GRAND JUNCTION – Former professional cyclist, Telluride native and Grand Junction resident Scott Mercier is getting a lot of attention these days. But not for confessing to using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), like Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton, or witnessing seven-time Tour De France Champion Lance Armstrong doing them. Instead, he’s getting attention for admitting that he didn’t do them.
Earlier this year, Mercier, who represented the US in the 1992 Olympics and rode professionally for seven years including for The United States Postal Service in 1997, read an interview with journalist Paul Kimmage and Floyd Landis that made him irate.
In the transcript, Landis speaks of his biking career, talks of the pressures to take PEDs and blood transfusions, admits to doing it and to witnessing Armstrong do the same.
The interview took seven hours, and from the entire transcript, one thing stuck with Mercier –Landis’s impression that you had “to cheat or get cheated.”
Landis rode for the USPS team with Armstrong from 2002 to 2004. He left USPS to ride for Phonak Hearing System, the team with which he won the Tour de France in 2006. After the Tour, he was found guilty for steroids, was stripped of his title and finally admitted to the charges in May 2010.
“‘Cheat or get cheated’ is exactly what stuck in my mind,” Mercier said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that could’ve been me.’ I was presented with the identical choice.”
After reading the interview, Mercier wrote a letter to VeloNews, one of cycling’s premier publications, based in Boulder. “I wanted to show that you do have a choice,” he said, and that “there is another side.” That other side is what Mercier and seemingly few other riders chose in the mid-90s – to ride clean; and then, when the pressure became too much, to ultimately walk away from the sport. Mercier’s letter morphed into an article slated for VeloNews’s July issue, and hit the newsstands June 1.
Earlier this month, after CBS announced that Tyler Hamilton would tell his story on 60 Minutes of using PEDs and riding with Armstrong, VeloNews called Mercier for an interview and trumped its upcoming story with a May 20 online post of Mercier’s account.
Mercier told VeloNews that in May, 1997, while still a member of USPS, he was given a “baggie with green pills and glass vials.” This happened between races, 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; the dots represented pills and the star represented injections.”
Mercier recounted to VeloNews 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 explained that athletes would use PEDs to train, or during the off-seasons, so that they could become stronger and more fit, but that by race time, the drugs would be out of their systems.
But Mercier never abided by the stars and dots system, deciding instead to ride on what is known in the sport as “bread and water,” or, essentially, to ride clean.
For the bulk of his career, Mercier achieved good results riding clean. In his first race as a pro, he finished eleventh in the Tour de Mexico, among a field of riders including Tour de France Champion Laurent Fignen and Italian Gianan Bugno. In 1996, Mercier won the Tour of South Africa.
But he talks most proudly of his performance at the 1994 World Championships in Sicily, Italy.
“I had a great day; I just wanted to go as hard as I could,” Mercier recalled. During the race, his heart rate averaged 191 beats per minute for over an hour and hit a maximum of 202 BPMs. “That is as far as I can push my body; I didn’t blow up; I nailed it.” Looking back now, realizing how many athletes were regularly using PEDs at the time, Mercier said, “I feel really good about the result.”
Mercier finished 15th in that race, just two minutes off the podium.
Although Mercier was able to stay competitive in places like Mexico and Africa, he explained that it was a different game in Europe.
“Americans were just as good athletes, but the Europeans had some help,” Mercier said. “The money you won outside of Europe wasn’t enough [incentive to cheat].”
But when he’d get to Europe, where the prize money was significant, guys he had beaten or been competitive with earlier in the season, he said, would suddenly be unreachable.
When recounting his experience on USPS, Mercier is very careful to differentiate between what he knows and what is his opinion, sticking to what he experienced, and making it clear he did not actually see other teammates take drugs or injections. Connecting the dots, however, from his own experience to the recent testimony of others to how the sport has changed, his listeners can draw their own conclusions.
He notes that during the mid-90s, “Instead of just one guy from a team dominating a stage race day after day,” you’d see “…tour climbs with eight Postal guys in the front. That never happened before; the entire team would be intact.” To Mercier, it seemed the game changed, when individuals doped, to a more institutionalized strategy. “But that’s my opinion,” he clarified.
When push came to shove, Mercier’s integrity was more important than winning bike races. “I was blessed,” he said. “I had other options. What they [Landis and Hamilton] don’t realize is that the decisions you make, when you’re 26 or 27, stay with you a long time. Their lives are a wreck…. No one remembers Tyler as an Olympic champion – or Floyd as a Tour champion – but really the truth is they weren’t doing anything differently than anyone else.”
It wasn’t taking the PEDs that bothered Mercier so much as the dishonesty. “There was such a silent code,” he says. “What mattered is the secrecy. People get tired of lying and hypocrisy.”
So, was Landis right? Did you have to “cheat or get cheated?”
Did Mercier get cheated out of the sport, and potentially cheated out of a great career?
“I had a choice in that matter,” he said. “Lots of guys never got to that point; lots of guys dope to get [to] that point. I had the opportunity to do it [to bike race at the highest level] and I chose a different direction…. I suppose what’s happening now reaffirms that position for me.”
Mercier currently lives at the base of the Colorado National Monument with his wife, Mandie, and two kids. He still loves to ride; last year, he and his wife rode the Monument Loop every month. He often visits his parents, and the house he grew up in, at the top of Oak Street in Telluride.
You can read VeloNews’s interview with Scott Mercier at: velonews.competitor.com/2011/05/news/scott-mercier-former-postal-rider-says-hamiltons-charges-ring-true_174876, and look for his letter to Velo on newsstands this week. Since his Velo online article, he has received phone calls from sportswriters from both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.