Things changed dramatically with the arrival of Armstrong for the 1998 season. Long before his superstar status would take root, the former world champion was a shell of his former self and his future far from secure.
His treatments for testicular cancer in 1996 had emaciated his body, but not his spirit. Armstrong was determined to return as a pro and bent on making up for lost time.
Several teams snubbed their noses at Armstrong, who was viewed as damaged goods by the European cycling establishment. Cofidis had terminated his contract in 1997. Others laughed at the notion that Armstrong could race again at the top level, let alone dare to win the Tour.
Patrick Lefevere, then the team manager at mighty Mapei, recalls what he says is his lone conversation with Armstrong. It occurred in 1998, after Mapei team owner, Dr. Giorgio Squinzi, had refused to sign Armstrong.
“The only time I spoke with Armstrong was in 1998, when he came up to me and said, ‘Squinzi will be sorry because I am going to win the Tour de France,’” Lefevere recalled to VeloNews.
Early in the 1998 season, Armstrong floundered, pulling out of Paris-Nice in his major comeback race that left many wondering if they had seen the last of the hard-nosed Texan.
Armstrong came back better than ever, however, fueled by EPO and other drugs, says USADA, and finished fourth in both the 1998 Vuelta a España and the world championship road race.
But Armstrong didn’t like or trust the sometimes nervous and distracted Weltz.
By season’s end, the Dane was quickly jettisoned in favor of Bruyneel, a recently retired Belgian pro that hardly knew Armstrong. The pair hit it off, however, and the duo quickly took control of the team.
With Bruyneel came an even stronger Spanish link that would shape the direction of the doping practices all the way through Armstrong’s second comeback in 2009. Many staffers, soigneurs and mechanics that Bruyneel knew from his racing days would land jobs at the upstart American team.
Weltz was gone, and so, too, was Celaya. By the end of the 1998, Armstrong was complaining that Celaya was not providing enough doping products.
Bruyneel, who raced at ONCE under the guidance of notorious Spanish director Manolo Saiz, knew just the man for the job.
Here’s what USADA wrote about the arrival of Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral:
One of Bruyneel’s first acts was to replace Dr. Celaya, the U.S. Postal team physician in 1997 and 1998, with Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral who had provided services to the ONCE team. At the end of the 1998 season Lance had complained to Jonathan Vaughters that Celaya was too conservative in the way he dispensed doping products. Armstrong’s comment about Dr. Celaya was along the lines of, the team “might as well race clean, he wants to take your temperature to give you even a caffeine pill. Dr. del Moral was far more aggressive than Dr. Celaya in providing doping products to riders.”