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By Neal Rogers
It was over in an instant, but the altercation between a Tour of Utah race staffer and Garmin-Chipotle team doctor Prentice Steffen was years in the making.
During the stage 3 criterium in Salt Lake City last Friday, Tour of Utah team liaison Marty Jemison, a former U.S. Postal Service rider, punched Steffen after the team doctor made what Jemison considered to be an inflammatory remark about alleged doping dating back over a decade.
Jemison and Steffen worked together at U.S. Postal during the 1996 season; Jemison was a talented American rider on the upstart squad, and Steffen was an emergency room physician, with a long interest in sports medicine and cycling.
In 2001 Steffen told Irish reporter David Walsh that in 1996 U.S. Postal riders Jemison and Tyler Hamilton had approached him during the Tour of Switzerland looking for information about illegal doping products. Steffen said he reported the incident to then-director Mark Gorski, and at the end of that year his contract with the team was not renewed.
“Two of my riders approached me saying they wanted to talk about the medical program,” Steffen told Walsh, adding that he understood the conversation as to be related to doping. Hamilton and Jemison both vehemently denied the accusations.
In October 2005, shortly after L’Equipe published a story alleging that EPO had been found in Lance Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour, Steffen reiterated his earlier allegations in the French newspaper and staked new claims about the doping practices at top-level Tour de France teams, including Armstrong’s Discovery Channel squad.
Discovery spokespeople attacked Steffen’s credibility, dismissing the allegations as those of a disgruntled former employee. Under pressure, Steffen immediately retracted his statements about Armstrong and was compelled to resign from his position as team physician with the domestic TIAA-CREF team, but he returned with the team the following year.
After a career that included two Tours de France and a national road championship in 1999, Jemison retired following the 2000 season. He later began a cycling tour company, operated under his name, with rides offered in both the U.S. and in Europe.
Fast forward to stage 3 of the 2008 Tour of Utah — the first time Jemison, a Utah native, had crossed paths with Steffen since the original allegations first went public in 2001. Steffen said that the first words out of Jemison’s mouth were “I hate you,” which Jemison did not deny.
“I thought he was going to follow it up with a little laugh or something, but he didn’t,” Steffen said. “He was quite serious, and I said, ‘okay.’ He said ‘you know, your comments were really damaging.’ And I said ‘yeah, but they were really true.’ And he said ‘no, they weren’t. And I said ‘of course they were,’ and I started to walk away, knowing that the conversation wasn’t going to go anywhere.
“I got maybe 10 feet away, and he said, ‘no, come on, I want to talk to you about it.’ I hesitated, but thought, ‘maybe we’ll resolve this once and for all.’ I went back. He said something, I’m not sure what he said, and I said something like ‘Twelve years later, we’re still trying to clean up the mess you idiots made.’ And that was when he punched me. It was over before I even knew what happened. I didn’t know someone could hit someone so fast.”
Steffen said that he simply picked up his glasses and walked away, and that BMC rider Scott Nydam, who was nursing a broken collarbone, offered to be a witness for a police report. Sporting a cut lower lip, Steffen spoke with the race’s operations director Chad Sperry on the morning before stage 4. Sperry told Steffen he “understood, and apologized, but that he needed Marty to make the stage happen safely.”
Jemison did not deny the altercation took place, but said Steffen’s language regarding “the mess” dating back 12 years was much stronger, which provoked the violent reaction.
“It was an unfortunate situation,” Jemison said. “It was not the greatest display of self control, but he turned around and stuck his chest out and raised his voice and made that comment, which is a flat-out lie. There was nothing to his claim, they are groundless accusations, and it struck a nerve.”
Referring to Steffen’s own admitted drug use – he is a former user of pharmaceutical opiates, with a now-20-year history of sobriety – Jemison questioned the doctor’s own credibility.
“I don’t know how a guy like this, with his past and his history, can go around making statements like that. I support what he is trying to do with what Garmin-Chipotle is doing in terms of running a clean team,” Jemison said. “But [Steffen] has a dark, ugly past. And if he’s going to make statements about other people, I think the public should know. If he really knew something from 1996, let’s hear it. There is nothing. There was nothing. We knew nothing in 1996.”
Steffen said that he had filed a police report, but had not yet decided whether he would press charges.
Put in the situation of having a race official strike a team official over doping accusations that go back over a decade, race director Terry McGinnis did his best to remain diplomatic about the situation.
“There’s really not much to say,” McGinnis said. “I think Marty has done an exceptional job for me at this race. He went above and beyond anything I anticipated, to be honest. I thought I was hiring the local cycling celebrity, and it would be good PR to have him involved with the race, but he really took it to heart and did a fabulous job and worked well with all the teams and was an extra set of hands that I desperately needed and did a fantastic job. Anything between him and Prentice, to me, is personal, and didn’t affect his job at all. Frankly all that is in the past. It was unfortunate that all that happened during my event, and in front of a lot of people, but it had nothing to do with the Tour of Utah, or the fabulous event we had.”
Though he said he could appreciate Jemison’s anger, Steffen stood by his accusations. “I understand his pent up anger and frustration, but it can’t be released in that sort of manner,” he said.
Steffen added that he often sees Hamilton at races, but the two have no relationship. “We don’t talk,” Steffen said. “We just pass by each other.”