Lance's Positive Lieutenants

(this article originally appeared on Eurosport.com in 2006, author credit to Felix Lowe (of Blazin’ Saddles), photo to Eurosport.com. It was retrieved from the bowels of the Internet and reproduced here for posterity following the Landis emails release. Please contact me if you have any questions or requests)

Lance’s Positive Lieutenants

Tyler Hamilton, Roberto Heras and now Floyd Landis – the former lieutenants of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong are falling like flies. Felix Lowe looks into this uncanny phenomenon and asks if it is merely coincidence or if there’s something more untoward under the surface.

Lance Armstrong was the undisputed champion of Tour de France cycling for a glorious seven year period, winning the Grande Boucle inclusively from 1999 to 2005 after recovering from life-threatening testicular cancer.

There is no debate: What the American achieved in sport – and in life – was nothing short of miraculous and he deserves to be remembered in posterity as the greatest rider the Tour has ever seen.

Three-week stage races, however, are invariably somewhat shy of being an individual test; along with individual strength, self-belief and attacking guile they require a fair dose of team work and a modicum of good luck.

Armstrong had it all – but most significantly, he had a team purposely built around his persona with one common ambition: win the Tour for Lance. And whether it be US Postal or, post-2004, Discovery Channel, the Texan had a cluster of faithful right-hand men who put their own ambitions aside to ride for their leader.

Olympic time-trial champion Tyler Hamilton, banned in April 2005 after a drugs test taken during the Athens Games revealed evidence of blood doping, was one of Armstrong’s early lieutenants. The rider from Marblehead, Massachusetts, rode two Tours alongside Armstrong, finishing 13th in 1999 and 25th in 2000, before joining Danish team CSC, and then Phonak, in 2004.

Hamilton has always maintained his innocence, claiming that a foreign population of cells in his blood was entirely natural – nay, the result of an unborn twin – and not the result of a transfusion. The American kept his gold medal after results from a B test proved inconclusive, but he is banned from professional competition until September of this year.

The next former US Postie to be banned was Spain’s Roberto Heras, who ushered Armstrong through the mountains on three Tours from 2001 to 2003. While he was at US Postal, the Spaniard won his second Vuelta in 2003, three years after his first with team Kelme. His fine form continued at Liberty Seguros, where he triumphed in the 2004 and 2005 races to become the first ever rider to win the Vuelta on four occasions.

A week after winning his fourth race, however, Heras was found guilty of using the performance enhancing drug Erythropoietin and runner-up Denis Menchov was made the de facto champion. Disgraced Heras is now serving a two-year ban, his career in tatters.

Then we have Landis, the most recent case. The Californian rode for the Armstrong cause on three occasions, from 2002 to 2004, never finishing higher than 29th and never winning a stage.

This year’s favourite to triumph in what was initially seen as the “cleanest” race in recent history, Landis cracked sensationally in the Alps on Stage 16 to La Toussuire before pulling off the most amazing comeback in Tour history the very next day on the way to Morzine, where he won his first – and only – career stage scalp.

But, as the whole world knows by now, what we saw was all apparently a lie – Landis had taken testosterone to boost his ailing body and aid his pulsating ride.

“I will fight these charges with the same determination and intensity that I bring to my training and racing,” Landis has said. “It is now my goal to clear my name and restore what I worked so hard to achieve.” Regardless of his culpability, it is going to be a tough ride from here on in for Landis.

The question on many people’s minds now is whether or not there is any coincidence that three of Armstrong’s most trusted and revered right-hand men have all fallen foul of the doping regulators in the last two years. Does it not discredit the achievements of Armstrong, a man whose very success and integrity has been so relentlessly attacked in recent years?

Well, first of all, it is important to underline that there is absolutely no evidence of foul play with any of these riders while they were at US Postal. Zilch. Nada. Rien.

The American team has a remarkable record when it comes to doping controls. None of their riders in the Lance Amstrong era have tested positive for any illicit substances, including the seven-time winner himself, the most heavily tested rider in the history of the sport.

During the 2004 Tour, the roads that Armstrong tore up in the Individual Time Trial on the way to l’Alpe d’Huez might have been covered with the painted words LANCE POSTAL, but this remains to the day nothing but an unsubstantiated and noxious rumour.

Despite the determination of French paper l’Equipe and former Tour director Jean Marie Leblanc to prove otherwise, Armstrong’s record remains unblemished, a feat of human brilliance.

Secondly, surely little can be said of any supposed continuity between the riders on one team, during one race, and the futures of those same riders while performing for other teams, years later, and in different races.

George Hincapie, the only rider to have featured alongside Armstrong in each of his seven victories, has never been involved in any scandals – and he has been on the team since 1994, when it was sponsored by Motorola.

Just as eyebrows have been raised regarding the discrepancy between Heras’ performances in the Tour and Vuelta, people might well have asked how, in 2005, Big George could have gone from a classics racer finishing second in Paris-Roubaix, to a mountain-top Tour stage winner at St Lary in a matter of months, but there is no evidence of foul play.

Landis is the only past or present US Postal rider to have failed a doping test on the Tour; Hamilton failed his test at the Olympics and Heras during the Vuelta – competitions in which Armstrong did not partake.

Armstrong trained most of the year for one thing: the Tour. His nine-man team shared the same goal; for US Postal and Discovery, the Tour was a priority above all else. Heras might have won two Vueltas in his time with the team, but the prerogative of the season – at least officially – was nursing Armstrong though the roads of France.

As such, the position of domestique on the US Postal/Discovery team was so elevated that most riders were in fact largely all Lance’s lieutenants during the Tour. The job was demanding and draining, to say the least. One could go as far to say that Landis probably found his three Tours alongside Armstrong harder than the 2006 event itself – which he won.

There was no place for personal ambition on the team if your name was not Lance Armstrong. World Champion Tom Boonen left the outfit in 2003 after a frustrating year in which he could not excel in his chosen speciality: sprinting. The same occurred to CSC’s David Zabriskie who left in 2004 after three fruitless years: there was simply not room on the team for another time-trial specialist.

For similar reasons, Hamilton and Heras left – and both riders went on to record successes in their chosen fields of expertise, before having their achievements shrouded in the cloud of doping doubt.

Landis’ case was slightly different for it was his departure that hurt Armstrong the most. Landis was a highly promising Tour rider. Had he been patient and stayed at Discovery, he would have arguably won this year’s race with ease – and without the scandal. But he left, killing his friendship with his former leader in the process. In one memorably ugly episode, Armstrong supposedly crossed the finish line of the penultimate stage of the 2005 Tour of Georgia while pointing an accusatory finger at Landis and shouting the word ‘Traitor’.

Perhaps, instead of fabricating accusations of systematic doping amongst the US Postal/Discovery team on this very slim stream of circumstantial evidence, it would be fairer to look at a few home truths.

For all the glory that comes with riding for a Tour de France-winning team, all three riders – Hamilton, Heras and Landis – were ultimately disenchanted during their time alongside Armstrong.

Commentators, journalists and fans alike would say how each of the three could themselves beat the American, if only they were not forced to wear the Postal yoke. After years of asking themselves ‘Could I win the Tour?’, they finally spread their wings and sought personal glory.

But since leaving the security of the Postal family all three riders have not exactly been associated with the most incorruptible of teams.

Following Heras’ shame, Liberty Seguros imploded after numerous doping scandals and the implication of shamed sporting director Manolo Saiz in the Spanish doping circle that was uncovered by the infamous Operation Puerto.

Phonak are no better: the Swiss-based team have a history of serious doping affairs, with Hamilton and Landis sandwiching a whole cluster of high-profile cases. As a result, the team’s sponsor is pulling out of all association with the team at the end of the season.

Patrick Lefevere, the Belgian manager of Quick Step and president of the International Association of Professional Cycling Teams, has even called for their expulsion, saying: “Look, one doping case per year is possible to explain, but ten in three years? Teams like that should be out of the ProTour.”

So, rather than looking to the past in a weak attempt to condemn the Tour’s most successful rider and a team with a perfect track record, people should maybe look to condemn other individuals and teams who actually have tangible evidence stacked against them.

If evidence is to be believed, Discovery are unimpeachable while both Liberty Seguros and Phonak were/are teams riddled with doping.

The former lieutenants of Lance Armstrong who joined these teams did so to ameliorate their chances of glory and to escape the American’s shadow. By winning a third consecutive Vuelta, and a forth in total, Heras had symbolically matched, in the Spanish race, the lofty achievements of Armstrong in the Tour – for no rider had ever won four Vuelta titles, let alone three at successive attempts.

Ironically, to draw level with the American, Heras needed that little bit extra. He was caught out just like Hamilton was and Landis would be. But when at US Postal, their drug was Armstrong. It was Armstrong that ran through the veins of the team, lifting their performances and giving everyone a common purpose and a sense of destiny. This partly explains Discovery’s predictable demise in the 2006 race.

3 Responses to “Lance's Positive Lieutenants”

  1. Osteo 13 July 2011 at 7:15 am #

    They were all guilty…except Lance! Haha. ahhhh. WMD’s. Dont expect us to buy this one too.

  2. S. Higgins 16 June 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Very well said and a great argument. They were all disgruntled when they left Lance’s teams and were all caught doping with other teams, not Postal or Discovery teams. Which brings us back to Lance’s argument of them being offered deals plus revenge to give testimony that Lance doped when there is otherwise no evidence. All circumstantial and in my opinion, not believable enough to merit taking away his titles or banning him from a sport that he himself brought to the forefront of the world’s sports page. Lance has increased attention, interest, sponsorship, television coverage, etc to not only cycling but now to Ironman competitions and the USADA wants to get him banned because of testimony from a bunch of self admitted dopers? Please! You think just one of them would have had the foresight to take a damn picture or produce a video clip of some evidence but no, there is nothing. Hell, I can make up a story and tell the world about it but if I don’t have hard evidence to back it up then it means nothing.

  3. B. Still 11 October 2012 at 11:28 am #

    A very well considered argument, which, in the light of the USADA report, is even more apposite today. It must be of some concern to the sports governing body that all those US Postal riders now admitting to doping were not caught during their time at US Postal, but did fail tests when riding on other teams. Or perhaps they already knew !

Leave a Reply