No, Armstrong never tested positive. But how?
They hid. They lied. They used injections to bring their EPO-saturated blood back toward neutral. According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s 200-page report condemning the U.S. Postal Service dynasty, Lance Armstrong and his cadre of support riders beat the international drug-testing system by manipulating it on every level, from simply hiding to injecting saline just before drug tests.
Armstrong was tested about 275 times in his cycling career (nowhere near the 500-600 times he’s claimed). The World Anti-Doping Agency, UCI, French authorities (AFLD) and USADA tested his support riders at U.S. Postal as well. The familiar refrain from Armstrong is that he never tested positive, therefore he didn’t dope. The USADA efforts aim to obliterate the go-to Armstrong defense, outlining just how the Texan easily gamed a system that was years behind the peloton.
In its “Reasoned Decision,” published last week, USADA paints a troubling picture of manipulation and even hints at corruption within the upper reaches of the sport.
Quitting races and hiding
The investigation found that Armstrong went to great efforts to avoid doping controls. Those efforts included providing inadequate whereabouts information and dropping out of a race to dodge testers, according to longtime friend and teammate George Hincapie. Hincapie testified that Armstrong abandoned the Vuelta al País Vasco in 2000 in order to avoid testing, and Johan Bruyneel told Danielson in 2006 that Armstrong hid from testers in Puigcerdà, Spain, when he was using EPO. Bruyneel told Danielson to do the same.
According to Danielson’s affidavit, Dr. Michele Ferrari made clear to him in 2005 there was an organized doping “system” on the Discovery Channel cycling team. It was shortly after Danielson agreed to ride for the team.
“The cornerstone of this doping program was EPO. [Team trainer] Jose “Pepe” Marti then provided some instructions on the use of EPO. I was to inject the EPO intravenously in the evening and never to take it subcutaneously. I was to always try to hide from testers and was to try not to get tested. But, if I was tested I was to try to pee before providing a sample,” Danielson’s affidavit reads. Armstrong, who was fluent in the training programs of his teammates, also told Danielson to “be careful” of out-of-competition testing.
“He said that he felt there was going to be more targeted testing of team members that year and warned me to be careful,” Danielson’s affidavit reads. “I was told while in Girona [Spain] not to answer the door and if I had to go out not to wear clothing with the team name or logo on it.”
According to David Zabriskie, a former Armstrong teammate who last week confessed to doping as part of the investigation, “Johan [Bruyneel] always seemed to know when drug testers were coming at races. His warning that ‘they’re coming tomorrow’ came on more than one occasion.”
Jonathan Vaughters said much of the same. “[T]he Postal Service staff, including Johan and the soigneurs, seemed to have an outstanding early warning system regarding drug tests. We typically seemed to have an hour’s advance notice prior to tests. There was plenty of time in advance of tests to use saline to decrease our hematocrit level,” Vaughters told investigators.
According to Zabriskie’s affidavit, he recalled a day on the team bus during the Tour of Luxembourg, in which riders were told there were police waiting for them at the team hotel. If they had any drugs, they had better get rid of them. Another rider, whose name USADA redacted, went into the nearby woods and buried the substances. “Those trees will be big in a few years,” another rider said.
Whereabouts details and leaving chaperones
Moreover, the record contains strong evidence of Armstrong’s personal efforts to avoid doping control. In addition to his Tour of the Basque Country abandon and trips to Puigcerdà, investigators learned that in the middle of 2010, Armstrong offered untimely and incomplete whereabouts information, making it more difficult to pin him down. When he was located for testing that year, “Armstrong did not immediately submit to testing,” according to USADA. On one occasion, the agency reported that in 2009 in France, Armstrong left a tester for 20 minutes, ignoring requests to stay within the permitted area.
“Avoiding testers was a very effective and easily implemented technique used by Postal Service riders to avoid a positive drug test and one in which Mr. Armstrong engaged,” the USADA file reads.
Timing and dilution
The Postal Service dynasty, and teams spawned from it, most frequently beat the system in their chemical methodologies. The most frequently used prohibited substances and methods employed by the U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel cycling teams were blood doping, EPO, testosterone, human growth hormone and cortisone. From 1998 to 2005, there were no tests to detect blood doping or growth hormone, so the practices were risk free. The French Anti-Doping Laboratory introduced the EPO test in 2000, leading Dr. Ferrari to begin injecting the drug straight into the vein — it could leave the body much faster.
“As a result, the riders knew that if they used EPO in the evening and avoided testers during the night (when testers rarely if ever came) they would not test positive by morning,” according to USADA. As a last resort before testing, riders would take saline injections, a banned method and effective tool to lower hematocrit to the old UCI standard of 50 percent, and to dupe the UCI’s biological passport program.
“One of the bolder examples of the use of saline to fool the testers was at the 1998 world championships when Armstrong’s doctor literally smuggled past a UCI official a liter of saline concealed under his rain coat and administered it to Armstrong to lower his hematocrit right before a blood check,” the USADA report reads.
An immediate request to the UCI for comment on its testing programs was not returned, but after the Armstrong scandal, many see a problem at the top of the sport.
“I believe it starts at the top, the UCI. I believe they had a hand in this,” said former Postal Service rider Frankie Andreu. “We’ve got to know what happened. These guys passed tests for six, seven, eight years taking this shit — passing tests doesn’t mean crap.”
Andreu, who himself admitted to doping long before the federal and USADA investigations boiled cycling’s dark waters, hopes the truth-telling doesn’t stop now. He hopes progress can be made on the backs of those who’ve done wrong.
“I know this is like a really rough time for all the riders who have just come forward … if they are truly talking about doing what’s good for the sport, they need to stop burying their head in the sand,” he said. “They need to stop hiding and speak up and actually do something to benefit the sport that we all love.”