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Armstrong Doping Scandal: Some Cyclists 'Made The Right Choice' Not To Cheat

Former cyclist Scott Mercier has gained notoriety for refusing to go on a doping program 15 years ago. Here, Mercier (in blue jersey) rides just ahead of cyclist Chris Horner in 1997.
Jed Jacobsohn
Getty Images
Former cyclist Scott Mercier has gained notoriety for refusing to go on a doping program 15 years ago. Here, Mercier (in blue jersey) rides just ahead of cyclist Chris Horner in 1997.

Reactions to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's recently released report on cyclist Lance Armstrong's use of performance-enhancing drugs have ranged from denial to anger and disappointment. Some have said Armstrong merely did what it took to compete with pro racers, all of them chemically enhanced. But that's just not true, says Joe Lindsey, a contributor to Bicycling magazine.

"The way that it's been presented by some of the people here in the past... 'I felt like I didn't have a choice' — I'm conflicted about that," Lindsey tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

"I understand that it felt that way at the time," he adds. "But there was a choice. And there were riders who made the right choice, and there were riders who made the wrong choice."

As for the advantage that a blood-booster like EPO can provide, Lindsey says that competing against someone who has used it is like riding a race with your bike's brake rubbing the tire rim, slowing you down.

"There are some cyclists who continue to ride without resorting to doping, and I think were the most harmed by all of this," Lindsey said. "There were other riders who said no, and walked away... like Scott Mercier, Darren Baker, Brian Smith — riders who walked away and said, 'You know what, I don't want to do this; it's not worth the price of my integrity.'"

Mercier, a former U.S. Olympian, has emerged as something of a hero in the mass of evidence that shows widespread cheating, for his refusal to take drugs as a 28-year-old on the U.S. Postal Service team.

Here's what Mercier told the BBC about his refusal to undergo the steroids-and-training program he says the team doctor gave him:

"I love cycling, it's a beautiful sport, but it would have been very challenging for me to look someone in the eye and say I was clean when I knew I wasn't.

"People talk about the health aspects, but to be totally honest I wasn't so concerned about that.

"For me, it was the lying and the hypocrisy."

Mercier left the team, and professional cycling, at the end of that season. Lindsey says that riders who stayed on the pro circuit but refused to inject or swallow performance-enhancing drugs often had to change their approach to the sport.

"They were never going to win big races during that time," he says. "That was part of the calculation they made, that 'We know we're never going to win this stuff.'"

If they fell off the pace and dropped behind the main group, the riders often had to rely on other "clean" cyclists to help pace them back to the group.

In the wake of the Armstrong scandal, both the executives who run cycling's largest international group, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), and the journalists who cover the sport, have come in for some blame of their own, for either ignoring or not knowing about the pervasive doping the USADA describes.

And while Lindsey admits that journalists failed to uncover what was going on, he says that even cycling's insiders were shocked at the breadth of the cheating. And he says it was difficult to break through cyclists' code of silence about doping.

"If you asked these questions, you would get frozen out," Lindsey says. "You would not be able to talk to anybody in the sport. Riders would ride past you; they would not answer your questions. And we saw a number of journalists, actually, who left the sport rather than continue to deal with that."

Two exceptions, he notes, were Pierre Ballester, the former L'Equipe reporter who co-wrote L.A. Confidentiel (2004) with British journalist David Walsh, and former racer and current journalist Paul Kimmage — who is currently facing a defamation lawsuit filed by the UCI.

As for the people who run professional cycling on the international level, Lindsey says that change is long overdue.

"At the top level of the sport, there is no one who I see who has the credibility and the authority — the independence — to come in and say, here's what's going to happen," he says. "And that's because the people who are involved in running the sport now are the same people who've been involved running the sport for the past two decades, when we saw this incredible epidemic of doping going on."

"At the very least, they were just absolutely incompetent and inept at somehow stemming the tide of what was going on," Lindsey says. "I think change needs to start from the top, and some of these people need to step down."

Earlier this month, former pro cyclist Scott Mercier wrote an editorial calling for "the overthrow of the tyrannical leadership" of UCI's current president, Pat McQuaid, and its former president, Hein Verbruggen.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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