Former UCI president Hein Verbruggen says that Lance Armstrong has made his life “a misery” since the latter accused him earlier this month of having helped cover up his doping.
The 72-year-old Dutchman also accuses the man last year banned from sport for life and stripped of results including the seven consecutive Tour de France titles he won between 1999 and 2005 of pursuing his own “agenda.”
Last month, Armstrong, who despite finally confessing to doping in January continued to insist that senior figures in the UCI had not colluded in helping him cover up positive anti-doping results, claimed that Verbruggen had helped him do just that in 1999.
It was the American’s first Tour de France since he returned to the sport after battling cancer, and would be the first of those seven straight wins in the sport’s biggest race – but his challenge risked being derailed after he tested positive for a banned corticosteroid.
Armstrong says that Verbruggen helped concoct the excuse of coming up with a backdated and entirely bogus prescription for a saddle sore cream containing the substance, something that the former UCI boss strongly denies.
“It’s a bullshit story and nothing else,” he told Telegraph.co.uk. “Never, ever would I have had a conversation saying, ‘We have to take care of this’.
“It might very well be that he or somebody else from the team has given me a call and my first reaction was, ‘Shit. We had this Festina problem [on the 1998 Tour] and now this’. But that’s a very long way from concluding we have to do something about it.
“How can I take care of something that is known already by the laboratory, that is known already by the French Ministry [which did the testing], that is known by the UCI, the anti-doping people at the UCI? It’s ridiculous.”
He accused Armstrong of seeking to protect his own interests, and expressed his distaste of his being included as part of the story by those wishing to depict the cyclist’s fall from grace, whether in print or on the screen.
“I see it as if I’m part of a kind of industry now: it’s called the Lance Armstrong industry,” said Verbruggen.
“People are making films now. It’s all part of the industry. You have a lot of people in it with a vested interest, and this interest is clearly not to know the truth.
“Lance Armstrong has his own agenda and that is certainly his own personal interest, whether it is that he wants his sanctions to be reduced or whether he wants money. Usually, with Lance, there is always an interest also in money. My interest is the truth.”
Verbruggen believes that Armstrong, facing a series of lawsuits that threaten his fortune once estimated at $125 million, is still motivated by cash.
He asked: “Does he make money if he comes with a juicy story? I think it has to do with the fact he has told his team-mates he has once been positive. That’s what I believe.”
In its Reasoned Decision in the Armstrong case, published in October last year, the United States Anti Doping Agency said that donations totalling $125,000 made by the former US Postal and Astana rider to the UCI were linked to the cover-up of a suspect test for EPO during the 2001 Tour de Suisse.
Like his successor, Pat McQuaid, Verbruggen now accepts that with the benefit of hindsight, it was an error to accept that money – although most of it was only paid several years after Armstrong had promised the funds, after the UCI sent him a reminder.
Verbruggen vehemently rejects that the money was a bribe to cover up the suspect test, however, and says he will “never forget, or forgive” suggestions from Armstrong that he or other senior staff at the UCI helped cover up his doping, adding, “he caused me a lot of misery.”
Yet, the Telegraph reports that Verbruggen, never slow to threaten or indeed initiate legal action in the past, as he did against the Irish journalist, Paul Kimmage, is hesitant to sue.
“Lance Armstrong is another thing because this is in America,” he explained. “This is going to cost me a couple of million dollars.”
But he was insistent that there was nothing to hide from the period he led the UCI until McQuaid replaced him in 2005, shortly after Armstrong won that seventh and final yellow jersey.
“You will never, ever find any cover-up in the UCI while I was president, and I’m sure afterwards neither. There is no bribery, whatever they say.”
He did, however, admit he had erred in criticising people who sought to lift the veil on the culture of doping within the sport.
“When you’re so long in cycling, you suspect everything,” he reflected.
“You know it’s going on but you do not know the details. You don’t, you don’t.” H
“The suspicion against a rider like that — in this case Lance Armstrong — builds up gradually.”
He says that his very public backing of Armstrong – which continued even after USADA charged the latter in June last year – were to prevent him from being misquoted.
“I’m absolutely sure the next day it would be like this in the paper: ‘Doubts cast by Verbruggen on Armstrong’.
"That’s something I was not particularly keen on. I hadn’t said that about anybody, ever. Now they blame me — ‘You should’ve said that’. But I don’t think anybody would. You don’t. You can’t.”
He does share Armstrong’s view that he was the subject of a witch hunt.
“Pat McQuaid said about Lance Armstrong, ‘Lance has no place in cycling’,” Verbruggen recalled.
“I would never have said that. We know now that at that time, yes, there were a lot of people on EPO and he was one of them. Nobody should single him out on that basis. He doped, it was forbidden, it’s cheating. But he was not the only one, that’s for sure.”
But he added: “The rules are the rules and they have to apply to anybody.”
Verbruggen maintains he has washed his hands of sport, including cycling, but he remains honorary president of the UCI.
He is sceptical about the goals of the independent commission into doping that Brian Cookson, who succeeded McQuaid in September, has ordered.
“I have clear doubts about the potential unofficial goal of this commission,” he said. “You all expect there will be a lot of corruption coming out. It will not be, and he knows that by now.”
“I’m fed up. I’m totally fed up. My reputation has suffered,” he added.
“But I don’t care very much about it. Lance, he’s an icon. I’m not. Who knows me? Only people in sport.
“And the people in sport who know me really well tell me, ‘Hein, we don’t believe this crap’. It’s embarrassing, it’s changed my life in a certain way.
“But I know what I’ve done for sport and these are facts. I took a federation from virtually bankruptcy, with four people working in three offices in three countries, hopelessly divided, to a flourishing federation with an excellent reputation as a structure.
“So, I haven’t lost one friend, nobody who is important in my life. I’ve lost nothing,” he concluded.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.