David Howman

Armstrong's 2001 Swiss Tour: no cover-up, "suspicious" tests

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For nearly a dozen years, speculation has swirled that Lance Armstrong failed at least one doping test at the 2001 Tour of Switzerland, in particular for the blood-boosting drug erythropoietin, or EPO. Even as Armstrong has in recent months acknowledged the serial doping that won him seven straight Tour de France championships from 1999 to 2005, the matter of the 2001 Tour of Switzerland has remained contentious.

Anti-doping officials have made plain their assertion Armstrong’s tests were “suspicious” for EPO. Many have wondered if there was a cover-up. Leaders from cycling’s international governing body, which goes by the acronym UCI, have said there was nothing to cover-up because Armstrong never tested positive.

Now, finally:

During the 2001 Tour of Switzerland, according to the lab reports themselves, Armstrong never tested positive.

At the same time, two of his samples were, indeed, categorized as “highly suspicious.” But after extensive testing – all of it conducted in the summer of 2001 – neither met the standard to be formally declared positive.

The lab results are included with a five-page letter sent Thursday from UCI president Pat McQuaid to World Anti-Doping Agency director general David Howman. USADA, copied on the letter, concerned with what it called “numerous inaccuracies and misstatements,” issued a seven-page response on Friday, signed by general counsel William Bock III.

Both letters, now circulating in the international sports community, were obtained by 3 Wire Sports.

In the UCI letter, McQuaid asserts the lengthy explanation and the documents themselves “finally puts pay to the completely untrue allegations” of a positive 2001 test and “any subsequent cover-up by the UCI.”

For the UCI, it must be understood, this is a – if not the – key point: no cover-up.

To emphasize that point, McQuaid says the UCI would be “very grateful” if WADA or USADA would make a public statement “confirming the information in this letter,” keeping in mind the “great damage” done to UCI’s reputation “by these false and scurrilous allegations.”

The USADA response: if UCI officials had “strong evidence” way back in 2001 that Armstrong was using synthetic EPO, why didn’t they do something about it then?

To that end, the USADA reply includes a “short list” of 10 “new concerns” and a request for seven buckets of new information relating to Armstrong tests for the years 1999-2010.

Its letter asserts the documents the UCI turned over were “quite incomplete” but also says, “USADA is thankful that the UCI has now belatedly come around to USADA’s position that it is appropriate for the UCI to share with USADA and others in the sports world Mr. Armstrong’s test results.”

As recited in the USADA “Reasoned Decision,” issued last October, which sets forth in detail Armstrong’s pattern of doping, the 2001 Tour of Switzerland – a warm-up for the Tour de France – took place from June 19-28.

Armstrong won the event.

Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis, both former Armstrong lieutenants, provided USADA with affidavits. Armstrong said or implied he had tested positive in the Swiss race but had been able to “make the EPO test result go away,” according to USADA’s case.

Armstrong’s conversation with Hamilton was in 2001, with Landis in 2002. Landis recalled Armstrong saying he and team leader Johan Bruyneel “flew to the UCI headquarters and made a financial agreement to keep the positive test hidden.”

It has long been public knowledge that Armstrong made a significant contribution to help the federation in its anti-doping efforts. UCI documented the payments last October, two contributions totaling $125,000, McQuaid saying then it was “absolute rubbish” to suggest they had been given to cover up a test.

In his January interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong said the donations were “not in exchange for help. They called and said they didn’t have a lot of money; I did. They asked if I would make a donation, so I did.”

McQuaid, last October, contrasting UCI’s finances with those of soccer’s wealthy governing body FIFA, said UCI would still accept such a donation – even now. “But,” he said, “we would accept it differently and announce it differently than before.”

The intent with regard to the lab documents, McQuaid said in the UCI letter, was to present them to a so-called “independent commission” that was under consideration after release of the USADA case against Armstrong. That commission, though, never got going, disbanded earlier this year after discussions with WADA.

Given that development and other issues related to USADA, UCI opted to send the lab results Thursday to WADA.

Armstrong’s “public confession has now lifted any confidentiality issues,” the UCI letter notes.

Armstrong was tested five times during the 2001 Tour of Switzerland – on June 19, 20, 26, 27 and 28.

Three of those five included EPO tests – June 19, 26 and 27.

The accredited lab at Lausanne, Switzerland, conducted the battery of tests.

“As you can see,” the UCI letter says, “every analysis result for Lance Armstrong is reported by the lab as being negative.”

Even so, both the June 19 and June 26 samples contain the same remark. Translated from the French: “strong suspicion of the presence of EPO, the positivity criteria are not all met.”

The June 27 sample simply says, negative.

The June 19 sample was originally tested on July 6; the June 26 sample on July 12. They were sent to and received by the cycling federation after the July 7 start of the 2001 Tour de France, the UCI letter says.

Both samples were then run through more extensive testing.

To simplify the complicated science:

The Lausanne lab considered a sample positive if what are called “basic bands” registered above 80 percent. It considered it “highly suspicious” if it fell above 70.2 and below 80.

Armstrong’s June 19 sample was numbered 106209.

The secondary report was done on Aug. 10, 2001.

The percentage: 75.1.

The July 6 test results from the June 19 sample, with the French notation for "strong suspicion" of EPO usage, triggering further testing

The results page for the June 19 sample, established Aug. 10, 2001, showing a 75.1 percentage: "highly suspicious"

Armstrong’s June 26 sample was numbered 106106.

The latter report was done on Aug. 7.

The percentage: 70.0.

Even though it fell just outside the category of “highly suspicious,” it was nonetheless categorized that way.

To McQuaid, the conclusion was thus, as he declares on page 3 of the UCI letter: “I reiterate therefore that not one of Armstrong’s samples could in any way have been considered to be positive results.”

The USADA response asserts, in part, “It is now apparent that the UCI has long had in its possession multiple samples from Lance Armstrong which contained synthetic EPO and which raised strong concerns regarding the legitimacy of all of his competitive results since at least 1999. It is shocking and disheartening that the UCI would accept cash payments from Armstrong after the UCI had test results in its possession demonstrating that Armstrong’s samples contained synthetic EPO.”

The USADA letter asks why, among other issues, the UCI did not pursue a case against Armstrong based on those samples and samples from other races in combination with other so-called “non-analytical” evidence, such as witness statements. To not do so, the USADA letter asserts, “appears to have been grossly negligent or worse.”

Armstrong and Bruyneel were told about the suspicious tests during the 2001 Tour de France; Armstrong categorically denied doping, according to the UCI letter. He also questioned the reliability of the EPO test, which had been put into practice just four months before, on April 9, 2001.

During the 2001 Tour de France, Armstrong was tested 10 times, and five times for EPO at the request of the UCI, according to the UCI letter.

The French lab, outside Paris, reported all the results as negative. The highest percentage: 72. This result was not even reported as suspicious, the UCI letter says, noting that the Lausanne and French labs did not use the same criteria.

 

Tyler Hamilton says he told the whole truth and nothing but

Of all the things Tyler Hamilton told "60 Minutes," one passage in particular called to me with special clarity. He said, "Well, there's a lot of other cheats and liars out there, too, who've gotten away with it. It's not just Lance, you know? I mean, with a little luck, I'd still be out there today being a cheat and liar."

Over the years, I have been asked far too many times to count whether I think Lance Armstrong doped to win the Tour de France.

My answer consistently has been, one, Armstrong insists he has done nothing wrong and is absolutely entitled to the presumption of innocence and, two, all things in the fullness of time.

Meaning: let's see what time, and the justice system, bring. If anything.

On the occasion of Hamilton's appearance on "60 Minutes," during which he said he was repeating what he told the federal grand jury hearing the Armstrong matter, it is also worth emphasizing that only the United States government, in its pursuit of what it deems justice, has the means to get the truth out of people who otherwise might well be out there being cheats and liars.

In elegant simplicity, that also may explain as much as anything why the government cares about Armstrong.

Has Armstrong done incredible good for cancer patients and their families? Yes.

Is that good premised on his heroism? Yes.

Does that heroism rest on his seven victories at the Tour de France? Yes.

Isn't that heroism predicated on him winning fair and square?

If that's the core question, there's this:

The government cares a great deal indeed about the truth. It is the bedrock of the entire justice system.

Hamilton ended up testifying before the grand jury in Los Angeles only after being subpoenaed -- that is, he had not gone voluntarily. The "60 Minutes" thing -- that was a choice, with which the Armstrong camp found fault.

Watching the screen, I thought of the day in 2005 I sat in Hamilton's living room in Colorado. He and his then-wife, Haven, said they had no idea why the authorities were insisting he had been caught blood doping in September 2004 in Spain, just a couple weeks after he had won a gold medal in the cycling time trial in the Athens Summer Games; legal papers filed in his defense were suggesting the far-out possibility of a "vanishing twin."

It's entirely one thing to sit in your living room and say anything you want to a sportswriter. What's the worst thing that happens? He or she prints it. So what? Stuff gets printed every day. The next day, new stuff gets printed.

When you lie to a federal grand jury, and they catch you at it, you risk going to prison. Ask Marion Jones.

Her case, the Barry Bonds trial, the Roger Clemens case and now this Armstrong inquiry underscore a critical point: Sports officials do not have the power to compel the truth. Only the public authorities do, with subpoenas and matchless financial resource and of course the threat of prison or other consequence.

It's intriguing now to watch Armstrong maneuver. Consider the Twitter post he issued last Thursday, as word broke of Hamilton's upcoming "60 Minutes" appearance: "20+ year career. 500 drug controls worldwide, in and out of competition. Never a failed test. I rest my case."

A bold -- as usual -- public-relations effort.

As the World Anti-Doping Agency's David Howman, emphasizing that he was speaking generally and not about Armstrong or anyone in particular, said Monday, "There's a certain fragility to the testing system, and a sophisticated doper can beat it."

If this ever gets to court, that point would become apparent.

For instance, Hamilton told "60 Minutes" Armstrong used the blood-booster EPO in 1999.

EPO was by then banned. But a test for it wasn't finalized until just before the Sydney Olympics, which took place in September, 2000.

So saying you might have passed x number of tests when y number perhaps didn't include a test for the most relevant illicit substance in recent years in cycling proves -- what?

Beyond which, Armstrong's tests from the 1999 Tour de France itself have been the subject of considerable controversy. The French newspapers have written about them at length. In 2006, when I was at the LA Times, so did I.

In coming forward, Hamilton moved quickly to give up the gold medal he won in Athens.

Moreover, Hamilton has written a letter to his friends and family that says he was a serial doper. You can read it here. In it, he says that his testimony before the grand jury went on for six hours and that telling the panel what he knew felt "like the Hoover dam breaking."

He says in that letter, "I opened up; I told the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And I felt a sense of relief I'd never felt before -- all the secrets, all the weight I'd been carrying around for years suddenly lifted. I saw that, for me personally, this was the way forward."

Another former U.S. Postal Service rider, George Hincapie, reportedly told the grand jury that he and Armstrong supplied each other with EPO and discussed having used another banned substance, testosterone, to get ready for races.

To emphasize: Armstrong has denied any wrongdoing.

Just to think this through:

Would the federal government go to the time, trouble and expense to bring a case against Armstrong and allege merely doping? Does that make sense?

What did it do in the case against Jones? The charges were doping -- and involvement in a bad-check scheme.

Bonds? The charges were perjury and obstruction of justice for allegedly lying to the grand jury during the government's BALCO investigation -- not whether he had taken steroids per se but whether he had lied about using them.

Common sense says the government would want to build a case against Armstrong in which doping, if alleged, is but part of a wider action. How wide? It's mere speculation because grand juries operate in secret: Drug trafficking? Distribution? Conspiracy? Fraud, money laundering or other financial impropriety?

"My Mom and Dad always told me that the truth would set me free," Hamilton wrote in that letter to friends and family. "I never knew how right they were."