From the Pages of Velo: Down in flames

Matthew Beaudin reviews Velo's 2012 Story of the Year: USADA's takedown of Lance Armstrong

Editor’s note: This piece by Matthew Beaudin, on USADA and Travis Tygart’s ultimately successful anti-doping case against Lance Armstrong, originally ran as the lede VeloNote in the January 2013 issue of Velo, our 25th annual Awards Issue.

Story of the Year: USADA and Travis Tygart crack the Armstrong mystique

Lance Armstrong, as a sports icon, is finished.

His legacy is torched, his name but a black slab in cycling’s record books, and fodder for late-night comedians. Among the constellation of heroes, his star is flickering, however dimly, kept lit by his fight against cancer. It’s hard to pull the two apart.

For some, that is enough. For others, the Texan is nothing more than a cheater, one of the sport’s greatest disappointments.

This is ground zero for modern cycling, a line drawn that divides the sport in two: there is before, and there is after. The actual space in recorded history doesn’t exist; without the luxury of the veil of time, the Armstrong era, as gilded as it was, has become cycling’s black hole, consuming names, records, results, and careers.

The magnitude of the Armstrong affair cannot be overstated, or even calculated at this point, since his reach as an athlete, cultural icon, and cancer-fighting superhero is so vast. But what we do know is this: The United States Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts in the case, and its exhaustive supplementary materials, make up the single biggest story that American cycling, and perhaps cycling in general, has ever witnessed, for better and for worse. It was a story that cost this magazine some of its readers and the sport some of its fans, as they tired of the gruesome reality of cycling’s darkest days. Yet, here it is, a story impossible to ignore.

It left those who love the sport changed. We’re a bit less willing to accept greatness, and many are angry at Armstrong, at the UCI, at the doctors, and at journalists. Some were even angry with USADA for pursuing Armstrong after federal prosecutors walked away from their case in the media equivalent of midnight, late on a Friday afternoon just days before the Super Bowl. Armstrong would have remained untouched forever, if not for Travis Tygart.

Tygart, USADA’s CEO, is this story’s reluctant protagonist, and if he is reading this, he likley just cringed. The USADA leader’s decision to keep chasing Armstrong brought with it scorn, death threats, and excruciating scrutiny — as only the felling of a hero could.

Before federal agent Jeff Novitzky launched his ballyhooed federal investigation into Armstrong and the United States Postal Service team conspiracy in 2010, Tygart was looking into the matter himself. His USADA investigation stood down as the feds delved into the plethora of misdeeds, and that’s something he wonders about now. The public perception is that Tygart — a man who comes off as a fierce competitor himself — sat back while the federal investigators racked up heaps of information, under the power of the subpoena, during the grand jury investigation, then just rubber-stamped
a pile of papers. Bang, case closed.

“Should we have deferred to the federal criminal investigation? That’s an outstanding question. We did. But ultimately that delayed what we were able to do for basically two years,” Tygart told Velo.

Tygart maintains that the federal prosecutors shared no information with the USADA investigation. That means that, at the very least, he was forced to collect everything he already knew. What he and his team came up with was a troubling illustration of a USPS team so entrenched in cheating that it was as if the race for the best performance-enhancing drugs was the competition entirely, with Armstrong the notorious winner. It was wretched stuff, filled with blood bags, comical egos, and riders whose careers were muted because they couldn’t conceive of cheating on such a scale.

After a few conversations with Tygart, it’s clear that those are the athletes he works for, consequences be damned. Looking back at his sweeping Armstrong investigation, he seems nearly satisfied with the work his USADA team put forward.

“You always wish you’d dotted an ‘I’ you maybe missed, or crossed a ‘T’ you maybe missed. We want as full and perfect justice that we possibly can in every situation. It’s bittersweet,” he said. “We’re sorry that it ever happened, the Postal Service doping conspiracy. And we did our job. We hope us doing our job revealed and helped spark a discussion on the bigger picture and long-term sustainability and credibility of the sport of cycling going forward. There’s certainly more work to be done.”

It took a unique character to string up the legacy of Lance. Tygart, for his part, has been gun-shy about opening up to the media and discussing who he is, and what makes him tick. On the surface, he’s polite, speaks with a deliberate intensity, and is the type of guy who orders plenty of Diet Cokes at lunch.

Certainly, Tygart took it on the chin for the Armstrong investigation, thanks in large part to Armstrong’s semantics: an “unconstitutional” tweet here, a “witch hunt” tweet there, blasted to 3.5 million Twitter followers. Lawyers, though, don’t operate in hash tags.

“There’s obviously no basis to any personal vendettas. Our job is to discipline cheaters. And my hope is that no celebrity, or any other athlete, cheats. But if they cheat, and we have the evidence, you can rest assured that we’re not going to apologize for doing our job,” Tygart said. “Whether they’re a celebrity or non-celebrity. And people who are upset ought to be upset with those celebrities who’ve disappointed them, and who have chosen to defraud them. And look, we’re equally as upset — not at us doing our job, at those athletes making the wrong decision to pull off the grand heist.”

By now, the news cycle has dismembered the affidavits of Armstrong’s teammates and dissected how the Postal squad achieved its redacted seven-Tour dominance. Where the investigation leaves the sport remains to be seen. The UCI finds itself reeling from a severe public backlash and is looking for a new course after the sport’s darkest years.

“Look, there are a lot of things that are going to be learned,” Tygart said. “I hope the legacy is that the sport changes for the good, for the longterm sustainability of clean athletes. Because it needs to.”

On that point, at least, Tygart won’t find much of an argument — for once.