Does Hincapie’s testimony signal game, set and match for Lance Armstrong?

Is it game over for Armstrong? (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Yesterday, I posted about the revelations made by Tyler Hamilton in an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes which is due to be broadcast on Sunday, in which he claims he witnessed Lance Armstrong injecting himself with the banned blood booster EPO during the 1999 Tour de France, the first of his record seven consecutive wins in the sport’s biggest race.

Now, 60 Minutes is also reporting that George Hincapie – for several years Armstrong’s most trusted lieutenant and a man who he described as being “like a brother to me” – has testified to the federal authorities investigating doping in cycling that he also saw him use performance-enhancing drugs, and that the pair supplied each other with both EPO and testosterone. (A link to the relevant Associated Press article is here.)

Armstrong’s spokesman, Mark Fabiani, has responded to this latest report, saying in a manner which sounds an awfully long way short of a categorical denial:

We have no way of knowing what happened in the grand jury and so can’t comment on these anonymously sourced reports.

The facts?

As I noted in my earlier post, Hamilton’s testimony offered little in the way of new accusations but certainly added extra volume to the weight of circumstantial evidence against Armstrong. And, as a formerly convicted doper, he was an easy target to discredit in much the same way Floyd Landis‘s similar revelations had been smeared last year.

Hincapie, however, is an entirely different case. He has never failed a doping test, has no grudge to bear against Armstrong and no book to promote by flinging mud from the rooftops. It would appear that, like Hamilton, he was subpoenaed to appear in front of a grand jury, and instead of perjuring himself under oath – or perhaps having been offered the carrot of immunity from prosecution – he has opted to break the omerta which surrounds doping in cycling and come clean.

That’s how it appears, anyway. We will not know for sure until we learn the results of the federal investigation. But 60 Minutes is not the National Enquirer. It is a serious and credible source for investigative journalism, and the way they are drip-feeding their sensational soundbites to the world suggests a high level of confidence in the veracity of their story.

Could this really be the end of the road for Armstrong?

The emotion

My immediate response to this latest news is two-fold.

Firstly, there is the matter of ‘guilt’. For years, I watched in amazement as Armstrong dominated the Tour. Did I suspect doping? Yes. I know enough about sport in general to be suspicious of any extraordinary performer. But did I assume he was guilty? No. And, to my eyes, while there has been a lot of circumstantial evidence building up over the years which has seen my faith waver, there has never been conclusive evidence from ‘reliable’ witnesses other than hearsay. I have doubted, certainly, but never condemned.

Now, with these latest revelations, I find myself moving from the ranks of believers to the side of the sceptics. I still believe in the principle of innocent until proven guilty – while I have grave doubts over the innocence of Alberto Contador, I also support his right to a fair hearing at CAS next month – which means I will refuse to condemn Armstrong until we know the conclusions of the grand jury. But yes, Hincapie’s apparent testimony is incredibly damaging to Armstrong, and seems to increase the likelihood of his guilt far more than Landis’s and Hamilton’s words.

My second reaction is one of immense sadness.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. If Lance Armstrong is eventually found guilty – and for now he is guilty only in the court of public opinion – then he will fully deserve whatever punishment is meted out to him. I have no problem whatsoever with that. But while the haters will celebrate – as they already are with considerable vehemence and premature glee on Twitter – the credibility and image of cycling as a sport will take massive collateral damage. The most successful name in the recent history of the sport, the one who is most responsible for growing its global popularity, will be discredited. German fans and media have already deserted the sport. Will American supporters do so too? What will cycling’s commercial future be then? And what impact will it have on driving away casual – and maybe even dedicated – fans of the sport?

Again, let me be 100% clear on this. I am not saying that commercial or image considerations should be allowed to obfuscate the truth or any punishment, no matter how unpalatable that may be. What I am asking is if there is much point celebrating the downfall of a cheat if it brings the entire sport down with it? And what if Contador is also found guilty next month? When the dust has settled, what will remain?

I realise I am painting a doomsday scenario here. No matter what, cycling will go on. But there can surely be no doubt that the sport, which has more than its share of PR problems, would be severely damaged by any ‘guilty’ verdict against Armstrong and/or Contador. If no one is willing to believe in cycling, where will the sponsors go? And if the sponsors go, how viable is the current cycling calendar and commercial structure? The sport would be cleaner, for sure, and that would be a win worth celebrating. But there are no real winners in a Pyrrhic victory.

I desperately want Lance Armstrong to be proven innocent. Not because he is one of the few sportsmen I idolise, but because I fear for the future of the discredited sport it would leave behind if he really has been cheating all this time. I desperately want to believe. But as I type this tonight, I find it increasingly difficult to continue doing so, and it feels like a little piece of me that believes in the purity of sport just died.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

11 Responses to Does Hincapie’s testimony signal game, set and match for Lance Armstrong?

  1. Kitty Fondue says:

    I think you have really articulated the conflict that a lot of cycling fans feel about this subject. My own feelings are that I don’t particularly care for going back and back and back and retesting and finding cheats because it isn’t necessarily helping the fight today – it’s just confirming what a lot of people think. As for Lance personally, I am like you – neither lover or hater. I’m sure a lot of Armstrong-haters will be rejoicing in this news, which says more about them than about the issue, to be honest.

    For me, in the Armstrong years, practically everyone in the top 10 has been discredited so I figure it was a level playing field – and a lot of those races are still very very thrilling. Which will probably make me sound like a doping apologist, which I’m not, I just don’t see the point in this particular investigation, I don’t see it making any significant breakthroughs in the fight against doping.

    But on a practical note, if Hincapie has said all this, why is BMC still letting him race?

    • Tim says:

      Agree with your sentiments.

      Good question about BMC. I’ll be amazed if Hincapie starts today’s stage.

      I am so saddened that the tone of many responding to this news has been one of celebration. Where does investigation end and witch-hunt begin?

      I’m on the fence about the federal investigation, but now it’s started it must be allowed to run its course. My fear is what will this do to the credibility and commercial attractiveness of the sport? (And don’t Amgen, the Tour of Cal sponsors, make EPO?)

      And where do you stop? Shall we go after Indurain now? Hinault? Merckx? Anquetil? Pretty sure not all of them were clean. Cycling needs to focus on its future more than it obsesses about its past if it wants to grow.

      Incidentally, if Armstrong’s TdF record was wiped, 1999-2005 winners would be Zulle, Ullrich, Ullrich, Beloki, Ullrich, Kloden, Basso. Hardly a 100% clean set!

  2. Kitty Fondue says:

    Yes, I think it’s ironic that Amgen makes EPO and sponsors Tour of Cali.

    But yes, where does it stop? Merckx had a ban (I think it was amphetamines), Anquetil I believe made the observation, ‘do you think we just race on mineral water?’ etc etc. I always thought it was odd that so much of the cycling world venerates Tom Simpson (although a lot of that could very well because of his dramatic and avoidable death) when amphetamines and alcohol were determined to be the catalyst for his death. Etc etc etc. Of course you also get people saying ‘it was a different time’ – well, so was about a decade ago, a very different time from what is going on now (I do have faith that the sport is continually getting cleaner).

    As for the rejoicing, there are athletes that I cannot stand, including some cyclists, but I don’t want them to be caught doping.That hurts everyone in the sport . I want them to fail purely because they’re not good enough.

    I think after all this is done, there can be only one thing to do: have the UCI/WADA/Everyone say, ‘we’re drawing a line under everything as of now – no more retro-testing. But from this minute forward, anyone caught doping in any form is automatically banned from the sport for life.’ That would be going forward …

    • Tim says:

      I’m all for much more stringent punishments. The current position of two years which is all too often mitigated down to one is really not that much of a disincentive at all. It’s a bit like getting a parking ticket – a nuisance, but not much more and nothing which is likely to change behaviour very much. Hit the cheats hard – with the exception of ‘accidental’ positives, I would make the mandatory ban four years to life and, as has been suggested elsewhere, strip them of all their titles, not just the ones relating to a narrow doping timeframe.

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  5. Jed Bartlet says:

    You’ll have to forgive my ignorance here, Tim. I have the usual guy level of interest in anything that’s sport, but I have to confess that cycling comes way down my list of priorities.

    This is always written about as if it represents the shattering of a whole belief system. But does anyone really, seriously, doubt that Armstrong was juicing? Or that most other professional cyclists were and are? Am I showing my lack of knowledge?

    • Tim says:

      Hi Jed – nice to see you over here!

      I can only really speak for myself. I have always wanted to believe in Armstrong – in part because of his personal story, in part because the thought of a seven-time Tour de France winner being exposed as a cheat cannot be good for the sport in general – but have always had my doubts. The same goes for many current or recent cyclists at the highest level, although I do believe things are getting better.

      I think the thing is that it is one thing strongly suspecting the truth and another having it jump up and slap you in the face. And although the evidence we have seen over the past few days is still to stand up in front of a proper legal process, it certainly looks like the makings of a pretty comprehensive case. It’s a bit like suspecting that nobody likes you – and then being locked up in a room with ten people and being told it to your face.

      There are those who continue to believe in Armstrong unequivocally. And there are those who have jumped on every shred of circumstantial evidence (and there has been a lot of it, some quite strong, others less so) as black-and-white proof of guilt. From the reaction I have observed online over the past few days, it clearly remains a hugely emotive and divisive issue among cycling fans.

      What saddens me most is that many people are gleefully looking at this as an unequivocal win for cycling. It may turn out to be a victory against doping – and Armstrong could face jail time if convicted – but the already damaged image of the sport (and its commercial prospects) will not be improved.

      • Kitty Fondue says:

        Hey Jed – I’m going to jump in on this as well. I agree with Tim – I hope that winning cyclists don’t dope, but I am realistic and know that where there’s money and glory involved, some people will always take that chance.

        As far as this case goes, I really don’t see the point of it (how far back are we going to go?) – I don’t see the motives to be to ‘clean up cycling’. I really don’t like what seems to be motives of vengeance by Landis to start all this. He says he did it for the love of the sport, to help it come clean and all that, but I don’t believe that. And then I think it’s just become a witch hunt and it won’t help the sport. And as Tim has pointed out, the rejoicing and celebrations of a lot of ‘cycling fans’ because of this case is really quite unpalatable. But Lance seems to provoke extreme reactions …

        And on a personal note, as a fan, I’m tired of having to defend cycling all the time and it’ll just get worse as this case goes along. It’s hard being a cycling fan, Jed, for so many reasons…. We all might have to go into hiding before long and build our own secret societies …

      • Tim says:

        Of course, the current investigation is actually a federal one, not a cycling one. It is really about potential misappropriation of public funds – the US Postal Service was the lead sponsor of Armstrong’s team for many years – with alleged doping being the primary source of misuse. As such, it’s a bit of a special case – a doping case which isn’t actually about doping in the first place, and one done by public authorities rather than sporting ones. Cycling’s governing body (UCI) has often been accused of spending more energy covering up the sport’s sordid past than rooting it out. Oh, what a tangled web they weave!

        As Kitty says, the reaction of some – dancing on a grave which hasn’t even been filled yet – is all rather unseemly. (Incidentally, what is our secret handshake going to be?!?)

        Jed, this would never have happened on our favourite fictional President’s watch, would it? 😉

  6. Kitty Fondue says:

    Yes, that’s the strangest thing about this case, I think, in that it’s about fraud it’s not about actual doping. So the thing could turn out that they prove he /the team doped, but if they can’t prove that they used public funds to do it / buy it then they have no case.

    I reckon they must have spent far more money trying to get evidence of this than was ever spent on actual doping – and in this day and age when the US government is having to cut loads of social programmes that, you know, care for the elderly, sick and poor. But heavens, let’s make sure we spend millions trying to nail a retired cyclist … That part makes me livid. This is all out of proportion … but so much of the world is.

    I reckon our secret society could have a password – the name of your pet perhaps?

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