Lance Armstrong in Italy: Remembering Cycling's 'Omerta'

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After an unplanned collarbone fracture, Lance Armstrong's comeback gets back on track this weekend with one of his big goals: Italy's three-week grand tour, the Giro d'Italia.

For most casual Americans fans, cycling means the Tour de France, and Lance will race in that spectacle in July. But the Giro is also a major event on the international cycling calendar. And this one is special, not only because it's been 100 years since the first Giro in 1909.

There will be a couple of interesting firsts at the Giro this year:

It's the first time Armstrong has ever participated.

And it's the first time that Italy's national champion will not be racing.

Interestingly, there's a reason to believe those two things are related.

Back in 2004, Armstrong was on his way to shatter one of cycling's most hallowed records: he was about to win his sixth Tour de France, something no one had ever done before. (He went on to win a seventh the next year.) With a few days left in the race, during an otherwise meaningless stage, Lance did something extraordinary that seemed to defy all explanation.

A small group of riders -- none of them a threat to Armstrong's overall lead -- sprinted ahead in a breakaway that had a chance to stay away all day from the main pack. At some point, an Italian cyclist by the name of Filippo Simeoni burst from the pack to try and reach the leading group. And then, to everyone's astonishment, Armstrong, wearing the leader's yellow jersey, sprinted away to catch up with Simeoni.

It was madness. Here was the yellow jersey trying to bridge across to a breakaway of nobodies with just a couple of days left in the race, when such a move could not possibly help his chances to win the overall title, and when he was about to set one of the greatest records in the history of the sport. I can remember the analysts announcing the race going crazy. It made no sense at all.

Simeoni and Armstrong reached the leading group, and started taking turns trying to help keep it in the lead. But the other cyclists began complaining. With Armstrong in the group, there was no way the big, powerful teams in the pack were going to let the breakaway succeed. Indeed, the strong T-Mobile team was already leading the pack, picking up the pace to reel in the leaders. T-Mobile couldn't afford to let Armstrong add to his overall time advantage.

For the minor riders in the breakaway, this was supposed to be their moment in the sun, their chance to win a stage, something that could make their entire season. And now Armstrong was ruining it for them. But why? It made no sense at all.

Armstrong told the other cyclists that he would be willing to sit up and return to the main pack -- but only if Simeoni went with him. The others in the breakaway, when they heard that, berated Simeoni to agree. And eventually, he did. Armstrong and Simeoni slowed down to wait for the main pack, and let the breakaway continue on its own.

At the end of the day's race, journalists were waiting in a pack to pounce on the cyclists: what was that about? Why had the yellow jersey done something so out of character and bizarre? And soon, the story emerged.

In the late 1990s, Simeoni had admitted publicly to doping. And in his confession, he had denounced the sketchy Dr. Michele Ferrari as the person who had supplied him the drugs.

Ferrari had many high-profile sports clients that he helped with blood analysis. One of them was Armstrong.

Angry at Simeoni's remarks about Ferrari, Armstrong had called Simeoni a liar -- the Italian in turn sued Armstrong, and the case was in the courts.

Now, the episode began to make some sense.

When Simeoni had made his move to get into the breakaway, Armstrong had sprinted ahead to make sure Simeoni's move wouldn't succeed. As long as he was in the breakaway, it was sure to fail.

When the two cyclists returned to the pack, Armstrong claimed that the other cyclists had thanked him. Armstrong said that he was "protecting the interests of the peleton."

But protecting it from what?

After the incident, I received a message from my friend Matt Smith, a columnist at SF Weekly and a former professional cyclist. He was pretty worked up. Did you see that? He asked. That was omerta!

Armstrong, in other words, was punishing Simeoni for breaking the code of silence, for daring to speak publicly about doping and the questionable characters like Ferrari that were dragging cycling down.

Matt didn't see any other way to interpret Armstrong's actions.

This incident came flooding back this week when I heard the strange news that for the first time in 100 years, Italy's national champion will not be taking part in the nation's biggest race.

Last year, Italy's national championship produced a surprise winner: the 37-year-old Simeoni, who was still trying to extend his flagging career. Winning that race entitled him to wear the famous tricolor national champion's jersey for the next year as he rode for a second-tier professional team.

Then, last week, the Giro's organizers announced that Simeoni's team, Ceramica Flaminia, would not be invited to the race. Even though Ceramica Flaminia is not a strong team, and Simeoni is clearly past his prime, this was still a shock. No national champion in the national grand tour?

Simeoni made news earlier this week when he angrily and symbolically turned in his national jersey as a way to protest being left out of the race. He blamed his exclusion on the presence of Armstrong, who had made the Giro one of the key elements of his comeback. Sour grapes? Maybe. But then, a few days ago, the Giro's race director, Angelo Zomegnanone, said something odd about Simeoni's exclusion. To an Italian paper, Zomegnanone in part said, "while at [the one-day March race] Milano-Sanremo [Simeoni] had seven hours to meet Armstrong and clarify the 2004 incident."

Huh? Were the Italian organizers looking for Simeoni to apologize to Armstrong before they'd let him in their race? Were they waiting to hear from Armstrong himself that Simeoni would be welcome in the Giro? 

Simeoni suggested as much in his response to Zomegnanone's words: "In Italy, some newspapers consider him [Armstrong] to be a sort of messiah; he has a lot of power. So, had he wanted to deliver a message of equity and reconciliation, he could have acted to have us on the race. One word from him would have been enough."

From Simeoni's perspective, Armstrong was being saved the embarrassment of riding in the same race with a man he once harrassed for daring to admit that cycling has a problem with drugs.

The other way to see it is that Simeoni was left out simply because he's not in top shape and he rides for a lousy team.

That's the perspective of the Times, which repeatedly referred to Simeoni's penchant for "large gestures" in its coverage of the incident, and didn't attempt to explain why Armstrong did such a bizarre thing in that race five years ago.

As for this year's race, it has the potential to be truly astounding. A very strange layout (which we've written about earlier) and some very big names mean that this could be a race for the ages.

Armstrong, however, is talking down his chances, and now says he won't really be able to win either the Giro or the Tour, that in both cases, he'll be riding to help others win (in the Giro, Levi Leipheimer, in the Tour, Alberto Contador).

Am I the only one who wonders what the hell this comeback was about if Armstrong isn't going to try win any of the big races? Is it really just about spreading the word about cancer research?

Here's hoping he does something really bizarre again, and this time, does it for good reasons: to win.



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