Commentary: Trial and Tribulation for USADA five
By dawn on Thursday morning, it was clear that the five former U.S. Postal team riders named by three European papers as having testified to USADA against Lance Armstrong were in for a rough day at the Tour de France.
Hemmed in by the race’s predictable location and schedule and housed cheek-by-jowl with the bulk of the world cycling press corps, that much was a given.
But how the rest of the Tour and the days beyond might play out for them is anyone’s guess. Much has been made of what their testimony means to Armstrong and the case USADA has built against him, but what will it mean for them?
Regardless of where the leak fits into any broader legal or public relations strategy on the part of its U.S.-based source, it seems clear by its timing and its scope — not a full list of witnesses, only Tour de France participants — that it is intended to inflict maximum damage to the public image of the named parties.
As one of cycling’s few crossover successes, the Tour and its news reach the general public and the casual fan, and by timing the leak for the Tour’s first week, the source ensured that the names traveled beyond mere cycling circles, and that they would be perceived by the average news consumer as getting away with something by admitting doping and riding the Tour at the same time. By political standards, it was a shrewd move.
For that broad target audience, the idea that former teammates testified that favorite son Armstrong used drugs, and implicated themselves in the process, is still news, still shocking.
Especially when those riders are the same ones that, every July for a decade, were portrayed as loyal workers, faithful lieutenants, our good American boys in a European sport rife with corruption. So, for those named yesterday, the worst of the blowback will likely come from that audience, from those unfamiliar with the whole story, and with the different Armstrongs that inhabit the mainstream and cycling worlds, and with all that’s transpired in cycling between 1996 and today.
In that arena, the former Postal riders will be called cheats and liars, accused of a hundred different motivations and self-interests, from immunity to attention to book deals to petty jealousy. And the response from ardent Livestrong supporters will be even more intense, to say the least.
But inside the sport, and for many dedicated, year-round cycling fans, the news that Garmin-Sharp’s Jonathan Vaughters, Christian Vande Velde, and Dave Zabriskie, BMC Racing’s George Hincapie, and Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Levi Leipheimer spoke to USADA is much less surprising, so much so it barely rates as news.
That they had testified, either in the federal investigation or the subsequent USADA case, has not been confirmed officially; Thursday’s leak came from an unnamed source. But if you asked who the 10 riders and staff referenced in the USADA letter dated June 12 were likely to be, those named on Thursday would feature in a good many people’s top five — particularly after all four active riders, all 2008 Olympians, asked USA Cycling to remove their names from the 2012 Olympic team selection.
For that audience, the interest at this point lies further below the surface than the realities of who doped and when and how. For them, the more interesting bit of the De Telegraaf story was the idea that the named riders had traded testimony for favorably scheduled six-month bans, an allegation that, in the midst of a storm of no comments, was quickly denied by Garmin-Sharp, BMC Racing and USADA.
With that angle tabled for the time being, the insiders and die-hards will focus on the timing of the leak, on its source and the motivations behind it, and on trying to figure out what happens next. Their assessments of the five alleged to have testified and their underlying motives — assessments the general public is just making now — were likely made long ago.
And while the apparent confirmation that the five had, in fact, testified has brought those feelings to the surface again, they are unlikely to change at this point, some two years on from the first rounds of “who’s testifying?” during the federal investigation headed by Jeff Novitzky.
Among day-in, day-out followers of cycling, feelings on those cooperating in the USADA investigation vary wildly. Some hail them as courageous, not just for admitting their own transgressions, but also for exposing themselves to the relentless personal, professional and public ramifications of defying Armstrong. Their identities may have been shrouded initially, but each would have known prior to testifying that his name and what he shared would not remain secret forever. They have seen others tell what they know about doping, spit in the soup, as the old saying goes, and be pilloried for doing so. But they did it anyway, and that has earned the respect of many.
There are also those who feel they are just saving themselves, that it was a choice of turning on Armstrong or facing the music themselves, that they should have made better decisions in the first place, or spoken out sooner. And there is merit in those feelings, too.
But whether or not folks embrace, tolerate, or even loathe the actions of the named riders, among the cycling-obsessed, there seems to be a recognition that the testimony given before USADA plays a role beyond potentially bringing down Lance Armstrong, a distinction that is lacking in the general public portrayal of the USADA action. There is an acknowledgement that in sharing what they know, whether names or substances or methods or something else, those who testify before USADA are doing their part, now, to put professional cycling on better footing in the longer term.
And that is why, whatever short-term vilification they experience, the named riders will likely remain in good standing in the eyes of the sport despite their past contributions to the very problem now under remediation. Help save the sport, help save yourselves in the eyes of the sport.
Because long after the general public and the eyes of July have abandoned the online comment sections, having called Vaughters, Vande Velde, Hincapie, Zabriskie, and Leipheimer what they will and tuned out cycling until next July or the next doping headline, when the mainstream papers and sports shows have returned to football, the long-term health of the sport will be what the rest of us, the day-in-day-out lovers of cycling, will be left with.
Ryan Newill has contributed to VeloNews since 1999, and admits to being the Ryan behind www.theservicecourse.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SC_Cycling.