Sunday, March 09, 2014

Lance Armstrong and the Riders of the Tour de France: It’s not cheating if everybody is doing it

Throughout the 1990s, [John Thomas Neal] was [Lance Armstrong’s] main soigneur at some domestic races and at national team training camps.
The New York Times carries a page-long excerpt from Juliet Macur's Cycle of Lies (Cycles de mensonges in French).
But in Europe and at the big races, the honor of rubbing down Armstrong went to John Hendershot.

Among soigneurs in the European peloton (another French word, one that refers to professional riders generally as well as the pack during a race), Hendershot was at once the cool kid and the calculating elder. Other soigneurs envied the money he made and the cachet that came with the cash. Wherever he walked — through race crowds or at home in Belgium — people turned to catch a glimpse. Teams wanted him. Armstrong wanted him. Neal said he was “like a god to me” and called him “the best soigneur that ever was.”

Hendershot, an American who lived in Belgium to be closer to the main cycling circuit, was a massage therapist, physical therapist and miracle worker. His laying-on of hands would bring an exhausted, aching rider to life. Eating at Hendershot’s direction, sleeping according to his advice, a rider began each morning reborn. He came with all the secrets of a soigneur and an unexpected skill developed over the years. In Neal’s words, Hendershot took to cycling’s drug culture “like a duck to water.” But his enthusiasm for and skills in chemistry would be remembered as his special talent.
Before speaking to me last year, Hendershot — who had retired from the sport in 1996, shortly after Armstrong’s cancer diagnosis — had never told his story to a reporter. After all the years of silence, he seemed relieved to finally share it.
  … Hendershot said the riders on his teams had a choice about using drugs. They could “grab the ring or not.” He said he didn’t know a single professional cyclist who hadn’t at least dabbled in doping. The sport was simply too difficult — and many times impossible, as was the three-week Tour de France — for riders who didn’t rely on pharmaceutical help.

 … Cycling has been one of Belgium’s most popular sports for generations, and the pharmacist didn’t question Hendershot’s request for such large quantities of drugs. In exchange, Hendershot would give the pharmacist a signed team jersey or all-access passes to big races. Then he would leave with bags filled with the blood booster EPO, human growth hormone, blood thinners, amphetamines, cortisone, painkillers and testosterone, a particularly popular drug he’d hand to riders “like candy.”

 … Hendershot said all those riders probably believed they were doing no wrong by doping. The definition of cheating was flexible in a sport replete with pharmacology: It’s not cheating if everybody is doing it. Armstrong believed that to be the dead-solid truth. For him, there was no hesitation, no second-guessing, no rationalizing.

As Hendershot had done, Armstrong grabbed the ring.

 … His former sponsors — including Oakley, Trek Bicycle Corporation, RadioShack and Nike — have left him scrambling for money. He considers them traitors. He says Trek’s revenue was $100 million when he signed with the company and reached $1 billion in 2013.

“Who’s responsible for that?” he asks, before cursing and saying, “Right here.” He pokes himself in the chest with his right index finger. “I’m sorry, but that is true. Without me, none of that happens.”