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Will Lance Armstrong help clean up the mess he’s made? Stay tuned

After a decade of suspicion, weeks of speculation, three days of post-taping leaks, and two and a half hours of riveting, frustrating, and sometimes downright bizarre television, the dust is finally settling on the first confession of Lance Armstrong. So what now?

From a mass-market perspective, the strange case of America’s former Tour de France and cancer hero peaked in the first two minutes of his interview with Oprah Winfrey, when Armstrong admitted to using blood transfusions, EPO, cortisone and testosterone to achieve all seven of his Tour de France victories.

And now the general public, for the most part, will simply move on, just as it has from Marion Jones, Roger Clemens, and even the Penn State scandal. The same news cycle that is savaging Armstrong this week will be his salvation next week, when the next round of stories sweeps away the headlines.

For Armstrong, though, the saga will continue. He will almost certainly face legal ramifications — from the federal whistleblower lawsuit launched by Floyd Landis, from SCA Promotions looking to recoup ill-gotten win-bonus money, from the Sunday Times chasing the pounds it lost in a libel suit for something that wasn’t libel at all. And he will struggle, if he chooses, to repair a reputation in tatters.

While relative chaos may rein in Armstrong’s immediate legal and personal future, the next step in the story as far as the sport of cycling is concerned is clear. For his confession to have any lasting, positive impact on the sport, any redemptive value, he will need to make the same statements he made on television — and many, many more — under oath to either the World Anti-Doping Agency or the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And given the content of his interview with Winfrey, that he will actually do so is anything but a foregone conclusion.

In his on-air confession, Armstrong implicated only himself while defending Dr. Michele Ferrari, denying UCI complicity and never mentioning his former director Johan Bruyneel, teammates, business associates, or others implicated in the USADA case. He dodged the question of how the team’s doping system functioned, likely avoiding the legal ramifications of admitting participation in drug trafficking. Despite damning blood profiles from the 2009 Tour de France and blood doping kits found in the garbage of his Astana team, he insisted his comeback was clean. 2005, he said, was the last time he “crossed that line,” conveniently skirting the eight-year statute of limitations on doping. In no way did he come across as a man ready to provide revelations.

But Armstrong’s on-air unwillingness to widen the knowledge base was not the only clue that he may not now — or ever — be truly willing to tell all. Asked point blank if he would cooperate with USADA to help clean up cycling, a question that could be answered with a simple yes by a man truly willing to do so, Armstrong was conditional, replying, “if there was a truth and reconciliation commission. … If they have it, and I’m invited, I’ll be the first man at the door.”

In predicating his USADA cooperation on a truth and reconciliation process — a fairly meaningless mechanism to someone in his position — Armstrong tipped his hand. He is playing the odds, giving himself an out. No truth and reconciliation commission, no testimony. On Monday, when the interview was taped, it seemed like a safe bet, and it is a safe bet that Armstrong knew it.

While Armstrong rolled tape in Austin, after all, the UCI was fighting tooth and nail in Switzerland, trying to keep truth and reconciliation from becoming a component of the review commission investigating the allegations against the UCI in USADA’s “reasoned decision.” With his various legal entanglements, resistance to wholesale truth and reconciliation in the sport works in Armstrong’s favor, and so Armstrong did his part to keep their interests aligned.

He vehemently denied that the UCI helped him cover up a positive test for EPO at the 2001 Tour de Suisse, going so far as to say the infamous meeting with the Lausanne lab never took place. He denied that the $125,000 he gave to the UCI was payment for cover-ups or special favors. Twice he praised the UCI’s biological passport program as ushering in real change in cycling.

In keeping on the UCI’s good side, Armstrong had the look of a man protesting a bit too much, trying hard to preserve a relationship that was still mutually beneficial. While both the UCI and lab director Martial Saugy deny that the meeting was to explain to Armstrong how to beat the EPO test, as USADA’s Travis Tygart asserts, both acknowledge that a meeting did take place. And though Armstrong told Winfrey his payments to the UCI were made after he retired in 2005, the first was made in 2002. The second was made in 2005, but according to UCI President Pat McQuaid himself, it was to make good on a 2002 pledge.

By the time the interview aired on Thursday, the odds on Armstrong’s bluff being called had improved, as WADA, USADA and the review committee itself upped the pressure on the UCI to reshape the committee into a more effective form. Both anti-doping agencies are refusing to cooperate with the investigation over the committee’s lack of autonomy and the absence of a truth and reconciliation process. In doing so, they withhold crucial credibility that the investigation desperately needs.

McQuaid appears to be beginning to bend to the pressure. But even if Armstrong’s condition of a truth and reconciliation committee is met, it’s far from guaranteed that he will cooperate. The Wall Street Journal reported that, back in December, meeting in Denver with Travis Tygart, Armstrong told the USADA chief, “There’s one person who holds the keys to my redemption, and that’s me.” His interview with Winfrey showed he still feels the same.

If Armstrong chooses not to give sworn testimony, or does so but again offers only his own transgressions without context or detail, it will be his final injustice to cycling, a refusal to participate in the cleanup of the mess he’s helped to make.

But it will also be a fitting coda to his career, one in which he rose to become one of the last of the big-time patróns. The Boss. The guy whose zipped-lips gesture after shaming Filippo Simeoni in the 2004 Tour rendered him the very personification of omerta.

And he’ll go out having never committed what, in his mind, may still be the ultimate cycling sin: spitting in the soup.


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