The Web is full of outliers who are constantly posting about vast conspiracies, advanced by powerful interests and enabled by the mainstream media. The truth, they say, is out there in plain sight.
Every once in a while, the outliers are right. This is a story of how a group of people at the low end of bicycle racing used the Web and social media to take back custody of their sport from powerful dopers and liars and their enablers in the media.
In the last 15 years, there has not been a better sports story than Lance Armstrong: a pro cyclist is stricken by cancer, triumphs over the disease and goes on to conquer his sport, winning the Tour de France seven times in a row. Armstrong then used the luster of his victories to turn LiveStrong, a foundation he started for cancer victims, into a household name worn on the wrists of many. It was a story the press, and the reading public, could not get enough of.
The problem with mythical ascents is that they are often followed by spectacular falls, precisely because they are myths.
On Oct. 10, the United States Anti-Doping Agency released a report that laid out in breathtaking detail how Lance Armstrong had organized a systematic doping program for his team. Mr. Armstrong waived his right to contest the findings, and last Monday, the International Cycling Union stripped him of the Tour de France titles he won from 1999 to 2005.
For those of us who paid only casual attention, his abasement — he has been dropped by Nike and other sponsors and has stepped down as chairman of LiveStrong — came as a deep shock. Sure, there was a steady hum of suspicion along the way, but Armstrong had never failed a drug test, and his steadfast denials were always dutifully reported.
Besides, there was a heroic narrative to be nurtured, and mainstream reporters pretty much stuck to the script — either because they were invested in the legend or were worried about maintaining access to one of the most important figures in sports. There were early and vocal dissenters, including Paul Kimmage, an Irish journalist and veteran of cycling coverage, David Walsh, and Juliet Macur of The New York Times. But for the most part, the journalists who seemed to know the most about professional cycling told us the least. To doubt Armstrong was to doubt the American dream, to effectively be “for cancer,” as his legion of defenders would claim.
But amid the conspiracy of silence, often enforced by Armstrong or his lawyers, according to the report, a small group of dedicated cycling enthusiasts took to blogs and Twitter. His otherworldly accomplishments, they wrote, were a monument not to the power of human spirit, but to the remarkable effectiveness of EPO, an oxygen-enhancing hormone. On Twitter, critics behind handles like @TheRaceRadio, @UCI_Overlord and @FestinaGirl jabbed at Armstrong’s denials and the sport’s leadership.
More important, NYVelocity, a tiny hobby blog that mostly covered the New York bike racing scene, helped pull back the blankets on the Armstrong legend. The blog published a satirical comic, “As the Toto Turns,” to savage effect, and in a series of postings it made the case that pro cycling was corrupt and that Mr. Armstrong’s denials masked a wilderness of lies.
Andy Shen founded the site in 2004 with two friends, Alex Ostroy and Dan Schmalz. Mr. Shen is a commercial photographer and amateur racer, not a journalist. But in 2009, after watching in growing disgust as evidence mounted along with the denials, he published a groundbreaking 13,000-word interview with Dr. Michael Ashenden revisiting the results of drug tests from Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France victory.
The interview with Dr. Ashenden, an Australian exercise physiologist who had helped develop EPO tests for pro cycling, was full of arcane chemistry, but his findings were clear and damning: EPO was present in the samples and the pattern demonstrated systematic doping.
The link to the interview became a kind of beacon on the Web, posted over and over on racing forums in an effort to inject science into a very emotional debate.
“Bike racing is a niche sport, and then suddenly someone like Armstrong comes along and makes it 10 times bigger and no one wanted to be the one who went after him,” Mr. Shen said over lunch last week. “Everyone in the industry depended on him or was afraid of him.”
Some mainstream journalists have continued to stand by Armstrong, including Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post, who wrote a book with him, but many others have issued mea culpas for buying the lie. John Leicester, the international sports columnist for The Associated Press, called himself “a dope” and said he wished he had “told the story better.”
Mr. Shen said he felt bad for reporters who had to choose between gaining access to Armstrong or risk being frozen out. He had no access to lose, no ax to grind.
“Every time anybody said anything that went against the public image that Armstrong had built up, they were attacked so ferociously that we wanted to put stuff out there that would help people make the case,” he said. “Cycling had gotten so corrupt that you really couldn’t fault anyone for cheating. The reason that we have been after Armstrong is for the other things he did: talking others into doping to help him win, attacking and suing people for telling the truth, and the constant lying.”
Almost by accident, NYVelocity became a clearinghouse of information about doping in the sport. That included publishing the full transcript of an interview Mr. Kimmage did with Floyd Landis for a much-followed article in The Sunday Times of London. Landis, who had been stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title for testing positive, said that Armstrong had orchestrated a doping program for his team while the International Cycling Union ignored a growing body of evidence that he had done so.
Bill Gifford, who had written for Bicycling, Outside and Men’s Journal about Armstrong, said NYVelocity’s coverage played a critical role in bringing truth to the powers that be.
“They kept the story alive when mainstream media and those in the cycling media would have let it die,” Mr. Gifford said. “Every major city has a site like this about racing where they preview races and post results, but NYVelocity morphed into a major behind-the-scenes player on this story.”
Betsy Andreu, the wife of Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong’s, said that it was ironic that NYVelocity, built by nonjournalists, did the hard work that much of the professional press did not.
“Not every single person in the mainstream media bought the story, many did good work, but many just went along out of fear or self-interest,” she said in a phone interview. “The beauty of NYVelocity is that they knew the sport, knew the reality, and they were not beholden to any advertisers and the powers in the sport. They weren’t afraid to print the truth.”
© 2012, The New York Times News Service