Seven months after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency described Lance Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team as having run “the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen,” the disgraced team’s ownership structure — which includes the banned cyclist himself — retains a quiet role in professional cycling.
Though it no longer has a financial stake in the Luxembourg-based RadioShack-Leopard UCI ProTeam, Austin-based Capital Sports and Entertainment (which, along with Tailwind Sports, co-owned the Postal Service team) is the registered team representative for the Bontrager Cycling development squad, officials with USA Cycling confirmed.
Capital Sports and Entertainment (CSE), which was also the managing entity behind Armstrong’s Discovery Channel and RadioShack teams, is owned and operated by the rider’s longtime agent, Bill Stapleton, and business partner Bart Knaggs. Media reports have consistently named Armstrong as a “partner” and a “minority shareholder” in the company.
Contacted by VeloNews, both Armstrong and Knaggs declined to go on record when asked to define Armstrong’s personal stake in CSE.
In October, following USADA’s reasoned decision, UCI president Pat McQuaid stated that Armstrong “had no place in cycling,” adding, “He deserves to be forgotten in cycling.”
Several former riders who have admitted to doping or served doping suspensions now run pro teams, including Bjarne Riis, who manages Saxo-Tinkoff; Alexander Vinokourov, who manages Astana; Neil Stephens, who manages Orica-GreenEdge; and Jonathan Vaughters, who manages Garmin-Sharp. None of those men, however, have received lifetime bans from an anti-doping agency.
When Armstrong turned down an opportunity in February to sit down and share his experiences with USADA, he missed his final opportunity to see his lifetime ban reduced to eight years.
The Bontrager team began as Trek-Livestrong in 2009, in tandem with Armstrong’s comeback, and has spawned the careers of riders such as former maglia rosa Taylor Phinney, Giro d’Italia stage winner Alex Dowsett, and Sky neo-pro Joe Dombrowski.
However, Armstrong’s continuing connection to cycling drew a sharp rebuke from anti-doping officials.
“Mr. Armstrong has a lifetime ban from sport, and under the rules is not allowed to operate or have ownership in any part of a licensed cycling team,” said USADA spokesperson Annie Skinner.
Just how CSE has managed to retain its role as the principal behind the Continental development squad is a question neither the sport’s global governing body, the UCI, nor USA Cycling have been willing to answer in detail.
Questioned by VeloNews, a spokesperson for the UCI directed questions to USA Cycling, noting that the vetting and registration of Continental cycling teams falls under the sole jurisdiction of the sport’s national federations.
“The UCI is not aware of any reason that would have prevented [the] Bontrager Cycling Team from being registered,” said UCI communications manager Devra Pitt Gétaz.
USA Cycling, in turn, pointed to its own compliance with UCI rules governing the team registration process.
In an e-mail to VeloNews, USAC communications director Bill Kellick explained that “the Bontrager team met all requirements and obligations” and that “neither USADA nor the UCI has informed us that there is any issue with CSE managing the Bontrager team.”
USADA’s Skinner took aim at the governing bodies in a statement to VeloNews, suggesting her agency might intercede in the matter.
“USA Cycling and [the] UCI should be monitoring who owns and operates the teams they grant licenses to. If Mr. Armstrong has ownership in Capital Sports and Entertainment, it would obviously be a serious issue that, after UCI publicly announced that Mr. Armstrong has no place in cycling, he would be allowed by cycling’s leadership to maintain ownership in a licensed team. We will inquire further about this with the appropriate governing bodies.”
While the combination of Armstrong’s lifetime ban and partial ownership would seem to invalidate CSE’s eligibility as a team license-holder, UCI rules surrounding the eligibility of these fiduciary “team representatives” are unclear as written. Incorporated bodies must provide documentation of their legal operation, a list of officers and a balance sheet at the time of registration, along with the submission of a team roster and rider contracts.
Left murky is the distinction, if any, between “team representatives” and “staff” — who must hold licensure and is held to clear standards related to violations of the UCI’s anti-doping code.
USA Cycling’s Kellick confirmed that everyone holding a license with the Bontrager team is eligible to do so.
Pressed as to why the potential ownership stake of a banned athlete would not be problematic to the national federation, Kellick clarified that the existing application process does not require the identification of every person who holds an interest in a team’s owner. USA Cycling would not make Bontrager Cycling’s registration documents available to VeloNews.
Speaking of CSE principals Stapleton and Knaggs, Armstrong voiced disappointment over questions concerning the propriety of the group’s ownership.
“Those guys had nothing to do with the decisions that generations of cyclists made, myself included,” Armstrong told VeloNews.
However, a federal whistleblower lawsuit, filed by former U.S. Postal rider Floyd Landis, contradicts Armstrong’s claim.
In the suit, filed by Landis in June of 2010 and published in January by the New York Daily News, Landis describes a 2002 contract negotiation in which Stapleton allegedly referenced his knowledge of Landis’ doping and offered the team’s assistance with the practice. Knaggs is also described as having been complicit in the team’s doping, participating, according to Landis, in a dinner conversation about selling team bikes to finance the doping program.
Armstrong, Stapleton, and Knaggs are each named as individual defendants in the Qui Tam suit, along with U.S. Postal manager Johan Bruyneel and Tailwind Sports backer Thomas Weisel. CSE, Tailwind, and Montgomery Sports are also named as defendants. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice notified a federal court of its decision to join Landis’ action, but chose not to pursue Stapleton, Knaggs, or CSE.
This decision led to speculation that settlement agreements with the CSE principals may have been in the works, although Knaggs and Stapleton declined to comment on the matter when questioned by VeloNews. Weisel was also excluded in his personal capacity, though the DOJ has retained its rights to pursue each defendant at a later date.
As for the Bontrager development team, team manager Axel Merckx was quick to separate the misdeeds of the past from the stars of cycling’s future.
Merckx, the son of cycling legend Eddy Merckx, was categorical in his insistence that the Bontrager team is a separate entity than the teams run by Bruyneel and Armstrong in the past.
“[We are] a totally different team, based only on development,” explained Merckx of his young squad. He describes CSE’s day-to-day role in the team as minimal. “We exist to help these kids and to give them the opportunities and exposure they need to make the next step to the ProTour.”
Merckx — who, like each Bontrager rider, is an independent contractor paid by CSE — spoke candidly with VeloNews about the challenges associated with his team’s affiliation with the U.S. Postal structure.
“The most difficult thing has been the fear that these kids would have to deal with the consequences of the past. It’s always been my biggest concern,” said Merckx. “It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to their futures. They were just kids when all this was going on. We’re talking about 10 and 15 years ago. It just wouldn’t be fair to link everything together with them.”
Noting that most of his riders are 21 or younger, Merckx pointed to last week’s Amgen Tour of California as an important proving ground for the team. Bontrager rider Lawson Craddock, a seven-time national champion, earned the best young rider’s jersey for the team in California.
“This is such an important event in their lives,” said Merckx of the chance to race on television against the sport’s biggest names. “It’s something they will remember the rest of their lives, even if they never make it to the ProTour level. We’re not here to win the race, we’re here to show the public that the future of cycling is alive, and to do it in a positive manner.”
Like Merckx, Trek Bicycles spokesman Eric Bjorling told VeloNews that the company’s decision to continue as a title sponsor (via its Bontrager brand) stems from a desire to support cycling’s future. Trek, which severed its personal ties with Armstrong in October 2012, sees the development team as a different conversation, Bjorling said.
“The program has been so separate from the other parts of Capital Sports that we’ve been involved with,” Bjorling said. “There are different employees managing it, a different structure to it and different people involved with it, so nothing that we’ve seen in the management of the team has really caused us too much concern.”
Armstrong likewise disavowed any practical relationship with the team, or its sponsors.
“If they want to fault us for starting a development team five years ago, that produced Taylor Phinney, Joe Dombrowski, Lawson Craddock, and many others, well, have at it,” Armstrong told VeloNews. “The truth is, I don’t have any involvement. I have no relationship with Trek, or Bontrager, or the team.”
As for the propriety of the squad’s license, USA Cycling declined to comment on potential next steps.
“We will not discuss publicly what consequences may ensue if the composition of a team’s ownership is challenged as standing in violation of any rules,” explained Kellick. “Our procedures, including the question of whether action is pending in a particular matter, are private out of respect for the parties’ rights.”