'Tattooed Guy' Was Pivotal in Armstrong Case - New York Times
UPLAND, Calif. — The long road to Lance Armstrong’s demise began here, across the world from the French Alps where he climbed to the pinnacle of cycling, at a strip-mall tattoo parlor in the foothills east of Los Angeles.
Covered in ink from his legs to his neck, Kayle Leogrande, the owner of this shop, competed full time as a professional cyclist for only a couple of years. He met Lance Armstrong in person only once, he said, at a 2005 race in Ojai, Calif.
“I talked to him briefly after the race,” Leogrande, now 35, said. “I’m sure he thought, Who is this stupid tattooed guy?”
But whether Armstrong remembered this tattooed guy or not, his fate would soon become intertwined with Leogrande’s own.
Four years ago, the United States Anti-Doping Agency slapped Leogrande with a suspension for using a blood-boosting hormone known as EPO. And it was this case that grew into the investigation that lasted for years and that culminated in Armstrong’s lifetime ban from the sport.
“When I see what’s going on with Lance now, I have to laugh to myself a little bit,” Leogrande said as he sat in his shop last week, still dumbfounded that he played a pivotal role in the fall of one of the most accomplished cyclists in history.
That downfall became even more absolute Wednesday, when Nike terminated its sponsorship contract with Armstrong and he announced that he was stepping down as chairman of Livestrong, his cancer foundation.
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the antidoping agency, said Leogrande’s doping sparked a series of events that led the agency — as well as federal investigators — to make formal inquiries into drug use in cycling. The investigators then followed a trail that led to Armstrong and his United States Postal Service team.
“Without Leogrande, who knows, the Armstrong investigation maybe never would have happened,” Tygart said.
Just a few years ago, perhaps nothing would have seemed more unlikely. In 2004, as Armstrong was wrapping up the sixth of his record seven consecutive Tour de France titles, Leogrande had not touched a bike in years.
A high-level cyclist as a teenager, he gave up racing at 17. Instead, he married, had children, divorced and worked at a series of tattoo parlors.
But after watching Armstrong on television in that 2004 Tour de France, Leogrande began riding again. Despite his long layoff, he was still a talented rider, and the next year, he was signed by a professional team.
By this point, however, the landscape of competitive cycling had shifted drastically from the one Leogrande had walked away from a decade earlier. When he began to race competitively again, other professionals started talking to him about doping.
“They would just talk about it in the way that most people would talk about eating healthy,” Leogrande said. “I immediately knew I shouldn’t do it. I knew there would be consequences. But I was strangely attracted to it at the same time. I was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. I wanted to see what the effect would be.”
Leogrande said he first bought EPO in late 2006 from Joe Papp, a former pro cyclist who has since been convicted of trafficking performance-enhancing drugs. Without a doctor to advise him, he was not even sure how much to take, or when. The first few times he did it, he said, it left him feeling as if he had the flu.
In 2007, though, he signed for the Rock Racing team, where he was introduced to former teammates of Armstrong’s. And he began doping more regularly, he said, with subtle encouragement from Michael Ball, a fashion designer who founded the team.
Leogrande said he continually felt like a child skipping school. He would come home from training rides looking carefully at every car parked by his house, worried that drug-testing officials were waiting for him.
But results followed, and Leogrande continued his climb through the ranks of American cycling. After winning the amateur national championship in 2006, he finished in the top 10 at the national championships in 2007, this time in the professional division. Racing in the Tour de France suddenly seemed close enough to taste.
“That was the year I felt like I could do anything I wanted on a bike,” he said. “I could climb with the climbers. I could win a sprint.”
But during a race in July in which he finished second, he was subjected to a drug test. Worried that he would fail, he confided in his team’s soigneur, Suzanne Sonye, about his doping.
“I remember thinking she was O.K. with it because that’s what cyclists did,” Leogrande said. “I was naïve. I knew cyclists on other teams that did it, and we would talk about it. But Suzanne wasn’t O.K. with it.”
That casual confession — not the drug test — opened a Pandora’s box. Though Leogrande had no firsthand knowledge of Armstrong’s doping, the confession provided the initial thread that would lead investigators to others who did and ultimately bring down Armstrong.
Somehow, Leogrande’s drug test did not come back positive. But Sonye reported his confession to Usada. Her testimony, and evidence provided by Papp — photographs of Leogrande with EPO and a handwritten note — sank Leogrande.
At the end of 2008, Usada suspended him for two years, making him the first rider the agency barred based on “nonanalytical” evidence, rather than failed drug tests.
Soon after the suspension he moved out of the house he had been renting, leaving behind a box of EPO in the refrigerator. When his landlady found it, he said, she called and asked him what she should do with the “box of drugs.”
Depressed, with his biking career derailed and his second marriage on the cusp of divorce, Leogrande said he did not care — even after she threatened to call the authorities. He did not try to stop her, or go back and pick up the box and dispose of it. He told her, “Do what you need to do.”
She called the Food and Drug Administration. A few weeks later, Leogrande said, Jeff Novitzky, the F.D.A. investigator who had connected several high profile athletes like Marion Jones and Barry Bonds to steroids, showed up at his door.
Leogrande talked. He said he told Novitzky what he knew about doping in cycling, without naming names.
Novitzky had just begun his investigation into doping in professional cycling. But already, Leogrande said, he asked about Armstrong.
“He would ask, Do you think Lance is doing this?’ ” Leogrande said. “I would tell him: ‘He’s racing in these barbaric cycling races in Europe. If you were a rider at that level, what would you do?’ ”
In early 2010, Novitzky paid a visit to Papp, who had briefly worked with the Rock Racing team and who told Novitzky that Floyd Landis, one of Armstrong’s former teammates, had been an unofficial adviser to Ball, the team owner. That put Landis on Novitzky’s radar.
“Until then, it was all about Rock Racing, and he wasn’t asking about Armstrong at all,” Papp said of Novitzky. “He wasn’t looking into the Postal Service team until that point, until Floyd came into the picture.”
Months later, in spring 2010, Landis made public his accusations that a systematic doping program had been in place on the United States Postal Service team and that the top riders, including Armstrong, had been a part of it.
In turn, Novitzky began knocking on the doors of other former Armstrong teammates, some of whom later testified against him.
In the end, the initial inquiry into Leogrande soon turned into a widespread “investigation into drug use and distribution within the Southern California cycling scene,” the Usada report on Armstrong’s case said.
As the case moved slowly toward Armstrong, Leogrande said he kept track of it. But he also had his own legal problems.
While he was still part of the Rock Racing team, he brought lawsuits not only against Usada, but also against Sonye for defamation. When the case was dismissed, the court ordered him to pay Sonye’s legal fees, a crippling sum, he said.
Leogrande served his suspension. He focused on tattooing. And last year, after admitting that he had doped — “I even called Usada and apologized,” he said — he began racing again on a new team that he founded.
He knows he will never race in the Tour de France. But now, he said, he views his suspension in part as a blessing, which allowed him to regain perspective and spend more time with his children.
“I’m happy with where I’m at,” he said. “I knew better the whole time, just like I’m sure Lance knew better.”
Juliet Macur contributed reporting.