Filippo Simeoni said on Friday that his run-ins with Lance Armstrong would continue to haunt him, despite USADA’s pronouncement this week that Armstrong was a ‘serial cheat’ and a participant in ‘the most sophisticated doping programme ever’.
Simeoni, who testified in the USADA investigation, told Cyclingnews: "I can’t escape from what happened. It hurt me so much and will continue to haunt me." He added that USADA’s judgement brought him only a "strange, hollow feeling of justice having been done".
Simeoni said that he was contacted by USADA only "around a fortnight ago" to give evidence about his dealings with Michele Ferrari in the late 1990s and resulting dispute with Armstrong. In particular, he said, USADA asked for a full account of his infamous breakaway attempt during stage 18 of the 2004 Tour, and of Armstrong’s reaction.
Simeoni confirmed to USADA that Armstrong had threatened him – and also that, to his dismay, the International Cycling Union (UCI) offered him no support in the days, weeks and months that followed.
"That was an important moment and people didn’t take it seriously enough. If they had, maybe some of this wouldn’t be happening now," Simeoni said on Friday.
"Remember, I was the only one who’d been honest about a doctor who was doping riders and had doped me, Ferrari. I confessed to the magistrate and I got banned for it. A whole group of other riders weren’t honest and nothing happened to them. They just carried on as normal. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, here was Armstrong persecuting me yet I was getting no support at all from the UCI. OK, people wrote about it, it caused a bit of a storm, but no one actually realized how serious it was: it was intimidation of a witness.
"The worst thing about it was that it was all coming from Armstrong. I did nothing to him," Simeoni continued. "I didn’t mention his name in court. All I said was what Ferrari did with me. But because Armstrong thought I was incriminating him by association, he comes to Italy to race, gets off a plane, and to the first journalist who puts a mic to his mouth, he says, ‘Simeoni is an absolute liar.’
"Can you imagine how that felt? It was like a rock falling on my head, after I’d been completely honest about Ferrari and paid for it. And no one did anything. So you can see why I’m bitter. You can see why I sometimes wonder whether I did the right thing, talking about Ferrari. I suppose what’s happened this week eases those doubts a bit…"
Simeoni’s defiance of Armstrong has led some to brand him a hero. He rejects any such accolades, and claims even that he’s not proud of what he did. He says only, "I can walk with my head held high, despite knowing it cost me so much."
Of the break on that now notorious day in 2004 itself, Simeoni has no regrets. Another Italian rider, Gilberto Simoni once argued that Simeoni’s only mistake was yielding to Armstrong’s pressure, but to that Simeoni responds with a rueful laugh. "As soon as we made it across to the other guys in the break, I saw the look in their eyes and I knew that I was doomed. Maybe I was too much of a gentleman; I sat up for the sake of those riders. That, I am proud of, because I maintained my dignity and sense of sportsmanship even in the face of that intimidation. They should have thanked me."
Simeoni also retains fond memories of his Italian national championship win in 2008 – which he says was achieved without drugs. Nevertheless, he concedes that by that stage his career had been ‘all but ruined’. At the end of 2004, within months of his spat with Armstrong at the Tour, he was searching for a new team and struggling. "My agents said that they’d spoken to a lot of managers who said they would have taken me…if it hadn’t been for the Armstrong thing. Over the next four years, my racing programme suffered, my earnings definitely suffered, and I probably gave up two years earlier than I otherwise would have done. I lost my peak years."
Now 41, Simeoni owns two bars in Sezze in central Italy but rejects the notion that he is better off out of cycling. "There are good people in the sport. It’s not all rotten apples," he says. "Some of the good people stayed true to their principles, others were corrupted, but it was hard not to be. The system was powerful and didn’t help the good guys."
Simeoni had started doping even before turning pro with Carrera Tassoni in 1995. At the time, he says now, "you couldn’t really consider it sacrilege, because everyone was doing it and the length of the bans indicated that the authorities didn’t take it seriously". That changed for Italians, he said, when an antidoping law was passed in December 2000. By then, Simeoni had already been questioned by police about his involvement with Ferrari. He admits, "After that people had to wake up. It was irresponsible, immoral, ignorant - you had to start to realize that."
Over a decade on, he said today, the Armstrong affair should serve to "wipe the slate clean and make sure that future generations never experience what we did."
Even if cycling moves on, though, there are certain memories and ghosts that he will never escape. If he saw Armstrong today, Simeoni says, "I’d just turn away. I’ve got nothing to say to him."