Associated Press file photo
Associated Press file photo
The champagne toasts on the Champs-Elysees and the two-fingered “V” for victory signs he flashed while pedaling to the finish line.
The excruciating mountain climbs and the explosions of power that pushed him past other heaving cyclists on narrow Alpine roads.
The legions of fans wearing yellow Livestrong bracelets cheering on the cancer survivor whose grit and determination gave them hope.
Faded images are all that remain of the unprecedented cycling career of Lance Armstrong.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency erased the rest of it Friday.
It wiped out 14 years of Armstrong’s career – including his record seven Tour de France titles – and barred him for life from the sport after concluding he used banned substances.
USADA said it expected cycling’s governing body to take similar action, but the International Cycling Union was measured in its response, saying it first wanted a full explanation of why Armstrong should relinquish Tour titles he won from 1999 through 2005.
The Amaury Sport Organization, which runs the world’s most prestigious cycling race, said it would not comment until hearing from the UCI and USADA. The U.S. agency contends the cycling body is bound by the World Anti-Doping Code to strip Armstrong of one of the most incredible achievements in sports.
Armstrong, who retired a year ago and turns 41 next month, said Thursday he would no longer challenge USADA and declined to exercise his last option by entering arbitration. He denied again that he ever took banned substances in his career, calling USADA’s investigation a “witch hunt” without any physical evidence.
He is now officially a drug cheat in the eyes of his nation’s doping agency.
USADA chief executive Travis Tygart described the investigation as a battle against a “win-at-all-cost culture,” adding that the UCI was “bound to recognize our decision and impose it.”
“They have no choice but to strip the titles under the code,” he said.
That would leave Greg LeMond as the only American to win the Tour de France, having done so in 1986, 1989 and 1990.
Armstrong on Friday sent a tweet that he’s still planning to ride in a mountain bike race in Aspen today and follow it up with running a marathon Sunday, but he did not comment directly on the sanctions.
The UCI and USADA have engaged in a turf war over who should prosecute allegations against Armstrong. The UCI event backed Armstrong’s failed legal challenge to USADA’s authority, and it cited the same World Anti-Doping Code in saying that it wanted to hear more from the U.S. agency.
“As USADA has claimed jurisdiction in the case, the UCI expects that it will issue a reasoned decision” explaining the action taken, the Switzerland-based organization said in a statement. It said legal procedures obliged USADA to fulfill this demand in cases “where no hearing occurs.”
If Tour de France officials follow USADA’s lead and announces that Armstrong has been stripped of his titles, Jan Ullrich could be promoted to champion in three of those years. Ullrich was stripped of his third-place finish in the 2005 Tour and retired from racing two years later after being implicated in another doping scandal.
The International Olympic Committee said Friday it will await decisions by USADA and UCI before taking any steps against Armstrong, who won a bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Games. Besides the disqualifications, Armstrong will forfeit any medals, winnings, points and prizes, USADA said, but it is the lost titles that now dominate his legacy.
USADA, which announced its investigation in June, said its evidence came from more than a dozen witnesses “who agreed to testify and provide evidence about their firsthand experience and/or knowledge of the doping activity of those involved in the USPS conspiracy,” a reference to Armstrong’s former U.S. Postal Service cycling team.
The unidentified witnesses said they knew or had been told by Armstrong himself that he had “used EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone and cortisone” from before 1998 through 2005, and that he had previously used EPO, testosterone and Human Growth Hormone through 1996, USADA said. Armstrong also allegedly handed out doping products and encouraged banned methods – and even used “blood manipulation including EPO or blood transfusions” during his 2009 comeback race on the Tour.
In all, USADA said up to 10 former Armstrong teammates were set to testify against him.
Included in the case were emails sent by Floyd Landis, who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for doping, describing an elaborate doping program on Armstrong’s Postal Service teams, and Tyler Hamilton’s interview with “60 Minutes” claiming had personal knowledge of Armstrong doping.
Had Armstrong chosen to pursue arbitration, USADA said, all the evidence would have been available for him to challenge.
“He chose not to do this knowing these sanctions would immediately be put into place,” the statement said.
The decision surprised riders around the world.
At the Spanish Vuelta, riders including former rival and teammate Alberto Contador joined ex-Armstrong coach Johan Bruyneel in offering support. Another former rival, Filippo Simeoni, wondered why Armstrong dropped his fight.
“It leaves me a bit perplexed, because someone like him, with all the fame and popularity and millions of dollars he has, should fight to the end if he’s innocent,” Simeoni said. “But I guess he realized it was a useless fight and the evidence USADA had was too great.”
In San Diego, Landis avoided reporters’ questions about Armstrong, saying only: “I really don’t know what the solution is for the sport of cycling. That’s not my issue anymore.”
Landis on Friday agreed to repay donors nearly a half-million dollars that he raised to challenge doping allegations – a deal reached with federal prosecutors that may spare him criminal charges of lying to supporters about his drug use.
At the USA Pro Challenge in Breckenridge, longtime friend Jim Ochowicz said he supported Armstrong’s decision.
“He has done so much for our sport over the years, and I am sad at what has transpired,” he said. “I think he has earned every victory he’s had.”
Bruyneel said Armstrong was the victim of an “unjust” legal case.
“Lance has never withdrawn from a fair fight in his life so his decision today underlines what an unjust process this has been,” Bruyneel wrote on his personal website. The Belgian, who manages the Radioshack Nissan-Trek team, has his own legal battle with USADA. He has opted for arbitration to fight charges that he led doping programs for Armstrong’s teams.
Armstrong said he has grown tired of defending himself in a seemingly endless fight against charges that he doped while piling up more Tour victories than anyone. He has consistently pointed to the hundreds of drug tests that he passed as proof of his innocence during his extraordinary run of Tour titles.
“There comes a point in every man’s life when he has to say, ‘Enough is enough.’ For me, that time is now,” Armstrong said Thursday night, before the deadline to enter arbitration.
“Today I turn the page. I will no longer address this issue, regardless of the circumstances,” he said. “I will commit myself to the work I began before ever winning a single Tour de France title: serving people and families affected by cancer, especially those in underserved communities.”
Armstrong was still relatively unknown in the U.S. until he won the Tour for the first time in 1999 in the ultimate comeback tale: When diagnosed with testicular cancer, doctors had given him less than a 50 percent chance of survival before surgery and brutal rounds of chemotherapy saved his life.
Armstrong’s victories, his work for cancer awareness and his romances with rocker Sheryl Crow, fashion designer Tory Burch and actress Kate Hudson made him a celebrity who transcended sports.
His success helped sell millions of the “Livestrong” plastic bracelets and enabled him to promote cancer awareness and research, raising nearly $500 million since his Lance Armstrong Foundation was started in 1997.
Foundation officials said they remained “proud” of Armstrong and had received hundreds of messages of support from donors, partners and supporters since his announcement. Among them was Nike Inc., which said it planned to continue supporting Armstrong and the foundation.
“Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position,” the company said.
Anheuser-Busch said its partnership with Armstrong was unchanged and American Century Investments, another partner, said: “While the actions taken against Lance are unfortunate, we understand his decision to drop his challenge to the USADA charges. The USADA may sanction Lance and attempt to strip his titles, but no one can take away what he’s done for the 28 million people around the world living with cancer.”
Armstrong retired in 2005 and almost immediately considered a comeback before deciding to stay on the sidelines – in part because of all the doping questions. Three years later, Armstrong was 36 and itching to ride again. He came back to finish third in the 2009 Tour de France.
Armstrong raced again in 2010 under the cloud of the federal investigation. Early last year, he quit for good, making a brief return as a triathlete until the USADA investigation shut him down.
“He had a right to contest the charges,” WADA President John Fahey said. “He chose not to. The simple fact is that his refusal to examine the evidence means the charges had substance in them.”