Lance Armstrong's attorney calls them axe-grinders and serial perjurers. For years, Armstrong called them teammates and friends.
He never thought his inner circle would become his noose. He assumed that they shared too much, whether the fraternal love of co-competitors or the filthy secrets of their profession. Under the circumstances, it's not surprising to see the Armstrong guard dogs unleashed against these men. More than any other dirty sport, cycling has resorted to mob tactics to muffle the truth.
The outspokenness of one team doctor earned him a punch in the face from a former teammate of Armstrong's. The smear campaigns have endless tentacles. They go past even gangster boundaries, reaching toward at least one rider's wife.
The lawyer's venomous remarks sound tired and empty. But set against the details of last week's USADA report explaining Armstrong's lifetime ban, they also seem horribly sad. Included in the nearly 1,000 pages of evidence against Armstrong's team are photos of him and teammates from happy, faraway times. A 1999 picture of Armstrong and Frankie Andreu cradling their newborn sons, leaning into each other and beaming, could break the heart of anyone who understands what drove them apart.
To hold onto the friendship, Andreu also had to cling to the big lie of professional sports. Eventually, he let go of both. In 2006, he admitted to a New York Times reporter that he used the oxygen-boosting blood agent EPO during his cycling career, as one of Armstrong's deputies.
Andreu had never failed a drug test. He wasn't trying to sell a book. He wanted the big lie to die. Before that could happen, he had to tell the truth about himself.
In his affidavit connected to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's report, Andreu states that he expected to be ostracized after he spoke so candidly about drug use. The decision, he says, did damage his career as a cycling team manager. If Andreu intended to grind an axe, he went about it in a spectacularly self-destructive way.
Ten more of Armstrong's former mates gave sworn testimony that helped the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency build its case against their team, its doctors, its manager and its revered leader, the cancer survivor who won seven Tour de France titles. Only two of these 11 witnesses had reputations or motives that might have justified the slurs spouted by Tim Herman, Armstrong's attorney.
Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton both failed drug tests and eventually found themselves in nothing-left-to-lose territory. Landis duped supporters into creating a defense fund to fight his suspension. More than two years after he finally confessed, a court ordered him to pay restitution to his donors. Hamilton has co-written a book, a grotesquely detailed account of cycling's drug culture. It reads, as billed, like a catharsis. But it's still a story for sale -- catharsis through capitalism.
Those two, no matter how sincere they may appear now, are fair game for attacks from the Armstrong camp. But tying the nine other ex-teammates to underhanded motives requires as much stamina and artifice as those seven Tour wins did.
Stephen Swart confessed and implicated Armstrong eight years ago, with the minimal provocation of a journalist putting the question to him. He didn't give "coerced testimony'' to USADA, and he didn't need the inducement of any "sweetheart deals,'' as Armstrong's lawyer described the reduced bans received by six of the more recent teammates.
Swart is from New Zealand and he retired in 1995, before the advent of USADA and before Armstrong made his comeback from cancer. His testimony alone couldn't have been used to punish Armstrong, but it buttressed other people's assertions that Armstrong and his cycling teams -- riding under sponsorship banners that included Motorola and the U.S. Postal Service -- were dirty.
Of the six cyclists who accepted bans, five can echo Armstrong's favorite phrase, "I've never failed a drug test.'' The other, Levi Leipheimer, tested positive for the stimulant ephedrine 16 years ago, before USADA existed, and received a three-month suspension. Under the deal he and the five others struck with USADA, they have received six-month suspensions and ex post facto disqualifications for periods ranging from 18 months to seven years. If race directors insist, the riders will have to forfeit prizes from their disqualification periods.
The bans represent a 75 percent discount off USADA's two-year standard, a cut rate that the organization has the discretion to offer. In these six cases, the suspensions were delayed until after summer, the peak of the season.
To a clean cyclist who rode against any of them, that might seem appalling. But how can an Armstrong mouthpiece argue that any suspension is a sweetheart deal for a cyclist who did not test positive? Is the "never failed a drug test'' mantra invalid for everyone else?
Anyone who has followed this story from the beginning knows the answer: This is how he and his people play the game.
The affidavit from Emma O'Reilly, the soigneur (masseuse/caretaker) for Armstrong's team, says that after she turned whistleblower about his doping nine years ago, "Lance … tried to discredit me by publicly referring to me as a prostitute and an alcoholic.''
Former teammate Jonathan Vaughters testified that he was troubled by Armstrong's open hostility toward Christophe Bassons, a rider who regularly spoke out about doping. "Like a playground bully,'' Vaughters said of the superstar's behavior.
Armstrong also bullied Italian rider Filippo Simeoni, who had testified in an Italian doping case against Michele Ferrari, the shady (now banned) doctor who helped transform Armstrong into a Tour champion.
Most of the American media covering the Tour de France knew about these unsavory incidents and chose to overlook them. They preferred to engage in myth-making that allowed them ongoing access to an icon and gave their stories a sugary coating.
But the more Armstrong attacked, the more alarms he set off. Taking on Andreu's wife, Betsy, was a monumental error. She hated doping, hated that her husband had experimented with EPO and almost called off their wedding in 1996 when she first learned of the drug culture on his team.
She started talking, quietly at first, then under oath in a private deposition for the defendants in one of Armstrong's many lawsuits. Armstrong pushed back hard, calling her names, saying that her husband was lying about doping to keep her happy. She never backed down.
Frankie Andreu might have continued honoring the omertà of his sport if the Armstrong wrath had observed better boundaries. No one can know for sure, but Andreu's attitude clearly shifted over time. At one point in 2005, he and Vaughters exchanged instant messages in which Andreu said: "I play along. My wife does not. And Lance hates us both.'' A year later, Frankie Andreu had completely stopped playing along.
Today, Armstrong's Twitter feed carries message about finding peace in family life. The dirty work has been thoroughly outsourced. A lobbyist for his cancer foundation tried to undermine USADA on a trip to Washington. Herman sliced up the witnesses and the USADA methods upon release of the report, while spin-master Mark Fabiani kept dialing up misdirection plays. The superstar got to keep his hands visibly clean.
But the affidavit from George Hincapie should shake Armstrong. Hincapie makes it very clear that he does not want to harm the man whom he served as a tireless deputy, yet he also provides some of the most damning evidence:
• Said Armstrong told him that he was using ''oil'' in 2000. "Oil'' meant a concoction of testosterone and olive oil.
• Said he was aware that Armstrong was using EPO in 1999 and that on two occasions, Armstrong supplied him with the drug.
• "Lance told me that he stopped using HGH after his cancer. I understand, however, that he used HGH before he contracted cancer.''
• Said Armstrong dropped out of a race after Hincapie texted a warning that drug testers were swarming around their hotel.
• Told Armstrong at the 2010 Tour that federal investigators wanted to interview him, and Armstrong then suggested that Hincapie stay in Europe a little longer.
After all that, Hincapie wraps up by saying: "I continue to regard Lance Armstrong as a great cyclist, and I continue to be proud to be his friend and to have raced with him for many years.'' He also says that the decision to dope seemed unavoidable. "I do not condemn Lance for making those choices,'' he states, "and I do not wish to be condemned for the choices I made.''
The more committed whistleblowers all feel the same way, yet they'll all be treated as rats, even though some of the teammates provided more evidence against themselves than anyone else. Michael Barry barely even mentions Armstrong. His testimony does more damage to the team director and medical personnel, who have also been banned. The most memorable part of Barry's affidavit comes when he describes a poignant moment of reckoning after a horrifying crash in 2006.
"I had a concussion, three broken vertebra and absolutely no idea what I was doing in the hospital," he said. "The people who saw the crash feared the worst, but nobody from the Discovery Channel team … came to the hospital to be with me. I was all alone. That is when I realized that I was competing and taking risks for people who did not care about my health or value my well-being.''
Barry wasn't part of the original Tour-winning team, the crew that appears in the photos and video appended to the report. The pictures have a romantic quality, showing the gang at a wedding, at lovely parties and charming French restaurants. The pictures are supposed to put relationships into context. But they do more than that. They speak to opportunities lost.
The pictures show young Americans soaking up the world together, living the dreams of another era, when going abroad was the ultimate adventure. The report places them on the Riviera and in the Alps. They turn up in Como, Nice, Girona, Sestriere. They're beautiful people in beautiful places.
But now, everything they did together has become so ugly.
Reading the report explains why it happened, making it sound as if anyone who rode in Europe would inevitably be sucked into the doping quicksand. But the year before Armstrong's first Tour win had seen a huge pre-race doping bust at the Belgian-French border and consequently waves of raids on riders' hotels. The French seemed very sincere about cleaning out their cesspool; they ultimately took down even their beloved King of the Mountains, Richard Virenque.
Then came the era of the strutting Texan, his irresistible tale of spectacularly defying cancer, the equally irresistible attention of the American market, and the obnoxious rebukes to anyone who considered Armstrong's story far too good to be true. Nike converted the obnoxiousness into a commercial that began with Armstrong saying: "This is my body and I can do whatever want to it.'' It concluded with "What am I on? I'm on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?''
The chance for meaningful reforms vanished. During a 13-month period, seven active or retired cyclists 35 and younger died mysteriously. Asking why was not allowed. Cycling had become all about Armstrong beating cancer. The tragic vulnerabilities of others, who had never won a yellow jersey, were insignificant.
The confessions of his teammates, however belated, could turn the clock back.
The picture of the Andreu and Armstrong boys in their dads' arms prompts thoughts of their generation doing better. Their peers could go to Europe someday, ride hard through the mountains, and not allow such a perfect opportunity to become so screwed up.
Set against history, the thought seems hopelessly romantic. Even a closer look at the darling 13-year-old photo symbolically cautions against idealism. Young Luke Armstrong is innocently reaching up and covering Frankie Jr.'s mouth.