Lance Armstrong boils at being out-maneuvered by a bed-head cyclist with Mennonite roots -- Pacifist my ass, he would mumble -- but if possible, he would slip into the skin of Floyd Landis. If he could, he would become the whistle-blowing doper with a legal platform to rat out a sport while potentially banking tens of millions in court.
Lance would switch saddles with Landis in an instant, heading down a path to heroic absolution without having had to force a tear for Oprah or be expected to grovel for his sins or be nagged by those he ruined. Dude is so lucky, Lance would say.
How does Lance resolve his Floyd envy? How can he retrofit himself as the victim of a doping conspiracy instead of the cold kingpin portrayed in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's (USADA) evidence, Alex Gibney's documentary and each lawsuit against him? How can Lance score a comeback without selling his sociopath's soul for a maudlin apology tour? Not how I roll, Lance would tell you.
For nine months, it has been a mystery as to why Armstrong wouldn't rip off the Band-Aid -- pay the litigants, end the resistance and clear the decks for a public revival -- after admitting his Tour de France glory was "one big lie." Instead, he has prolonged the madness. He has sent consumer litigants, two insurance companies and the federal government on paper chases with stall tactics through countless motions. Late Monday night, government lawyers in the whistleblower lawsuit brought by Landis dismantled Armstrong's motion to dismiss the case. He had argued in court filings that the US Postal Service should have known he was a fraud while riding for the USPS Team because media outlets alleged it. In its response, the government wrote:
But the Postal Service, like millions of others, cannot be faulted for having been deceived by Armstrong. As explained below, "the law of fraud does not … require that an aggrieved party have proceeded from the outset as if he were dealing with thieves." Armstrong claims that "the government wanted a winner and all the publicity, exposure and acclaim that goes along with being his sponsor." He further claims that the Government "got exactly what it bargained for." But the Government did not get a "winner." On the contrary, it got a fraud, and all of the publicity and exposure that goes along with having sponsored a fraud. That is decidedly not what the Government bargained for.
Armstrong has used motions to play a game of keep-away with each plaintiff. On Friday, after being stonewalled, Acceptance Insurance, which is attempting to claw back $3 million in cycling bonuses, asked a judge to set a deposition date with Lance, who had already treated the written discovery questions with I-do-not-recall aplomb. It worked for Reagan but Lance is 42 ... and leans democrat, for the record.
In court papers, Acceptance lawyers described the situation as a "lengthy string of delays, unanswered calls, unheeded requests and general foot-dragging" by Armstrong's counsel. With each of his remaining five litigants, Lance is also filing requests to consolidate his depositions to avoid harassment. Translation: Instead of spending six hours with each plaintiff's lawyers -- more time under questioning, more risk of perjury -- he wants a cursory hour of inquiry in each case, essentially speed-dating with attorneys. In its court filing, Acceptance called the consolidation request "an abuse of discovery." In an email, Acceptance's lawyer, Mark Kincaid, said, "They may delay, but the day will come."
Reckoning is on a timer Lance wants to control. That's his game. That's his strategy. With each delay, he buys time while trying to position himself as a whistleblower only dogs can hear -- lap dogs. He is still making influencers jump by leveraging fear: Lance knows where the bodies are buried -- who was behind the doping scam, what powerbrokers funded the scheme -- and is using the info as a weapon in forging his three-step plan to reclaim his iconic status.
Step 1: Remove cycling lord Pat McQuaid from power
On its face, McQuaid should be bounced as International Cycling Union (UCI) president after he and predecessor Hein Verbruggen watched over a doping decade full of back-room deals and quid-pro-quo cover-ups. "I've been friends with Pat for a decade but the No. 1 thing you have to do is restore credibility," says Mike Plant, an executive for the Atlanta Braves who is also a UCI member. "It's like any company that goes through a crisis. The leader usually steps down."
In a vote by the UCI Congress on Friday, McQuaid will face British Cycling president Brian Cookson for the presidency. Plant is pro-Cookson. "The tipping point for me was when I found out some things about [Pat's reign] that are completely inconsistent with my ethics and moral compass," says Plant. This is not Mayor McCheese vs. Mayor of Munchkin Land. The winner has real power in helping Lance on a path to a truth-and-reconciliation process -- and maybe broker a confession USADA and WADA would approve -- that could reduce his lifetime ban and enable his return to triathlon competition. There is no quicker route to America's forgiving heart than being first across a finish line.
"Lance is focused on moving forward," says Plant, who is in consistent contact with Armstrong. "I think there will be reconciliation at some time." Cookson has already professed a desire to offer amnesty for confessed dopers. He is goodwill hunting, entering the job mostly naïve to the dirt inside the McQuaid-Verbruggen Era. McQuaid, on the other hand, knows too much. He can spot a lie -- especially any Lance would spout during a tell-all session -- which is why Lance is likely wearing a Vote Cookson button on his hipster T-shirts.
Who else is in that camp? USA Cycling, which curiously has gone unscathed in the Lance scandal given its association with Team Armstrong for 25 years, is firmly behind Cookson. What's good for Lance is great for USA Cycling and any secrets it would like to keep quiet concerning its relationship with benefactor Thom Weisel, the financier of Armstrong's career-long ride.
Step 2: Begin to remove the past from the present
No one has been closer to Lance Armstrong over the years than his agent, business partner and confidant Bill Stapleton. So it is surprising to hear unflattering details about Stapleton from those in Lance's cycling cabal. They are eager to bring up a secret dossier compiled this past summer by Igor Makarov -- the billionaire and Russian cycling leader -- that reportedly contains damning information about McQuaid. The entire dossier has not been made public due to legal concerns over evidence, but two people who have read it say there is one eye-opening section about the 2006 Vrijman Report. This was an independent investigation by Dutchman Emile Vrijman commissioned by the UCI after L'Equipe published information about Armstrong's use of PEDs. "McQuaid manipulated the Vrijman," says a person who read the dossier. "And Stapleton appears to be in on it." In an email, Stapleton called the allegation "not true" and did not elaborate.
Whoever wrote the Vrijman Report possessed a flair for U.S. political rhetoric. As Kent Gordis, an Emmy-winning producer in cycling who has known Armstrong since 1992, explained in an email, "You can sift through the [Vrijman] report and find phrases and positions that are solidly those of the Lance camp, that no Dutchman would likely ever use." The report's political styling is straight from a Swift-Boat playbook honed in Texas. The Vrijman findings not only exonerate Armstrong but also attack the credibility of WADA, turning reality on its ear. That's Lance, American style.
For years, Stapleton was a party to this deny-and-destroy strategy as the head of Capital Sports & Entertainment. As government lawyers wrote in their filings, "CSE participated in the fraud with consent, participation and approval of Stapleton and [co-owner Bart] Knaggs."
The website for CSE was once a sleek virtual showcase for the events the company promoted and for its top endorsement talent, Armstrong. In recent months, it has been reduced to a logo with an info email address. As the head of CSE, Stapleton built the company on the back of Armstrong's pitchman success and in sync with the growth of Livestrong, taking six-figure fees from the charity for producing events, according to records. At one point on the CSE website, Stapleton was listed as the brand director for the Livestrong name.
His relationship with Lance is unclear now. In February, Stapleton began shopping at least part of his stake in CSE. The private offering might have gone unnoticed in Austin but his former wife, Laura Lee Prather, who helped seed the company in the late '90s, threatened to take Stapleton to court for a fair piece of any sale. The dispute, according to family associates familiar with the case, was settled out of court and their names were removed from a public docket. Prather's lawyer did not return a call for comment. Stapleton, in an email, said he does not comment on CSE matters and would not say whether he remained Armstrong's agent. Sources say Armstrong has been turning to the William Morris Agency for advice on how to choreograph his comeback.
Any fissure between Stapleton and Armstrong is significant because both are named in the whistleblower suit and in the litigation involving Dallas-based insurer SCA Promotions, which is seeking to reclaim $12 million in cycling bonuses. If one friend flips on the other, the price for betrayal could be steep.
Step 3: Reduce harm at all costs
What Armstrong fears the most is a financial collapse. Without wealth, his power is diminished, access to celebrity circles shrinks and his relevance fades. As Bloomberg News has pointed out, Armstrong earned more than $218 million in prizes, salary and endorsements during a cycling career now erased from the record books.
It is unknown how much income he still earns from licensing fees and stock deals he made with corporations, which, while ending public relationships with him, may still have business ties with him. In public records, Lance's cash reservoir has been filled by real estate deals and a liquidation of assets, but that bounty can be quickly drained. Beyond the insurance companies' claims -- and the August settlement he made to end a $1 million suit brought by the Sunday Times of London -- there is the $120 million whistleblower case sitting on the federal docket with Landis and the U.S. government as plaintiffs.
Armstrong bullied the wrong cyclist. After being mistreated by Armstrong, and weary of living the doping lie, Landis exposed the USPS drug-laced fraud to cycling and anti-doping officials in 2010. At some point, Armstrong will have to pay for the gross miscalculation of underestimating Landis. According to two sources with knowledge of the whistleblower case, Armstrong has not offered a settlement greater than $13.5 million -- about $30 to $40 million short of what would be a more acceptable number for the plaintiffs. Armstrong argues the government has no damages to claim because, like everyone else, US Postal took a lucrative flight on an image that happened to be a mirage.
Does Armstrong ever consider the possibility he would have made everyone many millions -- not hundreds of millions, perhaps -- by riding clean as a top cyclist who still beat cancer, still competed in the Tour de France, still lifted the spirits of families facing the frightening C word? "No way," says an associate of Armstrong's. "Lance doesn't do moral victories."
He doesn't do remorse, either. What he'd most like to do is reconcile his past -- blow the whistle to save himself, be a hero for healing the sport and replenish his fortune -- all without having to say he's sorry for the damage he's done. Floyd is in that enviable position. As Lance would say, That mother has it made.