Making sense of the Thrift Drug affair

What's the line between a simple gentlemen's agreement and out-and-out collusion, and how often does it get crossed in races?

As cycling fans, we are accustomed to ethical conundrums.

Do we cheer for a popular rider who secretly admitted he used PEDs but never bothered to tell us?

Do we support a team whose owner tweets out racist garbage?

Should we hate on riders who doped in an era of rampant doping?

There are no correct or wrong answers to these questions, of course. Deciding where you stand is simply part of being a fan.

Cycling’s latest ethics test comes from Caley Fretz’s recent story about the Floyd Landis/U.S. government lawsuit against Lance Armstrong. In case you missed it, Armstrong, under oath, stated that in 1993 he and current BMC team manager Jim Ochowicz paid off the Coors Light team to let him win the final leg of the Thrift Drug Triple Crown series and its $1 million payout.

You may have heard rumors of this incident. In 2013, former Coors Light rider Roberto Gaggioli told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera of the payoff, saying he got the cash in a cake box. Coors Light rider Stephen Swart told journalist David Walsh that the deal was agreed upon in a hotel room before the CoreStates USPRO Championships in Philadelphia. Two Italian riders who made the breakaway alongside Armstrong and Gaggioli also said they were paid.

Was the fix really in? Lance says yes. Ochowicz says no. Gaggioli and Swart say yes. Coors Light’s then team director Len Pettyjohn says it’s not true. “[Motorola] knew we were racing to win in Philly,” Pettyjohn told me. “I think Lance is frustrated and this is his way of lashing out.”

Pettyjohn said that Coors Light did work with Armstrong’s Motorola team during the five-day K-Mart West Virginia Classic, which was the second of the three Triple Crown races. Coors Light helped Motorola control the peloton in an effort to preserve its own ambitions in the Team GC standings, he said.

But when an unnamed rider approached Coors Light about working together in Philly, Pettyjohn said his answer was “No.”

“Whatever deal was done, it was done in the moment, and I don’t know about it,” he said. “We were trying to kick the crap out of Lance.”

There’s a lot going on here, and at least one side is either lying or choosing to remember the past in a not-so accurate light.

No matter what happened, the situation poses a compelling ethics question. Did this supposed payoff cross the line between a gentlemen’s agreement and race fixing? To get a clearer picture, I spent several days phoning up guys who raced in the domestic scene during this era, including multiple riders who participated in the Triple Crown.

Full disclosure: As an American fan, talk of gentlemen’s agreements and collusion drives me up the wall. Still, I realize it’s as endemic to cycling as shaved legs and chamois crème. Different riders (and teams) enter into a race with vastly different goals, and if they can band together to achieve their individual goals — a GC victory, stage win, lining their pockets with cash, etc. — then they often do. Even in local criteriums, breakaway riders will often broker a deal to divvy up prime cash or even agree not to sprint in return for a prize.

According to my sources, gentlemen’s agreements and tactical partnerships were common in the domestic scene in the early 1990s, but they rarely bordered on fixing. Nobody was getting rich or famous, after all. There weren’t enough big teams to control each race. And at high-profile races, the prize purses weren’t big enough to outweigh the glory of winning.

Here was one such anecdote:

I was in a break at Superweek with three other guys. And I was on a really good day. I was sure I was going to win. One of the riders had a potential sponsor at the race, and he asked all three of us this: Our team is on the fence for next year, we might not make it, depending on the sponsor situation. If you let me win this race, it will [help the situation]. You guys can split the first-place prize money. So yeah, we let him win.

This was not the case on the other side of the Atlantic. Guys who raced in Europe in the 1980s — or anyone who has participated in the Flemish kermesse scene — talk of race fixing, buy-offs, and a seemingly noncompetitive environment where winning was only available to a handful of predetermined riders.

Again, another anecdote:

The French scene at that time had these mafias that controlled the races. They made sure that the team leader won the race, and then divvied up the cash. There wasn’t much you could do. I never got used to it.

I’m glad it never got to that point in the U.S. scene.

If Lance, Och and the Coors Light guys really did sit down and form a cabal before the race, then I’m inclined to cry foul. If they did it, their actions tipped the scale toward race fixing, and sullied our U.S. scene with that scummy, European-style collusion that your Belgian buddy probably thinks is fine.

But alas, there are other X factors in story. Armstrong was crushing the U.S. peloton in the lead up to Philly, and had already won the two previous Triple Crown races in impressive fashion. Take Armstrong’s word with a grain of salt, but by his own account, he was “low-octane” doping at that point (everything but the hard stuff).

By all accounts, Armstrong’s winning move was a motorcycle-like attack up the Manayunk wall. If he indeed fixed the race, he still had to get into the winning breakaway and attack like a rocket up the climb. If he proposed some cash agreement to his breakaway companions before the move, then he was just increasing his already strong chances at victory. In that scenario, I’m more inclined to shrug the episode off the usual mid-race agreement, only with a major incentive.

All of my sources said that rumors spiraled around the domestic teams after the Triple Crown affair. People either suspected that there had been a fix, or that Armstrong had simply unlocked some secret to superhuman power. The whole thing left a bad taste in people’s mouths, they said.

I sympathize with riders who were left in the dark through this situation. And I can relate. After all, that’s how you often feel as a cycling fan.