Lance Armstrong. Tour Down Under 2009
Lance Armstrong. Tour Down Under 2009

Lance Armstrong came in 81st in yesterday’s first stage of the Tour Down Under through the rolling flats of South Australia’s Barossa Valley.

And with a dicky knee (there was also an interview I heard earlier in the week where Armstrong talked about this but I’ve been unable to find it online) and a very relaxed approach to this year’s Tour it seems that neither Armstrong nor anyone else that matters expects him to finish better than the middle of the field when the Tour ends on the weekend. I can’t tell you how well he did today because as I’m writing the highly efficient (?) people at TdU central haven’t updated the Results page at their website. (UPDATE: The results page has been updated and says that Armstrong improved his lot from Stage 1 and finished in 42nd place on Stage 2.)

That is if he finishes this year’s Tour at all.

Over the past few days there has been widespread – though unsubstantiated – speculation that Armstrong would withdraw from the Tour early. My bet was that he would withdraw after the third stage but a tweet just a few minutes before I posted this by @OneHD reports that “Rumours circulating that Lance Armstrong is pulling out of the Tour Down Under” remains to be confirmed.

I won’t insult my readers by trawling through the sycophantic puffery that is passed off as serious commentary on Lance Armstrong in the Australia media. You can pick up plenty of that for yourself in the tabloids and on the TV. And the broadsheet coverage isn’t much better.

Most of that reporting – and the guff spouted by politicians –  treats Armstrong as if he was some God come to earth on two wheels to lead us into some glorious future after the “war” on cancer has been won.

Here is South Australian Premier Mike Rann – perhaps Armstrong’s most vigorous and uncritical booster – on Monday this week at the opening of the LIVESTRONG™ cycling pathway:

“…Lance’s legendary spirit, inspiration and determination will forever be associated with another piece of Adelaide and South Australia….It’s a legacy worth honouring and remembering every time we ride or walk the LIVESTRONG™ Pathway.”

Those words may well come back to haunt Rann. As may the millions of South Australian taxpayer dollars that Rann has paid to Armstrong in appearance fees for his attendance in 2009, 2010 and this year for what look very like leisurely saunters in the early-season training ride that many view the annual Tour Down Under to be.

But thankfully governments and the media elsewhere are prepared to cast a more critical eye on Armstrong and those closely associated with him than we are in Australia.

Overnight the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated (SI) published new revelations that go to the heart of Armstrong’s credibility – both as a rider and as a role model in his sport.

You can see the whole of the SI article – due to be published next week – here. Many in the cycling community (see for example the discussion at the Sports Illustrated Article thread at Cycling.News.com) have been aware of the forthcoming article for weeks – and were disappointed when it was delayed from its initial scheduled publication date of 12 January.

Sports Illustrated journalists Selena Roberts and David Epstein “reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of sources in Europe, New Zealand and the U.S.” and note that “If a court finds that Armstrong won his titles while taking performance-enhancing drugs, his entourage may come to be known as the domestiques of the saddest deception in sports history.”

That is a very big “if” and while these matters haven’t yet reached open court proceedings, SI reports that “Since August a grand jury has been meeting in Los Angeles to hear testimony by associates and confidantes of Armstrong’s.”

The allegations revealed in SI’s article include that:

• In the late 1990s, Armstrong gained access to a drug called HemAssist, designed to be used for cases of extreme blood loss. SI reports Armstrong, though his lawyer, denies ever using HemAssist.

• New Zealander Stephen Swart, an admitted EPO user, described Armstrong as “the driving force” behind some of the team members deciding to use the banned blood booster EPO. Swart told SI “He was the instigator. It was his words that pushed us toward doing it.”

• In late 2010 Italian police raided the home of longtime Armstrong teammate Yarolslav Popovych and found documents and performance-enhancing-drugs, and texts and e-mails linking Armstrong’s team to controversial Italian physician Michele Ferrari as recently as 2009. Armstrong has previously stated that he cut ties with Ferrari in 2004.

While there is no ‘smoking gun’ in this article, it provides further fuel to the fire that surrounds Armstrong as he reaches the end of an increasingly controversial career.

As I reported at Crikey reported in July last year:

“Armstrong’s troubles aren’t just on the bike. For years he has been dogged by a series of allegations that the key to his phenomenal success was that he was a doper, a cheat. Armstrong has consistently denied — in the strongest possible terms — that he has ever done anything illegal…In May this year Floyd Landis…made a series of public allegations that Armstrong and a swathe of other top cyclists closely associated with him over the years had been involved in the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) and doping techniques.

“The core of Landis’s allegations was nothing new — what was news was that all of a sudden all sorts of people were taking them seriously. Foremost among these — and most worrying for Armstrong and his coterie — is the attention of Jeff Novitsky, a special agent of the criminal division of the US Food and Drug Administration (the FDA). Novitsky’s investigation is focused on whether Armstrong, his managers and teammates conspired to defraud sponsors — chiefly the government-owned US Postal Service that sponsored Armstrong’s team during his incredible winning run from 1998 to 2004 — by using PEDs and doping techniques to improve performances and winnings.”

Yesterday afternoon I forwarded a number of questions to Premier Mike Rann in relation the LIVESTRONG™ Cancer Research Centre, a part of the highly regarded Flinders Medical Centre in Adelaide.

I also sought – again – details of payment related to appearance fees paid to Armstrong for his rides at the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Tour Down Under.

I repeated that request earlier today and also asked Rann if he would continue to support Armstrong in light of the revelations published by Sports Illustrated.

As of the time of posting this I have received no response from Premier Rann in relation to any of those matters.

Earlier today Armstrong’s alter ego Juan Pelota posted the following apparent response to the SI article on Twitter:

@juanpelota “That’s it?”

The American sports network ESPN reported Armstrong spokesman Mark Fabiani stating that the SI report was “old news from the same old discredited sources.”