Lance Armstrong leads the pack in the 2010 Tour de France. USADA released evidence this week suggesting his involvement in an extensive doping scheme. (AP/Bas Czerwinski)

Lance Armstrong leads the pack in the 2010 Tour de France. USADA released evidence this week suggesting his involvement in an extensive doping scheme. (AP/Bas Czerwinski)

The dense report issued this week by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency offered 1000 pages of evidence supporting the assertion that  Lance Armstrong participated in a doping scheme during his record-breaking seven consecutive Tour de France wins. Testimony from former teammates, scientific analysis of drug tests, and assorted financial records backed up the USADA’s claims, and was more than enough to convince Bonnie D. Ford, who reports on cycling for ESPN.

“I had to cover Lance Armstrong, I had to cover his teams from an objective standpoint for many years,” Ford told Bill Littlefield on this week’s Only A Game.  “I just felt that with the release of this overwhelmingly convincing report that it was probably time for me to get on one side of the fence or the other, publicly.”

There will always be those who defend Armstrong’s innocence, often based on the athlete’s assertion that he “never failed a test,” but Ford believes those who read the report with “an objective eye” will be convinced.  “I think there’s no other conclusion to come to than that USADA’s charges are well-founded.”

“We knew there was going to be rider testimony, we knew there was going to be some kind of scientific evidence or interpretation at least of past test results,” she said. “We did not know—or at least I did not know—there were going to be detailed financial records, which document Lance Armstrong’s relationship with Dr. Michele Ferrari, his long-time trainer, whom numerous riders worked with and have testified provided them with doping programs.”

The USADA report documented $1,000,000 in payments from Armstrong to Dr. Ferrari over a 10-year period.  But, it was the testimony 11 of Armstrong’s former teammates that had the biggest impact on Ford.

“Honestly, each one of these riders’ stories could be a fascinating story.  Some of them are heartbreaking, some of them are shocking. And if people don’t want to go through the whole 1,000 pages, which I can certainly understand, I would certainly urge them to read those affidavits as a starting point.”

World Anti-Doping Agency director-general David Howman suggested this week that some drug testers may have known about the doping scheme and may have informed riders of upcoming out-of-competition drug tests.

“If you believe the statements of the riders, on many occasions they had at least informal notice that the testers were coming,” Ford said. “I don’t know how far up in the chain it goes. But, I’m convinced that that team—and they may not have been alone, there may have been others—had connections and were warned. Somehow you look back and wonder how anyone tested positive back in that time. It’s quite a web of connections there.”

A federal prosecutor dropped the criminal case against Armstrong, but there is an ongoing investigation in the civil division of the justice department.  In the meantime, Ford said USADA’s lifetime ban will still have an impact, even though Armstrong had retired from elite cycling races, .

“A ban, such as the one imposed on Lance Armstrong, applies to involvement in any aspect of elite sport: coaching, ownership, etc.”

Punishing Armstrong wasn’t USADA’s only goal.  ”A number of people who are enmeshed in this case are still in the sport,” Ford explained. “I think they’re hoping to flesh some of the bad apples out of that orchard.”

The International Cycling Union (UCI), cycling’s governing body, ultimately has the right to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles. If that happens, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme hopes those titles will not be awarded to any rider.  Ford agrees.

“It seems like a vacant exercise to award those titles to anyone else.  As a journalist, I’m not all that interested. I understand that people are focused on who’s the legitimate champion. I’m just glad that so much more truth now is out on the table, that we have a historical record to look at and really assess.”

Only three Tour de France champions in the last 15 years remain clear of doping charges. Given this history, the USADA investigation may offer hope for cleaning up the sport.

“It’s going to take a while to assess and try to figure out: A—if cycling can really find its way out of this thicket and clean itself up completely, and B—If this kind of corruption is present in other sports” said Ford. “It’s a very humbling experience as a journalist to have been this close to all this and kind of see the tip of the iceberg and not know what was underneath.”