Did Lance Armstrong Dope During Leadville 100?

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell is available for sale on Amazon.com

“Raced yesterday on the mtb and smoked em,” Lance Armstrong wrote in an email after winning the Leadville MTB 100 in 2009.

Before his big mountain bike win, Lance had just finished third in his comeback to the Tour de France, losing to his teammate Alberto Contador.  This detour on the trail was a big deal at the time.  It sparked the documentary Race Across The Sky (Buy the DVD) and helped Armstrong win over some new mountain biking fans, including myself, that hadn’t previously paid attention to his road racing career.  Looking back, I couldn’t help but wonder…  Did Lance Armstrong dope to win the Leadville MTB 100?

I recently read the book Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell.  I highly recommend this book.  Reed and Vanessa are reporters at the Wall Street Journal and do a great job of laying out the story of doping in professional cycling with Lance Armstrong as the central character.

I was looking forward to reading about the famous mountain bike race where Lance faced off with six-time winner David Wiens, but the book does not dwell on the Leadville 100.  There are only two references to it:

On page 226, “In late September 2008, after having done the Leadville 100 mountain bike race the month before in Colorado – his first bike race since retirement – Armstrong announced that he would return to professional cycling.”

Then again on page 233, “For his comeback year, Armstrong had decided to limit the number of races he participated in.  He had done the Tour Down Under and was planning to do the Leadville 100, the mountain bike race he had done the previous year to mark his return to cycling.  The only race he had committed to in Europe was the Tour de France.”

With so little to go on, I decided to ask the authors directly whether Lance had cheated.

Lance Armstrong races in the Leadville 100.

Lance Armstrong races in the Leadville 100.
Image from the documentary “Race Across the Sky,” which is for sale on Amazon.com

James Knott: Did you find any evidence that Lance was or wasn’t using performance enhancing drugs during his performances at the Leadville 100 where he went head-to-head with mountain biking legend David Wiens?

Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell: We didn’t find any specific evidence about his doping during the 2008 or 2009 Leadville race.  By way of background, during his interview with Oprah, Armstrong denied doping during his 2009 and 2010 comeback to pro cycling.

However, there’s evidence that Armstrong covertly sought guidance from one of his doping doctors, Dr. Michele Ferrari, during his comeback to cycling in 2009– and potentially in the time leading up to his 2009 Leadville race.

The evidence largely comes out of these emails obtained from Italian authorities by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The emails are between Armstrong and Ferrari’s son Stefano.  If you look through them you can see one Aug. 9, 2009, where Armstrong said he raced the day before on the mountain bike “and smoked em.” So they were in touch.

(By way of background, by 2009, Ferrari was advising some of his clients to switch from EPO to blood transfusions to diminish the risk of a positive drug test, according to evidence from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Reasoned Decision here.  Also, in 2009, Armstrong’s told his former pro cycling teammate Levi Leipheimer privately that he was still working with Ferrari.)

David Wiens and Lance Armstrong before the Leadville 100

David Wiens and Lance Armstrong before the Leadville 100.
Image capture from “Race Across The Sky.”

I’ve read the emails and they alone are not damning evidence, but they are worth a read.  Clearly, Lance is paying and seeking advice from Michele Ferrari, the doctor that helped him dope, and his son Stefano.

Most of the emails are about training details – power info, weights, workout schedules, etc.  These are interesting details for anyone who trains for bike racing and wants to know how they stack up with a world class cyclist.  For example, I never realized that I am about the same height and weight as Lance Armstrong.  Now all I need to do to win is improve my power output to his level.  That should be a piece of cake.  🙂

There are other emails that are about paying for services with cash instead of wire transfers.  These emails give you pause.  Why does Lance want to pay in cash?  At one point, Lance emails Stefano and asks whether his dad would sign a statement saying that they “never engaged in ‘systematic’ doping.”

But even if it was Lance was doping at that time, is it illegal in the Leadville 100?  After all, I’ve never known doping to be an issue in any of the cross country mountain bike races that I’ve been in.  I’ve never heard any other racers discussing it.  I wasn’t even sure if there were rules in mountain biking against doping.

The short answer is “yes.”  The Leadville 100 follows the rules of USA Cycling, which works with the USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency) and the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency).  Here is a list of banned substances from WADA – http://www.usada.org/uploads/substances/2014wadaprohibitedlist.pdf.  Armstrong has admitted to using several of these substances in his career.

I reached out to Lauren Flinn, the manager of public relations for the Leadville 100, to get her thoughts on the matter.  She wrote:

At this time, we do not test for EPO, HGH and other blood doping in Leadville. We feel that since we offer no prize purse at Leadville, our athletes honor the integrity of the race and compete clean. We do state clearly that “athletes will be disqualified from our race if they take Oxygen or IV’s at an aid station or are paced or accept a ride from a vehicle.”

Lance Armstrong is still listed as the winner in the 2009 race results posted on their web page.

Is doping illegal in mountain bike races that aren’t sanctioned by USA Cycling?  I asked Ryan O’Dell, the director of the National Ultra Endurance Series (NUE) about their history with doping.

According to O’Dell, “NUE has a doping policy included in the rules section of the website. There have only been two issues over six years.”

NUE’s policy states (full list of rules):

NUE SERIES DOPING POLICY: Level Playing Field for ALL Racers

  • Racers who are under suspension for doping are not eligible for NUE Series points. Racers who are accused but not convicted or suspended for doping are allowed to compete until a ruling is announced. If a racer is convicted of doping during the season, all NUE Series points for the current season will be forfeited and the racer will not be eligible for series awards or recognition. Once NUE Series standings are final, they are final.

So kids, if someone offers you some EPO or human growth hormone before a race, then I recommend saying “no”.  Doping is clearly not cool in mountain biking.  And – if you need it to win, then you aren’t cool either.

Reed and Vanessa had a lot more great information and I will be publishing more of their interview in a few days.  Until then, check out this video of them talking to Stephen Colbert.

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    • Do you think that Lance’s MTB competitors were doing the same thing? Should doing drugs be a barrier to entry for competing at the highest levels of a sport?