Filippo Simeoni, the Italian rider who testified against Italian trainer Michele Ferrari in court and later drew the wrath of Armstrong during the 2004 Tour de France, said his former nemesis deserves a second chance.
“If it were up to me, I would allow him to come back into the world of cycling,” Simeoni said in an interview in La Giornale. “He made mistakes, he’s admitted to them, and he’s paid the price. It’s fair that the page is turned.”
There was no lack of bad blood between Armstrong and Simeoni, one of the few riders to break “omertà” during the Armstrong era, who not only admitted, but testified in court about his doping practices.
Simeoni, now 49, was on the receiving end of one of Armstrong’s most infamous incidents. It came late in the 2004 Tour, with Armstrong securely in the yellow jersey during stage 18. With the mountains behind them, a group of riders pulled clear, looking for a breakaway victory in a transition stage that would have no impact on GC. That’s when Armstrong bridged out to mark Simeoni, who was also trying to bridge into the break.
The implications were obvious: with the yellow jersey on the move, there was no way the attacking riders would have a chance. Armstrong chided Simeoni, who eventually succumbed to pressure, and drifted out of the breakaway. Armstrong boasted by moving his fingers across his lips as if to say, “zip it.”
“That was clearly the lowest point in Armstrong’s career,” Simeoni said. “He wanted to make an example of me.”
For many, that gesture was the low-water mark of Armstrong’s era in the peloton as the unrivaled “patron.” Simeoni’s sin was to testify against Ferrari in Italian court in 2002, admitting that he took EPO and other products under Ferrari’s guidance. Simeoni was banned for two years, and returned to the peloton in 2004. Armstrong, who had threatened to “ruin” Simeoni’s career, wasn’t going to let Simeoni ride into a breakaway.
“Armstrong began to bully me in the group,” Simeoni said. “The situation degenerated in the 2004 Tour, when I tried to escape and he marked me. He wanted to teach me a lesson and wanted to publicly humiliate me. And he did.”
Even worse, Simeoni said compatriots in the peloton cursed at him and called him a traitor for “spitting in the soup” by testifying against Ferrari. After that, Simeoni raced a few more years and won the 2008 Italian national title, but never raced another grand tour, retiring in 2009.
Simeoni recounted how Armstrong came to visit him a few years ago to ask forgiveness on how he treated him during their many confrontations both on and off the bike. In 2012, Armstrong was banned for life by USADA, and stripped of his seven Tour victories officials.
“We talked for about one hour, and I listened to his apologies that were sincere and heartfelt,” Simeoni said. “For my part, I explained my personal torment, my anger and pain for what he had done to me. It allowed me to free myself from the many ghosts of that time.”
Simeoni said Armstrong’s gesture helped him move on his life and leave behind the bitter memories of when he had the courage to stand up to the most powerful rider of the era. Despite their past personal rancor, Simeoni said Armstrong should be viewed in the context that he was part of what was a darker, severely compromised peloton.
“He paid the price, and everyone deserves a second chance,” Simeoni continued. “They took away his seven Tours, but anyone who raced those races knows who won. He probably would have won even without doping, though it might not have been so easy.
“Armstrong was crazy strong, but it was head that made the difference,” Simeoni continued. “He made serious mistakes, and he lost his reputation, which was the important thing he had. And it ruined the dream for many cancer patients, who had elevated him to a legend.”
Simeoni also said anyone who raced during the EPO era should not be so harshly judged.
“It was a terrible time, very difficult and complicated,” he said. “Many were misled, sanctioned, and now maybe the time has come to turn the page. Everyone deserves a second chance, even people like Armstrong.”