Is Lance Armstrong the Barry Bonds of Cycling?

On the recommendation of a friend I immediately downloaded  a book onto my Kindle, Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. To quote from the description; “This is the complete inside story of the BALCO steroids scandal from the award-winning reporters who broke the news nationally.” While the subject is obviously baseball the parallels to the federal investigation into alleged doping in cycling are uncanny.

I’m not a baseball guy and have never been interested in this country’s national pastime. While I know the big stars of the sport, I can’t tell you positions they play or any statistics that they might have. I know the name Barry Bonds and knew he was guilty of doping. I had read about Mark McGuire and his suspected use of steroids – but that was the extent of my knowledge. I never thought that my lack of baseball knowledge would bite me in the ass.

When the leaked Landis e-mails became front page news during the 2010 Amgen Tour of California I was working for Versus as their “man on the street” doing fun interviews with spectators and video taping the shenanigans for which I’ve become known. However that all ended during stage 5 when the e-mails broke. Landis would only talk to me and one other reporter so I was suddenly the go to guy for Landis information. I was asked to be interviewed for the Versus sports program, The Daily Line. I had a pre-interview and the host asked me did I think Armstrong was going to be the Barry Bonds of cycling. I replied honestly- I don’t know enough about Bonds to say whether Armstrong will or won’t be remembered that way – I don’t know much about baseball players.

When I was interviewed he asked that question anyways and I fumbled through. In the end that exchange was edited out which saved me from the potential embarrassment of not knowing anything significant about baseball. Now after reading a little over half of “Game of Shadows” I wish I could go back and answer that question again.

Interviewed for the Daily Line

I’m at the part of the book where athletes are being brought in front of a grand jury. Fainaru-Wada and Williams described what the athletes would go through.

“The subpoenas frightened many athletes. Their fear helped Novitzky extract confessions.” I can’t help but wonder if that’s what has happened to the riders who have had to appear in front of the grand jury in Los Angeles? Threatened with doing time in a federal penitentiary could get someone to talk openly and honestly about what did or didn’t occur on the Postal Service team bus.

“Before they took the stand, they had to say good-bye to their expensive lawyers and buff, attentive bodyguards, because by law, every witness must go before the grand jury alone.” There are no domestiques there to help, no reassuring words from the director piped into the earpiece – just the athlete and the grand jury.

In the book the authors say that the grand jury wasn’t concerned about individual use and was granting immunity to those who would tell the truth on how they obtained EPO, steroids, human growth hormone and a laundry list of other performance enhancing drugs. Is that what’s going on now in L.A.? Are the feds letting the “smaller fish” loose and just trying to work their way up the food chain to see if there was any organized doping on the Postal Service squad?

If you read the book you’ll notice a couple of similar names: federal agent Jeff Novizky and Travis Tygart, general council for USADA. Anther similarity I’ve noticed is the method that the federal investigators employed in the BALCO scandal. In both the baseball and the ongoing cycling investigation the feds worked quietly and patiently – following the steroid dealer (Greg Anderson) and digging through BALCO’s dumpsters scouring them for bits of information. But near the end of the BALCO investigation the feds had to raid the Conte’s lab early in fear that he had realized that there was an ongoing investigation. From the reports I’ve read the Armstrong investigation is also proceeding at a slow but steady pace with investigators traveling to France and speaking to their European anti-doping counterparts. Like the BALCO investigation Novizky knows that the clock is running and this needs to come some conclusion soon as the statue of limitations is running out.

Beyond the thought of athletes testifying in front of a grand jury how does this affect the landscape of cycling? I’m afraid we will discover that our cycling heroes are just men – tempted or coerced into doping. Or perhaps after all this investigation we’ll find that it was just one man’s wild accusations and nothing more. If riders are found to have used PEDS will events like the Amgen Tour of California disappear? Will TV ratings drop as people consider the sport to have as much authenticity as WWE wrestling? I hope not but realistically speaking if – and I really do mean if – the sport takes that huge body blow, cycling will continue.

Those that read my blog or follow my Twitter know that my father is dying from lung cancer. Back in July he told my mom that if Armstrong beat cancer so could he. And like I said before that isn’t the case.  Even though he has beaten all the odds, the doctors say he won’t see Christmas. But Armstrong gave my father hope and something to grasp onto as he was wracked in pain due to the cancer spreading to his liver, kidney and now his brain. Do I think Lance Armstrong is the Barry Bonds of cycling? I really don’t give a shit – guilty or not he helped my dad and that’s all I care about. I’m still riding because I love it and I’m looking forward to my 2011 racing season – and so should you.


  1. Drew McIntosh says:

    Excellent article! Lance still is a winner no matter what the outcome. And… May your father feel the comfort and love of you and your family more than his pain. I wish you and yours all the best during this difficult time.

  2. Steve Compton says:

    Well said Neil. Lance’s story helped my mom fight off breast cancer and that elevates him to another level. Like I’ve told my riding buddies when asked about my thoughts on if LA doped, “would it surprise me, no. Would it disapoint me, yes.”. I can’t wait to get to the bottom of all of this and then move on. Keep up the great work that you do.

    Steve Compton

  3. Donna Dorsett says:

    I have followed you as long as I have been riding a bike which started
    In 2004 after my father died of kidney cancer that traveled to his lungs and
    Brain. I was moved by this article and quite frankly relieved that you are having as much difficulty with Armstrong’s journey into trial. It would take a long while to tell my story and how I became a cyclist at 53 and support cycling as well as Lance Armstrong and his foundation. I will not go into why I feel that the FDA should work on improving safety of our food supply and medicine rather than spend money on the habits of our athletes. I will not go into why I think so little of Landis and Lemond for not seeing overall picture of how this will damage this sport in America. I don’t care about past. If the didn’t find anything in past then it is done. But I do appreciate your honesty and find many of your tweets pretty entertaining from past. Lance Armstrong has done more for cancer research
    And cycling than any man in history…and yes he is just a man and bot perfect but he has come so far as a human being and I will always honor his journey in this life rather than judge or bring it to ashes.

  4. volknitter says:

    Another thoughtful post Neil. I’m also at the point where I don’t care if Lance, etc. took PEDS or not. It was prevalent at the time and I don’t believe in selective condemnation. Lance and LiveStrong have done immense good. I do care about that.

    The biggest difference btw Bonds and Armstrong? Bonds loathed and shunned the media, got minimal recognition for breaking the home run record in the wake of 9-11, and never won the World Series. Armstrong courted the media, had multiple TDF wins, and was recognized worldwide for his accomplishments. There is the rub!

  5. Homer Stokes says:

    Re Armstrong’s inspirational example, I’d recommend Barabara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America”.

    Granted, it would be hard to raise money for cancer research without a “brand” and a message, but when Armstrong resorts to defenses like “I’ve done too many good things for too many people,” it’s clear that his humanitarianism has big strings attached.

  6. James Raia says:

    Neil, that’s a fine piece of writing. Anyone who has lost a parent can appreciate and feel the love of your father in your words. Thoughts are with you, my friend.

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