When Lance Armstrong rose to become the top cyclist in the world he took his coach, Chris Carmichael, with him.
Carmichael had been running a modest personal coaching business in his spare bedroom in Colorado Springs, but as Armstrong won one Tour de France after another, Carmichael grew his cottage industry into an empire to include dozens of employees, thousands of clients, a library of best-selling books and satellite training centers in North Carolina, Arizona and California.
After Armstrong started winning, Carmichael was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame and named the United States Olympic Committee’s Coach of the Year. Today, he is the most celebrated and successful coach in endurance sports.
But now that Armstrong has admitted to doping, people who have worked with him are asking how much his long-time coach was involved, whether Carmichael overlooked the cheating to ensure his success, and if his business can survive Armstrong’s fall.
“Is Carmichael guilty? I don’t know. But I know he has been involved with riders who got caught doping since the beginning of his career,” Andy Bohlman, a Colorado Springs race director who was in charge of drug testing for the U.S. Cycling Federation from 1984 to 1991, told the Gazette. “I’d be surprised if he is clean in all this.”
Even riders who have known him for years have doubts.
“Carmichael made a ton of money,” former pro cyclist Scott Mercier, who was coached by Carmichael in the early 1990s, told the Gazette. “He was a good coach, very involved with us. I never saw evidence of him being involved in doping. But I’d be surprised if he didn’t know about Lance. If he was a good coach, how could he not?”
Other cyclists from the same period claim Carmichael gave them illegal performance enhancing drugs, even going as far as injecting them himself.
A spokesman for Carmichael said Saturday the coach is at a mountain bike race in South America and could not be reached for comment, but that the coaching business would endure.
A young Olymian on a troubled team
Carmichael has been involved in cycling since he was a teenager, and though he was never directly caught doping, he regularly associated with riders later engulfed in scandal.
A promising young athlete from Florida, Carmichael was named to the U.S. Junior World Championship team in 1978. In the early 1980s he came under the guidance of a Polish coach named Edward Borysewicz, better known as “Eddie B.,” who Bohlman calls “The father of American doping,” saying he brought Eastern Bloc tactics to the relatively clean sport of cycling in America.
In 1984, Borysewicz coached the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team, which Carmichael was on. The team won a record nine medals, but a few months later Rolling Stone revealed that one-third of the riders had doped by injecting extra blood into their veins. Carmichael was not named as one of the cyclists who doped, but Bohlman said it is telling he did not say anything or break with the team afterward.
In 1985, Carmichael joined the professional 7-Eleven team, which included many of the Olympic cyclists who admitted to blood doping. In 1986, they became the first American team to ride in the Tour de France. Carmichael did not finish the race. Later that year, he broke his femur and was never able to ride competitively again. Instead he turned to coaching.
Allegations of doping as a coach
In 1989, Carmichael was hired to coach for the junior national cycling team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. He began scouting for talent to build a European-caliber roster. One of the first riders he called was an 18-year-old kid from Texas named Lance Armstrong.
“Chris told me he wanted to develop a whole new team of young American cyclists, the sport was stagnant in the U.S. and he was seeking fresh kids to rejuvenate it,” Armstrong wrote in his 2001 book, “It’s not About the Bike.”
Other young riders on the team included George Hincapie, Bobby Julich, Jonathan Vaughters, Gerrik Latta, Erich Kaiter, David Francis and Greg Strock.
Carmichael brought in experienced Danish racer René Wenzel to help coach as the team trained and raced in Europe and the United States in 1990 and 1991.
Hincapie, Julich, Vaughters and Armstrong went on to pro careers and all later tested positive or admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.
Strock, Latta, Francis and Kaiter all later said Carmichael and Wenzel doped them without their knowledge or permission while they were under age.
A Carmichael spokesman would not comment until Saturday, after Armstrong’s televised confession aired. Armstrong did not mention Carmichael. Afterwards he spokesman refused to comment on doping allegations.
Strock, Kaiter, Hincapie, Vaughters and a number of other riders did not respond to requests for interviews.
Strock, who was 17 in 1990, said later he was given pills and injections daily and told they were “vitamins.”
After a race in Washington in 1990, Wenzel took Strock to Carmichael’s motel room, according to the book “From Lance to Landis” by David Walsh, where Carmichael appeared with a hard-sided briefcase.
“Inside were pills, ampoules and syringes. Selecting an ampoule and syringe, Carmichael inserted the needle into the ampoule, drew some liquid and injected Strock in the upper part of the buttocks,” Walsh wrote. Strock said he was told the injection was “extract of cortisone” — a substance that does not exist.
Stock later saw Carmichael at other races with the briefcase, Walsh wrote.
In 2000, Strock and Kaiter sued USA Cycling in Colorado, claiming the drugs had ruined their health. Latta brought a similar suit in Oregon.
USA Cycling in 2006 paid Strock and Kaiter $250,000 each, according to Walsh.
Carmichael kept his name out of the lawsuit, according to Walsh, by paying Strock an amount believed to be $20,000.
“Carmichael agreed to settle very quickly,” Wenzel told a Danish newspaper in 2006. “In hindsight that was probably a smart idea.”
Wenzel was fired as the team coach in 1992. Officially, it was part of a downsizing, but Bohlman said USCF staff told him it was due to doping.
Two other riders on the team interviewed by The Gazette recently said Carmichael was a good coach and they saw no evidence of illegal drugs.
“I was not aware of anything illegal. Maybe I just wasn’t good enough to get it,” said Peter Stubenrauch, a Denver doctor who was a rider with Armstrong under Carmichael. The only suspicious thing, Stubenrauch said, was that Carmichael sometimes used an Italian doctor named Massimo “Max” Testa, who gave some riders intravenous bags of saline after rides — a legal practice at the time.
Testa later became the doctor for Armstrong’s cycling team and other teams where riders doped.
“I did not see any drugs,” Stubenrauch said. “My only complaint was that Carmichael gave most of his attention to Lance. That made sense at the time — he was the best rider. But what if that was because he was all jacked up, even then?”
Armstrong's early doping admission
After coaching the junior team, Carmichael, still based in Colorado Springs, coached the US Olympic cycling team in 1992, working with Armstrong and other riders he had developed.
In 1995, according to a report by the Colorado Springs-base U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Carmichael told the press he introduced Armstrong to Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor notorious for his support of the blood-boosting drug EPO. Ferrari was famous in the cycling community for saying EPO was no more dangerous than orange juice and was later convicted in an Italian court of giving banned drugs to a cyclist.
In 1996 Carmichael was again Armstrong’s coach at the Olympics. A few months later, when Armstrong learned he had cancer, the cyclist called his closest friends to a hospital in Indianapolis, including Carmichael.
“Chris and I had been together for six years and there was nothing we couldn’t tell each other,” Armstrong wrote in “It’s Not About the Bike.”
There is no evidence that Carmichael ever gave Armstrong illegal performance enhancing drugs, but testimony about what happened at the hospital suggests Carmichael knew Armstrong used drugs.
Two doctors came into the room, according to a sworn statement by Armstrong’s friend and fellow rider Frankie Andreu, cited in the USADA report. Carmichael was also in the room, Andreu said. The doctors asked Armstrong if he had ever used any performance enhancing drugs. “Armstrong replied that he had used EPO, testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone and steroids,” Andreu said in his testimony.
For years after, Carmichael vigorously defended Armstrong in the media, saying he had never seen him use drugs.
After recovering from cancer, Armstrong went on to win seven straight Tour de France titles starting in 1999 and became one of the most celebrated athletes in the world.
The flurry of media covering Armstrong’s storied recovery often focused on the athlete’s determination and Carmichael’s coaching smarts.
In reality, the recovery was likely largely fueled by Ferrari’s elaborate regimen of blood doping and drugs, according to the USADA report. Carmichael seemed to have little to do with it.
According to Armstrong’s former teammate Tyler Hamilton’s book “The Secret Race,” “During the years I trained with Lance, I don’t recall Lance ever mentioning Chris’s name or citing a piece of advice Chris had given him. By contrast, Lance mentioned Ferrari constantly, almost annoyingly so.”
Carmichael capitalized on Armstrong’s success.
In 1999, Carmichael was running his coaching business, Carmichael Training Systems, or CTS, out of his house with three employees and one phone. That summer Armstrong won the Tour and Carmichael came up with new slogan: “Lance Armstrong calls him ‘Coach.’ Now you can, too.”
Business took off.
By 2001 CTS had 20 employees offering personal training and nutrition plans to 500 clients. By 2005 CTS had 50 employees and more than 2,000 clients. For personal coaching,
Carmichael charged $3,500 per month and $3,500 per person for week-long camps. He charged least $20,000 as a motivational speaker for such corporations as Microsoft and Nike.
As business grew, Carmichael gave generously to the local community, sponsoring local bike races and charities.
After the 1999 Tour, Carmichael remained close friends with Armstrong and was still officially his coach, but other riders have said he was often in Colorado while Armstrong trained elsewhere.
A number of Armstrong’s teammates later told investigators and the press that Armstrong kept Carmichael as coach to draw attention away from the team’s dealings with the Italian doctor.
“He was a complete smokescreen, he’s not a coach at all,” teammate Floyd Landis told journalist Graham Bensinger in 2011. “He would come to the Tour with clients but that’s about it.”
Carmichael would post what was claimed to be Armstrong’s daily workouts on his company Website, Landis said, but the posts bore no resemblance to what the team was actually doing.
Even so, Carmichael and Armstrong remained tightly connected in at least one respect: Protecting Armstrong’s reputation.
Armstrong was a main investor in Carmichael’s business and Carmichael depended on Armstrong’s name to bring in clients. To some extent they would rise or fall together.
When news broke in 2001 that Armstrong was secretly working with Ferrari, Carmichael hit the media circuit, according to Hamilton’s book, and “assured the world that he alone was Lance’s true coach.”
In 2003, when rumors started circulating in the cycling world that Armstrong’s former masseuse, Emma O’Reilly, was talking about her involvement in the team’s doping, Carmichael called his old junior rider Stubenrauch, who was O’Reilly’s roommate, to find out what she was saying.
“My understanding was that Chris was no longer really Lance’s coach, but they were close enough that Chris was making calls to me, sniffing around, finding out what I knew,” Stubenrauch told The Gazette.
When reporters came calling after O’Reilly went public, Carmichael emphatically defended Armstrong.
“Chris can attest that Lance has never taken any performance enhancing drugs,” a Carmichael spokesman told the Australian newspaper The Age in 2004.
As evidence of doping piled up, Carmichael never failed to back Armstrong. Even in late 2012 after Armstrong did not appeal a harsh USADA report detailing years of cheating, Carmichael told VeloNews, “This is the only thing I’ll say about that. In 20 years, I never saw him use any banned substances, and in my eyes, seeing is believing.”
CTS without Armstrong
All of Armstrong’s major sponsors dropped him in the last year, but images of Armstrong still cover nearly every wall of the CTS training center in Colorado Springs, including a photo of Carmichael on a scooter training with Armstrong and a larger than life poster at the entrance of Armstrong with his hand over his heart.
Jim Rutberg, Carmichael’s media director, who has been with CTS since 2000, said Saturday the company is thinking of taking the images down.
“We’ve talked about refreshing the images in our facility to better represent the time-crunched athlete or everyday athlete that makes up the majority of our athlete base,” he said. “But we’re not in a hurry.”
Only one cyclist client was pedaling in the center’s gym Friday morning, raising the question, with Armstrong disgraced, can CTS survive?
Business is down from its peak around 2005. CTS now has about half of the athletes it used to. But Rutberg said that is due more to the economy than the scandal surrounding Armstrong. Business has barely changed since the scandal broke.
Even so, since about 2010, CTS has been focusing increasingly on marketing to “time-crunched” amatuer athletes, and Rutberg said it will continue to pursue that approach .
“Enduring in any business takes more than an association with any one athlete or celebrity,” he said. “Carmichael Training Systems has thrived for 13 years because of the thousands of amateur and professional athletes we’ve helped to achieve their goals.”