Lance Armstrong’s Twitter feed has more than 2.5 million followers. Among them, apparently, the many men charged with making him pee into a cup. Last week, the world’s most famous cyclist and his RadioShack teammates went on a reconnaissance mission to check out the mountain stages for this year’s Tour de France. “Headed to the Pyrenees now,” he posted from his phone, just before lunchtime.
Three hours later, when their convoy pulled up at the hotel, representatives from both the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the Agence française de lutte contre le dopage (AFLD) were waiting, testing kits in hand. The seven-time Tour champion allowed himself a not-uncommon moment of snarkiness. “Nice communication guys,” he tweeted before heading off, under watchful eyes, to the bathroom. Minutes later, a little lighter and cooler-headed, he was back online. “For the record—I don’t mind the controls. Part of the game. Test me any time, anywhere, result will always be the same, nothing to find.”
Officially, the 38-year-old Texan has never failed a drug test, but that doesn’t stop his critics from trying. In his 2009 comeback season, after three years of retirement, Armstrong was screened on more than 40 occasions, in and out of competition. (During the three-week Tour, where he finished third, he was made to stand and deliver 11 times. Astana, his then-team, which also boasted the race’s eventual champion, Alberto Contador of Spain, underwent a total of 81 tests.)
This year promises even greater scrutiny. Coming into the July 3-25 around-France contest, which Armstrong has announced will be his final Tour, he has placed second and third in warm-up races in Luxembourg and Switzerland. And the accusations of cheating are louder than ever before. In May, former teammate Floyd Landis—who was stripped of the 2006 Tour championship after testing positive for synthetic testosterone—sent a series of emails to cycling officials copping to his own past as a doper, and alleging direct knowledge of Armstrong’s transgressions. Not only did he claim to have witnessed blood transfusions, but he levelled explosive charges that Armstrong had tested positive for the oxygen-booster EPO in 2002, paying off the UCI to keep the matter quiet.
The Texan, who has both a gunslinger’s carriage and economy of words, refuted the allegations in characteristic fashion. “He has no proof,” Armstrong snapped to reporters. Landis, who spent two years and millions of dollars fighting his own suspension, even publishing a book proclaiming his innocence, is hardly the most credible accuser. And Armstrong produced emails and text messages that appeared to show his former colleague threatening to “go public” unless he was given a spot on the RadioShack team. Other cyclists implicated by Landis—including Toronto journeyman Michael Barry, about to ride his first Tour at the age of 34—say they are bewildered by the accusations. The UCI, while ordering an investigation, maintains there is no record of Armstrong ever failing a test. The cycling body did, however, acknowledge he made a substantial donation in 2002, to purchase a machine for analyzing blood.
Of course, it’s far from the first time that Armstrong’s accomplishments have been thrown under suspicion. The feel-good “Livestrong” story that made him a hero to millions of yellow-bracelet-wearing fans—beating back an aggressive cancer that had spread from his testicles to his abdomen, lungs and brain, then returning to cycling to win an unprecedented seven straight editions of the toughest race on earth—has always spawned doubters. To some, his remarkable physical capabilities (each minute Armstrong’s heart pumps about nine gallons of blood, and his lungs process three litres of oxygen, roughly double the average man’s capacity) are proof of a rare gift. “My gut tells me Lance is simply a phenomenon,” Steve Bauer, the Canadian who wore the yellow jersey as Tour leader 14 times, said in 2005. A former teammate and still a friend—Armstrong helped him launch his own Spidertech team this winter—he thinks cancer treatment helped the American’s cycling, making him leaner and better able to harness his natural power.
To others, such sustained success in a race that regularly causes some of the world’s fittest athletes to implode, seems improbable. After all, the men who won the Tour before and after the streak—Marco Pantani and Landis—were unmasked as cheaters. And of the eight riders who shared the podium with Armstrong between ’99 and ’05, five are confirmed dopers, while two others were investigated but never charged. In 2005, a French paper linked Armstrong to six EPO-positive samples collected under anonymous testing at the 1999 Tour. (A UCI investigation later “exonerated” him, concluding samples were so mishandled the results could not be trusted.)
Armstrong’s efforts to safeguard his reputation through legal and other channels only led to more questions. When a sponsor tried to renege on a $5-million bonus after his 2005 Tour victory, citing doping allegations, Armstrong won an out-of-court settlement, but at a cost. In a deposition leaked to the press, former teammate Frankie Andreu and his wife both testified that they heard Armstrong tell doctors he had previously used steroids, human growth hormone and EPO, as he prepared to undergo cancer treatment. (Armstrong and others who were present that day, including his oncologist, refuted the claims.) When Greg LeMond, who became the first American to win the Tour de France in 1987, raised public doubts about Armstrong’s wins, it touched off a feud that saw Trek, the bicycle manufacturer that flogged lines of speciality bikes under both racers’ names, end its relationship with him. LeMond sued Trek, alleging Armstrong was behind the decision. The matter was settled just before trial.
In many ways Armstrong’s comeback promised to be his finest moment. A career that had often been known for its selfishness (to ride with Lance was to ride for Lance) was reoriented to selflessly raising awareness about cancer. His Livestrong foundation—70 million bracelets sold—pledged $8 million over five years, with the rider also donating his salary to the crusade. These days, he posts videos on his website dedicating each race stage to a cancer survivor.
Already a one-name, global celebrity, Lance didn’t need to return to competition to achieve such ends. Bill Strickland, a U.S. journalist who chronicled the comeback for his new book Tour de Lance, believes Armstrong is only really at peace on a bike. “His years away from the sport were just a train wreck,” he says. “He’s a guy with so much energy, and so much drive, that he spins out of control.” Strickland, who is “agnostic” on the rider’s past, but convinced he’s now clean, says Armstrong really thought the doping debate was behind him.
Maybe that’s the downside of such fierce willpower—a sense you can move mountains as well as climb them. As he crossed the line at the Tour de Luxembourg in third place in early June, a fan at the finish screamed “Liar! Cheat!” loudly enough for Armstrong to hear. Cycling’s greatest champion didn’t walk away. He challenged the man to a fight.