Mercier: 'U.S. Postal doping predates Armstrong'

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 12:49pm

The systematic use of performance enhancing substances within Lance Armstrong's former U.S. Postal Service team has been detailed by one cyclist who resisted the temptation to dope.

A U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) report accused seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong of being involved in "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."

Armstrong's representatives dismissed the 1,000-page report as "a hatchet job", but the experiences of former U.S. Postal Service cyclist Scott Mercier suggest a culture of doping existed within the team before Armstrong joined 14 years ago.

Mercier claims he was given steroids by team doctor Pedro Celaya as part of a grueling training program in 1997, a year before Armstrong joined the team.

Celaya did not reply when asked for a response by CNN, but he has denied the accusations to other media outlets.

"The only race I did that spring was in Switzerland called the Tour of Romandie,"Mercier explained to CNN, referring to the 1997 season. "Pedro called the riders into his room one by one, and when I got there he gave me a training program.

"This program was on a calendar. We were supposed to recover because it had been a hard season, but there was a two-week block, about 16 days, where on each day he had dots or stars.

"We were supposed to do 200 to 250 kilometers per day. I asked him, 'what are these stars and dots for?' He handed me a zip lock bag full of pills and vials. I asked him, 'what do I have here?' and he said, 'these are steroids.' He said, 'you will go strong like bull.'"

Steroids increase the speed at which muscles can be built, although they can enhance masculine characteristics.

Mercier was warned to not take any of the pills or liquids while he was racing, but he made the decision to avoid taking any of the substances.

He persevered with his own training regime, but simply could not keep up with his teammates.

"I was living in South Africa at that time," continued Mercier. "I decided to talk to my wife and that is when I decided I didn't want to be a professional anymore.

"I attempted to do the training program anyway and still got pretty fit, but you couldn't go everyday.

"Most people think you bulk up on steroids, but all it really does is allow you to recover so you can do the same effort. If you're doing endurance, you will stay light and get fast."

Statistics back up what Mercier suggests. The Tour de France's L'Alpe d'Huez is one of the most storied ascents in cycling and in 1986 five-time general classification winner Bernard Hinault completed the climb in 48 minutes.

Marco Pantani now holds the record for the climb. His time, set in 1997, is 10 minutes and 25 seconds faster than that of Hinault.

Armstrong clocked a time of 37 minutes and 36 seconds, just one second slower than Pantini, in 2004.

Pantani, who was ejected from the 1999 Giro d'Italia following an abnormal blood reading, died of a cocaine overdose in 2004.

Mercier feels that Celaya thought he was acting in the best interests of the riders, helping them to compete while also preventing them seeking drugs via riskier avenues.

Dr Luis Garcia Del Moral replaced Celeya at the U.S. Postal team in 1999. Celeya was sacked as Armstrong "did not feel that Celaya was aggressive enough in running the 'program,'" according to the evidence given to USADA by U.S. Postal rider Jonathan Vaughters.

"Pedro was looking out for our interests," said Mercier. "He wasn't doing anything that anyone else wasn't doing. He was trying to make sure the team would be competitive in a safe way.

"I really think he was trying to help us with our health so we weren't doing it in some back alley."

While Mercier admits to occasionally wondering what might have been had he decided to dope, he has no regrets over his decision to turn his back on professional cycling.

"People have said, 'geez, it was such a brave thing you did.' I did have a contract with Postal to go on for '98, I'm not sure I look at it the same way.

"It was heartbreaking but I knew that if I went and continued racing in '98, I wasn't going to be strong enough to continue to race with my peers putting me in the gutter and me not being competitive. I knew I would do what I had to do to be competitive.

"I guess to avoid that situation I think is cowardly. But I decided I'm not strong enough, I need to move out of my profession."

Now team doctor with Radioshack, the last team Armstrong raced for, Celaya will go before the Court of Arbitration for Sport later this year as he contests the charges brought against him by USADA.

Despite the success enjoyed by other members of the Postal Service team such as Olympic gold medalist Tyler Hamilton and George Hincapie, who rode alongside Armstrong in each of his seven Tour de France wins, Mercier is happy with the decision he made to preserve his integrity rather than chase fame and fortune.

Both Hamilton and Hincapie testified against Armstrong in USADA's report, while admitting to using performance enhancing substances.

"I wouldn't trade places with George Hincapie and his millions, or Tyler Hamilton Olympic medal.

"My wife said to me, 'Imagine you're coming home and telling your son and daughter daddy is a liar, a cheat and a fraud. You don't have to do that.'

"So I feel good about the decision I've made, I wouldn't change anything."

Both Hamilton and Hincapie testified against Armstrong in USADA's report, while admitting to using performance enhancing substances.

"I wouldn't trade places with George Hincapie and his millions, or Tyler Hamilton Olympic medal," said Mercier.

"My wife said to me, 'Imagine you're coming home and telling your son and daughter daddy is a liar, a cheat and a fraud. You don't have to do that.'

"So I feel good about the decision I've made, I wouldn't change anything." 

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