessed four years after the fact to using EPO to win the cross country rainbow jersey in 1996. "EPO quickly made its way into mountain biking as well," Willerton concluded.
Willerton continued racing mountain bikes in the US and internationally before retiring from high-level competition. He currently lives in Bend, Oregon, where he is part owner of a cycling sock business. Despite his own troubling experiences with the sport, Willerton said he is proud of the steps cycling is taking to clean itself out and up, which makes Nike's steadfast refusal to step away from Armstrong all the more frustrating.
"This is akin to taking down the Berlin Wall," Willerton said of the USADA investigation and subsequent rider confessions. "And Nike's position - they're so influential - and right now they're just sitting on the wrong side of this wall."
So Willerton and his group will be standing outside the walls of Nike's expansive corporate campus Tuesday morning for several hours to try and influence the company's decision.
"I would love to have people join us," he said, although admitting the group is still trying to fine tune its message. "I don't know if the message is strong enough. We're still kind of talking about it. I don't know if 'do the right thing' will get it across well enough."