By: Sarah Sommer
In late November 2012, a group of amateur cyclists gathered at a bar in downtown Manhattan for an event organized by the cycling website NYVelocity.com to benefit the Century Road Club Association, a racing team for young riders in the New York area. Among the guests were a few people closely connected to former seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. These were people who knew Armstrong well, people who had suffered personally and financially because of what Armstrong would describe two months later as bullying tactics against those who had dared to challenge him with the truth about his doping. One of them was Emma O’Reilly, a former soigneur — the French term for a cyclist’s assistant — to Armstrong. She was bitter and angry about the former cycling legend. She spoke passionately about how she had helped Armstrong hide his doping, and then she described how he sued her for telling her story to journalist David Walsh. His book with Pierre Ballester, “L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong,” was excerpted by The Sunday Times of London, another legal target of the cyclist. O’Reilly also decried how many journalists had refused to believe her account.
She talked about how she put makeup on Armstrong’s arms to cover marks and bruises caused by drug injections. She talked about how Armstrong’s lawsuit against her for libel could have left her bankrupt were it not settled in 2006. She talked about what it was like to be an Armstrong enemy.
O’Reilly’s story, in a sense, is the perfect example of how Armstrong used his power, his personality and his resources to try to destroy the people who challenged him. It did not matter if these people were once close to him, as O’Reilly was, or if they were other cyclists or journalists who threatened his reputation. Asked about O’Reilly when he finally confessed to Oprah Winfrey in January 2013 about his doping and the years he spent lying about it, Armstrong struggled to recall whether he had sued her. “To be honest,” he said, “we sued so many people, I’m sure we did.”
In 2001, Greg LeMond — who won the Tour de France three times — criticized Armstrong’s association with Dr. Michele Ferrari, a medical adviser who worked with Armstrong. The United States Anti-Doping Agency described Ferrari in its historic report about Armstrong in 2012 as the architect of the U.S. Postal Service team’s doping program. USADA banned Ferrari from competitive cycling for life in July 2012 for his role in the team’s use of performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong was the most prominent member of the team.
In 2001, Armstrong was the most powerful figure in cycling, and he went after LeMond and his wife, Kathy, in the same way he treated anyone who challenged or disagreed with him. “Yes, I was a bully,” he told Winfrey. “I was a bully in the sense that I tried to control the narrative, and if I didn’t like what someone said, I turned on them.” Armstrong ruined Greg LeMond’s business relationship with Trek, the bicycle company that sponsored Armstrong and manufactured LeMond’s line of bikes. LeMond sued Trek, the company countersued, and the case was eventually settled, but Kathy LeMond knew how vicious Armstrong could be. His targets went beyond O’Reilly and the LeMonds. Journalists were not exempt. “He would call up the journalist personally and just let him have it,” Kathy LeMond said in a telephone interview in January 2013. “That scares people.” And that, LeMond reasoned, is why so few journalists were willing to dig deeper into the accusations about Armstrong.
Betsy and Frankie Andreu paid for their honesty about Armstrong. Frankie had been a teammate of Armstrong’s, and in 2005 he and his wife found themselves giving a deposition in a lawsuit brought by SCA Promotions, an insurance company that was refusing to pay Armstrong a bonus for winning the 2004 Tour de France due to allegations of doping. The Andreus testified that they were in an Indiana hospital room in 1996 when Armstrong told a doctor that he had taken performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong, nevertheless, received a $7.5 million settlement from SCA, according to several media reports, but the company sued Armstrong in February 2013 to recover its losses following his admission to Winfrey.
The Andreus suffered just as O’Reilly and the LeMonds did. They were threatened and bullied, but Betsy Andreu would not back down. She tried to engage journalists into looking harder at the story. Some listened. Many did not. “A lot of journalists who went along with the excoriation [of us] never contacted me,” Andreu said in a January 2013 telephone interview. “See no Betsy, hear no Betsy — it’s kind of like that. They can’t admit it, because then their culpability in the perpetuation of the myth is affirmed.”
The Lance Armstrong myth crumbled in 2012, when an investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency confirmed that Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs for years. USADA’s “reasoned decision,” released on Oct. 10, 2012, showed that Armstrong’s record seven victories in the Tour de France were won while he was doping.
Armstrong’s desire to win multiple Tours de France “led him to depend on EPO [erythropoietin], testosterone and blood transfusions but also, more ruthlessly, to expect and to require that his teammates would likewise use drugs to support his goals if not their own,” the report said.
During the 1999 Tour, the French newspaper Le Monde reported that a synthetic corticoid had been found in one of Armstrong’s urine samples, though Armstrong did not have enough of the performance-enhancing drug in his system to test positive. Armstrong and team officials produced a backdated prescription to explain the finding as a permissible therapeutic treatment, according to O’Reilly’s affidavit to USADA in 2012. The International Cycling Union allowed Armstrong to continue racing.
L’Equipe and Le Monde in France and The Sunday Times in London were the earliest publications to investigate Armstrong, and The Sunday Times paid for it when Armstrong used the United Kingdom’s strict libel laws to his advantage. He sued the newspaper for libel and received a settlement in 2006. Damien Ressiot led the reporting at L’Equipe, and David Walsh was responsible for much of The Sunday Times’ reporting.
In later years, some American news organizations — notably NPR, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, ESPN and the New York Daily News — devoted resources to investigating the cyclist. The SCA lawsuit in 2005 made some American journalists skeptical of Armstrong’s myth, though many columnists continued to write about Armstrong as a hero and legend. In 2012 and 2013, the USADA report and Armstrong’s plan to confess changed the minds of some of those journalists. Buzz Bissinger of Newsweek and The Daily Beast and Rick Reilly of ESPN.com, among others, expressed regret at having covered Armstrong so favorably, while Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post was among the last of the Armstrong supporters.
Armstrong confessed about his doping in the televised interview with Winfrey early in 2013. His responses to the yes-or-no questions about performance enhancement with which Winfrey opened the interview represented a stunning reversal of the cyclist’s public persona. When Winfrey asked her questions, after already controlling the exchange by limiting Armstrong’s answers to one word apiece, Armstrong was powerless. He did not reply angrily, did not chastise Winfrey, and did not repeat his lies.
Irish sports journalist Paul Kimmage, who most recently worked for The Sunday Times from 2002 until 2012 and now freelances, was one of the few reporters who aggressively pursued the truth about Armstrong. He criticized Armstrong for not being entirely truthful during the rest of the Winfrey interview.
“As an anti-doping campaigner and former bike rider, it was incredibly disappointing, because I was hoping that he would make a full confession,” Kimmage said in an interview on Skype in January 2013. “If Lance came out and explained how he had gotten away with this, who had helped him to do it, the sport would be in a much better place.”
David Epstein, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who investigated Armstrong with former colleague Selena Roberts, was fascinated with the Winfrey-Armstrong interview. “There were … moments when he sort of made light of his attacking of Betsy Andreu, for example … and then to that end, she’s on CNN the next minute basically in tears over what he’d done to her over the years, and I think the juxtaposition of his sort of laughing it off and her being devastated over it… did not play well to people,” Epstein said in a January 2013 telephone interview. “Then the fact that there are people like me doing real-time Twitter fact-checking on things he’s saying. … I think there will always be die-hards who believe in him or support him … no matter what he says. That said, I find it hard to believe that he gained any ground from a public-relations standpoint with the Oprah interview.”
Armstrong was hailed as a hero in 1999, when he first won the Tour de France, but some journalists doubted him. David Walsh, chief sports writer at The Sunday Times, wrote a column after the Tour that summer raising the possibility that Armstrong was not clean. “The whole thing didn’t make sense,” Walsh said in a February 2013 telephone interview. “And all I said to the readers of The Sunday Times in my report is … it’s better to keep your arms by your side and don’t applaud. Ask questions. Because this doesn’t ring true. See, the other journalists would have said, ‘We don’t have proof; therefore, we have to accept it.’ And my argument is, ‘Why? Why do we have to accept it? If emotionally we don’t believe in it, why should we fake that we’re excited by this, if we’re not excited by it?’”
In the following years, Walsh maintained his skepticism and investigated Armstrong. He wrote “From Lance to Landis,” a book about American doping in the Tour de France, and co-wrote “L.A. Confidentiel,” about the doping allegations against Armstrong. His book “Seven Deadly Sins,” about his experience writing about Armstrong, was published in 2012. As a result of his work, Armstrong called Walsh “the worst journalist in the world” and “the little f——g troll,” Walsh wrote in a column for SI.com in Oct. 2012.
But Walsh was not alone in his search for the truth. On Aug. 23, 2005, the cover of L’Equipe featured the headline “Le Mensonge Armstrong,” which in English means “The Armstrong Lie.” The newspaper reported that Armstrong had used EPO — a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production — during the 1999 Tour de France. A French lab had discovered the substance in stored urine samples from that Tour that it tested retroactively.
Back in 1999, when the French media reported on Armstrong’s use of a corticosteroid, American journalists questioned the story. Some American reporters did not understand Walsh’s skepticism. Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated witnessed a confrontation between Walsh and Armstrong at a press conference during the 2001 Tour de France, Murphy recalled in a January 2013 telephone interview. Murphy said he saw no reason to believe that Armstrong had doped and no reason to challenge Armstrong like Walsh did.
“I remember thinking at the time just how ridiculous it was to think that Armstrong — who had so recently had a brush with death — that he would put that stuff in his body,” Murphy said.
But Walsh thought differently, and he said so in his stories. “Other journalists were similarly skeptical but The Sunday Times offered an opportunity few others had,” Walsh wrote for the publication on Jan. 20, 2013. “I was allowed repeatedly to write stories that said/suggested/argued that Armstrong was a fraud.”
The Sunday Times published an excerpt in 2004 from “L.A. Confidentiel.” Armstrong sued the newspaper for libel and received a settlement in 2006 of 300,000 pounds, equivalent to $465,630 U.S. dollars today. The Sunday Times is now suing Armstrong to recoup about $1.5 million, Walsh wrote in a full-page ad he took out in The Chicago Tribune on Jan. 13, 2013.
Lawsuits were always possibilities for news organizations that published stories about doping allegations against Armstrong. Large publications like The Sunday Times and the New York Daily News had lawyers and resources to handle such issues. For smaller publications, the threats were powerful deterrents, said Nathaniel Vinton of the Daily News.
“When you talk about someone with as much money as Lance, the lawsuit isn’t about the merits of the suit,” Vinton said in a January 2013 telephone interview. “It’s about the hassle and drain on resources that he can create with the suit to intimidate people.”
Even when Armstrong was not suing, his lawyers kept track of stories and contacted journalists. “Even if we wrote a story that was tangentially connected to Lance, they would complain that we weren’t asking them for comment, when really the story had nothing to do with them,” said Juliet Macur of The New York Times in a December 2012 telephone interview. “They constantly wanted to know what we were doing and know what we knew.”
Armstrong also communicated directly with journalists about their work. “Early on, every time I wrote a story that was even a little bit critical, Lance would call me himself, really early in the morning, chastising me or complaining about it or trying to get on my good side,” Macur said. “It’s pretty amazing. You’d never really have that in any other sport, where the athletes would read every single story so closely and call the reporters themselves at home at six in the morning complaining about it, trying to either intimidate you or win you over or whatever. I’d never experienced that before, and I’ve covered a lot of different people in sports.”
David Walsh received a call from Armstrong after writing a column about doping in December 2000. “I wrote an opinion piece talking about the new year, and I finished the column by saying, ‘My resolution for the new year is that I will bring you some evidence of the person I regard as the greatest doper, the person I regard as a serial doper in sport,’” Walsh said in the February 2013 telephone interview. “And I didn’t mention a name. I just put it out there, because that was how I felt. I mean, of course I was talking about Lance, but there was no way anybody could have known that, because lots of people were suspicious. And Lance called me up and said, ‘I read what you wrote.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean, Lance?’ And he said, ‘Your column, where you ended by saying you were going to find evidence about a serial doper in sport.’ And I said, ‘What made you think that was you?’ And he said, ‘I know it was me. I know you were talking about me.’ And I said, ‘Lance, that could have been one of 10 people.’ And he said, ‘No, it was me. I know it. And I didn’t like it.’”
Armstrong called Macur less frequently as time went by, leaving the job mostly to his lawyers and his spokesman, Mark Fabiani, Macur said. When Armstrong did call in recent years, it was less to complain than to try to gather information.
Lance Armstrong was a symbol of triumph over cancer and was believed to have ushered in a new era of cycling, one not tainted by performance-enhancing drugs. After the Festina scandal of 1998, the sport needed Armstrong to repair its image.
In 1998, the Festina cycling team of France was banned from the Tour de France due to its teamwide doping program that involved EPO. Three days before the Tour began, hundreds of doping products were found in the car of a Festina masseur. During the Tour, the masseur admitted that the products were for Festina. The Festina director, Festina doctor and some Festina riders were questioned by police. With the Tour in progress, the team was banned from competing.
Armstrong’s return to the peloton after his 1996 diagnosis of testicular cancer inspired fans and much of the media. His first Tour de France victory came in 1999. With the win, Armstrong became a hero not just for his athletic feat, but for giving hope to cancer survivors and their loved ones. Yellow bracelets representing Livestrong, the foundation Armstrong started to fight cancer, were first sold in 2004. They quickly became a worldwide symbol of triumph over a deadly disease.
With Armstrong an icon, cycling stories became popular and lucrative. Editors wanted the stories about Armstrong, and his recovery and his success captivated everyone who followed sports, not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Magazines and journalists profited from such stories.
Bill Gifford, who has written about cycling for Outside, Bicycling and Men’s Journal, among other publications, loved that Armstrong created a demand for cycling stories. “As far as writing about cycling and cycling journalism in the U.S., Lance was the greatest gift that any journalist could have wanted,” he said in a telephone interview in December 2012. “I mean, before him — I’ve always been sort of a bike rider and interested in the sport since college, and I never really thought it was something that I’d ever really be writing about, frankly, because there was just no interest in it. You couldn’t get a feature article assigned to save your life.”
Greg LeMond, the American who won the Tour de France in 1986, 1989 and 1990, did not achieve the same level of popularity as Armstrong during his career, and the Tour did not receive the same level of attention, either, especially in the U.S. “But then Lance started winning,” Gifford said. “And suddenly there was demand, and suddenly there was interest from editors.”
Gifford initially fell for the Lance Armstrong narrative. “He had a sort of aura attached to him a) because he was American, and the Americans were thought to be clean, and b) because he was a cancer survivor, and you thought no way would somebody who had been through chemo want to take drugs and risk getting the disease again,” Gifford said. “He got a free pass for a long time, including from me.”
The heroic narrative did not sway Walsh, who believed that too much evidence against Armstrong existed to accept the myth. Walsh became a skeptic in 1999, though he had been covering the Tour de France since 1982. He wrote about doping on the Tour in 1988. In 1999, the Festina scandal was still fresh from the previous year’s Tour, and Armstrong’s criticism and shunning of French cyclist Christophe Bassons, who was vocal in his anti-doping stance, made Walsh suspicious.
“I asked questions because it was the most obvious thing in the world, that questions needed to be asked,” Walsh said in the February 2013 interview. “It was obvious because … the police launched raids on hotels, the customs people stopped the car of Festina on its way to the race, one of the staffers working with Festina, Willy Voet, had a trunkload of drugs. And then when the police went to hotels they found drugs, and teams withdrew in the middle of the race because they didn’t want to be searched. And basically you were left with the feeling of, we’ve been duped by these guys. If we believe in them, we’re foolish. … So I went to the ’99 Tour with a lot of skepticism.”
The 1999 Tour de France was the fastest in the race’s history, an achievement Walsh did not think possible without performance-enhancing drugs. He said the Tour’s organizer had even said that the 1999 race would likely be slower than the previous year’s, since drugs would not be involved.
“As I looked at Lance Armstrong, I just saw somebody that, for me, had the DNA of a doper,” Walsh said. “Everything he said, his behavior, the fact that he was dominating a race that was the fastest in history. And he’d ridden the Tour de France four times before he’d got cancer. And he hadn’t been able to compete even remotely. … So you have this guy who hasn’t been able to compete in the mountains, who has been hopelessly outclassed in the time trials, turning up in ’99, fastest Tour in history, and he’s dominating the race.”
Armstrong’s first press conference during the Tour, after he won the first time trial, led Walsh to maintain his suspicion, because, he said, Armstrong’s response to a question about doping seemed evasive. “They had been telling us lies for years, and telling us also that doping was not really something we should be even asking about,” Walsh said. “So my attitude in ’99 was, I’ve got to be skeptical, and I want to be convinced that the guys who are winning are deserving of our applause. And Lance Armstrong won the very first event of that Tour. … Lance won that time trial quite convincingly, and he took the first yellow jersey. And of course one of the first questions he was asked was about doping. And Lance hadn’t ridden the race the previous year — he had been a television commentator, so he’d certainly watched it close-up. And he was asked about doping and the scars left by the previous year. And he said something like, ‘Cycling may have had a problem in the past, but journalists need to move on, and they need to believe in what they see.’ And I just thought, ‘No, that’s not what the Tour de France leader should be saying.’ If he’s not doping, he should be giving out a different message. Because basically what I felt Lance was saying is that, ‘Look guys, move on. Doping is none of your business.’”
Armstrong’s hostility toward Bassons also added to Walsh’s suspicion. “Bassons was doing a newspaper column for the French newspaper Parisien, and he said in his opinion that the leaders of the 1999 Tour … were still doping,” Walsh said in the February 2013 interview. “Now, the reason Bassons said that was he had ridden for the entire season, for the first five months of the 1999 season, and he knew from all those races that the culture had not changed. And I felt Bassons was offering a very honest opinion. Now, that honest opinion made him a pariah amongst his peers. Again, that didn’t encourage me to believe that there was a new culture. … And of course, the rider in the Tour de France who was most hostile to Christophe Bassons was Lance Armstrong. And I felt it was a complete contradiction. Armstrong was telling us that he was clean and that he was anti-doping, and yet he was attacking a rider who was very clearly anti-doping and demonstrably anti-doping. … From the stuff that I saw I got a very strong gut feeling that this was a champion that we really needed to ask questions about. … I didn’t have any proof that Lance Armstrong doped. All I had was an emotional reaction that said this guy isn’t what he seems to be. Now the question is, what do you do when you feel that? … But he passed all the tests. And you could decide, well, that means we have to accept him as clean. And I made a decision that I wasn’t accepting him as clean.”
At the 2000 Tour de France, Armstrong’s agent threatened Walsh’s access to the cyclist. “Bill Stapleton came up to me and said, ‘David, basically, we’ve seen what you’ve been writing, and we’re not impressed. But if you were to write in a more positive way about Lance, we could be able to help you with access to Lance,’” Walsh said. “And I said, well, I didn’t see that as a trade-off that I was interested in, basically. I wanted to write what I believed. And Bill said, ‘Well, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what you want to do. But we will be watching you very closely, and we will do something about it.’ And I said, ‘Bill, is that a threat?’ And he said, ‘It is.’” Stapleton did not respond to an email request for comment.
Walsh’s investigative work had the opposite effect the following year. Armstrong and his staff wanted to control the narrative, rather than letting Walsh’s other sources dictate the story. In April 2001, Stapleton called Walsh about arranging an interview.
“Of course I said yes, I’d love to do it, and it was arranged for two days later,” Walsh said. “I went up to France, and I began the interview by saying to Lance that I really only wanted to talk about doping. Because until I believed he was clean, there was no point in talking about anything else. And at that point I wasn’t sure if he was clean. So he said fine, and I asked every question in that maybe hour, hour-and-a-half interview about doping. And his answers were wholly unconvincing.”
In 2004, Walsh and Pierre Ballester’s book “L.A. Confidentiel” was published. At a press conference before the start of that year’s Tour de France, a journalist asked Armstrong about the allegations regarding doping in the book. Armstrong responded by thanking the journalists who had sent him text messages and emails of support. Walsh had his hand raised at the press conference but was ignored, he said.
The journalist who asked about the book was Dutch television reporter Marc Belinfante, who usually did not cover the Tour de France, Walsh said. “In other words, all the cycling journalists there didn’t have much of an appetite for asking questions about the book.”
Though many journalists believed and perpetuated the fairy tale, Walsh was not the only one to doubt Armstrong in 1999. Paul Kimmage was another. His most infamous interaction with Armstrong came a decade later, soon after Armstrong came out of his retirement from cycling.
The three-and-a-half minute exchange has been immortalized on YouTube, a battle between a professional cyclist whose story transcended sport and a professional journalist who refused to believe the tale. In a 2009 press conference before the Tour of California, Kimmage asked Armstrong why he defended cyclists Ivan Basso and Floyd Landis, both of whom had doped. Basso, an Italian, withdrew from the 2006 Tour after being implicated in a doping scandal. Landis, the 2006 Tour champion from the U.S., tested positive for high levels of testosterone and in 2007 was stripped of his title.
“What is it about these dopers that you seem to admire so much?” Kimmage asked. Armstrong answered, but not without first changing the subject to cancer and his work with Livestrong. He criticized Kimmage for referring to Armstrong as the “cancer” of cycling during a 2008 radio interview in Ireland.
Armstrong equated his cycling comeback with his mission to eradicate cancer. “I am here to fight this disease,” Armstrong told the room of journalists. He wore a Livestrong cap and yellow wristband as cameras flashed. It was an example of Armstrong using the “cancer shield,” Kimmage said in the interview on Skype.
“He turns what was a question about doping in cycling into an issue of cancer and all this great work he does for cancer,” Kimmage said. “He did it very skillfully, and he had this famous tirade.”
Armstrong’s rant ended the exchange. “The frustrating thing for me was that I had plenty more to say to him after he’d finished,” Kimmage said. “Unfortunately, after I’d asked the question the moderator took the microphone off me and wouldn’t give it back. So I actually had no right of reply.”
Kimmage was shunned long before he started writing about Armstrong. In 1990, Kimmage — himself a former professional cyclist whose last professional race was the 1989 Tour de France — described the doping prevalent in professional cycling in his book “Rough Ride.” The cycling world was not impressed. When Kimmage went to the 1990 Tour, he suffered the consequences. “I was a pariah,” Kimmage said. “People who had been my friends wouldn’t speak to me, spat in my face.”
The truth about Armstrong in particular has been even harder for fans to accept. “What makes his narrative complicated, more complicated than the average athlete who’s fallen from grace, like let’s say a Tiger Woods, or Pete Rose, or name another athlete who’s been felled by scandal, is the cancer connection,” ESPN.com’s Bonnie Ford said in a December 2012 telephone interview. “People are so emotional about that, it’s so personal to them, that they want very badly for things to be simple. … The fact that he’s a cancer survivor and could inspire simply by his survival, you can’t dispute that. But people did not like the complications of having to then accept the fact that he also conducted himself in a completely unethical manner and lied about it for many, many, many years.”
Like Walsh and Kimmage, Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post has a high-profile, complicated relationship with Armstrong. The similarities end there. Jenkins wrote two best-selling books, “It’s Not About the Bike” in 2000 and “Every Second Counts” in 2003, with Armstrong and views him as a friend.
The former Post ombudsman, Patrick B. Pexton, wrote a column on Dec. 21, 2012 about Jenkins’ defense of Armstrong after the USADA report came out. “The sports section is actually one of the sections I have very few problems with,” Pexton said in a telephone interview in January 2013. “And I don’t get many complaints about it from readers.”
When readers kept sending Pexton email about Jenkins, he decided that he needed to respond. He spent a week researching, reporting and writing his column. Pexton read Jenkins’s columns, read most of the USADA report, scanned the two books she wrote with Armstrong and interviewed Jenkins. He concluded that Jenkins’ close ties to Armstrong — as his friend and co-author — did not prevent her from writing about him.
“I talked to her editors now and in the past, and they all said that they urged her to write about this subject,” Pexton said. “They thought her intense knowledge and personal knowledge outweighed any potential conflict.”
In his column, Pexton wrote that Jenkins always disclosed her relationship with and bias toward Armstrong when she wrote about him for the Post. He also noted that Jenkins’ views about doping were not confined to cycling. “She doesn’t condone doping, exactly, but she really is forgiving of it, because she thinks it’s kind of part and parcel of all sports today,” Pexton said on the phone.
On Aug. 23, 2012, Armstrong announced in a statement that he would not fight USADA after the agency stripped him of his Tour de France titles and banned him for life from events that follow the World Anti-Doping Code. On Aug. 24, Jenkins responded with a column. “Lance Armstrong is a good man,” she wrote. “There’s nothing that I can learn about him short of murder that would alter my opinion on that.” She went on to criticize USADA for what she believed was an unfair investigation.
Jenkins did not write about Armstrong immediately after USADA’s “reasoned decision” was made public in October 2012, telling the media website Romenesko.com that she was busy working on former Tennessee women’s basketball head coach Pat Summitt’s memoir. On Dec. 15, 2012, Jenkins finally wrote about the report. She continued to support her friend. “I’ve searched high and low for my anger at Lance, and I can’t find it,” Jenkins wrote. “It’s just not there.”
Jenkins has not written about Armstrong since his interview with Winfrey. In an appearance on “Charlie Rose” two days before the interview aired — when it was known that Armstrong had confessed to doping — Jenkins maintained that she was not angry at Armstrong and forgave him, though she wished that he had not doped. Jenkins did not respond to telephone calls or to email seeking comment for this story.
For many journalists, their beliefs that Armstrong doped developed gradually. “People always assume that there was a moment where you just went from the on switch to the off switch in terms of the way you felt about somebody, a respectable athlete to [a] cheat overnight,” said Jeremy Whittle, who covered the Tour de France for The Times of London, edited Procycling and wrote the 2008 book “Bad Blood,” a look at doping in the Tour. Speaking in a February 2013 telephone interview, he said, “It doesn’t happen like that. It’s something you start thinking, ‘Why did he say that? Why did he react like that? Why was he so angry?’”
One signal for Whittle was Armstrong’s attitude toward Christophe Bassons. For Bill Gifford, some key moments came while he was writing his two features about Chris Carmichael, a former United States national team coach and a coach for Armstrong. Carmichael is currently the CEO of Carmichael Training Systems, the endurance sports coaching business he founded in 2000. “He didn’t really seem to have a great grasp or a great way of explaining why Lance had become a different athlete,” Gifford said.
Gifford had other concerns about Carmichael based on lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Denver in 2000 and 2001 against USA Cycling by former junior national team riders who accused Carmichael and others of having given them banned substances without their consent. “Around the time I met him, he had been accused by some people of Lance’s generation of having given them drugs, and he was sued,” Gifford said. Carmichael settled, and the results were sealed. “He settled it really really quickly, for a lot of money,” Gifford said. “And that seemed suspicious to me.”For Austin Murphy, reading the depositions from the SCA lawsuit and meeting with Betsy and Frankie Andreu convinced him that Armstrong was a cheater. “My gut told me that I was hearing the truth from them,” Murphy said of the Andreus. In a January 2013 telephone interview, Murphy described Betsy Andreu as a hero. After the first part of the Oprah interview aired, he wrote a column for SI.com about Andreu’s perseverance. “One of Armstrong’s biggest problems, it turned out, was that he’d picked a fight with a woman who was just as stubborn as he was; just as headstrong, no less relentless in the pursuit of her goal,” Murphy wrote on Jan. 17, 2013. “The difference, of course, being that only one of them was telling the truth.”
Selena Roberts, who wrote a column in The New York Times in 2005 expressing her doubt about the Armstrong saga, also pointed to the SCA lawsuit as the first time that she was skeptical of Armstrong. Roberts said she had had no reason to doubt the Armstrong myth before then. David Walsh’s reporting led her to the truth, she said.
“When that kind of information was surfacing and when I looked through the depositions from that case, it became very apparent that there were a lot of things that were unanswered about how Lance won those seven Tour de France titles,” Roberts said in a January 2013 telephone interview. “That was about the first time I started raising the question out loud, and certainly I took a lot of heat for that,” she said. “That one column,” she added, “probably elicited the most visceral, angry response from the readers” in her nearly 12 years at the paper.
Covering Armstrong was always difficult because of his abrasive and litigious handlers, his own combativeness and his narrative that often seemed to defy objectivity and fairness. “There was a cast that were little acolytes of his and obviously very biased in his favor, and there was another cast of journalists who were just the opposite,” said Bonnie Ford. “I was very conscious of not wanting to be perceived in either camp. That was my big challenge, I figure that … I am not going to put myself in either of those camps. I am going to put myself in the middle as a reporter who’s trying to report the story responsibly. And if that at some point winds up costing me access I don’t care, but I’m not going to change my standards and be biased either way simply because there was a tremendous pressure to do so.”
Armstrong limited access for journalists who wrote critical stories about him. They could be placed on the “blacklist,” a collection of reporters not allowed to speak with the cyclist. “I’d be pretty close to the top of that list,” Paul Kimmage said. “David Walsh would be above me, and I’d be number two.”
The blacklisted journalists were photographed by some of Armstrong’s associates, and Armstrong’s teammates were told to avoid speaking to them, according to several cycling reporters. The teammates, whose livelihoods Armstrong controlled, were wary of speaking to the media in general, blacklisted or not. “It’s like you were talking to somebody in an Iron Curtain country almost,” Bill Gifford said of speaking to Armstrong’s teammates. “They’re kind of looking over their shoulder and watching what they say, because they know that if they say the wrong thing, Lance would be pissed at them and may fire them.”
Professional cycling, according to USADA and several journalists, had a “code of silence,” in which riders did not talk about doping and allegations against other riders. When Frankie Andreu was found to have doped, for example, he confessed but did not implicate other cyclists.
Austin Murphy, who first covered the Tour de France for Sports Illustrated in 1995, said that even that year it was difficult to speak to Armstrong and his teammates. “I was coming from probably college football or the NFL or NHL, where usually you were rewarded for just sort of sticking around after the event and waiting for the beat guys to leave, daily people, and then getting the athletes to yourself,” Murphy said in a telephone interview. “One of the advantages of a weekly and not having a daily deadline was that I didn’t have to go back to my laptop and file right away. I could go back to the team hotels, ideally, and get riders as they came down for dinner or after their massages. And yet it wasn’t working. I was kind of getting a figurative stiff-arm.”
But Murphy did get to interview Armstrong at the 1995 Tour. “I wouldn’t say I became friends with Lance, but he was happy to be interviewed by Sports Illustrated, and I was happy that somebody was talking to me, so we got along pretty well,” Murphy said.
In 2001, when Murphy next covered the Tour, access to Armstrong was much more limited. Only a few journalists got one-on-one interviews with him, Murphy said. “I felt elated when I found out that, yeah, I would — it was fine, I could come by the team hotel one night, and he made a half-hour for me,” Murphy said. “Obviously, his people had figured out that maybe Sports Illustrated is a wise publication to be on good terms with.”
Juliet Macur pointed out that, in addition to being new to cycling coverage, she was new to Armstrong coverage. “I had no idea about how ruthless Lance can be, and how two-faced he can be, in terms of being nice to the media when he wants something, or throwing the media under the bus if they write anything critical about him,” Macur said in a December 2012 telephone interview.
When Men’s Journal published a cover story on Armstrong in 2008, the author was handpicked by Armstrong and his public-relations team, Gifford said. Vanessa Grigoriadis, who was not a cycling journalist, wrote the story instead of Gifford, who was on staff at Men’s Journal and knew the most about cycling at the magazine.
“When you ask a question of Lance Armstrong, it’s never just a question,” Selena Roberts said. “Often, his people — I mean his lawyers — turn every question into, oh, well you’re accusing him. And then they want to go back and forth and fight you on every question that you ask. … That is a very difficult thing in trying to deal with Lance. He always has attack dogs ready to come after you.”
European journalists often had more experience covering cycling than did American journalists. Ford said that she knew little about cycling and doping initially. “I was starting from scratch, which in some ways is great,” she said, “but in other ways did not equip me to evaluate in any rational way what athletes might be doing in terms of performance enhancement.”
Some American journalists had extensive knowledge of doping from covering steroids in baseball. Selena Roberts and David Epstein broke the story of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez having used performance-enhancing drugs. Michael O’Keeffe and Nathaniel Vinton of the Daily News had covered baseball’s steroids era.
In 2011, Sports Illustrated published the detailed investigation by Roberts and Epstein into Armstrong. At the time, it was unusual for Armstrong to receive this type of treatment from the American press, Epstein said in the January 2013 telephone interview.
After Armstrong’s comeback, Ford saw her job as explaining the complex Armstrong story for readers. “A lot of my responsibility, I felt, was to just try to distill and translate for people this very complicated story that involved celebrity and philanthropy and sport and law and science and morality,” she said. “It was a story where, in some ways, I felt that people had made up their minds. It was a very polarizing story. But I still felt as if solid, unhysterical, just good reporting was extremely important.”
That reporting strategy did not develop early for Austin Murphy. Though Murphy is not an investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated, and investigating Armstrong was not part of his job description, he regrets his initial approach to the story. “I wasn’t skeptical enough,” Murphy said. “And I wish I had been.”
The word “vindicated” has been used frequently by the media to describe the fallout from Armstrong’s confession on people like David Walsh and Betsy Andreu — people who looked for or told the truth when most of the world accepted the lies.
But “vindicated” more aptly describes how those people are viewed by others, not how those people feel about themselves. For the David Walshes and Betsy Andreus, the reactions are more nuanced. “I never saw myself as a crusader,” Walsh said in the February 2013 telephone interview. “I was a journalist. … I was being well-paid to ask the questions that pretty much any journalist should have asked. So I don’t feel now like I’m any hero or anything like that.”
Walsh said he feels vindication for his sources, including Betsy Andreu and Emma O’Reilly, but not for himself. “From 1999, I knew Lance Armstrong was doping,” Walsh said. “I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I didn’t need USADA to say, ‘Yes, David, you were right.’ Because it was perfectly obvious to me for all those years.”
When asked in a telephone interview if she felt vindicated, Andreu said, “Definitely.” But, she added, “I should never have been vindicated in the first place, because I always told the truth.”
Vindication is just a part of Kathy LeMond’s reaction. “I don’t feel like it’s over,” LeMond said in a March 2013 telephone interview. “I feel like at last people know that what we’ve been saying all along was the truth. So if that’s what feeling vindicated is, I guess so. I don’t feel joy in it, but I feel satisfaction that the truth has come out.”
For Selena Roberts, the truth about Armstrong yielded not vindication but empathy. “I would rather be wrong,” Roberts said in a February 2013 telephone interview. “I knew that I wasn’t, because of the facts, but I don’t think anybody wishes upon the public a loss of faith. And I think that that’s what you see with this, and you see with other scandals too, is that there’s this erosion of faith.”
Paul Kimmage felt mixed emotions. “Of course it’s satisfying,” he said. “It wouldn’t be normal, it wouldn’t be human or natural not to feel, get some satisfaction from it. But I’m not jumping up and down and dancing around the room here and I haven’t been, because it’s not the end for me.”
Kimmage concerns himself with what he sees as a greater mission. “It’s not about Lance Armstrong,” he said. “It’s about the sport. So my struggle to remove drugs from cycling continues. … This has just been another chapter for me.”