BOULDER, Colo. -- Rick Crawford doesn't remember the invisible line he crossed between supplying EPO and not, only that he did when it became clear that he and Levi Leipheimer couldn't compete without cheating.
"It's hard for me to go back in time, because it's a long time ago," Crawford said this week.
What snapped? "I'm not exactly sure," he said. "There was a lot of methodical planning, in terms of, 'OK, how do we get you to this next step?'"
On Wednesday, Crawford, a coach of top American talent and collegiate cycling royalty (now at Colorado Mesa University) publicly admitted to doping two riders -- Leipheimer and, according to the Grand Junction Sentinel, Kirk O'Bee -- from 1999 to 2001. Crawford began coaching the former in the early 1990s. What's transpired since then is but a footnote in cycling's sordid history, a redacted name in a tower of U.S. Anti-Doping Agency affidavits.
In the early 1990s, the coach took on Leipheimer, who Crawford said didn't have enough money to pay for his coaching.
"Levi was a quick responder. He kicked butt," Crawford said. "It was gratifying.
"I'd been working with Levi since before anybody had really heard of him. We had gone through all of his Saturn years and had had a lot of success just with normal training methodology, just good old working hard. And then he started getting these opportunities to race on a higher scale."
It was then, it seemed, that the tide had turned against bread and water. Leipheimer didn’t seem to be getting the same performance enhancing drug treatment as his contemporaries on the U.S. Postal Service team, Crawford said.
"There was just this attitude. There was a circle at Postal that Levi was never part of. There were things going on in that circle, and I was getting reports from Levi about what was going on at that point. During this whole sequence, we’re just trying to figure out how to be competitive at that world level,” Crawford said. “At some point that decision was made that we would move forward with these substances. That’s the methodology in terms of the thought process. That was kind of our thinking. We were just trying to compete in a world where it seemed there was no other way.”
On Wednesday, Leipheimer did not address specifics, but offered no defenses for his and his former coach’s decisions.
“All the history of people testing positive or confessing, over the last 20 years, that’s the context right there,” he told VeloNews. “I’m not going to try and make a justification.”
There was a feeling, Crawford said, that the two had reached the brink, and shouldn’t turn away from potential greatness, no matter what it took.
“There was this, you know, attitude of, ‘well, we’ve come this far, but we’re an inch away from being in the big time,’” he said. “And, you know, you take that step.”
That step for Crawford was sourcing -- and shipping, through the U.S. mail -- EPO, which increases the blood’s ability to transport oxygen.
Of course, it worked. Leipheimer’s name, and his ability, was on the rise. Crawford said he and Leipheimer parted ways after his pupil’s third-place finish in the 2001 Vuelta a España. Soon after that, Crawford found out Leipheimer was walking away from him as he headed to Rabobank, leaving the coach on the fringe of the sport’s top level. Leipheimer, though, told VeloNews on Wednesday that he and Crawford continued to work together for a time after he joined Rabobank.
However the split transpired, Crawford was clearly let down.
“Essentially I was at that point where I had basically just been floating his coaching for season after season after season forever. And had taken tremendous risks for him,” Crawford said. “I just felt very let down, like there was no future in the sport, period. I wasn’t happy with the things that I had done. I wasn’t happy with myself… The only thing in the world that we were after was success in cycling. And I felt like he was moving on without me, after all of that. It gutted me.”
The two haven’t talked much lately, Crawford said.
“We haven’t really at all,” he said. “Just in passing… whenever he’s been racing domestically and we’ve crossed paths, there would be a brief ‘hello.’”
“He was a good guy,” Leipheimer said. “When I worked with him, he was positive, he was motivating.”
Leipheimer said he’s glad Crawford was able to come clean.
“All I can say is that I’m happy he told the truth. I’m sure he’s much better off,” Leipheimer said. “I don’t want to have to have him feel like he’s got to go through life and keep denying and denying it. That can’t be a pleasant experience.”
Leipheimer added that, had someone come forward 20 years ago, they’d have been the only one. And that’s not the case now, after the USADA’s landmark file on Lance Armstrong. Leipheimer is currently serving a six-month reduced ban tied to his testimony in that case.
“Now is the time to tell the truth,” Leipheimer said. “Now, he can contribute to a change that is going on.”