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Analysis: How Spain became center of operations in Armstrong’s doping ring

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Oct. 16, 2012
French headlines have recently vilified Lance Armstrong, who had numerous run-ins with the French press and doping authorities. Photo: Franck Fife | AFP

Sweet home Girona

When U.S. Postal Service was born in 1996, its aim was to be an American team, but based in Europe. Management wanted a full-time presence in Europe and that meant riders were encouraged to live there for the entire racing season.

While previous Americans racing in Europe had settled in northern Italy or around Nice, the new wave of young Americans settled in Girona, a mid-sized historic city in the heart of Spain’s Catalunya region.

The narrow streets, vibrant café life, mild weather, excellent network of low-traffic roads and its close proximity to airports made it an ideal hub for a new generation of American riders trying to break into the European peloton.

Among the first to arrive were George Hincapie and Jonathan Vaughters. Hincapie later described himself as one of the “OGs,” the “original gangsters,” of the new, flourishing Girona base while Vaughters settled into an apartment in the city’s medieval Jewish quarter.

The community quickly grew, as Christian Vande Velde and Tyler Hamilton, and later Michael Barry, Dave Zabriskie, Levi Leipheimer, Tom Danielson and Floyd Landis would settle there.

Each would eventually provide intimate details of his doping practices to USADA investigators.

Many would buy homes, some making more money off Spain’s booming real estate market than they would on their rider salaries. Armstrong later purchased a flat in a restored, 17-century palace in central Girona where his neighbors were Hamilton and Freddy Rodriguez.

Girlfriends and wives would soon follow their racing counterparts across the pond, and many would become willing accomplices in the ever-expanding doping ring.

Riders would meet each morning on Girona’s ancient stone bridge over the Onyra River for training rides. It was often on these training rides, far away from nosey journalists and curious wives and girlfriends that riders would begin to share information and express their misgivings about their doping experiences.

The riders were urged to move to Girona by Johnny Weltz, the former U.S. Postal Service director in the pre-Armstrong era.

The affable Dane, who still lives in nearby Olot, realized that it was harder for the Americans to feel comfortable into Europe and thought it would make sense to have them based in one area, where the team could set up its service course and riders could have some friends to train and race with far away from home.

It was in the narrow streets of Girona’s old city center, famous for its raucous nightlife and Gothic cathedral that U.S. Postal Service’s doping program began to take shape.

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Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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