During our investigation into Lance Armstrong in 2011, the 60 Minutes reporters and producers on this assignment were struck by the strict "code of silence" we encountered around the issue of doping in cycling, particularly whether Armstrong himself had ever doped.
This code made reporting the story a tough challenge as it was hard to get fellow cyclists to talk about their teammates.
Today, it appears that code is falling apart.
A report issued today by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) says that more than 26 people have now given testimony against Lance Armstrong -- including 11 of his former teammates on the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team (USPS Team) -- as part of USADA's investigation into a doping conspiracy on that team during the years when Armstrong rode to victory in seven Tour de France competitions.
"The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized, and successful doping program that sport has ever seen," according to a statement today by USADA's CEO, Travis T. Tygart. "The evidence demonstrates that the 'Code of Silence' of performance-enhancing drug use in the sport of cycling has been shattered."
Some of the riders who appeared before USADA -- the organization assigned by the U.S. government to police doping in many professional sports -- include Floyd Landis, Frankie Andreu, and Jonathan Vaughters, all of whom had previously acknowledged to the public that they had doped during competition.
Cyclist Tyler Hamilton also appeared before USADA. Hamilton first admitted his own doping -- as well as what he witnessed on the team -- to 60 Minutes back in May of 2011 (video below), as we reported in our story "Armstrong."
The claims he made are now backed up by a slew of additional testimony, coming from some of Armstrong's closest teammates, including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer, Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, Stephen Swart, Michael Berry and Tom Danielson.
The overwhelming amount of testimony before USADA is due in large part to the power of the subpoenas that compelled many of the riders to speak for the first time several years ago in front of a secret grand jury in Los Angeles, part of the now defunct federal investigation into doping on the USPS Team.
Tyler Hamilton has said that he had trouble living with the secrets and lies, and that his own testimony felt like a relief -- an experience that, he says, helped him make the tough decision to go public on 60 Minutes.
When the federal investigation ended suddenly and unexpectedly in February of this year, Tygart said his agency would continue to investigate. USADA then re-interviewed many of the same cyclists and the details of that testimony will be released today, among other evidence of a doping conspiracy. In the report, some of the cyclists are admitting their own doping in public for the first time.
60 Minutes first reported that George Hincapie had told investigators that "he and Armstrong supplied each other with the blood booster EPO and discussed having used testosterone, another banned substance."
Today, Hincapie issued a written statement admitting use of performance-enhancing drugs until 2006, saying: "Early in my professional career, it became clear to me that, given the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs by cyclists at the top of the profession, it was not possible to compete at the highest level without them. I deeply regret that choice and sincerely apologize to my family, teammates and fans." Hincapie officially retired from the sport just a month ago.
He is among the six active cyclists who testified and will now receive sanctions and be banned from the sport for a minimum of six months. USADA gave a nod towards how hard it is for cyclists to come forward in a statement that thanked them for their sacrifice for the good of transparency and the future of cycling.
"It took tremendous courage for the riders on the USPS Team and others to come forward and speak truthfully," Tygart said in today's statement. "It's not easy to admit your mistakes and accept your punishment."
The sheer number of riders coming forward today confirms how tainted the sport was during the period in which Lance Armstrong won those seven Tour de France victories.
Hamilton described on 60 Minutes a culture so corrupt that he and many other riders had to face the painful choice of either taking drugs or losing their opportunity to compete at the highest level of cycling. In today's statement, Tygart called doping use on the team "[a] systemic, sustained, and highly professionalized team-run doping conspiracy."
Lance Armstrong, for his part, continues to deny taking performance-enhancing drugs, and his lawyers have described the USADA report as a recycling of old accusations. He has also criticized the people who have testified against him, with one of his lawyers calling them: "axe-grinders, serial perjurers, coerced testimony, sweetheart deals and threat-induced stories."
The USADA report and evidence will now be analyzed by the International Cycling Union and the World Anti-Doping Agency, as part of the process to officially sanction Armstrong , ban him from sport for life and strip him of his seven Tour de France titles.
USADA's Travis Tygart, keenly aware of all the criticism they have faced from the Armstrong camp, said, "we focused solely on finding the truth without being influenced by celebrity or non-celebrity, threats, personal attacks or political pressure because that is what clean athletes deserve and demand."