Editor’s note: As we ring out 2012, we look at 12 of our favorite stories of the year. Andrew Hood’s telling of the intertwined stories of Bobby Julich and Lance Armstrong first appeared on VeloNews.com on October 29.
MADRID (VN) — It was the 1999 Tour de France and Bobby Julich was wearing the No. 1 bib for the opening prologue in Le Puy du Fou.
The previous year’s winner Marco Pantani was sidelined after he popped for high hematocrit at the Giro d’Italia, while runner-up Jan Ullrich was out with injury. After finishing third overall in 1998, Julich was the next man standing. Despite his rivals’ absences, it was a huge honor for Julich and marked a coming of age for the Coloradan.
In 1999, many thought it would be Julich who would emerge as America’s next great stage racer. A solid climber and excellent time trialist, Julich seemed to have all the necessary tools to become a legitimate Tour contender.
Starting last in the opening prologue, Julich crossed the line 22nd, at 28 seconds off the pace. He asked out loud, “Who had the fastest time?” When a journalist replied Lance Armstrong, Julich abruptly rode away without saying a word.
Flash forward to 2012, and a quickly unfolding chain of events following the revelations of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s dossier saw Armstrong yet again foil Julich, this time with much costlier consequences.
Perhaps it is only a small sense of irony that the Armstrong doping scandal claimed Julich as a casualty Thursday in a scandal that continues to reverberate around the peloton.
The Tour-winning Sky team was called to task about its anti-doping policies and team boss Dave Brailsford has embraced a controversial zero-tolerance policy, meaning that he is jettisoning any rider or staff member that has been involved with doping at any point in their career.
That meant trouble for Julich, who announced Thursday he took EPO during portions of the seasons from 1996 to 1998. Though he vowed he raced the remainder of his career clear and dedicated his coaching career at Sky to mentoring younger riders, Julich’s admissions cost him his job.
“I understood by (confessing), I will have to face some more important consequences in real life,” Julich wrote Thursday. “I knew before I headed to our team meeting in London last week that we would all be asked about our past. I knew that this was going to be a pivotal point in my life and I decided to come clean not only to Team Sky but also to the sport and people that I love.”
Julich was the first to be forced out of the team and more are likely to follow. Lead director Sean Yates left on Sunday, citing personal issues, and The Telegraph reported that Steven De Jongh was to follow. Brailsford has defended the policy as a necessary step to clean up cycling once and for all, but by doing so, he’s taking out staffers like Julich who made decisions nearly two decades ago when cycling was in a very different place.
Julich’s admission to his former doping practices and his removal from his job at Sky is a final chapter in the bitter rivalry with Armstrong.
Armstrong and Julich were synonymous in the early years of their respective careers. Their trajectories ran parallel, but never in the same orbit. Yet their fates have been intertwined since they were juniors making waves in the early 1990s.
The pair was like water and oil, and never got along. Julich was perhaps too nice and too smart to thrive in the treacherous waters of the pro peloton back in the 1990s while Armstrong oozed confidence and a win-at-any-cost attitude.
Even as an early pro, Armstrong started to build a team of allies from across cycling’s power structure that helped him in all aspects of his career, including the widespread doping ring catalogued in the USADA dossier. Julich paved his own solitary path, embracing Europe, learning fluent French, riding for French teams and always keeping Armstrong at arm’s length.
Though their paths often intersected — they even shared two seasons in Motorola in 1995-96 — there was never any love lost between Julich and Armstrong. Long before Armstrong became the Tour dominator, it was Julich who was hyped as a possible candidate as Greg LeMond’s American successor at the Tour.
Armstrong’s battle with cancer coincided with Julich’s rise. In 1996, just weeks before Armstrong faced chemotherapy and surgery, Julich finished in ninth in the Vuelta a España and held the climber’s jersey for half the race.
Julich started the 1998 Tour hoping to improve on his 17th from the previous year. With the Festina scandal, which saw half the peloton leave the race and the Tour collapse into a charade, Julich battled through scandal and controversy, but reached the podium. He now admits that he was taking EPO during that period.
“Those days were very different from today, but it was not a decision that I reached easily,” Julich wrote in his confession. “I knew that it was wrong, but over those two years, the attitude surrounding the use of EPO in the peloton was so casual and accepted that I personally lost perspective of the gravity of the situation.”
After watching the sport fall off the precipice with the Festina scandal that year, Julich stepped back from the brink. He claims he rode clean for the remainder of his career.
As the 1999 season unfolded, Julich was the hot American rider while Armstrong was on the cusp of his rise, still viewed by many as damaged goods. No one considered Armstrong as a genuine threat to win the Tour, but after that prologue, Julich’s star faded just as quickly as the Armstrong phenomenon took off.
While Armstrong barnstormed from one success to another, charming and intimidating the media at the same time, Julich became reclusive and mercurial.
When journalists would dare to ask him what he thought about Armstrong, his answers were curt and bitter. “Don’t ask me about Armstrong,” Julich once said. “I’ll talk about the Tour, but only about what I am doing.”
Julich could only grit his teeth as he watched Armstrong, now evidently fueled by the high-octane primer prescribed by Dr. Michele Ferrari, become a millionaire and international celebrity while his own fortunes soured.
In 2001, after switching to Crédit Agricole, Julich rode to 18th overall at the Tour de France clean, something confirmed by former teammates who knew him well.
“Bobby J might have been the top-ranked clean rider of that year’s Tour,” a former teammate said. “That was impressive what he did, considering who he was racing against and what.”
Many have asked if it was even possible to race clean in those days, when even domestiques were forced to dope just to be able to keep up. Julich says he was tempted but never returned to what he called “the dark side.”
While Julich struggled with results, Armstrong mushroomed into an international celebrity, but the Coloradan held true to his vow never to dope again.
After a string of subpar seasons, Julich’s career was almost done. In 2004, Bjarne Riis offered him a lifeline with a low-money, one-year deal to join CSC because the controversial Danish director said he believed Julich had not reached his full potential.
The results Julich quickly earned after his move to Riis’ squad come loaded with speculation.
Suddenly, Julich was back on his winning ways, claiming his first pro victory since 1997 with winning a time trial at the Vuelta al País Vasco. He later won bronze — since bumped to silver following the doping confession of gold medalist Tyler Hamilton — in the Olympic time trial in Athens. In 2005, he won Paris-Nice, Critérium International and the Eneco Tour.
The next season, however, was demoralizing for the sport as the Operación Puerto investigation revealed that nothing much had changed at all since Festina. At the heart of the doping scandal were Julich’s teammates Jörg Jaksche and Ivan Basso. While Basso never quite told the full story, Jaksche dished on everything.
On Thursday, however, Julich stopped short of saying he saw anything suspicious during his time at CSC, something that some find hard to believe, but Julich is sticking to his story that he never resumed doping after turning his back on it in July 1998.
“At no time was I offered or did I receive any sort of blood manipulation nor did I witness any systematic doping within the team,” Julich wrote. “I found that I could compete without it and my results during that period were achieved clean. That being said, what happened before the 2006 Tour de France changed my outlook into what we all thought we were buying into when we joined that team.”
Julich’s exasperation with Armstrong reached its nadir in 2008, when Julich announced his retirement from professional cycling. A few hours later, it was revealed that Armstrong would be returning to professional cycling for the 2009 season.
No one was writing about Bobby J’s retirement. The story again was all about Armstrong.
After retiring, Julich stayed on with Riis in 2009 in a newly created position as technical director, quietly working behind the scenes, helping with training schedules and logistics.
In 2011, he got what he called his “dream job” with Sky, as one of the team’s four performance coaches.
Julich talked enthusiastically about the job in an interview with VeloNews during the 2012 Vuelta a España, saying he worked directly with riders such as Richie Porte.
Julich sat with VeloNews for nearly 30 minutes on an outside deck along Spain’s spectacular northern coast, explaining in detail how Sky trains and how the team painstakingly ensures that riders can race clean and encourage and foster that environment.
“I know for a fact those guys are clean,” Julich said. “The sport has changed so much since the days I was starting my career. I almost envy these guys coming in now, because they can race clean and there’s no question about how to ride.”
Julich was proud of his work with Sky and was excited about new riders coming on board, namely Americans Joe Dombrowski and Ian Boswell.
The Armstrong doping case was just about to explode, but before VeloNews could ask about what he thought of his former rival, a scheduled interview with Chris Froome took priority.
“There are a lot of interesting things to talk about these days, huh?” Julich said as he walked away.
The earthquake caused by USADA’s searing case file continues to ripple across the peloton, forcing Sky to adopt a Draconian zero-tolerance policy in direct response to the Armstrong scandal.
Perhaps without the fallout from the Armstrong doping scandal, Sky could have taken a different tact in dealing with past indiscretions of riders and staff who were confronted with ethical choices a decade ago or more. Unfortunately for Julich, he’s paying a very high price for the choices he made a long time ago.
And even Julich’s public admission of doping is being overwhelmed by the churning headlines fueled by the Armstrong scandal. What would have otherwise been a huge story about one of America’s most successful pros admitting to doping is now being lost in the endless flood of other salacious headlines.
By admitting his past errors, however, Julich perhaps gets the last word and has done something that Armstrong looks like he will never: tell the truth.