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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Betsy and Frankie Andreu told you so.
It’s just that for a long time, no one wanted to listen. Lance Armstrong was bigger than sports, bigger than business. He was immense, a scion of the Tour de France, of Nike and cancer. He was unbeatable, on and off the road.
But Betsy and Frankie Andreu, and others, including Greg LeMond, dared to doubt the Texan. There were two sides of the fence. And it was much harder to stand with the Andreus of the world than the cancer-surviving, Tour-winning Armstrong. Because they doubted, they were outcast. There is no telling the things Frankie missed out on due to Armstrong’s influence, though he has a suspicion it cost him, deeply.
“In a way, it’s a bit of a relief for me,” Frankie said, just after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Armstrong file went public two weeks ago. “I sat out there by myself like a duck at a gun range. Now, in a way, as much as these guys are hating it, it’s good to have some people out there verifying the stuff I’ve said, that Floyd said, that Tyler said.”
Frankie was a vital belt in Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service machine, serving as road captain, barking in a gravelly voice that earned him the nickname “Ajax.” He rode the Texan to two (now stripped) Tour de France wins, in 1999 and 2000.
Armstrong and his successes were a true gravy train. Frankie knew that, but he was unable to go to the lengths it would have taken to keep his ticket on the train for the then-historic Tour runs.
“At the time, this is hard for me to say, I was lucky to be able to ride with Lance and do the things that we did, meaning winning races. Yeah, sure, I took EPO and talked about it in ‘98, ‘99, and I didn’t do it in 2000 and ended up being out of the sport… it was a blessing,” Andreu said.
He admitted to using EPO while riding for the Postal Service. But he sees the trap the other riders of that era fell into — it’s the same one he walked into.
“You think you have a choice, but really you don’t have a choice,” he said. “You spend your whole life working up to this point to get there, get there, get there…. And your whole love of cycling — you do this or you go home.”
What hurt the most was the financial pendulum’s swing. Once Frankie refused to do even the bare minimum of the doping program, things changed.
“We saw it there, then,” Betsy Andreu said. “Here you had Frankie winning. He rode well. In 2000 he was clean, he ended up 111th in the Tour… but then, boom, it was a dramatic drop in salary… So Low, Frankie said ‘this is an insult. I’m not going to put up with it.’ And I mean, good for him.”
Frankie left the peloton after the low offer, but only after fielding offers from other teams better than Johan Bruyneel’s American-based squad. The problem was, according to Betsy Andreu, that once the Belgian figured out which teams had reached out to him, the offers suddenly vanished.
Betsy was pregnant, and they had a one-year-old. They’d just bought a new house.
“Frankie said, ‘what are we going to do?’” Betsy said. “I said, ‘I don’t know. We’ll do something.’”
Bruyneel called again, and asked if Andreu wanted to work as a sports director. He took the offer. Armstrong went on to win another Tour, this one in 2001. Things were nearly back to good between them, even though there was a now well-publicized e-mail spat between Armstrong and the Andreus over a comment Betsy made about Lance’s wife having a nanny.
Shockingly, when Frankie left his post after 2002 and admitted to doping while on the team, Bruyneel said the team was thinking about taking legal action against him. It was the start of a long list of affronts. There is no in-between.
At the heart of the conflict between Armstrong and the Andreus is an incident in a hospital room in 1996, but the rift between them opened in 2003, when Irish reporter David Walsh, working on his exposé “L.A. Confidential,” called the Andreus’ home, and asked Betsy Andreu for the phone number of Armstrong’s former girlfriend. It started right there: You’re for Armstrong, or against. There is no in-between.
The fissure deepened when, in a deposition for a lawsuit between Armstrong and SCA Promotions over millions in bonus money, Betsy testified under oath that she’d heard the Texan admit to using performance enhancing drugs in an Indiana Hospital room in 1996, where Armstrong was in treatment for cancer.
It got ugly from there. A 2006 article in The New York Times noted Armstrong had testified that Betsy Andreu lied because “she hates me.” Armstrong said Frankie lied because “he’s trying to back up his old lady.” Armstrong told Sports Illustrated in 2007 that Betsy was motivated by “bitterness, jealousy and hatred.”
“The more powerful he got, the more he surrounded himself with people that said yes to him,” Betsy said. “I’m grateful USADA is not corrupt… it would have been nice if everybody would have come forward earlier — nobody would have come forward, ever, had [federal agent] Jeff [Novitzky] not started the case.”
Was it that she had been in that hospital room? The fact that she said she wasn’t afraid of the Texan, and others were? Was it that she helped the Walsh, when he’d called looking for help?
“You can’t just pinpoint one thing,” she said. One of Armstrong’s associates called her 27 times one night, leaving threatening messages [Andreu confirmed on Thursday morning that this was Oakley’s Stephanie McIlvain —Ed.].
One might think Frankie Andreu would feel better now, as sunlight passes over the Armstrong years in full. He doesn’t. Even he’s learning things about those years.
“No, not really. Reading it is kind of disgusting,” he said. “In ‘99 I was on the team, and I didn’t know Tyler [Hamilton], Kevin [Livingston] and Lance were getting shipments of EPO, blood and those things… it’s kind of sickening, and it’s sad. That was the environment we were placed into.”
Someone once told Betsy Andreu she’d killed her husband’s career.
“That hurt,” she said. “And maybe I did. I was just his nagging wife… I wouldn’t shake hands. I wouldn’t congratulate Lance on his Tour wins, because I didn’t buy it.”
For Frankie, it’s a matter of shadows. What phone calls were made, what actually happened, career-wise. Now, he works for Bicycling magazine, interviewing riders at the big races. He also directs the domestic Kenda-5-hour Energy team. Since he left the Postal Service team, Andreu has bounced from Toyota United to a non-start stint as director at Rock Racing to women’s squad Proman (now Exergy Twenty12), and worked in television with the Versus network, which did not renew his contract for Armstrong’s second comeback Tour, in 2010.
“I’ll never be able to know what phone calls he made,” Andreu said of Armstrong. “I’m sure I didn’t get jobs, and lost jobs. I can’t pinpoint Lance as the reason why I didn’t get this this, this, and this… but he has influence.”
There is a measure of vindication now. That’s undeniable. After years of being the outcasts, things seem more just.
“Maybe, hopefully, some of these people who say I was a Lance hater, or out to ruin the sport… maybe they realize I was just trying to stand up, do the right thing and put the sport back on it’s track,” Frankie Andreu said. “I’m at peace with where I’m at in the sport. I don’t know if I’m at peace with the perception many people had of me.”
On Armstrong’s legacy, Andreu said the Texan is now next to Jan Ullrich, another disgraced Tour winner. “I don’t think he has a legacy,” he said. “How many people are going to think he’s an asshole, doper, and cheat, and how many people are going to be like, ‘whoa, that’s Lance Armstrong?’”
Who knows. It’s probably too soon to say.
Betsy’s thoughts are more crystalized.
“On one hand, I wish I’d never even met him. On the other hand, how do you know? He’s been a part of our lives. It’s just a big question mark. You don’t know. Our lives could have been a lot smoother, that’s for sure,” she said. “Honestly, when I heard he was having a rough time with everything, there was a sliver of compassion, which was quickly replaced with, ‘Nah, he tried to destroy me and my family. I don’t feel sorry for him.’”