Commentary: Cracks in the wall around Lance Armstrong

In this July 24, 2005, photo, Lance Armstrong, right, and his Discovery team colleague George Hincapie pose for photographers on the Champs Elysees during a victory parade after Armstrong won his 7th straight Tour de France.
In this July 24, 2005, photo, Lance Armstrong, right, and his Discovery team colleague George Hincapie pose for photographers on the Champs Elysees during a victory parade after Armstrong won his 7th straight Tour de France. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Lance Armstrong’s teammates chaperoned him up mountainsides and through rainstorms. They were his bodyguards when the peloton got tight. They fended off his attackers and cleared a path to the finish line.

They were self-sacrificing domestiques in the true sense of the word. And it was a beautiful sight to behold on the country roads of France and down the Champs-Elysees in Paris: Armstrong’s teammates in blue jerseys orbiting around their sun in the maillot jaune.

Armstrong won seven Tour de France titles — with a lot of help.

It seems more plausible than ever that Armstrong’s teammates also protected him with a wall of silence. The wall is crumbling, as is Armstrong’s ironclad defense that he never used performance enhancing drugs and never tested positive.

Four teammates who rode with Armstrong during the glory years of the U.S. Postal Service team have confessed to doping with their team leader, according to a 60 Minutes report filled with fresh allegations. Grand jury testimony is mounting against Armstrong, who is being investigated for systematic doping and possible charges of fraud, money laundering and drug trafficking.

The most damaging witness could turn out to be George Hincapie, who testified that he and Armstrong gave each other the blood-booster EPO and discussed using testosterone, according to 60 Minutes.

Through the years, the big, humble Hincapie was Armstrong’s roommate and most loyal lieutenant — “like a brother to me,” Armstrong said.

For more than a decade, Armstrong has managed to drop his accusers by ripping their credibility as lying cheats or calling them jealous and greedy. How can Armstrong turn on Hincapie, who has a clean record and no ax to grind?

Armstrong has already belittled former teammate Tyler Hamilton, who provided a detailed, disturbing picture of leading a double life on the USPS team, using code words like “Edgar Allen Poe” for EPO, talking on throw-away cell phones, receiving drugs hidden in white lunch bags, flying by private jet to Spain to have blood extracted so it could be transfused during the Tour. Armstrong used an eyedropper to squirt testosterone into his mouth, Hamilton’s mouth and another rider’s mouth, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said Armstrong tested positive during the 2001 Tour of Switzerland, a warmup for his third Tour win, but the result was covered up by the lab and cycling’s governing body. He said Armstrong and team chief Johan Bruyneel met with the lab director and that Armstrong’s donation of $125,000 to the lab was no coincidence.

“He was so relaxed about it and he kind of said it off the cuff and laughed it off,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton corroborated allegations made by Floyd Landis a year ago, as well as things said in the past by riders Frankie Andreu and Stephan Swart, a USPS masseuse and a former personal assistant to Armstrong. Both Hamilton and Landis have been disgraced by doping bans after years of denials.

“More washed-up cyclists talking trash for cash,” said Armstrong’s spokesman, Mark Fabiani, who said they are motivated by book deals and “a hunger for publicity.”

Landis said he was motivated by guilt and Hamilton said he was motivated by a subpoena.

Armstrong’s argument that “sour milk” critics are out to get him doesn’t hold up. Book deals? No one is going to write a best seller on the tired topic of doping in the dirty sport of cycling. Publicity? Hamilton gave back his 2004 Olympic gold medal as a result of the interview. Landis has been blackballed. Others have been sued by Armstrong or seen careers damaged by daring to doubt a national hero.

Armstrong’s refrain that he’s never tested positive is questionable in light of the alleged lab doctoring, but what did it ever mean anyway? Sprinter Marion Jones never tested positive either, and she was very convincing, until she tearfully confessed on the courthouse steps before going to jail.

“There’s a lot of other cheats and liars out there who have gotten away with it,” Hamilton said. “It’s not just Lance. I mean, with a little luck, I’d still be out there today being a cheat and liar.”

It does not look good for Armstrong, who is being chased by the same investigator who exposed BALCO and Barry Bonds. In the court of public opinion, Armstrong has little in common with Bonds.

He is a cancer survivor and a tireless activist who has raised $400 million for research through his LiveStrong foundation and the sale of the yellow bracelets that symbolize hope.

But it’s time to separate Armstrong the humanitarian from Armstrong the cycling champion. Who doesn’t want his remarkable story to be true?

The problem is, more and more people who rode at his side are confessing that it wasn’t so beautiful after all.