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Analysis: Collateral damage and the human cost of wrecking the playing field

Lance Armstrong's doping ring tipped the field so the Texan stood on top of a chess game of 'information, connections and money'

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — There were those willing to take the extra steps to ride with Lance Armstrong, to shepherd him though the Alps and Pyrénées and pilot him to victory over the Parisian cobbles. It was an honor and a privilege. There were financial rewards.

There was also a deep undercurrent of deception, of a pain that the drugs inflicted across riders and careers that’s as incalculable now as Armstrong’s legacy.

For a time, Frankie Andreu was that rider. The former Armstrong teammate helped ride the Texan into yellow on two occasions, in 1999 and 2000. He took EPO, and admitted it after retirement. Looking back, it seems clear, the way the booming Andreu was climbing. Everyone was faster, all the time.

But for the Postal road captain, it had gone far enough with EPO. He wasn’t even aware of the measures some others on the team were taking to ride outside of themselves, to ride Armstrong to the top of the podium, often at the behest of the team.

“It wasn’t all about winning. If I wanted to win, I’d have gone to see Ferrari and taken everything under the sun,” Andreu told VeloNews. “Guys were put in a position: if you’re going to be on the team, or if you’re going to the Tour, you’ve got to do this stuff.”

Needless to say, Andreu walked away after that. He is but one casualty of the blood-doping arms race that Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service (and subsequent teams) unleashed on professional cycling, beginning in 1999 with Armstrong’s first Tour win. It was a tactic that worked on the road, as evidenced in the seven straight victories the UCI unceremoniously stripped on Monday, but it was a tactic that also wrought anguish on some of those who had to participate. Sure, guys could have walked away, but in affidavits released by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, sometimes it doesn’t seem as if there was much of a choice if they wanted to maintain the arc of their careers.

If there were but a flame of competitive equality among those using performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling’s darkest days, it’s possible to imagine the Postal Service dynasty as a blowtorch-wielding batch of arsonists, who, with Armstrong’s constant knowledge of training plans and obsession with victory, pressed forward in their marriage of an awful, corrupted science and professional cycling. According to the USADA files and its CEO Travis Tygart, this wasn’t just doping — this was doping on an entirely different level. Tygart told VeloNews last week the Postal Service ring was the “worst” his organization has come across in all of sports.

“If that’s endemic of the whole sport, it’s hard to say. But look, by far the Postal Service doping conspiracy is… one of the most egregious that we’ve ever seen,” Tygart said.

The doping conspiracy that USADA outlined in its case file earlier this month appears a spiderweb, connecting continents, riders and doctors. It’s been well defined at this point the effects blood boosting had on the results sheets. But what of the riders who fell into the Postal Service and Discovery Channel programs?

Look at Tom Danielson. The young American was laughed at in 2004 when he came to Europe for not having a “doctor,” according his USADA affidavit. His climbing ability — impressive naturally — landed him an audition with Michele Ferrari, and he signed with Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team for the 2005 season. It was made clear by Ferrari there was a “system” on the team, and its cornerstone was EPO.

Danielson doped, and took blood transfusions. And, over the years, it changed his psychology profoundly. According to his affidavit, drugs (Cortisone, EPO, Human Growth Hormone) were pushed, and he used them. Eventually, he came to believe he couldn’t compete in grand tours without blood transfusions, and he approached director Johan Bruyneel with questions about a transfusion regiment. At one point, Bruyneel, Danielson said, used the program as a point in contract negotiations, and wouldn’t commence the blood draws until Danielson signed a contract — for less money than he could fetch on the open market. The problem? Danielson was terrified of the blood program. He never saw the results of some of the others.

“I found this process to be both physically draining and mentally terrifying,” his affidavit reads. “I began to worry my blood would be mistaken for someone else’s.”

He characterized the procedures as “emotionally paralyzing.” He suffered from oppressive anxiety attacks, and thought he was having a heart attack at the 2006 Vuelta a España.

“Things got so bad that Johan had one of the doctors give me a sedative the last night of the race,” the affidavit reads. He stopped doping in 2007, and responded to a text message from Jonathan Vaughters he got shortly after. Yes, he would join Slipstream and ride clean. The decision upset both Bruyneel and Armstrong, who actually called to voice his displeasure that Danielson was moving to a Vaughters-run program.

Then, there’s Dave Zabriskie. The American used long training rides to cleanse himself of the pain of growing up with an addict; his father would later die, according to Zabriskie, of drug problems.

One day in 2003 at a Spanish café, Johan Bruyneel and a team doctor pressed Zabriskie and teammate Michael Barry to use EPO. “I was shocked,” reads Zabriskie’s affidavit. “This was my third full year on the European team, and I never thought that I would be expected to dope. I certainly did not expect Johan to push me to dope.”

Until that moment, Zabriskie was unaware how team brass orchestrated doping. Until then, he said, he’d been “shielded” from the use on the team. He wondered about the long-term health effects of PEDs. Would he be able to have kids? Were they safe? In classic Zabriskie fashion, he wondered if he’d grow larger ears. Bruyneel said that riders in front of and behind Zabriskie were using PEDs, the old “everyone’s doing it” trick.

Zabriskie stopped asking questions. On one hand, he started racing a bike to flee a home life ravaged by drugs. On the other, a drug was the very substance he believed could keep him racing his bike. Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral injected Zabriskie and Barry shortly after leaving the café that day, and he and Bruyneel left a patch of testosterone patches with the riders, along with the EPO.

“I went back to my Spanish apartment and had a breakdown. I called home, crying. I had pursued cycling as an escape from drugs, and here I was, having succumbed to the pressure,” reads Zabriskie’s affidavit. He returned to the States soon after, and was promptly hit by an SUV while training. His leg and arm broke, and he was out of competition for the rest of the year.

In 2004, Zabriskie came back to Europe and raced again. At the Vuelta, he was microdosed with EPO by Pedro Celaya, who replaced del Moral as the team doctor. Zabriskie dropped out, didn’t use any more drugs that season, and would leave Postal by the end of the 2004 season. Zabriskie’s affidavit says he dabbled in other PED use sporadically after leaving the Postal Service team, but his use was “minimal,” compared with others. He said he hasn’t used a banned substance since 2006.

These are just a few stories of riders from the Armstrong era, though they plainly illustrate the depth — and human cost — of the Postal Service and Discovery doping regimes that were so systemic they ultimately skewed an even doped playing field in Armstrong’s favor. Tyler Hamilton’s recent book, “The Secret Race” flatly dispelled the notion that there was a level playing field in the dog days of dope.

This idea seems laughable, even. The best riders — Armstrong — had the best doctors. Only certain riders on the team got the certain baggies of drugs, while others were rationed lesser tonics. Dope didn’t level the playing field; it created an entirely different game that only a few guys had tickets to.

“When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is — it’s a chess game of information, connections and money,” co-Author Daniel Coyle told VeloNews just after the book’s release.

Now, the results sheets show nothing of the Armstrong era and riders like Danielson and Zabriskie have moved on to Garmin-Sharp. But they have to wonder where their names might have been.