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Tour de Farce 

Lance Armstrong, Thom Weisel, and questions about anti-doping efforts in American cycling

Wednesday, Sep 7 2005
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The next year Weisel's team backed Armstrong to another Tour win, with Weisel in the pace car. Four more Armstrong Tour wins, and four more Weisel pace cars, followed.

In 2005, after Armstrong had retired upon winning his record-surpassing seventh Tour de France, Weisel's old cycling buddy and cycling-official protégé, Steve Johnson, fielded press calls and publicly dismissed allegations that Armstrong had won the 1999 Tour using banned drugs.


If you've been following the L'Equipe doping story as closely as I have, you may have noticed something a little weird about the short arc of Lance Armstrong's August PR crisis in the United States.

While the head of USA Cycling was dismissing L'Equipe's allegations, cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale in Aigle, Switzerland, was announcing that it took the reports seriously enough to launch its own investigation into drug use at the 1999 Tour de France. The head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, the planet's top sports-drugs cop, likewise said his group would analyze 1999 Tour drug-test results. The director of the Tour de France characterized the report as hard evidence Armstrong had cheated in 1999, saying Armstrong may have deceived fans.

Was this just another case of America against Europe, of french fries vs. Freedom Fries?

Not really. According to L'Equipe -- which enjoys the sort of high-journalism reputation in Europe that Sports Illustrated does in the U.S. -- a drug-testing lab developed a urine test for the banned endurance booster erythropoietin in 2001. The lab recently examined frozen urine samples from 1999 Tour doping tests to gauge the test's effectiveness. The lab figured that the lack of a test for the 1999 Tour might have led some riders to use the drug, which thickens athletes' blood so that it can carry more oxygen to muscles. Sure enough, one cyclist came up positive for the drug in six separate doping tests of urine given for the 1999 Tour. L'Equipe journalists obtained a leaked copy of the anonymous results of the tests. They compared the athlete identification number on the results with the number on Armstrong's other drug-testing records -- and found a match.

The results at least seem definitive -- and damning.

So why have those results gotten little traction in the public mind here in the U.S.?

The web of financial ties that connects USA Cycling, Lance Armstrong, and the businessman who backs both -- San Francisco's own Thom Weisel -- may offer some explanation.

In the U.S., organized cycling is a small world where many roads lead to or through Armstrong and Weisel.

In 2000, the sporting team Weisel owned backed Armstrong as he won the Tour de France for a second time. That same year, Weisel orchestrated the equivalent of a leveraged buyout of the regulatory side of bicycle racing in the United States. The U.S. Cycling Federation was suffering a $1.4 million budget deficit, with no solvency in sight, when Weisel made the organization an offer it couldn't refuse, according to an account from Weisel's authorized biography. By helping to make the organization solvent, Weisel was able to fill the board of directors with his friends and set up a peculiar arrangement in which the bailout and future fundraising for the renamed bike-racing regulator, USA Cycling, would be conducted through the USA Cycling Development Foundation, a nonprofit that Weisel set up, staffed with his friends, and led as president.

"Weisel spent over three years reorganizing USA Cycling, and his team is largely in charge," the book explains.

In exchange for the bailout, Weisel demanded that his new nonprofit's executive director, Steve Johnson, also be named chief operating officer of USA Cycling, which is charged with participating in drug investigations and handing out punishment. The president of USA Cycling is Jim Ochowicz, who is also a broker at Weisel's current investment bank, Thomas Weisel Partners, according to reports in Outside magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, and other publications. Meanwhile, USA Cycling has a marketing arrangement with Carmichael Training Systems, the company owned by Lance Armstrong's coach, Chris Carmichael, through which USA Cycling does mass mailings on Carmichael's behalf in exchange for discounts on coaching services for USA Cycling members.

At the same time that he wields influence over bike racing's regulator, Weisel has an important financial connection to the most famous racer in the world, Lance Armstrong: For the past eight years, Weisel has owned the team employing the champion. Additionally, Weisel brought to San Francisco the San Francisco Grand Prix, the culmination of America's most important pro bike racing series. Armstrong helped get the event off the ground in 2001 by suiting up for the start line, allowing the event to be promoted as a chance to "come watch Lance Armstrong." Armstrong did not race the event this year because he's retired.

Given the financial and organizational links among Weisel-related entities, it seems reasonable to assume the financier might be irked if USA Cycling officials in his employ did anything to acknowledge drug allegations against Armstrong. Weisel's book mentions his "protégé and friend" Armstrong 100 times. It notes that Weisel's office is dominated by poster-size photographs of the cycling hero. During Armstrong's post-cancer career, Weisel has served as founder, architect, motivator, companion, and sugar daddy for Armstrong's team, according to Weisel's book.

However, Johnson, with all his links to Weisel, Armstrong's primary patron, sees no problem with denouncing the L'Equipe report on behalf of USA Cycling.

"Why would that be a conflict of interest? Explain it to me," Johnson said.

Sure. The USA Cycling Development Foundation is a nonprofit entity set up by Weisel and dedicated to raising money for USA Cycling. The foundation provides around a quarter of USA Cycling's $4 million annual budget, according to the group's IRS filings from 2003, 2002, and 2001. The nonprofit employs Johnson as executive director, the filings say.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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