Analysis: The ever-shifting ground beneath Lance

The speed around the Armstrong affair picked up on Monday and stable ground is falling away from the once-unflappable Texan

BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — A game that was once painfully slow and perfectly managed by Lance Armstrong is now at warp speed, and it seems the fallen champion finds himself on more unstable sporting and legal grounds than ever before.

Armstrong’s public confession — taped with Oprah Winfrey on Monday in Austin, Texas — is coming on Thursday night in front of an international television and online audience. The move to confess in the taped interview was seen as yet another tactical maneuver by a man as calculating off the bike as he was on it. But his famous control appears to be unraveling, as media reports exploded late Monday, sketching an unfamiliar scene for Armstrong, one of loss of control and increasing velocity.

Armstrong famously won the Tour de France seven times and was infamously stripped of those wins last fall after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency loosed a 1,000-page report chronicling systemic performance enhancing drug use at the U.S. Postal Service team.

Throughout his career, Armstrong has been able to exert unbelievable control over the media and the flow of information. Even when under investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he was able to merge his legal and public relations strategies to weave a narrative that he was treated unfairly by the government, liberally using the “#unconstitutional” hashtag on Twitter to imply an unfair — and even illegal — fight. The feds didn’t see it that way, of course, but they did walk from a two-year investigation on a Friday night without a whimper.

His power seemed as firm as his denials. But the game has changed, and quickly. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday night that Armstrong’s legal team was negotiating a settlement with former teammate Floyd Landis, who filed a whistleblower suit on the grounds that public money was used to buy doping products while Armstrong raced for U.S. Postal. Armstrong could be on the hook for as much as $100 million in that case — three times what the Postal Service paid the team. The Department of Justice reportedly has until Thursday — the day of the interview broadcast — to decide whether or not it will join the suit. The department recommended on Monday that federal attorneys pursue the case, according to a CBS News/Associated Press report.

Another element of that story? Armstrong may even testify against others involved in doping activities — something that seemed unthinkable as recently as October. Armstrong’s denial machine fought off accusations for a decade, but now he feels compelled to drag others into the muck with him. But who’s left to line up?

The New York Times reported on Monday that Armstrong was considering testifying against UCI officials and former Postal Service team owner Thomas Weisel and other Postal cycling team officials.

Confessions, or even plea bargains, generally come when one party knows the outcome of the confession, otherwise there is no incentive to tell the truth. The Wall Street Journal reported that USADA CEO Travis Tygart told Armstrong it was too late to come clean with the perks of an effective plea bargain, and that the minimum he could hope for was an eight-year ban rather than the lifetime barring he’s currently saddled with — an effective death knell for his endurance career.

It’s all in sharp contrast to the message Armstrong used to send, which was his way or the highway. He would blacklist reporters, including those on VeloNews staff, and even buried Greg LeMond’s bike brand due to LeMond’s suspicion Armstrong used PEDs.

That’s why the current landscape surrounding the fallen champion is remarkable. The ground beneath him is cracking faster than he can run.

Just an example: Should the feds join the Landis suit, the game changes for Armstrong hugely. Rather than fight only Landis in court with a cadre of $1,000-an-hour lawyers, Armstrong would find himself staring down Uncle Sam, and all that goes with him, from manpower to financial resources to an increasingly pessimistic court of public opinion. He’s long called Landis a liar, and now all of the sudden seems keen to settle?

The fact he’s even considering turning on those who’ve long run the show, from the Postal Service to the UCI, indicates a desperation unseen before from a man who just a few months ago tweeted a photo of himself on a couch, beneath a spate of yellow jerseys, will the simple message, “just layin’ around.”

There is a chance that all of this has been mapped in Armstrong’s inner-circle, that a course of action has been charted and the media is merely ghost-writing a script that’s already been roughed out. But something seems different this time; the veneer is gone, and leaked attempts to settle with Landis and testify against the UCI deviate from the devastating control Armstrong has always craved and always exerted.

What has made the Texan unflappable, both on and off the bike, was his calculation, his ability to intimidate a rival, determine a weakness and ride away. But Armstrong always knew his enemy, and knew where the attacks would come from. He had a run of remarkable luck in France, and when the U.S. Attorney’s office abandoned a deep investigation. Simply, Armstrong never had bad days.

Until now.