PARIS (AP) — The memory from the 2003 Tour de France remains fresh — because it was among the more astounding things I've seen as a journalist.
His collarbone fractured in two places from a crash the previous day, Tyler Hamilton oh-so-gingerly eased himself down from his team bus, step by wincing step, and painfully climbed onto his bike. He rode all that day, in pain so vivid he later described it as a color — electric green. And the next day, and the next 17 stages after that — thousands of kilometers to Paris.
Now, Hamilton confesses that his body was awash with banned drugs and blood transfusions, that the "feat" of his fourth place that year behind first-place Lance Armstrong wasn't the story of pure, teeth-grinding determination it seemed when I reported it.
What a dope.
I mean me, not just him.
It feels like a punch to the stomach to learn that Hamilton and other former teammates of Armstrong were for years systematically doping — and say that he was, too — because it happened under our very noses, we reporters who waited daily outside the team buses at the Tour, doing our job.
I and others didn't see that Armstrong's team was running what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency now tells us was "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."
Why? I'm not the only journalist who has been asking themselves that question since USADA published damning testimonies from former U.S. Postal Service riders last week, to explain why it banned Armstrong for life and erased his seven Tour titles.
"We were all good actors. We all had two faces — the face for the public and for the journalists, and the face behind closed doors," says Hamilton, who rode the 1999-2001 Tours at Postal with Armstrong but was with Team CSC in 2003.
"You're almost like a robot," he says. "My answers when I spoke to journalists, especially when it got to the doping kind of questions, they all became kind of standard."
So that was a big part of it: Co-conspirators in the Postal fraud were capable not only of deceiving themselves that doping was necessary but of looking people in the eye and saying, "Me? Drugs? Never!"
Look again at video of Armstrong saying words to that effect ad nauseam over the years. There's nothing, to my eye, in his body language, his unblinking stare, to suggest even now that he wasn't telling the truth. I always figured that there'd have to be, that grotesque lies can't be told and retold without there being some telltale twitch or furtive expression. Naive? I've been asking myself that question this past week, too.
Was I negligent, even willfully blind? I'd like to think not. I heard the mounting drumbeat of suspicion that surrounded Armstrong's ever-longer string of wins and mentioned it in reports from the Tour, which I covered from 2003-2006. But, in light of USADA's findings, I now wish that I had reported the doubts more prominently. Hindsight is very illuminating.
I also read the work of colleagues — David Walsh, Pierre Ballester, Damien Ressiot and others — who defied Armstrong's myth-making, power and lawyers, dug deeply, and produced books and reports alleging or suggesting he doped. They're among the few who emerge from all this with enhanced reputations.
But to me and other reporters at the Tour, there wasn't the critical mass to be able to say flat-out that Armstrong was a cheat. His story — cancer survivor wins toughest bike race — was so extraordinary that I agreed when he said in 2004 that proof of doping needed to be extraordinary, too. Until last week, we didn't have the smoking gun that USADA's extraordinary proof, with testimony from 11 former teammates, appears to be.
"It's just so easy to say, 'Yeah, the journalists should have dug deeper.' Well, my God, Walsh and Ballester dug as deep as you could dig and, you know, they didn't get anywhere. They really did not get anywhere," says Samuel Abt, who reported from 32 Tours, writing for The New York Times and other publications.
"I've gone back, in fact, and looked at some of the things that I wrote at the time and I didn't find any of it embarrassing. Now, of course, I find it uninformed. But, like you, there was nothing else to do. We just didn't know anything and suspecting is not the way to go on this."
"I had terrific access to him because I had known him for so long," Abt adds of Armstrong. "In '99, at Alpe d'Huez, he gave me an interview and I asked him, straight out. I said, 'Are you doping?' And he said, 'No way!' I don't remember the exact quote now. He said, 'Absolutely not.' He said, 'There's no reason I would,' and he went on and on and he flatly denied. And it was all a lie. Yeah, he was a terrific liar."
Betsy Andreu thinks some of us didn't look hard enough, didn't want to know, and "would just buy Lance's lie hook, line and sinker." Her husband, former Armstrong teammate Frankie Andreu, testified to USADA. They both also previously testified that they heard Armstrong admit doping, which led to a long feud between them. Armstrong strongly denies doping, but in August gave up fighting USADA's findings.
"You heard these stories, you saw these incidents — and I'm saying you, collectively — but yet very few, if any, did anything about it," Betsy Andreu says. "I understand if no one is going to go on the record. I get that. But with Lance, you just had so many incidents. There were red flags all along. Just because the hand isn't caught in the cookie jar doesn't mean there's nothing there."
But deceit was carefully organized. Armstrong's team froze out cycling reporters who grew suspicious and critical, like Jeremy Whittle.
"It was his body language, and I just realized there was something very seriously wrong going on, and I wrote a piece in 2001, which I think is when I was blacklisted," Whittle told the BBC this week. "After that there was no access."
One morning at the 2004 Tour, Armstrong invited my Associated Press colleague Jerome Pugmire onto his bus and then berated him for an article he and I wrote that referred to some of the doping suspicions surrounding him. In hindsight, and to Jerome at the time, that was part of the apparent pattern by Armstrong over the years to intimidate and try to silence critics, journalists and other riders.
Hamilton says they were told at Postal to avoid certain reporters.
"The bus had the tinted windows so you guys could not see inside but we could look out, and sometimes they'd point to a certain journalist and say, 'Don't talk to that guy, don't talk to this guy, don't talk to that lady.' And if you did talk to them you'd get in trouble," he says.
"We had our favorite journalists. They had the inside scoop to the team because they asked the right kind of questions. Once the journalist burned us one time, then that was it."
Daily, outside the Postal bus was an unruly scrum. Fans waving things to autograph, people affected by cancer, journalists, plainclothes policemen, heaving against barriers, elbowing and yelling "Lance!" His two bodyguards kept people back. When he spoke, if he spoke, Armstrong typically answered a few questions, mostly about the race and often to Frankie Andreu, his former teammate working in television and then still keeping quiet about his own doping as a pro. Other reporters tried as best they could to grab Armstrong quotes. It was frequently intense, frustrating and not conducive to getting to the bottom of things.
"The strongest dope was the narrative of Lance as a fighter, as a cancer survivor, as the strongest endurance athlete in the world," says Daniel Coyle, co-author of a new tell-all book with Hamilton, "The Secret Race." ''They understood the importance of access to that narrative."
Perversely, the drug tests supposedly meant to catch cheats were perhaps Armstrong's biggest shield. Urine, blood, hundreds of them. They kept coming back negative. Armstrong brandished that over and over at us. Only now, from USADA's 1,000-page file and from Hamilton's book, do we have a fuller understanding of how Postal riders danced around the controls while doping — by using undetectable transfusions, saline drips to normalize their blood readings, and doctors who helped them dose the blood-booster EPO and other drugs without triggering positives.
"I'm not going to blame the journalists here. I'm going to blame the system," Coyle says. "If you can't trust the people whose job it is to police the sport, you can't report on that sport. You can't expect to get into closed rooms, you can't expect to get into these guys' luggage, you can't expect to find the motorcycle courier who is delivering EPO. It's too much.
"A lot of people knew something was up but as a journalist you could only go where the light is. You can look into the shadows, but until you've got someone to take your arm and say, 'OK, I'm walking you into the shadows,' what's there to write? People tried to stake out Lance's hotel room, but when they say, 'No, I'm clean,' you're kind of obligated by the rules of the profession to report that quote and not report on your hunches. My press badge did not say, 'Guy with hunch.'"
We tell what we know. We tell stories. Armstrong's is as big as stories come.
I only wish I could have told it better.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at https://twitter.com/johnleicester