AIGLE, Switzerland — If Lance Armstrong was hoping for some sympathy from the UCI for cooperating with CIRC investigators, he was wrong.
One of the carrots the UCI-sanctioned Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC) dangled to potential witnesses was a possible reduction of preexisting bans, and Armstrong took the bait. But will there be a payback for two lengthy interviews that Armstrong conducted with the panel? UCI president Brian Cookson didn’t seem convinced.
“This is very much a matter for USADA. I’ve got no remit to reduce the ban of Lance Armstrong,” Cookson said Monday to a small group of journalists at the UCI headquarters. “I have no desire to be the president that let Armstrong off the hook, or anything like that.”
One of the top stories to come out of the Monday release of the long-awaited CIRC report was how it might impact Armstrong’s lifetime ban. Armstrong, 43, was banned for life and had all results erased from the history books, including seven consecutive yellow jerseys, on the heels of the devastating “Reasoned Decision” from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in the fall of 2012.
In many ways, the CIRC report reads like a Hollywood sequel to USADA’s Reasoned Decision. Much of the content of the nearly 300-page report examines the Armstrong reign, and the many allegations that sprung from the cozy relationship between the Texan and the former UCI leadership.
Many have labeled the CIRC report as a review of the “EPO Era,” but after its release Monday, it’s become clear that the report is just as much an X-ray of Armstrong’s legacy as it is of former UCI president Hein Verbruggen. In fact, the commission portrays the two as almost linked at the hip throughout the narrative of the wide-ranging report.
The former seven-time winner of the Tour de France plays a prominent role throughout the report, and CIRC spent a fair amount of time looking into allegations of payoffs, bribes, cover-ups, and otherwise nefarious conduct during the Armstrong era, which arced from 1999, the year of his “miraculous” cancer comeback, through his second retirement in 2013, the exact dates that CIRC delved into the dark underbelly of the peloton.
It remains unclear exactly what Armstrong told CIRC. Interviews with the panel have not been released to the public, but the UCI might have access to some of those files, depending on the conditions that CIRC agreed to. There were some whispers that Armstrong’s legal team insisted on certain conditions of confidentiality for his cooperation, especially in light of on his ongoing litigation with other pending cases, and Cookson confirmed that he had only superficial contact with CIRC members on administrative issues, and was not aware of what they might have agreed upon with Armstrong.
One intriguing element of the CIRC report is that its members suggested the UCI to play the role of mediator between Armstrong and USADA, but Cookson was quick to point out that any talk of a ban reduction must originate from USADA, not the UCI.
“This is very much up to Lance Armstrong and USADA. If we can open the door between them, we’d be willing to do so, but the rules are such that the [national governing] body that issued the sanction has to be the body that agrees in a reduction in that sanction,” Cookson said, choosing his words carefully.
“I understand the commission would like the UCI to facilitate a further discussion between Lance Armstrong and USADA; we’d be happy to do that, but the commission did not feel that anything that Lance Armstrong had told them was sufficient for them to recommend a reduction in his sanction,” he said. “I have found no evidence to contradict that.”
Armstrong has grumbled more than once that he feels like he is paying the price for all of the sinners of the EPO generation, and that he is the fall guy, in a sense, for every doper in a sport that was rife with cheaters. He has insisted that he never did anything that others did not, yet he believes is paying a higher price for the same crime.
Cookson had an answer to that as well, saying, “It’s fair to say that Lance was given exceptional treatment, but then again, he was an exceptional offender … I don’t have a huge amount of sympathy for Lance Armstrong in that respect.”
When queried by an English reporter about what to do about the “Armstrong gap” — the gaping, seven-year hole left blank on the Tour palmares, only to be book-ended by Marco Pantani in 1998 and Oscar Pereiro, who inherited the title from Floyd Landis in 2006 — Cookson just shook his head and sighed.
“I don’t have an answer for that. Of course, it bothers me, but we are living in rather irrational times at the moment,” Cookson said. “We cannot rewrite history. What I want to do is move forward, learn those lessons, and let’s focus on what we can do for the future.”
When pressed again about Armstrong’s assertion that he is being treated more harshly than others, who might have been given lesser bans, or no bans at all, and perhaps even continue to race or work in cycling today, Cookson was succinct:
“I would be reluctant to paint Lance Armstrong as any sort of victim,” he concluded.
In a statement on his website, Armstrong said, “I am grateful to CIRC for seeking the truth and allowing me to assist in that search. I am deeply sorry for many things I have done. However, it is my hope that revealing the truth will lead to a bright, dope-free future for the sport I love, and will allow all young riders emerging from small towns throughout the world in years to come to chase their dreams without having to face the lose-lose choices that so many of my friends, teammates, and opponents faced. I hope that all riders who competed and doped can feel free to come forward and help the tonic of truth heal this great sport.”