Armstrong's tight inner circle crumbles

LOS ANGELES -- After all these years, all these miles and all the suspicion, it's still somewhat astonishing to see the cars on the old Blue Train uncoupling one by one. This may forever be remembered as the week when Lance Armstrong finally lost control over the U.S. Postal Service cycling team that formally disbanded years ago.

One of Armstrong's most prominent support riders from early on in his seven-year reign as Tour de France champion, Tyler Hamilton, admitted to his own doping past and has given the CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes" an alleged eyewitness account of Armstrong using performance-enhancing drugs that will air on Sunday evening.

The network also reported a potentially even more weighty revelation, saying that George Hincapie, the only man to have been on all of Armstrong's Tour-winning teams, has told federal authorities investigating Armstrong that the two men supplied each other with banned substances and discussed their use. Hincapie has not confirmed the story and said he never spoke to "60 Minutes."

Armstrong has never strayed from his blanket denial of doping. But taken together with Floyd Landis' year-old detailed confession and allegations of Armstrong doping, the new material constitutes a far more serious assault on Armstrong's integrity than anything previously unearthed in the 12 years since he became a global superstar. It also represents a total rupture of formerly strong bonds between the ex-teammates, bonds that once would have seemed impossible to break, whether because of camaraderie or common interest.

The supremely efficient Postal teams of Lance Armstrong's heyday ran on schedule -- his schedule. More than any other organization of that era, they were built on the principle of all for one and one for the Tour de France. Other races were tuneups or afterthoughts, and other individual aspirations were footnotes, if they existed at all. Postal riders were self-effacing and loyal to their leader; the Tour was one big buddy movie on two-wheelers.

At least it was made to appear that way. What the world was permitted to see of the team off the road was tightly monitored. Minders sat in on interviews. Journalists sympathetic to the team were enlisted to keep tabs on who was saying what in the press room. Hostile journalists were photographed and blacklisted. The Blue Train was also a gravy train that altered the trajectory of many careers. Woe to anyone who tried to derail it by raising doubts that the team was clean.

Through that filter, Hincapie, Hamilton and Landis were all initially viewed as charming sidekicks defined by the roles they played for Armstrong, and they had to work hard to establish separate identities. But Armstrong's grip on their psyches persisted after they left the team, mainly because his power and influence within cycling continued to grow. When Hamilton and Landis were busted for doping in 2004 and 2006, respectively, neither seriously considered telling the truth about his own history or the toxic culture of the sport that had turned cheating into a rational act and lying into a lifestyle.

Both riders fought their positive tests and didn't rat on anyone, confident they had calculated the odds correctly. "If you point your finger at [Armstrong] and a few other people who run the sport, you're not allowed back in," Landis said Friday.

That construct is crumbling before our eyes now. It took the two former Postal lieutenants who had the least to lose -- having already lost so much -- to bring the heaviest sledgehammers to it thus far. The triggers for their confessions and allegations may seem clear-cut: Landis was angry, and Hamilton was subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury hearing evidence in the case. But it would be unfair to oversimplify their stories. Both men have suffered for their hubris and mistakes. There are a lot of decent people in cycling who have been warped by its extremes like plywood in the hot sun.

"I know what these guys are about to go through, and it's a rough road," said Frankie Andreu, who five years ago admitted using performance-enhancing drugs to prepare for the 1999 Tour, the race that marked the start of Armstrong's dominance. "I have a lot of respect for them for telling the truth."

Andreu and his wife, Betsy, were once close friends of Armstrong's, but the relationship soured after they testified in a 2005 arbitration hearing that they had heard him tell doctors he had used performance-enhancing drugs when they visited him in the hospital during his cancer treatment in late 1996.

In comments on Friday to VeloNews.com, Andreu said of Hincapie, "You can't find a nicer guy, a more trustworthy guy, a more respected person in the peloton. Lance has ripped apart, attacked and shredded anybody that's said anything against him. I don't know that that would work against George."

Veteran U.S. rider Michael Creed said he observed "a lot of self-hate" in Hamilton while they were briefly teammates at Rock Racing in 2008, and feels compassion for him now.

"Would it make more sense to lie after you get caught, or now?" Creed asked rhetorically. "What makes more sense? I don't think you're ever married to a lie."

Landis, who torpedoed his own credibility more than once in the process of contesting his doping case and then coming clean, said he hoped people would "look at the big picture and try to make a judgment on everything that was happening. ... Don't look at [Hamilton] and work backwards and say, 'This guy must be telling a lie and there must be a reason.'"

The Hincapie report remains unsourced at the moment, and should be regarded differently unless that changes. If it's true that he outed himself, there could be implications for his career, unless the admissions were to fall outside the eight-year anti-doping statute of limitations or a deal has been struck with authorities. What would be his record-tying 16th Tour start looms little more than a month away, and he has spoken recently of wanting to race one more season.

What ultimately matters is not what any media outlet reports Hincapie testified to, but what Hincapie actually said behind closed doors and how it weaves into the vast, sprawling Armstrong odyssey. By virtue of never having been involved in a doping case, Hincapie has a larger reservoir of public goodwill than Hamilton or Landis, and that could make him a more sympathetic figure. He also might engender more fan disappointment, judging by the comments on his Twitter feed.

Those old Postal teams were disciplined. They rode team time trials with geometric precision and they swarmed to the front of the peloton at the base of major climbs, blowing up the group with a high tempo and making sure one or more helpers were with Armstrong on the way up. They protected him. On the rare occasions that he was isolated, it was a jarring sight. This week, it feels like his escort is dwindling.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.