Feed the beast: Covering Lance Armstrong for Cyclingnews

Lance Armstrong was always the centre of attention (Image credit: Getty Images)

I think Lance Armstrong has told me to fuck off twice.

There may have been other instances, and he's certainly not the only person within cycling to utter those words in my direction, but two distinct episodes involving that most well known of antagonistic commands stand out. The first was muttered under his breath on the Champs-Elysées after his final Tour de France appearance in 2010, while the second came around six years later, via email.

Those episodes will become relevant later, but they're some of the most vivid memories I have when recalling the personal interactions I've had with him since becoming the editor of this website back in 2008. And because of that, this piece will be all the things I actually didn't want it to be: personal, honest and uncomfortable to write. 

It's a story about how Cyclingnews covered the single most iconic cyclist of the last 25 years, and because it's the 25th anniversary of the site, I couldn't just set you up for a puff piece about a rise-and-fall story that has been told and re-told infinite times and by infinitely better writers.

The early years

We'll start at the beginning. The website was founded by Professor Bill Mitchell – an Australian with a long amateur career, and a passion for sharing cycling-related information. Originally, Bill wanted simply to use the site to circulate race results that had been posted to him from his friends in Europe but, almost from the moment Cyclingnews.com went online in 1995, it very quickly revolutionised how the English-speaking world covered the sport.

The first Armstrong interview – in fact, the very first interview conducted on Cyclingnews – was in the autumn of 1997. He was about to come back from testicular cancer with US Postal and, at the time, very few teams were willing to give him a second chance. The interview didn't cover the volatile split with French team Cofidis, but we learned that Armstrong daydreamed about sex when he trained, that he liked the music of the excellent Wallflowers, and that Bill thought highly of fixed gears. Seriously, though, the interview had some touching moments, and it bristled with Armstrong's brutishly confident and maverick early personality.

"I still feel like a professional cyclist, and I feel I was born to be a cyclist. Now it is much more complicated. I'm riding for a lot of reasons," Armstrong told Mitchell.

"Mainly [I want] to prove to the cancer community that it is possible to return to a normal and successful life after treatment. Not to mention the fact that the sport of cycling was not very supportive of my comeback. If I do have success it will be very sweet."

Armstrong and Mitchell had a reasonable relationship in those early years. They rode together at the Valkenburg World Championships in 1998, when Armstrong claimed fourth in both the soggy time trial and then the washout road race. Bill was not naïve about the sport; he had witnessed the murky world of amateur racing in Belgium and decided that his long-term health was more important than a passion that had burned within him since his father first took him to the Melbourne track racing of the 1960s. 

By 1999, the website had expanded to the point at which Bill was under increasing pressure. His real-life job was becoming more important, but at the same time Cyclingnews had quickly morphed from an online newsletter for local riders into a global entity.

I'm reticent to call it a business, because at that point it was purely alive due to one man's heart and soul. He made only enough from the advertising he sold to cover his data charges, and he worked all night to produce macros from scratch to cater for endless race results. The more he posted, the bigger the site became, and by the time Armstrong won his maiden Tour de France in 1999, Bill was at a crossroads.

Yet he ploughed on. He covered the Tour remotely from Australia and dutifully reported on the storm surrounding Armstrong's positive test for cortisone, and then the further allegations that the former cancer patient had won the 'Tour of Redemption' on more than just bread and water.

The hate mail, the menace of lawsuits, and the death threats that followed weren't the primary reason Bill decided to sell – that was due to his scientific job – but they were factors. He just couldn't keep the balance of work and Cyclingnews on an even keel and, in the end, the site was sold to Gerard Knapp of Knapp Communications for next to nothing. As far as Mitchell was concerned, he wanted to find the best possible home for his creation more than he wanted the financial reward.

The cash cow

Armstrong was in high demand throughout his career

Armstrong was in high demand throughout his career (Image credit: Getty Images)

Under Gerard Knapp, the site exploded. Staff were hired, an office located in Sydney from where global correspondents could be directed was set up, and within no time at all we had reporters at the biggest races in the world. The budgets were still miniscule, but the tight-knit team shared a love for the sport and an ability to push themselves. It led to burnout for some, but the likes of Hans Wilbrink, Tomas Nilsson, Jean-François Quénet, Kristy Scrymgeour, John Stevenson, Greg Johnson, Mark Gunter, Steve Medcroft, Tim Maloney and Jeff Jones – who wrote a 13,480-word 'Online Production Bible' – helped to build the foundations that the site rests on today.

As the website and its audience expanded, so did Armstrong's career. He came back to the Tour in 2000 and 2001 to complete a hat-trick of wins and cement his position at the top of the sport, and in myriad ways he was bigger than the sport. He had the UCI on speed-dial in his pocket, riders on short leashes and a vice-like grip on the largest and most profitable race on the planet.

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Check it out on eBay here (opens in new tab)

When it came to the relationship between Armstrong and the site at that time, everything revolved around Tim Maloney. The former rock 'n roll journalist joined the editorial team in 1999 – one of his first assignments was to call up Jeff Jones in Sydney during the UCI Worlds and relay the action so that Jones could write live text coverage – and he had a larger-than-life character that you either warmed to or found difficult to work with.

"You have to go back to the early days," Maloney tells us from his home in Italy, where he has resided for years. "I was on the conference call when Lance talked about his cancer in 1996, but the Cyclingnews crew in the early days didn't really cover him. There was a bit of a relationship there, but it was OK rather than great."

In the world of cycling, relationships between a rider and a journalist can be defined for years by a single moment. It can be an intrusive question in a press conference, an off-the-record chat at a bar during training camp, or just a written piece the athlete stumbles upon and uses to base their opinion on the journalist for years to come.

In the case of Tim Maloney and Armstrong, it stemmed from a call in 2002, when the site wrote about Cedric's Vasseur's acrimonious split with US Postal (opens in new tab)

"Vasseur, he was a friend of mine, and he called me up and said that Lance hadn't paid him," Maloney says. "We published a little piece on that and two days later I got a call on my cell phone, and it was Lance. We then published his response (opens in new tab), and I told him that we didn't really talk to him enough. I knew that he would be in Italy for Milan-San Remo, so we did a long interview. It wasn't a typical interview, though. We talked about riding motorcycles with Lyle Lovett, and I guess it was a huge deal. It got huge traffic.

"At the time, Lance didn't want to talk to Velonews and the reason – and I know this because he told me – was because in 1999 they chose Anne-Caroline Chausson as their rider of the year and Lance scratched his head about that and said, 'Fuck those guys.'

"From there, we expanded our relationship with Lance, and got a lot of inside information. We always tried to be careful about reporting the other side – like the reporting from David Walsh, and the French allegations – and tried to do it in a balanced way. We did get a lot of access to him, and I had extra access to him."

According to Maloney, the site's owner at the time was risk-averse and careful in his approach to covering the hot topic of doping. There was balance to the reporting, but Cyclingnews didn't shy away from Armstrong's glow, either. Here was the perfect comeback story: of a rider returning after cancer and dominating the sport.

"Cyclingnews took a skeptical view, but Knapp was cautious about reporting in a negative way because he was afraid of getting sued. Frankly, he couldn't afford to get sued," Maloney adds.

The financial point is worth considering. The libel laws in both Australia and the United Kingdom are much stricter than in the US or most of Europe. There's a reason why Walsh and Pierre Ballester's book, LA Confidentiel, came out in France and not the English-speaking world.

John Stevenson, who later became editorial director of the cycling portfolio at Future Publishing, and who was based in Sydney on the Cyclingnews team for a number of years, recounts the pressure the site was under during the early years.

"Had we said anything about Armstrong that was slightly litigious, we were running on such a financial knife-edge that one court case would have shut us down," Stevenson says. "Unless you had photos of him injecting EPO and the syringe that he used so you could match the DNA, then you were fucked."

That meant that Cyclingnews had to be pragmatic in its approach to Armstrong coverage. As he kept winning, the audience grew, and so did the realisation that Armstrong meant traffic, which meant revenue. It's perhaps not as black and white as that; the site was growing on its own due to its increasing reach and the natural swing from print to online media, but Armstrong stories counted.

"We knew that a story about US Postal would generate traffic," Stevenson says. "And this was before social media, so the only way for websites to get traffic was through readers coming directly to the site.

"What they wanted to read about was Armstrong, so in order to keep the traffic up, we had to feed that beast. That meant we needed access and wouldn't endanger it. Without a doubt, that synergy from his comeback in the late 1990s and the rise of the web was fantastically good for the cycling media."

Jeff Jones, who worked alongside Stevenson for a number of years, takes a slightly different view.

"I don't think it's the same analogy as putting him on the cover of a magazine. Sure, it helped a bit, but if it didn't happen between 1999 and 2013, the site would have still grown," Jones says.

"He helped us gain more readers, but that wasn't down to us interviewing him. And I didn't really care if we lost access. I knew that if we didn't publish another Armstrong interview, it might have a small effect on overall traffic, but as you know, it's not one article that makes or breaks things – it's everything that you publish."

Knapp knew that Maloney wasn't 'everyone's cup of tea', as he puts it when we contacted him in Australia, but Maloney had the ability, Knapp says, to talk to Armstrong in a way that many other members of the press couldn't.

"When we saw Lance Armstrong, we saw that a rising tide floats all boats," says Maloney as he looks back.

"He wins the Tour of Redemption, and, while there was some suspicion, what we always said was that until we had the proof, the real verified proof, then we could only report the story and what was happening. We had to be careful not to be too biased one way or another. If Walsh wrote about Lance going to meet [Dr Michele] Ferrari, then we reported all of that, and it came out right away. We should be proud of what our team did."

Maloney is right on that point. We wrote about Walsh's allegations, about links to Ferrari, how the EPO test was more like an intelligence survey than a robust form of cheat-catching, and we generally remained balanced.

But like everything that involves Armstrong and the halcyon days of doping in the age of online media, nothing was black and white. If a journalist fell foul of Armstrong during the peak of his powers, it meant that they faced the threat of exclusion from his inner circle of pressroom confidants. For journalists who needed access to do their jobs, and who had no concrete proof of doping, it was an incredibly difficult position to be in.

"The problem with that was that you couldn't ask him any difficult questions," says Jones. "You'd be excluded if you did, which meant that you ended up with quite soft interviews, which were colour pieces, I suppose.

"In the meantime, we didn't hold back or analyse what the other sites and papers were saying about him. We weren't afraid of that, and never had any pushback. Equally, we didn't go hard after him. We just reported what was out there."

Peter Cossins, who for several years was the editor of Procycling magazine and covered all of Armstrong's Tours, remembers how access could be turned off like a switch.

"If you said something that he didn't like or that he didn't agree with, then that was it; you were in the book," he says, referring to the infamous black book in which Armstrong and team manager Johan Bruyneel would apparently record non-conformist journalists.

"At Pro, we didn't have any relationship with him from 2001 until 2009. In 2001, Jeremy Whittle wrote an editorial, and it was pretty tame, and it basically said that Ferrari had a bad reputation and that we didn't know what he was up to, but that Armstrong should cut all links. He did cut all links – but with Procycling, and he kept the ones with Ferrari."

A few years later, the magazine ran a small piece that took lyrics from singer Sheryl Crow – Armstrong's fiancée at the time – and gave them a cycling twist. It might have been amusing to readers who had a sense of humour, but when the American caught wind of it, Cossins got 'the call'.

"He just thought that the Crow piece was fucking horrendous. He called me up, and I thought at the time he was going to give me some Roberto Heras quotes as I was writing about him. I told him I'd just get a pen and he replied, 'You won't need any fucking pen. I'm not calling to give you any quotes about Roberto fucking Heras.'

"He then spent 25 minutes ranting down the phone about the lyrics story. He couldn't see that it was funny at all. It was silly what we'd written, but it was meant to be. He felt we were running a campaign against him and Crow in the magazine, and that 'people had told him'. It was mad. Then I spoke to Jeremy, and he got upset because Lance had called me and not him. So I ended up having two angry phone calls.

"It's always the question, 'Why didn't the press do more?' But the libel laws in the UK are ridiculous," says Cossins. "We knew that if we got into any issue with him then it would be the end of the magazine. We didn't have Rupert Murdoch behind us to bail us out if there was an issue. Lance could just close us down, and it meant that you had to be careful. That was one of the frustrations of it all. We used to get hammered by readers for not doing enough."

Procycling still managed to thrive without Armstrong access. They consistently put the Texan on the cover, and the only struggle came when they needed to think up new angles and storylines. But, as with so many publications and brands at the time, the Armstrong narrative was a rewarding cash cow.

"We worked it out at one point; from when the mag launched in 1999 until the time he retired in 2005, he'd been on the cover 42 times in nearly 100 editions. We were buying in features from Outside magazine. At one point, [former Downing Street press secretary to Tony Blair] Alastair Campbell went to interview him for the mag in Girona. The sales figures would go up 40 per cent if he was on the cover. But everyone was riding on his back in their own little way."

The price of access

For Cyclingnews, there was a different price when it came to access around Armstrong. Anyone who thinks that the Tour de France is competitive needs to venture into the underbelly of the race's press room. The term "no gifts" was created, patented and trademarked for such an environment long before Armstrong coined the phrase in 2004.

Our access meant that we had interviews, but it also led to a degree of suspicion over our work and our methods. Journalists, like Maloney, who were viewed as sympathetic to Armstrong were labeled as mouthpieces and, in some cases, spies who would pass on information to the Texan about fellow members of the press corps.

"He obviously had spies in the pressroom, although I can't be 100 per cent certain," says Cossins.

"In order to gain access, I think journalists had to trade stuff. There were quite a few people in the pressroom who were quite upfront about it, and would say, 'I told Lance what you were saying about him at dinner last night.'"

It veered from the petty to the downright ridiculous. At the Tour in 2003, Cossins found himself, completely by chance, sitting next to Walsh in a press room.

"Somehow, Lance found out that we'd sat next to Walsh and, via another journalist, we were bollocked for it," he says.

Armstrong took issue with many members of cycling's press corps

Armstrong took issue with many members of cycling's press corps (Image credit: Getty Images)

Maloney was all too aware of the reputation that was building up around him at the time.

"There were people in the press that thought that some writers, including me, were mouthpieces for Lance, but I think that there was an element of jealousy there," he counters.

"I can only talk about myself, and I don't think I was a mouthpiece. The British guys were upset because they didn't have access, but our relationship with Lance really put Cyclingnews on the map in the pressroom because a lot of journalists came to us and asked us about Lance. The Lance interviews provided traffic and interest. I did a huge amount of interviews on CNNESPN, and a lot of international media."

It wasn't just in the pressroom where Cyclingnews faced questions over its integrity. Betsy Andreu, who for so many years stood as a beacon of truth, had justifiable cause for concern when we posted a response from Armstrong (opens in new tab) in 2006 that hit out against 'axe grinders' such as Andreu. 

"I'd agree Tim had way too much sway, and his content was always sympathetic [towards Armstrong] – especially features," says Jones.

"The axe grinders statement we published was clearly written by Tim, and I'm not sure how much pushback he got from us, but Knapp must have been OK with it. We could not have afforded a lawsuit, but, that said, that's more around being careful and balanced than being sycophantic. That statement story is cringe-worthy, but in other news stories around that time we did report fairly."

Maloney has denied writing the piece.

Andreu's own account from that time is obviously more personal. Having to come online and read allegations against your personal character that were unchallenged must have been a brutal experience. 

"During Lance's reign, Cyclingnews was very sympathetic to him in what they covered and how," Betsy Andreu told us via email.

"When something truthful – i.e. negative – was written about Lance, Cyclingnews found a way to use a word that would benefit him, and that was from Tim Maloney. For example, after stories on NPR, the LA Times and Le Monde printed excerpts/content of our depositions, CN would print whatever Lance wanted them to. In this case, referring to those of us who testified truthfully against him as 'axe grinders'. Why did that term have to be in the headline, just because Lance said it? It was pitiful."

The comeback

In 2007, Knapp sold the site to Future Publishing and the structure of the editorial team moved to the UK. Maloney moved on, while Jones and Stevenson moved across to Bikeradar.com. To fill the gap, a new raft of journalists arrived, and in 2008 I was lucky enough to join as managing editor.

It was a steep learning curve, but by that point – without Maloney – the relationship between Armstrong and the site had petered out to a non-existent level. He didn't need the column inches anymore and the site was fully focused on current affairs. Armstrong's people weren't even sure who to contact after Maloney's departure, until we reached out via email in the spring of 2008.

A few swapped emails led to an impromptu phone call from Armstrong on the first rest day of the 2008 Tour de France in Cuneo. The conversation resulted in a short Q&A (opens in new tab) and a congratulatory email from Knapp after it was published.

At that point, having Armstrong on the site was nice to have – a small bonus that couldn't be maintained because he was no longer in the headlines or racing a bike - but it provided a telling lesson in how he remained relevant to readers, even from the periphery. It wasn't until the autumn of that year, when rumours began to circulate of a comeback, that coverage of the American began to return.

At some point during conversations with Armstrong's press officer, I must have mentioned that we were lining up an interview with Dick Pound, a former enemy of the Armstrong camp. I can't remember if I was testing the waters, but I was told pretty clearly that Armstrong had no time for the former head of WADA. Pressure and pragmatism kicked in, and the excellent interview conducted by Shane Stokes was kicked into touch as I caved. That was poor judgment, and Stokes and his work deserved better. There wasn't any intention to take advantage of Stokes and, luckily, Procycling – who still had no access to Armstrong at the time – picked up the piece.

When Armstrong did return to cycling in 2009, our access remained limited. Perhaps it was because we interviewed Walsh as a follow-up piece to Armstrong's decision to come back, but an invite to the Astana press camp wasn't forthcoming. Cossins and Procycling did receive an invite and, with the reward of several potential Armstrong magazine covers in the pipeline, the magazine set about asking the Texan questions posed by readers.

"We decided to have him answer questions from the readers, and I went into this huge suite and started to ask him these questions and he just immediately wigged out," recalls Cossins.

"He wasn't prepared to talk about anything. He just got really uptight about it because the questions had 'negative energy' from what he thought were haters. He only wanted to look forward, but of course I was looking down my list of questions and I had nothing else to ask. He got pretty irate. I managed to calm him down, but he never spoke to us again after that."

The relationship between Cyclingnews and Armstrong wasn't as clear-cut or as terminal. We didn't receive any exclusive access, but we weren't blacklisted, either. For context, we'd just moved from printing daily editions of news to single news items and, with the rise of social media, we didn't have to work that hard to find Armstrong angles.

But we wrote about Armstrong. A lot. From his fall-out with Alberto Contador to his brush with the AFLD [French anti-doping agency] and his backtracking from initial talks to work with Don Catlin on an anti-doping programme. We didn't interview his partners, like we did with Sheryl Crow in 2004, but if you wanted to find out whether Armstrong had sneezed, you came to us.

At his comeback Tour in 2009, we reported fairly, but relied on quotes fed to us by his then press officer at Astana. Said officer would march into the press room with his laptop and declare at the top of his voice, 'Lance Armstrong, Andreas, Klöden, Gregory Rast,' like some sort of town crier, and a troop of journalists, who had missed Armstrong at the team bus, would huddle around a machine and listen to audio.

When we began reporting on Armstrong's botched test with the anti-doping authorities, and his blood values that he published and then took down, the chances of any exclusive interviews virtually died. We kept pursuing one, though. At the 2010 Tour, there was a conversation with his press officer, but I was told I was too antagonistic, that stunts like having a Jeff Novitsky Twitter avatar were problematic to any access. To be fair, that was an immature move on my part, but our reporting remained dogged and balanced.

Game changer

When Floyd Landis exposed the world to the truth with a series of jaw-dropping emails in 2010, it was a watershed moment for the sport. Cyclingnews was utterly unprepared as an organisation. Hardly any of the editorial team that had covered the last cycling scandal with Operación Puerto were still on the staff, and Future had never been faced with such a delicate story involving such a global sports star. Once again, we were paralysed with fear over the threat of legal action. It took us almost a full day before we printed anything of note around the allegations. The fear of litigation was still palpable even as Armstrong's house of cards began to topple.

I could see the numbers that tallied with our Armstrong coverage, but, incentivised by a desire to have all sides covered, and the knowledge that the site would ultimately profit, we tried to cover as many angles as possible.

Bridges were built with several individuals, including Betsy Andreu and Landis, while Greg LeMond came on board and wrote a Tour de France blog for us in 2010. At that point, I had to create a hate mail folder in Outlook to house all the anti-LeMond emails that were coming in, but I saw that as a good thing. However, with so many dissenting voices and an atmosphere that was encouraging the press to write with more freedom, it was little wonder that I got my first 'fuck off' from Armstrong on the Champs-Elysées in 2010. I tossed up a softball question, he took one look at my press badge, and that was it.

Writing about Armstrong's doping proved a tightrope for media organisations

Writing about Armstrong's doping proved a tightrope for media organisations (Image credit: Getty Images)

So much happened in the years between 2010 and Armstrong's demise with the USADA Reasoned Decision that it's almost impossible to untangle every step or decision. We certainly weren't shackled by a relationship with Armstrong, while we also tried to chip away at what was happening as the FDA report became a USADA problem. Novitsky would never talk, no matter how many times I'd call, while so many team bosses were still scared of pissing Armstrong off that they were muted by Omertà. The only ones that would talk were the previous ‘axe grinders’ and the few ex-riders that had been busted for doping and had no chance of coming back.

I'll readily admit that we were swimming with the tide at that point, but we still pushed the story along. Then UCI president Pat McQuaid's robust defence of Armstrong up until the last possible moment and his reluctance to help USADA was hilarious to report on. 

This story (opens in new tab), which stemmed from a press conference at the London Olympics, had McQuaid and his then UCI press officer fuming. But we talked to Andreu, Landis and really anyone that had a reliable angle. For me, personally, it didn't feel like we were making up for any past mistakes because it felt like there was a detachment between before Landis' confession and after. That was naïve, but I didn't know that Cyclingnews hadn't spoken to Andreu during Armstrong's Tour reign until I reached out to her for this piece.

"I think Cyclingnews did what too many journalists did – in the name of 'objectivity'. They ignored the truth or used choice words so as not to upset the apple cart for access to the apples," she remembers.

"Does that make sense? I'm not saying you should've gone out with all guns drawn – not by any means. The truth is objective but CN had to be super careful on how it was reported. I don't know when you came on but after the 2006 deposition stories in June, CN never contacted me at all. I think the first person to contact me was Laura Weislo or Shane Stokes. One thing I've appreciated with you is that you'd do what journalists should do: go to the other side. Too often, CN et al would take Lance's word and that was that. It was indeed frustrating."

The Tour of Redemption

After the Reasoned Decision came out, I made the conscious decision of approaching Armstrong. It was the first week of December of 2012. He replied, and all I remember from those early exchanges was trying to instill the idea that we wanted balance, and that without it, the reporting would in effect be one-sided. I believed what I was telling him, but at the same time I also held convictions within myself that USADA's work had focused on one rider and his entourage, and that although the ‘witch-hunt’ – as Armstrong branded it – had been warranted, there were still plenty of witches out there that needed to face some form of justice.

The dialogue kept going, his press officer called, and within a few weeks some form of relationship was built. Then Oprah happened, and I watched on from the Tour de San Luis as he admitted to doping. We must have run a month's-worth of coverage in 48 hours – we even did live text coverage of the show – but the net result of finding common ground was that his next interview was with Cyclingnews.

It was over email, and it only really picked up and became interesting when a colleague, Stephen Farrand, prodded me to ask more. The story got us on the news, and the readers digested it, but it wasn't without fall-out. That night, anti-doping expert Michael Ashenden emailed me, and copied in several others, including Andreu. He began his email with, 'Shame on you, Daniel.' He was angry that we'd given Armstrong a platform and that we had let him off lightly. The idea of platforms has always been baffling. The media don't provide them based on a scale of how nice someone is; they're warranted because someone is either newsworthy or they're not.

The relationship with Armstrong remained in place over the next year. There were a few more pieces, like the one about Marco Pantani (opens in new tab), and in truth both Armstrong and Cyclingnews benefited. We still reported on the news, and we still talked to both sides, but he also had opportunities to address our audience. Whether there was any trust is a very complex question. There were times when we'd push back, like the time he wanted us to pursue an ex-teammate of Greg LeMond about doping allegations. The topic was briefly looked at, although nothing was ever printed, but his ego was massaged at times because it helped deliver content.

In November 2013, Armstrong agreed to a sit-down interview at his home in Texas. We met for an unscheduled drink the night before in a bar, and it was the first time we'd said any words to each other face-to-face since the 'fuck off' on the Champs-Elysées. He wanted to get the measure of what I wanted to ask him the following day. The interview itself ran its course, and we published it over four parts once I returned to the United Kingdom.

One question-and-answer was cut from the piece. I asked him if he would come clean about every aspect of doping – not in order to reduce his ban but to redeem himself and help the sport with one act of unadulterated selflessness. The question sure as hell wasn't phrased in such an eloquent way but his response – a bristled, 'That's a stupid fucking question' – was cut from the final edit. It was removed partly because I was embarrassed, but also because he had influence, even if it wasn't that dramatic, to shape editorial. The cut wasn't forced – it wasn't Armstrong at the keyboard – but his influence was still there.

The second – and, at this point, final – 'fuck off' came a year or so later. The interview ran in November 2013, with the first part going live on the 5th. Armstrong saw the Q&A before it went live, although he only asked that a couple of expletives were removed, but on the same day as part 1 went online, I sent the interview to a few other people. Our legal team and the publisher at the time, of course, but I wanted to not only be the first to have Armstrong's story but also the first to pull in possible reaction pieces, too. So I sent out the version that Armstrong had seen, and was about to go online, to others, including Floyd Landis. 

I thought little of it at the time – Armstrong had seen it and it was all going to be published that week – but it turned out to be a big, big mistake.

During the courtroom battles between Armstrong and Landis's whistleblower case, both parties were legally obliged to hand over any documents that might be related to the case, which included communications and emails between Floyd and me. You can guess what happened next.

When Armstrong found out, he emailed me: "When did you come to Austin? What exact date?" A few more emails followed, and even though there was an apology, the conversation stopped.

A year later, I was writing about Armstrong and depositions again. I reached out to him for a comment.

"Daniel, let me be real clear… FUCK OFF! L," came back the response.

I always knew that at some point I'd be back in the little black book. I just wish it had been over something a bit more meaningful than communications between Landis and me.

Looking back at how Cyclingnews covered the biggest sporting star on the planet, it's so hard to condense Armstrong and how he was reported into just one narrative or one story. The reality is that he and everyone involved has their versions of the truth. None are entirely accurate, either blurred through time, burned by denial or just incomplete.

For balance within this piece, I reached out to Armstrong for a comment.

"Yeah, you can go fuck yourself. There's my comment," he replied.

Not quite a third 'fuck off’, but it'll do.

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