Around 8 p.m. on Nov. 11, 2010, Italian police and customs officials acting at the behest of agents of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled over Yaroslav Popovych as he drove on a roundabout in Quarrata, a quaint Tuscan village of stucco facades and colorful shutters between Pistoia and Florence. The officials had been looking for Popovych, one of Lance Armstrong's Radio Shack teammates, to execute a search warrant. Italian authorities say the Ukrainian cyclist was startled but cooperative. He led them through olive groves to his house beside a cemetery. There the officials found drug-testing documents, medical supplies and performance-enhancing drugs. They also found e-mails and texts that, they say, establish that as recently as 2009 Armstrong's team had links to controversial Italian physician Michele Ferrari, with whom the Texan had said he cut ties in 2004.
This new evidence is now part of the FDA's investigation, directed by agent Jeff Novitzky, into whether Armstrong was involved in an organized doping operation as a member of the team sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), an independent agency of the federal government. In light of this criminal inquiry involving the greatest Tour de France rider of all time, SI reviewed hundreds of pages of documents and interviewed dozens of sources in Europe, New Zealand and the U.S. Because the case could potentially involve accusations that are more than a decade old, SI also examined doping allegations against Armstrong throughout his career as a pro cyclist, discovering information that is reported here for the first time.
The federal inquiry focuses on the period from 1999 to 2004, during which Armstrong won six of his seven Tour de France titles and the USPS team received more than $40 million toward sponsorship of the squad, which was managed by Tailwind, Inc., according to documents reviewed by SI. Through his attorney, Armstrong claims that he "started at USPS as a low paid, regular rider" and "was never the boss, director, the owner, or the doctor." But because government sponsorship is involved, if evidence suggests that Armstrong was directing illegal doping activity, the inquiry could result in charges against him of conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, racketeering, drug trafficking and defrauding the U.S. government.
Since August a grand jury has been meeting in Los Angeles to hear testimony by associates and confidants of Armstrong's. Those subpoenaed or interviewed include Armstrong's former teammates Tyler Hamilton, George Hincapie and Kevin Livingston; Mike Anderson, who once worked as Armstrong's bike mechanic and assistant; and Oakley sunglasses marketing representative Stephanie McIlvain. Another former teammate of Armstrong's, Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France but was stripped of the title because of a positive drug test, also gave information to investigators.
Because of Landis, Armstrong is facing a related legal challenge. Last April and May, Landis sent e-mails to USA Cycling accusing Armstrong and other riders of having doped while Landis and Armstrong were both on the USPS team. In May, Landis also filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against Armstrong under the U.S. False Claims Act, which allows citizens with evidence of fraud against the government to sue on behalf of the government. The Department of Justice is weighing whether to join Landis's suit. If Landis wins, he could collect up to 30% of what the government recovers. (In July, Armstrong called Landis "a person with zero credibility.")
Armstrong lives as he rides—surrounded by a cocoon of aides and helpers, his gimlet eyes focused on victory. Asked about the investigation, he told The Sydney Morning Herald on Jan. 5, "I don't let it affect me. I have a foundation to help run and lead. I still have, theoretically, a job—I ride my bike and train every day. It has no effect in what I do on a daily basis."
The Texan holds a unique place in American culture. Addressing Armstrong in a public ceremony at the White House in 1999, Vice President Al Gore said, "You captured the eyes of the nation and the hearts of the entire world." Armstrong rode into everyone's life on a bike saddle, breaking the record for Tour de France victories and giving hope to anyone who has ever been told, as he once was, "You have cancer." In 2002, after his fourth Tour de France victory, Armstrong was named SI's Sportsman of the Year.
He has been a fierce advocate for cancer patients, as attested by more than 70 million yellow Livestrong wristbands. Politicians line up to be photographed with him. Celebrities clamor to attend his fund-raising events. Corporations pay him millions to pitch their products. The self-described atheist has become a deity.
But now what? It is unclear if the grand jury will decide to issue an indictment (all grand jury proceedings are secret), but the inquiry's findings may cause the Armstrong faithful to ask, Was the miracle a mirage?
If so, it wasn't created by one man. A legion of devotees rode beside Armstrong as he transformed himself from an unknown teenager out of Plano, Texas, into a global icon. If a court finds that Armstrong won his titles while taking performance-enhancing drugs, his entourage may come to be known as the domestiques of the saddest deception in sports history.