Armstrong’s teammates: He was aloof, not best pal but one of a kind

By John Leicester, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

If Armstrong doped, teammates say they saw nothing

PARIS — For Lance Armstrong, it became a tradition.

On the triumphant last day of his Tour de France victories, the champion cyclist and his teammates celebrated by riding past chattering crowds and the leafy trees that line Paris’ most famous boulevard, the Champs-Elysees. They radiated bonhomie, smiling and sometimes waving star-spangled banners. Armstrong and Co., the scene suggested, was one big and happy cycling family.

Reality, however, was not so cut-and-dried.

Even with riders who were integral to Armstrong’s unprecedented run of seven consecutive Tour wins, the single-minded Texan remained somewhat aloof. His teammates watched Armstrong’s back on France’s sun-seared roads, elbowed aside rival teams, carried his water bottles, shared meals, bus trips, and helped to construct the story of the cancer survivor who tamed cycling’s most mythic race. But, some of them also say, they never got to intimately know the man in the winner’s yellow jersey. After they and the crowds went home, some never had much contact with Armstrong again.

That contrast between the public and guarded sides of the man who revolutionized France’s storied race with his modern American ways could become a hurdle for U.S. investigators trying to corroborate allegations from Floyd Landis. One of 23 support riders without whom Armstrong might not have won so many Tours, Landis claims that doping was part-and-parcel of being on his teams and that Armstrong cheated, too.

Armstrong has always insisted that he rode clean. He says Landis lacks credibility. After quitting Armstrong’s team, Landis won the 2006 Tour but was stripped of the title for doping. Having denied it for years, Landis now acknowledges that he cheated but says others did, too.

The elaborate and systematic doping Landis describes — he alleged, most notably, that Armstrong and his riders shot-up in full view of each other in 2004 — would have required considerable levels of trust, connivance and conspiracy to remain hidden. But that stands at odds with the way some riders recall life inside Armstrong’s U.S. Postal squads. Simply put, some say, Armstrong never let them get that close.

Steffen Kjaergaard rode at Armstrong’s side for his second and third wins, in 2000 and 2001. He remembers the victory parties and the one-starred Texas flag that Paris’ famous Crillon Hotel flew in Armstrong’s honor. But he says he is stumped by Landis’ allegations because coming “from a team that I was a member of, that is so far from what I have been a part of, or seen, or discovered myself.”

“If some of that is just a little bit true, I must have been extremely naive,” he says.

“No, no,” he chuckles when asked if he ever saw Armstrong take performance-enhancing drugs. “Floyd’s stories … are hard to believe.”

Peter Meinert-Nielsen, a Dane who rode with Armstrong on his first Tour win in 1999 until he dropped out on stage 13 with a bad knee, says the Texan “was always friendly and a great person to be with” but that unlike in other sports, friendships rarely blossom in cycling because riders don’t often train together.

“You are more or less only together when you ride. You don’t get a close relationship,” he says.

“Cycling is a working place like any kind of working place. There are some people you get along with better than others. Lance and I got along pretty well. He asked that I be on the team that rode the Tour de France. He knew he could rely on me as a helper. He knew that if I had been told something I would do it. He trusted me. He knew I would ride 100 percent for him.”

“He is the greatest personality I have ever been racing with. He had a great power. I am certain it was a strong will and authority that made him win. He’s a one of a kind,” Meinert-Nielsen says. Although he also adds that if there was any doping then he wouldn’t have been privy to it “because I wasn’t with him, I didn’t share a room with him.”

Says Colombian Victor Hugo Pena, another ex-Postal cyclist who rode the Tours of 2001-03 with Armstrong: “Some people want me to destroy Armstrong and try to affirm that everybody was doping.

“This did not happen during my time with the group. I have good memories of the team and of Armstrong; for him only grateful words. We had a good relationship.”

Pavel Padrnos, who rode the 2002-05 Tours with Armstrong, says the Texan was good at lifting teammates’ spirits at the end of long days.

“When you have nine riders at a big table every night for three weeks for dinner day after day, he was one of those capable of entertaining all,” he says. He dismissed Landis’ allegations, saying: “It seemed to me that he wants to sell his story and it’s written in a way to be of interest to anybody.”

In his one of his autobiographies, “Every Second Counts,” Armstrong says “teammates have an odd relationship; they float somewhere between acquaintances and relatives.”

While Armstrong speaks with affection of Americans like George Hincapie — “like a brother to me” — some other riders get little more than a mention.

Armstrong says he and team director Johan Bruyneel spent years “carefully identifying, recruiting, and signing the kind of people we wanted to work with” — riders who were “willing to sacrifice” and “who rode with 100 percent aggression.”

“We didn’t accept slacking,” he says. “But we encouraged good humor, because we believed it was excellent painkiller.”

Armstrong’s teams were multinational, with non-Americans outnumbering Americans by nearly 2-to-1 when rosters are tallied from his seven winning Tours. Because of the language mix, Armstrong says they sometimes communicated in “a kind of pidgin or shorthand.” But Pascal Derame, a Frenchman on the 1999 team, doesn’t recall much conversation.

“We didn’t say much to each other,” he says of Armstrong. Asked about doping, he said: “Nobody ever did anything in front of me.”

Another rider, Spaniard Roberto Heras, refused to discuss Landis’ doping allegations. “I have nothing to say. It is an ugly subject, a disagreeable subject and I don’t want to talk about it. It is respectable to not talk about it,” Heras says.

After quitting Armstrong’s team, he failed a doping test at the 2005 Tour of Spain and was banned for two years. Manuel Beltran of Spain and American Tyler Hamilton — as well as Landis — also failed drug tests after leaving Postal’s Tour teams and were banned, while American Frankie Andreu told The New York Times that he used the banned blood booster EPO while preparing for the 1999 Tour he rode with Armstrong.

The rolling three-week circus that is the Tour does not leave much time for socializing. To survive, riders must sleep as much as possible, gulp large meals for energy, salve aches and pains. Every day, there are hotels to get to, bags to pack and unpack. Armstrong also had television and press commitments and doping controls to satisfy. He usually rode the Postal bus with his teammates to each day’s start. But when he finished far ahead, he sometimes wouldn’t hang around for them at the end.

“He was extremely focused on getting back to the hotel as soon as possible, get on the message table as soon as possible, get recovered as soon as possible. Sometimes there was a car waiting for him,” Kjaergaard says.

They ate meals together but were never close and Armstrong was “very selective” in his choice of close friends, he says. “Probably I fit into the team for a couple of years because I had no problem accepting that. I had my friends and he had his.”

Beltran adds: “Obviously he’s a man with a lot of extra commitments within the team so he wasn’t always around like everyone else … Although he might not have many friends, the ones he has are authentic.”

“There were a few people (on the team) that he didn’t get along with,” says Meinert-Nielsen. “That always happens. If there was someone he didn’t like, that person found out pretty quickly. He didn’t tell them directly but you can always get a feeling that there is something saying ‘I like or dislike you.’ He was pretty tough about that. There were very few people who really got close to him. Including (Americans Kevin) Livingston and Tyler Hamilton. And, later on, George Hincapie. We, the others, we were more the working guys … But that is what we got our salaries for. The plan was not that we going to be best new pals.”

Armstrong has 2.65 million followers on Twitter. Meinert-Nielsen is not one of them. He says they have not kept in contact. Beltran failed a doping test at the 2008 Tour and says he lost contact with Armstrong after that. Kjaergaard retired in 2003 and says he’s had no contacts with Armstrong for years. Heras, too, is no longer in touch, saying: “I wouldn’t say we lost our friendship, but we don’t have a relationship. I haven’t talked to him again.”

“You get a new life after cycling,” says Meinert-Nielsen, who stopped riding in 2001. “The contacts we had then were pretty much superficial.”

AP Sports Writers Paul Logothetis in Madrid and Stephen Wade in Mexico City, and Associated Press Writers Jairo Anchique in Bogota, Colombia; Karel Janicek in Brno, Czech Republic; Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark; and Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain, contributed to this report.

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