Sunday, January 11, 2009

Why Lance Armstrong Is Clean

By: Brad Kearns

In the early drafts of my recently released book, How Lance Does It, I wrote extensively about the doping controversy as it relates to Lance and compelling arguments why he raced clean. It didn't make the final version, since this stuff is obviously not relevant to the reasons Lance is successful and how you can apply his lessons to your own peak performance goals. Even in retirement, Lance continues to deal with this "did he or didn't he" soap opera, thanks in large part to the major 2006 cycling doping scandals. First, a raid of a Spanish doctor's facility revealed a massive doping operation that fingered Tour de France favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, banning them from this year's event. Then, American Floyd Landis achieved a remarkable victory, only to fail a testosterone test, tainting his victory and plunging the entire sport into disgrace.

The punch line of Lance’s popular Nike commercial a few years back went, “Everyone wants to know what I’m on. I’m on my bike six hours a day. What are you on?” Marketing glitz to be sure, but in light of the huge doping mess in modern sports and the suspicions Lance had to endure, it’s a deeply revealing statement that demands sincere reflection.

We have no proof of Lance doping, not even reasonable circumstantial evidence to suspect him despite all the jabber from the media and our familiar cast of characters. Greg LeMond makes extremely informed and valid points about the massive escalation in performance of the professional cycling pack as a whole when EPO came to prominence in the early 90’s, then makes the flawed connection that the best cyclist must be doped by virtue of his superior performances. Frankie Andreu’s chicken-shit confession of his own doping means little six years after his retirement, except for the guilt by association effect it had, obviously by design (reference my post, How Can These Nice Guys Cheat? ) on Lance.

We do have conclusive proof of this: Lance trained harder than any other professional cyclist in the history of the sport and has extraordinary genetic gifts. Here is an excerpt from a seven-year study on Lance conducted by the University of Texas (Austin) Human Performance Laboratory’s Dr. Edward Coyle (“Improved Muscular Efficiency Displayed as Tour de France Champion Matures,” printed in the Journal of Applied Physiology, June 2005): “During the months leading up to each of his Tour de France victories, he reduced body weight and body fat by 4-7 kg (i.e.; approximately 7%). Therefore, over the seven-year period, an improvement in muscular efficiency and reduced body fat contributed equally to a remarkable 18% improvement in his steady state power per kg body weight when cycling at a given VO2. It appears that [even] in the detrained state, this individual’s VO2max is in the range of the highest values that normal men can achieve with training.”

In Daniel Coyle’s book, Lance Armstrong’s War, he discusses a common performance test where riders measure their wattage output at lactate threshold, then factor in their bodyweight to obtain a fitness quotient that predicts performance accurate for a three-week grand tour. Ferrari mentioned that many cyclists, when challenged by maximum effort, can see blood lactate levels (amount of the offensive ‘lactic acid’ causing the familiar ‘burn’ in the bloodstream) skyrocket to 22 mmol/ml, while Lance’s peaked at only 6mmol/ml. The same dynamic was associated with legendary distance swimmer Janet Evans, who set numerous world records and won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympics. Lance’s, and Janet’s, muscles simply burn less with hard effort than the next competitor, allowing them to go harder, longer!

Bart Knaggs, a longtime friend of Lance's who manages his business affairs at Capital Sports and Entertainment and serves as President of the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team, laments that the broad audience misses the most profound and complex insights about the magical performances of Lance. “Everybody wants to just take this stuff at face value. Maybe they don’t have the depth of understanding of the work that an athlete does or understand how complicated the Tour de France is.” Our ESPN Sports Center culture favors slam dunks, touchdown catches, overtime game winning goals, hockey fights and sound bites packaged neatly into a 60-minute program with boisterous hosts making up words like, “ginormous” to describe top performances.

How can we have much understanding or appreciation for Lance pedaling his bike three to eight hours a day year-round when we prefer to cut to the chase - a quick highlight of him tearing away from the pack up a mountain on Sports Center? And when we look to solve our own problems and achieve our dreams (to feel happy, lose weight, go to sleep, sport wood, or get stronger and faster athletically) by popping a magic pill?

“People want to have all the answers,” says Knaggs. “We think we understand what human performance potential is, and then Lance delivers a performance that is beyond their experience,” explains Knaggs. So, as with the dominant African runners, we struggle for explanation and rationalization. We point fingers at athletes who perform extraordinarily, labeling them with inaccurate racial stereotypes, doping accusations or character attacks in our perverse desire to bring big shot athletes and celebrities down from their pedestal.

When Carl Lewis achieved his unprecedented four track and field gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he endured the boos of 85,000 spectators on the day he won the long jump gold medal. Why? He only took two jumps to record a magnificent mark of 28 feet. Thereby clinching the gold, he passed on his remaining four jumps to save energy for his future 200 meter races – disappointing the myopic, unappreciative fans who “paid good money” to see him take his full allotment of six jumps. Every week, we buy millions of copies of tabloid trash, reveling in the lurid details of Brad dumping Jen and hooking up with Angelina.

Lance is a victim of participating in a sport that has been infested with drugs for decades, as are those who get caught, like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. The perpetrators of this crime are the organizers who have let the problem flounder by not committing sufficient resources to stay ahead of the game with more sophisticated testing or by offering more severe penalties. Under the circumstances of a dirty sport, Lance cannot conclusively prove his innocence by emphatically denying doping or even pointing to his clean testing record (many athletes found or admitted to doping tested clean for years prior). We also can’t blindly believe an athlete who claims to be wrongly accused, as nearly every athlete who tests positive initially states.

Irish journalist David Walsh and French journalist Pierre Ballester wrote two books (LA Confidentiel, printed in French and a recently announced sequel) advancing their own opinions that point to Lance’s guilt. These included his guilt by association relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari (noted performance physician accused of dispensing EPO) and other gems like Walsh’s comment on the that fact that the 1999 Tour de France field completed the course at a faster average speed than in 1998, a year in which the event was tainted by a huge rider drug bust. “How can clean racers ride faster than those known to be on dope?” Huh? Perhaps the same way honest businesspeople can make more money that crooked ones?

In Outside magazine’s comprehensive December 2005 edition article “J’Accuse”, this conclusion about LA Confidentiel was offered: “The end result is a sprawling collection of interviews, statistics, timelines, and newspaper accounts, but no proof against Armstrong. …On the whole, because Walsh and Ballester’s evidence in the book is circumstantial, no single piece of it has the power of truth.” My account of Lance hammering his mountain bike up a mountain in October in the introduction of How Lance Does It is just as compelling and credible as David Walsh’s crap about average racing speeds of the Tour pack.

What then, should we think and believe? We have to use our brains and examine the evidence. In the OJ Simpson murder trial, DNA forensic evidence showed that his blood was found at the crime scene and the victims’ blood was found in his Ford, leaving most everyone (except, notably, the people on the jury!) with a strong conviction of his guilt. I believe that there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that speaks far more powerfully to Lance’s innocence than the contrary evidence.

First is the fact that Lance is a genetically superior athlete who competed at an elite professional level for nearly 20 years, beginning with his teenage triathlon career. In 1993 (before drugs like EPO rose to prominence in cycling), at the age of 21, on the rainy roads of Oslo, Norway, he blasted away from the cycling’s greatest star – 5-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain – and the rest of the sport’s top athletes to win the world championships. In a literal sense, dopers are trying to obtain Lance’s natural body chemistry that he revealed to the world at the age of 16 when he raced the world’s top triathletes, at 21 when he ascended to the highest level of cycling and into his 30’s as he won the Tour year after year.

There is no question that doping provides a dramatic improvement in performance, but it’s also true that it compromises an athlete’s long term well-being and ability to perform at a high level for a long time. This is so because doping accelerates the natural metabolic and other systematic functions of the body. The laws of nature say that what goes around comes around. The kid who gets wired on cake and ice cream at a wild birthday party will crash out a few hours later. A drug-induced acceleration of the body’s chemical function will come with long-term health and performance consequences. World champion Kelli White, one of the disgraced athletes in the BALCO scandal, suffered from weight loss and deteriorated cartilage in her knee in the aftermath of her superhuman performances. A more extreme example is Marco Pantani, the 1998 Tour de France champion and one of Lance’s main rivals early in his reign. After being disgraced with a doping bust while leading the 1999 Tour of Italy, his career went into a tailspin. After retirement, he was treated for depression and drug addiction, and then succumbed to a cocaine overdose, dying at age 34.

Spin The Story
Mark Sisson can be considered an expert on doping in endurance sports. He served as a founding member and Chairman of the International Triathlon Union’s Anti-Doping Commission for 13 years and coached elite endurance athletes for many years prior to that. He believes there is compelling physical evidence to explain Lance’s awesome performances aside from doping. He cites the cancer-induced change in physique, saying “imagine possessing one of the world’s most impressive cardiovascular engines, competing with that engine for 10 years and then losing 17 pounds of extraneous bodyweight. It’s like racing at a world class level with a backpack on and then one day taking the backpack off forever.”

Sisson also notes the evolution of very primal motivation levels prompted by Lance’s near-death experience and particularly his trademark high-cadence pedaling style. “Lance developing the ability to pedal at high RPM’s and sustain it for hours at a time is probably the single greatest application of the cardinal cycling rule ‘learn to spin’ that I’ve ever seen,” Sisson exclaims. “When you pedal an easier gear at higher RPM’s, leg muscles don’t fatigue as quickly as they would pushing a harder gear at a lower RPM (anyone can discover this pedaling around the block: harder gear = harder on the muscles). Of course for the average rider, spinning an easier gear means less wattage is produced (slower speed).” Note: energy or power production by a cyclist is best measured in watts. It would be the ultimate indicator of performance except you also have to factor in bodyweight (especially for climbing) and aerodynamics (on flat road).

“Lance methodically developed the ability to sustain massive watts at a high cadence,” continues Sisson. “He had more wattage efficiency than any other rider. At a similar heart rate/effort level, his competitors would have to push a bigger gear to sustain the same number of watts as Lance pedaling at a higher RPM. And, he did it all at a relatively lower body weight than his competitors (the vaunted Ferrari equation).” If you are confused, try this: On a flat road, achieve a certain speed on your bike, say 15mph. Now shift into an easier gear and see what happens. You will feel less strain on your legs and you will also slow down. Try to sustain 15mph again in this easier gear. It’s not easy on your legs nor your heart! This is the wattage efficiency concept in practice.

Sisson continued, “The combination of these factors was devastating to his competition. This was a learned skill that required years of strict application in order to develop efficient neuro-muscular patterns. The explanation is simplified, because optimum pedaling cadence is different for every rider. However, if you train a rider to develop the ability to spin faster without sacrificing watts, you can realize a huge performance improvement. This is particularly true in a three-week Tour, where accumulated muscle fatigue is a critical factor.

“Lance’s advantage in wattage efficiency is something that was plainly apparent watching him on TV as he climbed mountains or time trialed against his rivals. It is in this direction that our minds should go when we attempt to explain his amazing performances. As ITU Anti-doping Commissioner, I certainly saw my fair share of doping abuses in endurance sports, but I will defend Lance Armstrong as a clean athlete against all that I know to be sacred about sport. Winning the Tour requires a broad array of strategic and physical skills. If you add these factors up - the incredible focus and support of a team devoted to risk management (for example, chasing down breaks or minimizing the chance of a rival rider breakaway by pushing the pace day after day), the unprecedented commitment to preparation, the significant advantage gained from his wattage efficiency and so on, there is simply no reason for Lance to consider doping or for us to suspect him of doping,” concludes Sisson.

Crying Sick Kids and Zillion Dollar Fines
Perhaps the most compelling factor that to me suggests Lance’s innocence is a disincentive to cheat that dwarfed that of anyone else in cycling, or any other sport. As Steven Levittt and Stephen Dubner explain in their best-seller Freakonomics, “Incentives are the cornerstone of modern life. An understanding of them is the key to solving just about any riddle, from violent crime to sports cheating to online dating.”

Lance transcended cycling to become a cultural icon and earned perhaps ten times that of the next best paid cycling superstar. Bill Stapleton reminds us that Lance’s team contracts and endorsement contracts have always had clauses in them that state a positive drug test is grounds for termination. Lance’s hypothetical dilemma is a little different than the journeyman pro who faces a life of milking cows and picking up horse poop on the farm if he can’t measure up. The threat of a two-year doping suspension is a stiff penalty to be sure, but moderate in terms of the risk/reward for an average athlete to become outstanding or a marginal athlete to secure employment.

If Lance had been caught for doping, a two year suspension would have been the least of his worries. For starters, it would have been the greatest cheating scandal in the history of sports. He would have pissed away (literally) tens of millions of dollars from American Century Investments, Subaru, Nike, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Trek, 24 Hour Fitness, Coca Cola and other corporate partners. He would have decimated the large enterprises like Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team and Capital Sports and Entertainment (which together employ nearly 100 people), along with the Lance Armstrong Foundation cancer charity. He would have kids (and grown ups) in cancer wards crying and confused about their hero being a cheater. He would have been economically, socially and morally destroyed (“the three basic flavors of incentives,” says Freakonomics – or disincentives in this case) as an athlete and as a person.

It’s easy to imagine Floyd Landis, sitting in his hotel room the night he blew the Tour by bonking and losing eight minutes in a single stage, with a different model of incentives and disincentives. Perhaps armed with the knowledge that behind many, if not most, rider hotel room doors, they were rubbing or injecting this and that to help them bounce back, he grabbed a little cream – a little too much cream - from the cookie jar, rubbed it onto his abdomen and went to sleep, allowing his “organism” to rest, repair and rejuvenate with the benefit of some extra testosterone. Or perhaps he was framed, we’ll see…

You may not agree with everything written here, but it’s important to think critically and resist the attraction of salacious gossip and character destruction when it comes to issues like whether Lance doped or Brad was unfaithful to Jen. Remember that behind the celebrity mystique are real people with real names (well, at least legal names…), who are trying to live a happy, fulfilling life, make a positive impact on others around them, raise children and all the rest. Even idle chit chat with your fellow riders on the Saturday loop or with your buddies at work can contribute to the destruction of someone’s reputation and further cultivate the harmful mentality towards sports and doping in general.

We must collectively look beyond the basic symptoms of a problem as complex as doping and reflect deeper, measuring our thoughts and words carefully. Fans, administrators and athletes must all draw a hard line against doping in sports, but at the same time take care not to cross the line and taint clean performances with flawed accusations. The fundamentals of critical thinking can easily reveal the numerous flaws in a conjecture like, “how can a clean pack average a faster speed than a doped pack?” For one, there are a many other variables involved in 200 people racing for 2,000+ miles from one year to the next, on a different route! It’s a world different from Yuliya Nesterenko of Belarus improving a preposterous half-second over 100 meters in one year to win the 2004 Olympic 100-meter gold medal, or some guy driving a blood-stained Bronco down a freeway with a gun to his own head, only to plead not guilty later.

The great British middle distance runner and twice Olympic gold medalist Sebastian Coe said, “you’ve got to be careful pointing fingers at people making big breakthroughs, because only in public terms is it a big breakthrough. In reality, the athlete has been slogging away, mile after mile, weight after weight, for ten years at a time.” Paul Tergat, the great Kenyan distance runner who holds the world marathon record of 2:04.55, described the depth of preparation for his re-match with Haile Gebrselassie in the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics (Gebrselassie won gold in Atlanta in 1996 to Tergat’s silver; the result was repeated in Sydney): “I would be on the track, running hard, collapsing, getting up, and running hard again. And when I was done I couldn’t stand. I was so tired. I couldn’t eat. I felt sick. I had no energy to do anything other than take a drink of water and lie down. Then I’d think of Haile and know that he was training even harder.”

Think of that image the next time you see the “natural” ability of an African distance runner on display. Not many people demonstrate that level of commitment, even among the world’s top professional athletes. Consider classic NBA overachiever Steve Nash, a 6’2” white point guard not especially quick or strong who ascended to the pinnacle of a sport dominated by genetic freaks, thanks to a phenomenal competitive spirit and work ethic. He won two consecutive NBA Most Valuable Player awards and offered this quote to Sports Illustrated in 2006: "Most guys somewhere along the line will meet an obstacle they aren't willing to clear--whether it's shooting or dribbling or something off the court, like girls or partying. They will not keep on going. I kept on going."

A final note to the more cynically minded readers or those not entirely “with me” up to this point: What is my premise is wrong and the truth is that Lance Armstrong slipped himself a Mickey now and then during his career? Would he have gained an unfair advantage that would make him, as Greg LeMond speculated, “the greatest fraud?” Think about it: if Lance – the most frequently drug tested athlete in history – could have souped himself up and avoided detection for seven or more years, it follows that his competition could have done the same.

Unless you believe that in the multi-million dollar game of professional cycling there are a bunch of high moral character athletes racing their brains out while idly lamenting their repeated victimization by a cheater. Sorry, there is no chance in hell of that; my apologies to a friend who points to Lance’s endorsement partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb as fodder for the argument that Lance is getting super powerful, undetectable drugs while his competitors are forced to shop retail and occasionally suffer the penal consequences. Now that would be the greatest sporting fraud!

The bottom line is that we can all sleep well at night, even if we are not certain or convinced of the truth. And whatever direction your own opinion leans, you must admit that we are watching great athletes perform great feats, on a level playing field, in sports that all have some measure of impurity and controversy.

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Heather said...
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Unknown said...

Dear Brad, you obviousle have a huge admiration for LA. I am not sure if you are aware though, Coyle's researchwas a fraud.. Otherwise he has no data to back up his claims. When asked by the university to provide the data as researchers bounbd to do in the event their research is in question they can fall back to the data. Turns out Coyle lost or throughout all his data on Lance and the testing. Gee I guess one could assume if he were testing hemicrit levels on chickens one might see this is possible. However I would think a specimen like LA would have a researcher protecting their data results in an iron vault.. I think this amounts to an admission from Coyle that yes in fact his study was flawed and the numbers didn't add up. If he provided the data and it was found to be fraudulent Coyle would have been up on a misconduct charge from the university basically kiss your ass goodby if you hope to do any research work in the future..

P. Hansen