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Philip Hersh: Lance Armstrong fails a credibility test

February 11, 2009 |  7:00 pm

Lance Armstrong, left, and the rest of the Astana Cycling Team during a Tour of California training run on Feb. 4 in northern California.

Lance Armstrong is only one month into the competitive part of his comeback, and he already has a credibility gap.

Armstrong was sure that hiring anti-doping guru Don Catlin as his personal  tester would go a long way toward convincing skeptics that he was riding without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.

(The issue for most skeptics, me included, is Armstrong's seven-Tour-de-France-winning past, not his present, but that's another story.)

So now we learn, first from the New York Times, that the Armstrong-Catlin collaboration has foundered on the rocks of what both sides said were complexity and cost.

"There was no particular issue that led to our mutual parting,'' Catlin told me Wednesday by telephone.  "It was a total package of things we were constantly dealing with.

"Some of the costs were not containable. How do you track down an athlete on whatever continent and then get a collector certified by WADA to take urine and blood?''

The complexity part, I can buy.

Cost?  For a guy who has made tens of millions of dollars as an endorser, speechifier and rider?

Yes, I know he is supporting three kids with his ex and about to have another with a girlfriend, but cost?

Sorry, Lance, I don't buy that. I mean, isn't it worth whatever it takes to make sure your name is as good as an athlete as it has become in your tireless efforts to ease the suffering from cancer?

It's not that Armstrong won't be tested by other entities;  he said on his Twitter page last week that he has been tested 16 times since September.

It's just that Armstrong made such a big deal of Catlin's role during the New York press conference announcing his return to competition -- and again at a cycling trade show in Las Vegas a day later -- that it seems pretty hypocritical to have the deal end before it began.

It actually has been unraveling for a month. In the beginning, Armstrong said he would be so transparent that the Catlin test results would be posted on a website. Then, at the Tour Down Under in January, he skimmed back on the website idea, saying the uninformed public might misinterpret scientific data.  And he also said the Catlin program had yet to get up and running.

"Astana (Armstrong's team) has an anti-doping program,'' Catlin said. "So does the UCI [the international cycling federation] and USADA [U.S. Anti-Doping Agency]. At one time, we had collectors standing in line. When you are trying to do blood, you have to be very careful.''

I have known Don Catlin for two decades. I have always found him a man of uncompromising integrity.  I was frankly very surprised that he wanted to associate himself with Armstrong, and I figured he did it to help his new anti-doping research institute get both exposure and cash.

Catlin said I wasn't the only one who questioned his decision to work with Armstrong but disagreed with the reasons I postulated.

"What I care about is these prospective monitoring programs,'' Catlin said, referring to protocols using baseline evidence and working forward. "I am still doing team programs for Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle where we can link results from today to yesterday and tomorrow.

"That was my objective in working with Lance.  I think he has handled himself with the utmost care through this.''

But he made Catlin look a little silly by involving him in what some might see as nothing more than a publicity stunt.

"I don't think any of us started off with the idea it was going to fall through,'' Catlin said.

Armstrong's manager, Mark Higgins, sent an e-mail late Wednesday saying that the rider now will be collaborating with Ramsus Damsgaard, who runs the Astana internal testing program, and that results of seven UCI and Damsgaard out-of-competition tests have been posted on www.livestrong.com.

Forgive me if I am a little dubious about an internal testing program of a team booted from the 2007 Tour de France and barred from the 2008 Tour de France because its leading rider, Alexander Vinokourov, tested positive for blood doping and also was linked to a Spanish doping scandal.

And excuse my skepticism because the ethics of Damsgaard recently were impugned by his former boss at a Copenhagen hospital.

"We have the utmost respect for Don and all he is doing in the fight against doping in sport, but we faced a myriad of problems relating to administration, coordination and cost," said Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's agent and attorney, in a Wednesday e-mail.

Lance has been shouting far and wide, "I'm back, and I've got Don Catlin doing doping control on me, and we're going to tell you everything about it so you can believe I am clean."

Armstrong made a promise he didn't keep.

That goes to the credibility of everything he has said -- past, present and future -- about riding without the performance-enhancing drugs that nearly all the top rivals he defeated were using.

Check later tonight at latimes.com/sports for more about Armstrong.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Lance Armstrong, left, and the rest of the Astana Cycling Team during a Tour of California training run on Feb. 4 in northern California. Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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