New Record in Cycling’s Race of Truth

Updated October 11, 2012

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Lance Armstrong during the 2001 Tour de France.

In professional cycling there is a discipline called the Individual Time Trial, or the ITT, in which competitors are released from the starting line onto a race course, and compete against the clock for the day’s best time. Maybe you’ve seen this—it’s the one where nearly every rider wears a funny aerodynamic helmet. A time trial is nicknamed “the race of truth” because riders cannot solicit help from teammates, seek refuge from the wind, or enjoy any number of tiny advantages offered by riding within the protective blob of racers known as the peloton. A proper TT is pure suffering, and the strongest rider is supposed to win. At least that’s the idea.

Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, will be remembered as professional cycling’s most important race of truth. After months of anticipation, the United States Anti-Doping Agency released a long report explaining its decision to strip seven Tour de France titles from the sport’s most famous racer, Lance Armstrong, and bar him from the sport for life. It is a sober and saddening document, one that shows how tragically polluted elite-level cycling had become, and threatens Armstrong’s status as an inspirational figure for people living with cancer and their families. Throughout the saga, Armstrong and his representatives have rejected Usada’s allegations, attacking its investigation as a “witch hunt.”

But Wednesday was a bigger day than Armstrong, an athlete who has forever had an outsize and sometimes overbearing grip on bike racing. As Usada’s report went public, it was stunning to see the parade of former teammates come forward with public doping confessions, like a mini tribunal in spandex. There was Levi Leipheimer, a longtime Armstrong teammate who outlined his choice to dope in an essay published by The Wall Street Journal. “Right or wrong, in my mind the choice was ‘do it or go home,'” Leipheimer wrote. There was a confession from Christian Vande Velde, an affable former Armstrong teammate who learned to ride on the frigid roads around Chicago, and an anguished statement from David Zabriskie, one of the sport’s beloved eccentrics. “I questioned, I resisted,” Zabriskie wrote, “but in the end, I felt cornered and succumbed to the pressure.”

None of those confessions had quite the impact as the one from George Hincapie, the lanky New York City rider who rose through the sport to become Armstrong’s most visible lieutenant, often seen at Armstrong’s side during challenging moments in races. Hincapie had always been a quiet sort, a senior rider protective of cycling and his teammates, and his testimony to Usada had been viewed as a decisive reversal, Cronkite turning against the war. Hincapie’s confession described an environment in which it was “not possible to compete at the highest level” without performance enhancing drugs.

“I deeply regret that choice and sincerely apologize to my family, teammates and fans,” Hincapie said in his statement.

There were other confessions—former Armstrong teammates Michael Barry and Tom Danielson; and a prior one from Jonathan Vaughters, an ex-teammate who runs a vigorously antidoping team with Danielson, Vande Velde and Zabriskie as members. Of course, there were also the highly-publicized admissions of Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. This is the cycling equivalent of nearly the entire starting lineup walking into the front office and turning in their uniforms. While Landis and Hamilton were easy for Armstrong to attack—both men had made aggressive efforts in the past to deny doping, only to admit it later—this broader group is harder to challenge. Is Lance Armstrong the victim of a far-reaching conspiracy of confessions?

You will be told that none of this matters, because it all allegedly took place so long ago, and everyone supposedly does it anyway. Here’s why it matters: Whenever there’s a doping scandal—not just in cycling, but in any sport—there’s this usual charade in which the accused party either denies the allegation, or accepts guilt, and regardless of the answer, the whole event gets distilled into a lazy, sole-actor scenario in which sketchy drugs were obtained from shadowy sources, and there’s no effort to understand the culture or institutional pressure from which such decisions are made. What Usada has alleged here is not a couple of newbies passing a needle—it’s an elaborate system designed to get an edge, endorsed and abetted by coaches and doctors. And what these riders are truly agitated about in their confessions are not the syringes and substances, or even Armstrong, but an environment in which doping felt compulsory to survive, and silence is expected. That is how a sport develops and perpetuates a drug problem, and testing is clearly not the answer, even now. An entire culture must be broken. This report is the biggest step in the history of cycling.

Armstrong decided this summer to not fight Usada’s case, saying “enough is enough,” but the fury will continue. Usada will get blasted as unconstitutional and obsessive and a waste of taxpayer money, as if an alleged systematic doping program partly paid for with taxpayer money under the umbrella of the United States Postal Service isn’t a hundred times worse. Surely there will be challenges to Usada’s authority as the case now goes to the UCI, the sport’s governing body. It’s tempting to see this as another ugly day for cycling, but it’s not. This is what honesty often looks like: messy and painful. This is why Wednesday felt like a race of truth. The strongest riders won.

A version of this article appeared October 11, 2012, on page D8 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: New Record in Cycling’s Race of Truth.