The French newspaper's report was taken seriously in Europe, with cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, and the World Anti-Doping Agency both announcing they would launch probes of possible drug use at the '99 Tour.
A few days after the story broke, though, Armstrong spent an hour on CNN's Larry King Live dismissing the L'Equipe report, contending it was unfair because it came from a tabloid newspaper reporter's efforts, rather than through formal anti-drug protocols. A few days later, the chief operating officer of USA Cycling, the governing body responsible for punishing bike-racing drug cheaters in this country, was quoted in more than 100 newspapers dismissing the L'Equipe piece as the scandalmongering of a French tabloid newspaper, adding, in a remarkable echo of Armstrong's public position, that the positive drug results were unfair because they had been exposed by a news reporter, rather than through formal drug-policing protocols.
"To me, this is an issue for the French people. They seemed very concerned about it, and frankly I don't care what they think. And I don't think Lance does either," Reuters quoted USA Cycling COO Steve Johnson as saying last week. "This is just a publication in a French tabloid newspaper. That's our perspective."
And there the story seemed to peter out. And why not? There's no point bothering with drug allegations that the doping cops of American cycling say are bogus, right?
By week's end, the story had disappeared from the U.S. media, just in time for the Barclays Global Investors Grand Prix SF, the bike race local investment banker Thom Weisel brought to the city four years ago with the help of Armstrong, who lent his prestigious presence to the race during its first two years. The unsavory subject of doping faded. Lance Armstrong, and the massive publicity empire that surrounds him, remained relatively unscathed, able to enjoy his July 2005 retirement with the inspiring tale intact of his comeback from cancer to win the first of seven Tours de France in 1999.
There happens to be more to USA Cycling's pooh-poohing of the charges against Armstrong than the news headlines suggested, however. This isn't merely an instance of U.S. doping cops repelling spurious French charges against an American superhero.
Johnson, the widely quoted USA Cycling official, appears to suffer from a serious conflict of interest between his organization's role as a doping cop and his personal, institutional, and financial ties to the diversified business world surrounding Lance Armstrong. Financier Weisel is Armstrong's longtime patron, employer, investment manager, and friend. Weisel is also Johnson's longtime patron and friend and the founder of a nonprofit entity that employs him.
And then there's this little fact: Johnson essentially works for Armstrong. In addition to serving as chief operating officer of USA Cycling, Johnson is executive director of the USA Cycling Development Foundation, an affiliated nonprofit organization founded by Weisel, who serves as president of the board of directors, according to the foundation's most recently available IRS returns, filed in 2003. According to the foundation's current Web site, the board of directors now includes Lance Armstrong.
"This whole thing isn't a big deal for Americans," Reuters quoted Johnson as saying of Armstrong's doping troubles last week.
That may or may not be true. It's safe to say, however, that it's a very big deal for Johnson's bosses.
According to Capital Instincts: Life As an Entrepreneur, Financier, and Athlete, the book Thom Weisel co-wrote in 2003 with business journalist Richard Brandt, Weisel took up cycling in 1983, and by 1985 wanted to be a player in both the commercial and athletic ends of the sport. That year Weisel entered his first race and started the U.S.-based amateur Montgomery Cycling Team, sponsored by his San Francisco investment bank at the time, Montgomery Securities. In 1987 Weisel started a company called Montgomery Sports Inc., the predecessor to Tailwind Sports, to serve as a commercial vehicle for running his team.
In 1990, Weisel brought on Subaru as a sponsor and turned his team pro, hiring a young Lance Armstrong, who would leave for the stronger Motorola team in 1992. Weisel would take steps to see that this kind of thing didn't happen again. In 1995, he hired Olympic gold medal cyclist Mark Gorski to build from scratch a much grander team. The U.S. Postal Service was impressed with Weisel's vision and in 1996 signed on as the team's lead sponsor.
In 1997, the team raced the Tour de France; its best rider, a French hired gun, finished a lackluster 15th place. Things improved dramatically from there. In 1998 Weisel hired back Lance Armstrong after the cyclist's French Codifis team dumped him on the belief that he would not recover from advanced testicular cancer. That year began Armstrong's storied comeback from his deathbed, with high placings in prestigious races such as the Vuelta de Espana. To show his gratitude, Weisel augmented Armstrong's meager 1998 starting salary with $1 million in bonuses out of the financier's own pocket.
In 1999, Lance Armstrong won his first Tour de France with Weisel in the follow car. The financier accompanied the team on a victory lap on the Champs d'Elysée. Weisel's venture stake in the once-obscure sport of American cycling had turned up gold.
The next year Weisel took control of the governing side of bike racing, establishing the USA Cycling Development Foundation and placing himself and two other members of his foundation on the board of USA Cycling's predecessor, the U.S. Cycling Federation. Weisel now controlled America's top team as well its top cycling regulator.