TELLURIDE – When one hero falls, another always rises. Sometimes, you just have to look a little harder to find him.
Amidst the current scandalous state of professional cycling, that hero is former professional cyclist Scott Mercier.
Mercier grew up in Telluride, at the top of Oak Street, before attending the University of Berkeley then riding professionally for Saturn, the United States Postal Service (USPS) and becoming an Olympian.
But, in 1997, at the height of his career, Mercier did what the sport of cycling’s champions wouldn’t. He said no to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, or PEDs, thus giving up his professional cycling career with the very successful, and now notorious, USPS team.
Allegations of the pervasive use of PEDs have shrouded the sport of cycling for well over a decade.
Most troubling of all have been the ongoing allegations against American cyclist , USPS captain from 1998-2003 and seven-time Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong. Even though, race after race, tour after tour, Armstrong’s drug tests reportedly came back clean.
Over the last few years, however, Armstrong’s cover-up slowly unraveled.
In May 2010, Floyd Landis, who won the 2006 Tour de France Championship and also rode with Armstrong on the USPS team, admitted to using PEDs, and was stripped of his title.
In May 2011, American superstar Tyler Hamilton, who helped Armstrong win three Tours and who won a gold medal at the Athens Olympics, surrendered his medal and admitted to doping.
Neither Landis nor Hamilton went down quietly. Both gave extensive and very public testimony exposing Armstrong, as not only an avid user of PEDs, but as the most significant factor in the increased, and seemingly rampant, use of PEDs throughout the sport.
In the last two months, Armstrong has stopped fighting the charges directed at him by the United States Anti Doping Agency, been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, stepped down as the chairman of his high-profile cancer foundation, Livestrong, and is facing a lawsuit that is estimated at over $20 million from at least one of his former sponsors. The sport’s biggest hero has fallen.
ACCLAIM FOR A DECISION MADE IN 1997
In the darkest years of the sport of cycling, Mercier was one of very few athletes who quietly declined a contract from the USPS’s professional cycling team because he didn’t want to have to cheat to win.
Now, 15-½ years after leaving the sport, he is emerging as one of cycling’s true heroes. In recent weeks, his story has been featured on CNN, the BBC, Cycling News, Sky Sports, NPR and the Denver Post as well as in a host of other international newspapers.
“It’s humbling,” Mercier said in an interview last week with The Watch. “It’s exciting that a decision I made 15-½ years ago is now coming back and creating such a big issue.
“I just got an email from a guy that wants to secure the rights for a possible Hollywood deal,” he added, although he was quick to dismiss the possibility of anything coming of it.
Mercier first started talking publicly about his experience on the USPS Team in May 2011, after reading the transcript of an interview between Floyd Landis and journalist Paul Kimmage in which Landis had admitted to using Erythropoietin, or EPO, to win. Landis told Kimmage that the choice for cyclists in the late 1990s and early part of 2000 was to “cheat or be cheated” – a comment that made Mercier irate, because he’d chosen differently.
After reading the transcript, Mercier went to Velo News and told his story.
Since that interview, the details of Mercier’s story have been featured in news outlets around the world.
It goes like this: In May, 1997, while still a member of USPS, Mercier recalled being given a baggie with green pills and glass vials during a four-week training schedule that included 10-12 days of 150 km and 220 km of riding per day, with most days ending in interval training or motor-pacing. On each day, there were either dots or stars on the training schedule; the dots represented that he should take pills and the stars represented injections.
Mercier recounted, feigning an Eastern European accent, that the team doctor told him during the four-week block, “No racing… for sure you test positive, but you go strong like bull.”
Mercier went home and tried to do the training block without using the PEDs, and now recalls having successful days, but not being able to recover quickly. He never took the drugs, continued to ride clean, finished the season and then left the sport – a decision Mercier admits was extremely difficult.
“You’re in your 20s, traveling around Europe, living like a rock star,” Mercier recalled. “It’s hard physically and psychologically, but it’s lots of fun.
“It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” he said, adding that a lot of winning “is psychology.
“I wanted it so badly,” he said of winning, that “I swallowed my own puke when we won the Olympic trials.”
But when push came to shove, Mercier said, he drew the line at “putting a needle in my ass.”
In retrospect, Mercier attributes his ability to walk away from the sport to his education. He didn’t begin racing professionally until after he had secured a degree from the University of California Berkeley.
“Imagine being in your late 20s and making good money – a couple hundred grand to a million,” without higher education, he said. “What’s your alternative?”
In his own case, Mercier said, “I had my degree, I knew I could find gainful employment.”
But even Mercier admits that’s the easy answer. And when he really reflects deeply about his decision, it was the lying and hypocrisy around using PEDs that got to him.
“It’s weird. I have received 50 emails from all over world – people sending me a thank you,” he said. “It’s bizarre. I was just doing what I thought was right.
“I would’ve struggled with people asking me if I was doping and having to lie and say, ‘No.’”
Mercier quit USPS in 1997, and for the next ten-plus years watched the athletes he knew had been cheating claim fame, glory and riches by winning bike races.
“At the time, I felt almost tremendous remorse that I’d made a horrible decision,” Mercier said. “Talk about temptation. Tyler Hamilton got second in the [Giro de Italia]; a gold medal [in the Athens Olympics]; and won a stage of the [Tour de France]. [George] Hincapie did 17 tours and had tremendous success and wealth, traveling the world in private jets.
“Everything has a cost,” he said. “I never won an Olympic medal, never rode the Tour, and that’s the price I have to pay. But the price these guys have to pay – they won –but forever they’ll be known as liar and cheats. For the rest of their lives.”
Mercier says he’s a bit mystified about the attention he is currently receiving, but plans to put it to good use in building a platform for promoting transparency in the sport. Of all the phone calls he’s received in the last few months, he said he’s most excited by the call from USADA President Travis Tygart.
“He called me personally about six weeks ago,” Mercier said, “and I thought it was a joke; I didn’t know why he wanted to talk to me. He told me that my name came up over and over again, during the Postal Service investigations [of Lance Armstrong], as the only guy who had a contract and turned down drugs and turned down the contract.”
Mercier added that another USPS rider, Darren Baker, left the sport in 1997, and is now speaking out about his experience.
“Now I have a platform to represent clean athletes,” Mercier said. “I’m going to make the most of it.”
Mercier firmly believes that, for lasting change to take place in professional cycling, the leadership of the sport’s governing institution, the Union Cycliste Internationale, must change. Specifically, he is calling for its president, Pat McQuaid, to step down.
“The leadership of the UCI is saying, ‘We have nothing to apologize for,’” Mercier said, “because they test the athletes.”
“But they know tests don’t work. Investigations and testimonies do.”
Mercier explained that when prominent athletes like Frankie Andreu, who also rode for the USPS team in the Armstrong years, and Landis and Hamilton started speaking out, the UCI vilified them.
“Instead of the UCI saying what happened? Tell us? They called them liars and sued them,” Mercier said. “What they should have done is say, ‘Wait a minute, we have a problem,’ particularly when Frankie spoke, because he’d never tested positive.”
Unless the leadership changes, Mercier is not optimistic the sport can clean itself up or recover. But, he’s committed to using his limelight to call for change and do what he can. And although he definitely has an audience these days, he says his favorite groups to speak to are kids.
“Do what you think is right,” he said. “Don’t let others dictate what you need to do to win. There is always pressure. But if they can take down Lance Armstrong, no one is immune. He is extremely powerful and vindictive.”
When the spotlight fades, Mercier says he won’t miss it. He still loves riding his bike; he has his integrity, and in the eyes of those who matter most, he’s cycling’s hero.
“My wife said something to me the other day,” Mercier said. “She said, ‘Aren’t you glad you’re not coming home to explain to your kids that you’re a liar and a cheat?’”