A reunion between Scott Mercier and Lance Armstrong is being viewed as an odd rekindling to say the least. Indeed, the former US Postal rider who turned his back on the profession in disgust after refusing to submit to Armstrong’s all-pervasive doping culture, is purportedly best buddies with the defrocked Tour de France star.
“Lance started following me on Twitter, which made me a little nervous,” Mercier recalled. “I thought: ‘Why would he want to get in touch with me? We took different paths’. I had some crazy thoughts, wondering if he wanted to record our conversation and sue me. So I sent him a message saying: ‘Hey Lance, thanks for the follow, hope you’re well. Here’s my number if you need to talk’.
“He replied: ‘I’ll be in Aspen for the summer, we have lots to discuss’. On my way up he texted:
‘Did you bring your bike, because let’s ride’. That’s when I knew it would be more about cycling than confrontation.”
Regardless, given the scale of Armstrong’s past practices of lying, bullying and cheating – combined with Mercier’s determination to stay clean in sport – which he feels is what ultimately lead to him being pushed out of the sport – he needed more convincing as to the true nature of Armstrong’s contact.
“If you think about what Lance did, it was sick,” he says. “The way he would not only win, but win defending a falsehood.
"It wasn’t like he was just going on the defence, he was going on the offence and prevailing. He cheated when everyone cheated, yes, but it was the way he defended the lie that I had problems with.”
Yet, with some trepidation, Mercier agreed to ride with Armstrong. And, much to his surprise, he found himself establishing a rapport with a man he had previously despised.
“He’s a funny guy, he’s smart and he makes fun of himself,” Mercier says. “You read all these things about how he couldn’t laugh at himself. Maybe that was true back then, but every time I talk to him I make fun of him.
"He is much more introspective than I would have expected. His biggest regret is not the doping but his behaviour off the bike, which I think is fair. I’ve told him he doesn’t owe me an apology, though. I didn’t give up the sport because of anything he did. I made that decision and I’ve got to live with it.”
Mercier says he can still recall the time back in May 1997, when the US Postal doctor, Pedro Celaya, called him into his hotel room.
“Pedro handed me a bag containing a bottle of green pills and several vials of clear liquid,” he says. “I was given a 17-day training schedule too. Each day had either a dot or a star. A dot represented a pill and a star was an injection.
“He said: ‘They’re steroids, you go strong like bull’. Then he said: ‘Put it in your pocket, if you get stopped at customs say it’s B vitamins’. That was when I decided I didn’t want to be a pro cyclist any more. I got home and decided: ‘No, thank you’. I love cycling, it’s a beautiful sport, but it would have been very difficult for me to look anyone in the eye and say I was clean when I wasn’t.”
Mercier says he has a clear conscience, but there are moments when he wonders about how things may have turned out differently for him, had he chosen the path of "doping" with the US Postal team.
“Lance looks back and tells me about the fun they had. When you’re winning the Tour de France, that’s a big deal. You’re riding into the Champs Élysées, the whole team is up front drinking champagne and you’ve just slugged it out with the best endurance athletes in the world and kicked their asses. That would be a terrific feeling. It’s something I missed and I live with those consequences.”
On Wednesday, Armstrong once again went on record, by saying if he’s contacted by the UCI’s new independent commission to give testimony relative to "doping" practices and collusion in the ranks of the organization, he will do so in an “open and honest” manner.
As a result, Mercier says, that his relationship with Armstrong now provokes sympathy, rather than scorn.
“I’ve said to Lance that we would have made a pretty decent partnership. And he just said:
‘Absolutely’. He says he could have done with some smart guys around him. You hear about what a bully he is and now he’s the one getting bullied.”
In the meantime, the pair will continue with their weekly rides in the Colorado hills, presumably chatting about sport, family, life and everything else.
“I don’t know where our friendship is going and it’s bizarre quite frankly,” admits Mercier. “He might be playing me, I don’t know. My daughter makes these duck tape wallets and made one for Lance, which was yellow with the number seven on it.
“He uses it, he walks around with this duck tape wallet, and sent her this really sweet video thanking her for it. He surprises you.”
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