The Service Course will be back with, you know, “actual things about bike racing” shortly. Probably tomorrow, in fact. And frankly, the royal we will be glad to get back to that sort of thing and away from this strangely self-imposed Lance Armstrong beat. (Who the hell is the assignment editor here? I need a word with him…) But on the controversy raised yesterday regarding Lance Armstrong’s ownership stake in Tailwind Sports, it seemed to make more sense to strike while the iron was hot if I was going to note it at all. And as much as I’d like to ignore the whole damn mess, the contradictions were so blatant I really can’t help myself.
If you’re not familiar with the whole issue, Joe Lindsey’s article is a good place to get up to speed. If you don’t have time for that, I don’t know what you’re doing here, but here's the crux of the thing: Armstrong yesterday denied ever having owned a stake in Tailwind Sports, the management company that owned and operated the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, with which he won the bulk of his Tours de France. Who, exactly, was running Tailwind has important implications for the federal investigation into the doping allegations made by former USPS rider Floyd Landis, since that company would have been the entity that received and then distributed sponsorship funds from the U.S. Postal Service. Armstrong’s statements yesterday regarding his stake in the company were quickly shown to contradict earlier statements made in his 2005 SCA deposition.
Now, my take? Look, the paper trail will say what it says – there really aren’t new facts being created, and the documentation of the existing facts is already out there. Now it’s just a matter of finding it. In light of the SCA deposition, the believability index doesn’t look favorable for Armstrong at the moment, but I’m sure his various mouthpieces will unleash a veritable maelstrom of obfuscation surrounding various timeline elements and word choices already in play. In that vein, expect to hear about when, exactly, Armstrong’s Tailwind shares were promised and/or issued vis-à-vis the transition from U.S. Postal Service sponsorship to Discovery Channel for the 2005 season, what exactly constitutes “ownership” and what “ownership” means as opposed to “equity stake,” “board member,” or “controlling interest,” and other similar issues. Expect, in short, to hear the near-Clintonian parsing of language that marks any good modern day legal battle. And expect to see a hell of a lot of paper. I remember hearing a World War II, European theater veteran say that what really shocked him about war was the amount of paper blowing around after battle, and while the printed detritus of actual war has probably been reduced by the electronic era, it certainly still litters the landscape of legal battles. Depositions, share certificates, and tax returns are about to be piled on the cashed checks, Sysmex receipts, subpoenas, and transcripts that will begin to form the foundation of the federal investigation.
Underneath all that, though, once you strip away the lawyer talk and the long, long ride down the paper trail, I don’t think there’s any question that Armstrong is being disingenuous about his role in the team. To claim, as he implicitly does in the New York Times article, that he was simply “a rider on the team” who was unaware of what was going on in management and didn't even really know the people who signed his paycheck is patently absurd. Are we honestly to believe that Armstrong had the same amount of sway in the operation of the USPS team as, say, Steffen Kjaergaard, or even Roberto Heras? Does someone who is just “a rider on the team” get to hand-select the team’s new sport director based on some vague interpersonal connection related to near death experiences? A man, Johan Bruyneel, who, at the time, was very recently removed from being a rider himself and had no team management experience? Does “just a rider” get to haul chief directors, mechanics, and soigneurs all over Europe to support their training rides? Yes, very good team leaders do get a lot of sway. But not as much as Armstrong had. Whether his management position was enshrined on paper or not, we’ll see, but it was certainly there in practice.
Leaving aside the laughable “I just work here” claim, Armstrong’s statements on Wednesday attempted to deftly throw aside an enormous body of literature – including numerous articles, books such as Dan Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and defacto authorized biographies such as John Wilcockson’s Lance – that expounds on Armstrong’s business savvy and his heavy-handed role in the management of his teams. If those portrayals are inaccurate, they’ve been known to Armstrong and repeated, yet left uncorrected, for a number of years. So, in effect, Armstrong has either been dishonest about his role in his teams for 11 years or for a single day and counting, depending on which version of events you believe. Take your pick, really, but with folks involved in the Landis allegations so quick to draw upon the elusive quality of “credibility,” the self-contradiction is probably worth noting.
Whatever finally shakes out from the investigation is still a long way down the road, but yesterday’s statements highlight an interesting element that may play out much sooner: the test of how deep the famed Armstrong loyalty really goes. Nearly all of Armstrong’s oft-cited inner circle had a finger in the Tailwind/CSE pie, and therefore all of them now stand a chance of getting burned by the filling. To extract himself from any culpability those organizations are found to have had, there’s a good chance Armstrong would have to throw the whole pie in the face of guys like Knaggs, Gorski, Stapleton, and maybe even Weisel at some point. Circling back to the root cause of this mess – allegations of doping on the USPS team – giving that group of guys the Bozo treatment could be a risky move for Armstrong, because if he was in fact part of an enormous doping operation, team affiliated or otherwise, chances are at least one those guys knows all about it. And as Landis and others have proved, once people are out of the circle, they get a lot more talkative.
What you end up with in the above scenario starts to looks a lot like the Mutually Assured Destruction principle of the Cold War – everyone has their finger on a button, but everyone’s pretty reluctant to push theirs, because as soon as they do, they other guy will push his, too. And then everyone gets burned up, or at least comes down with an acute case of radiation poisoning. The arrangement keeps everyone nice and friendly, even if they’re not exactly smiling at each other. But I don’t think either side in a hypothetical Tailwind implosion can count on that delicate balance of power keeping things in check in light of a federal investigation, in which investigators can pretty easily tip the scales by offering the appropriate sticks or carrots to one party or the other. Or both. Time will tell, of course, but if “who called the shots at U.S. Postal” becomes a lynchpin of criminal wrongdoing in the investigation, it’s hard to see the most cohesive team in all of cycling staying cohesive much longer. Races to be won has become moot; skins to be saved are the focus now. And stressful though it may be, losing the Tour de France has nothing on going to jail.