American refused EPO and quit professional but 16 years on is friends with the sport’s biggest cheat who replaced him in the US Postal team
It is, perhaps, the unlikeliest friendship in sport. The former cyclist who turned his back on the profession in disgust after refusing to submit to its all-pervasive doping culture; and the most notorious drugs cheat in history, whose seven tainted Tour de France titles shredded the peloton’s credibility at a stroke.
Yet take a trip to the mountain peaks of Vail, Colorado, and there is a fair chance you will see Scott Mercier and Lance Armstrong cycling side by side, hunched over their handlebars, deep in conversation. “It’s Lance and the anti-Lance,” Mercier reflects, with a chuckle.
Rewind to cycling’s dope-soaked days of 1997, and such a friendship would have seemed unfathomable.
Mercier, then aged 28, had just quit the US Postal team after refusing to pump himself full of erythropoietin – EPO – prescribed to him by the team’s doctor.
His place had been taken by Armstrong, a brash young buck who had no qualms following the team’s orders and went on to become the most successful athlete in the history of the sport, before his downfall in June 2012, when Travis Tygart’s US Anti-Doping Agency laid bare the biggest conspiracy “in professional sports history”.
Mercier had retreated from public life following his retirement from cycling, moving to Hawaii to open a restaurant with his father before taking a job as a financial adviser in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Yet it was the Usada report and Tygart’s subsequent public salute of his principled stand that propelled Mercier back into the public eye and, ultimately, to the attentions of Armstrong.
“Lance started following me on Twitter, which made me a little nervous,” Mercier recalled. “I thought: ‘Why would he want to get in touch with me? We took different paths’. I had some crazy thoughts, wondering if he wanted to record our conversation and sue me. So I sent him a message saying: ‘Hey Lance, thanks for the follow, hope you’re well. Here’s my number if you need to talk’.
“He replied: ‘I’ll be in Aspen for the summer, we have lots to discuss’. On my way up he texted: ‘Did you bring your bike, because let’s ride’. That’s when I knew it would be more about cycling than confrontation.”
Even so, Mercier required more convincing about the true nature of Armstrong’s intentions. And no wonder.
The scale of Armstrong’s wrongdoing, as portrayed in the Usada report, shocked even those who had always had their suspicions about his dominance: the years of lying, bullying and cheating could not be easily forgotten by Mercier, whose insistence on staying clean had effectively pushed him out of the sport.
“If you think about what Lance did, it was sick,” he says. “The way he would not only win, but win defending a falsehood.
“It wasn’t like he was just going on the defence, he was going on the offence and prevailing. He cheated when everyone cheated, yes, but it was the way he defended the lie that I had problems with.”
Yet if Mercier approached that first ride with Armstrong with some trepidation, it was soon banished. Instead, much to his surprise, he found himself establishing a rapport with a man he had previously loathed.
“He’s a funny guy, he’s smart and he makes fun of himself,” Mercier says. “You read all these things about how he couldn’t laugh at himself. Maybe that was true back then, but every time I talk to him I make fun of him.
“He is much more introspective than I would have expected. His biggest regret is not the doping but his behaviour off the bike, which I think is fair. I’ve told him he doesn’t owe me an apology, though. I didn’t give up the sport because of anything he did. I made that decision and I’ve got to live with it.”
Mercier can still recall the moment he made that decision. It was May 1997 and the US Postal doctor, Pedro Celaya, had called each member of the US team into his hotel room. Mercier, whose contract with the team was drawing to an end, was next to be summoned.
“Pedro handed me a bag containing a bottle of green pills and several vials of clear liquid,” he says. “I was given a 17-day training schedule too. Each day had either a dot or a star. A dot represented a pill and a star was an injection.
“He said: ‘They’re steroids, you go strong like bull’. Then he said: ‘Put it in your pocket, if you get stopped at customs say it’s B vitamins’. That was when I decided I didn’t want to be a pro cyclist any more. I got home and decided: ‘No, thank you’. I love cycling, it’s a beautiful sport, but it would have been very difficult for me to look anyone in the eye and say I was clean when I wasn’t.”
Celaya has been charged with possession and trafficking by Usada but he has appealed.
Mercier has a clear conscience, but there are moments when he wonders about the path his life might have taken had he been able to set his morals aside – pangs of regret which are often fuelled by Armstrong’s tales of those heady days with US Postal.
“Lance looks back and tells me about the fun they had. When you’re winning the Tour de France, that’s a big deal. You’re riding into the Champs Élysées, the whole team is up front drinking champagne and you’ve just slugged it out with the best endurance athletes in the world and kicked their asses. That would be a terrific feeling. It’s something I missed and I live with those consequences.”
As does Armstrong. The 42-year-old has already been given a life ban by the International Cycling Union and is fending off multiple lawsuits from those he deceived during his career.
On Wednesday, he promised to be “open and honest” in his dealings with the independent commission into the sport’s doping past, a three-strong panel that includes a war crimes investigator.
More, as yet unheard, horror stories could emerge when Armstrong presents his evidence yet his situation provokes sympathy, rather than scorn, from Mercier.
“I’ve said to Lance that we would have made a pretty decent partnership. And he just said: ‘Absolutely’. He says he could have done with some smart guys around him. You hear about what a bully he is and now he’s the one getting bullied.”
In the meantime, the pair will continue with their weekly sojourns into the Colorado hills, wiling away the miles with their chats about sport, family, life and everything.
“I don’t know where our friendship is going and it’s bizarre quite frankly,” admits Mercier. “He might be playing me, I don’t know. My daughter makes these duck tape wallets and made one for Lance, which was yellow with the number seven on it.
“He uses it, he walks around with this duck tape wallet, and sent her this really sweet video thanking her for it. He surprises you.”