The revised history of Michael Barry
What is the legacy of this country's super-domestque now that he's admitted to doping?Photo by: Toni Vilches
When Michael Barry wrote Inside the Postal Bus in 2005, he failed to mention that he and the rest of that U.S. Postal squad were cheating. There were always suspicions, but on a Wednesday in October, the cycling world got proof of a team-wide, systematic doping program during the Lance Armstrong-led glory years between 1999 and 2005.
On Oct. 10, 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) released its more than 1,000 pages of evidence to the public. The documents are the basis of the organization’s decision to sanction Armstrong, taking away his seven Tour de France titles. The most damning part of the document is the sworn testimony of 11 former Postal riders telling about the doping program and admitting they cheated.
Among those 11 riders was the 37-year-old Barry, who announced his retirement in September, the day before his final weekend of races – the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec and Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal. He was planning to race the Tour of Beijing in mid-October, but announced on Sept. 28 that an earlier injury wasn’t healing properly and that the races in Quebec would be his last.
There were two weeks of accolades and praise. Then Barry’s world came crashing down.
To say Michael Barry has had anything short of a colossal effect on the Canadian cycling scene would be an understatement. A generation of riders watched the Toronto native come up through the ranks – turning pro in 1998 and riding with some of the biggest and best teams in the world. He was labelled the peloton’s “super-domestique,” the guy whose job it was to sacrifice himself to help his teammates win races. But, with the release of that USADA document, called the “Reasoned Decision,” we learned about how far Barry would be willing to go to be a good teammate.
“Michael was the quintessential Canadian: loyal, selfless, hard working, understated,” Canadian Cycling Association president John Tolkamp said after Barry’s retirement announcement.
Like many, Tolkamp was shocked and saddened with what he learned from Barry’s testimony.
“My perspective has obviously changed,” he said when asking to update his comments for this story.
In an instant, everyone’s view of the rider they thought they knew changed dramatically.
The future will tell where Barry’s legacy will land, but for a decade and a half, he was a cycling star within Canada and an important piece of the modern history of the sport here. The son of former racer-turned bike collector and builder Michael Barry Sr., Barry grew up around the sport. He raced from a young age and competed in his first world cycling championships as a junior in 1993.
By 1996, Barry had proven his professional potential, so he went to Annemasse, France and joined that town’s amateur racing team. Throughout the following three years, Barry struggled with injuries and the realization that doping was a huge part of the European cycling culture. He won a French race in early 1998, but ended up returning to North America disillusioned.
“I was fed up with the doping culture that was so prevalent,” he said in his statement to the USADA.
Barry still turned professional in 1998, signing with the highly-regarded Saturn Cycling Team. He stayed with Saturn until he was picked up by the Tour de France-winning U.S. Postal Service squad for the 2002 season. Suddenly the nice kid from Toronto was riding for the New York Yankees of cycling. However, this dynasty was apparently willing to go to any length to win.
In the spring of 2002, Barry moved to Girona, Spain and shared an apartment with teammate Christian Vande Velde. Barry took over the room previously used by Postal rider Jonathan Vaughters, who made no effort to hide his doping when he moved out.
“I was shocked and unsettled by the fact Jonathan had moved out of the room without disposing the syringes and ampoules, but I didn’t know specifically what they had been used for,” Barry testified. “I gathered everything up and threw it in the garbage.”
At first, his teammates were hiding their drug use from him, but as they got more comfortable with him, the barriers came down.
“From my previous experiences as an amateur, I knew that doping was much more prevalent in the European peloton. Still, it took me a while to get accustomed to the semi-open use of doping products in my presence,” Barry testified.
He became good friends with American Dave Zabriskie, and the two often talked about Postal’s doping program and who was participating. Although neither doped in that 2002 season, Barry said the turning point for both of them was the 2002 Vuelta a Espana, a race he testified that was made far more difficult than other races because of the amount of doping taking place on his team and others.
“Dave was in tears on several stages just because he was suffering so much,” said Barry, who didn’t finish the race after crashing. “I mean, the race was so bloody hard.”
He said it was after that race that both he and Zabriskie knew what they had to do. In Zabriskie’s testimony, the American pointed to Barry’s decision to dope as the final straw in his own decision, but Barry said he felt differently about the event.
“I think we were in it together and seeing him do it was a turning point for me,” Barry said.
Before the start of the 2003 season, and after consulting another friend and teammate, George Hincapie, Barry said the decision was made.
“It was through that whole period that I started considering it. I was surrounded by it and I gave into peer pressure and I gave into the team,” Barry said. “But when we actually started doping, it happened so quickly. Suddenly a needle was in your arm and that was it.”
In his statement to the USADA, Barry paints a bizarre picture of how he and Zabriskie were first officially added to U.S. Postal’s doping program.
“In May of 2003 … Zabriskie and I were asked to meet with Dr. [Luis] del Moral and Johan Bruyneel in a central parking area in Girona. I understand that the point of the meeting was to discuss my use of EPO,” Barry testified. “By the time the meeting took place, I had already resigned myself to the fact that I would need to start doping in order to be competitive.”
The two riders figured they were meeting to discuss the issue, but they ended up going back to Barry’s apartment where Dr. Del Moral injected the two of them with EPO. They were shown how to administer it themselves and how to avoid getting caught. Barry admits he used EPO and testosterone on and off from 2003 until 2006. He also used cortisone once and tried human growth hormone once. Blood transfusions were never offered to him, which Barry was glad not to do.
He said he completely stopped doping after leaving the former U.S. Postal (which had become Discovery Channel in 2005) at the end of the 2006 season. He later called the three years during which he was part of the team’s doping program “the most difficult period in my life.” Where the 2002 Vuelta was the turning point to start doping, he said the 2006 Tour of Flanders was when he decided to stop and leave Postal. He had a horrific crash during that race and woke up in the hospital alone.
“That was when I realized that I was competing and taking risks for people who did not care about my health or value my well being,” he testified.
“I said ‘what the heck am I doing here?'” Barry said later, adding that the crash was around the time his son was born. “This is not how I want to live and this is not a sport that I would want any child to live through what I have lived through.”
When trying to find a team to race for in 2007, Barry said he went searching for people trying to run clean programs. He found that in Bob Stapleton, who was implementing a zero-tolerance policy at T-Mobile after that team had had a doping scandal a year earlier. Barry was back in his role as a super-domestique and was a key figure as the team went from T-Mobile in 2007 to Team Columbia, then to Team Columbia-HTC.
Then came another major opportunity. After the 2009 season, Barry signed with the upstart Sky Pro Cycling, which promised to change the way pro teams were run. The team made its Tour de France debut in 2010, and Barry was on the roster. For Barry, the doping was gone, but not the guilt.
“I’ve always had this in the back of my head and I always had to dodge questions,” he said. “I never spoke out about what I had done, what we had done on that team and how the culture of cycling was back then.
“I know from experience and also from having been on top teams in these past six years that you can win a lot of bike races clean now, and that’s really, really encouraging,” he said.
Barry returned to Sky in 2011 and extended his contract for 2012, which brings us to Sept. 5. On that day, before the WorldTour races in Quebec City and Montreal, Barry announced that his racing days would soon be over.
“After a lifetime of bicycle racing and experiences that have taken me around the world, introduced me to my wife and my closest friends, I am ready to retire as a professional cyclist,” he said at the time.
But shortly after returning home to Spain in September, Barry knew he couldn’t hide from his past much longer. About a week before his lengthy testimony with the USADA investigators, he made a phone call to his parents back in Canada to tell them what the rest of the world would soon know.
“That was definitely the hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make,” he said. “They were very, very surprised. They had no clue. This whole process has been difficult and incredibly maturing to have to admit your guilt and admit that you lied to the people who you care for the most.”
Barry said he was expecting the negative reaction to his admission, but said what surprised him was the support he got from those around him.
“I think people appreciate honesty and realize that humans make errors,” he said. “I’m not at all trying to defend what I did, but I think a lot of people realize the sport does have to change, and my hope in all of this is that there will be changes.”
So why did he not try to kick-start those changes by going public with his own doping and the systematic doping at Postal after leaving the team in 2006?
“I wasn’t ready to face the consequences and I feared a lot,” Barry said. “I was afraid of the culture we lived and worked in and I hid behind that.”
And what legacy does Barry leave now?
“I hope by speaking the truth about my past, I’m remembered as someone who was honest about giving into human error,” he said. “I know I deceived a lot of people and I regret that, but I am going to try and do my best. I would like to be remembered as someone who, in the end, contributed to making the sport a better place.”
While Barry’s admission to doping may ultimately have a positive effect on cycling, he still faces criticism for his past wrongs. Betsy Andreu, the wife of Lance Armstrong’s former teammate Frankie Andreu, was once one of the few people speaking out against Armstrong. She has testified that in October 1996, when Armstrong was in hospital, she heard the cyclists tell a doctor that he had taken EPO, steroids, testosterone, growth hormone and cortisone. She later faced treats and intimation because of her whistle blowing. Andreu looks upon the latest honestly displayed by the 11 cyclists who testified against Armstrong quite critically.
“I buy that they’re sorry they were going to be ‘outed,'” Andreu said to Cycling News. “They could have chosen to lie but they told the truth. So, I’m supportive of that, too. It’s the classic you don’t say you’re sorry until you get caught. You’re only contrite after you’ve made your millions and when you’re compelled to tell the truth. I’m grateful, but man, they didn’t really care about the truth when we were trying to get it out there. They just didn’t care.”
Andreu’s characterization doesn’t hold for Barry. He wasn’t exactly on the verge of getting outed. USADA approached him at the last minute for his written testimony after he had announced his retirement. He’s also acknowledged the effect his lies have had on people such as Andreu and Floid Landis. “I guess I have to apologize to Floyd for calling him a liar,” Barry said in a New York Times article. “Because he was telling the truth the whole time.
JohnTolkamp, who said he was left feeling “disheartened and very naive,” after the admission, said he believes Barry’s legacy can still be a positive one.
“While we can’t condone the decision Michael made, I do strongly empathize with the culture and situation he found himself in,” Tolkamp said. “For young cyclists forging a career to be mentored and pressured into feeling doping was their only avenue is reprehensible of our sport.
“This is a seminal point for cycling and presents us with an opportunity to change the culture and provide a future so others are never faced with making a decision like Michael had to make.”
Barry said in retirement, he’ll focus on spending more time with his family.
“That’s a real priority for me,” he said. “Our boys are seven and five now and the last couple of years it has become increasingly difficult being on the road.”
He said he and his American wife, former pro rider Dede Demet Barry, are considering moving back to Canada to be closer to their families.
One thing Barry knows is that he’ll continue to do is write about cycling. He’s already written three books and dozens of newspaper and magazine articles He has a contract to finish a fourth book by the spring. For the first time, that one will delve into the decision made by many professional cyclists to cheat.
“The book is based on the emotions of cycling. I think if you look at my career, you’ll see that there have been some incredible emotional lows and there have been so many highs as well. It has just been a roller-coaster,” said Barry.
Tolkamp believes Barry’s legacy will also revolve around his ability to illustrate the sport through words.
“As much as he did for cycling in Canada by racing, I believe his writing has also had a significant impact,” Tolkamp said. “His words have brought the images and emotions of road cycling to many.”
Dan Dakin is the founding editor of Canadian Cycling Magazine and a freelance writer based in the Niagara region of Ontario.
Michael Barry Timeline
1975 ( Dec. 18 ) – Born in Toronto
1993 – Competes in his first-ever world cycling championships
1996 – Joins amateur team in Annemasse, France
1997 – Wins under-23 Canadian road cycling championship
1998 – Signs with Saturn Cycling Team
2001 – Finishes second in San Francisco Grand Prix
2002 – Makes his debut with U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team; rides in his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España
2003 – Injects EPO for the first time
2006 – Crashes heavily in Tour of Flanders and decides to stop doping and leave Discovery Channel
2007 – Joins T-Mobile
2009 – Joins Sky Pro Cycling
2010 – Rides in his first Tour de France
2012 ( Sept. 5 ) – Announces his retirement from professional cycling
2012 ( Oct. 8 ) – Signs an affidavit telling of doping program at U.S. Postal
2012 ( Oct. 10 ) – Admits his own use of doping products and accepts six-month ban, along with being stripped of all results between May 13, 2003 and July 31, 2006.
Andrew Randell on the Biggest Misconceptions Surrounding Doping
Everyone was doing it so it was a level playing field.
Not everyone was doing it. The guys that didn’t want to compromise their ethics were the ones not doing it. They probably didn’t make the cut. All the riders that doped cite wanting to make the cut as their reason for deciding to cross that ethical line. There are many talented athletes that didn’t dope and were robbed of a successful career. They are the silent victims.
The “everyone was doing it/level playing field argument” is a myth.
The riders coming forward and admitting their guilt are courageous.
Yes, there is something to be said about coming forward and admitting what happened. These actions will play a role in the re-birth of the sport. But, the true reason there has been this mass confession is that the USADA backed the riders into a corner. Their choice became to either tell the truth or perjure themselves and potentially spend time in jail.
As a friend of mine said, the truly courageous riders were the ones such as Gilles Delions, Christophe Bassons and others who spoke out against doping when it was so widely accepted in the peloton. And dare I say even the riders who decided not to dope and accepted a lesser career because of it. (Delions brought his concerns about EPO use to the UCI in the early ’90s and, like others that followed later, was shunted aside.)
Why should we even care about this?
A friend of mine asked me this question. His young son is playing baseball now, and is very good. My answer was simple: when your son wants to play in the major leagues, he shouldn’t have to decide whether or not he will take drugs. It is as simple as that. No one should be placed in a situation in which he or she has to make a decision about doping.
Cheating is all around us: the financial crisis, corruption in the government and business, and sports. One person cheating forces others to do so as well. We cannot tolerate it anywhere.
In sport, there should be no room for cheaters. If you cheat, your career is over, no second chances, no redemption. You can do something else with your life rather than compromise the dreams of your fellow competitors. It is also up to the fans to make it happen; they are the ones that will ultimately change the sport.
Andrew Randell, coach, and former pro cyclist and national champion
Michael Barry on Doping and Coming Clean
In the autumn of 2001, my lifelong goal was achieved: I signed a contract with a European-based professional cycling team, U.S. Postal Service. In just a few seasons, U.S. Postal had become the dominant team in the world and I felt honoured to have a spot on their roster. At the first training camp, I was nervous and excited about 2002. I had realized a dream, but as with anything new, the unknowns not only frightened me but also animated me. I soon discovered top-level racing wasn’t what I had expected.
During my first season in Europe, I saw the darkness that was behind the facade of professional cycling I had seen on television and in magazines. It was a ruthless world in which riders spoke in hushed voices and performances were suspicious. The peloton moved dauntingly fast.
I performed well on occasions, but by the end of the 2002 season, I was hanging on by a thread. Cycling was a tough job, but it was still one I wanted to pursue despite my fears. By the spring of 2003, my morale was broken. Encouraged by my team, influenced by my peers and pressured to perform, I began using drugs. It was an inexcusable decision I deeply regret.
While I was doping, my passion for riding and racing faded. I felt guilty, was paranoid and hid behind lies and deception. In 2006, I hit my lowest period while lying on a stretcher in a small hospital in Flanders. While recovering and training at home, I decided I needed to change my life. From that summer on, I never doped again and signed on with teams that had strong anti-doping policies. I wrote and spoke about the need for change. But, I wrongly remained silent about my past. The lies haunted me. I apologize and will work hard to regain peoples’ trust.
Cycling is a much better place today. Through my generation’s admissions, the sport will move forward. Although there are many teams that are committed to clean cycling, and I know from experience that riders and a team can win at the highest level without drugs, there is still work to be done.
Nobody should ever face the decisions my generation did to pursue the sport he or she loves. Sport should be a nurturing environment in which health is the priority. Everybody involved should be held accountable to ensure the culture considers the athlete’s best interests and health before the team’s or the sport’s.
By racing clean, I found my passion for the sport returned. Training in the countryside with teammates and friends no longer felt like a chore. Being on my bike was again something I loved.
– Michael Barry