Retired professional cyclist Roberto Gaggioli has claimed that Lance Armstrong paid him $100,000 for agreeing to throw a race in Philadelphia in 1993 – the money, in dollar bills, contained in the packaging of a cake traditionally eaten by Italians at Christmas.
Gaggioli, now aged 51, told Milan-based newspaper La Corriere della Sera that he was resting in a hotel room in Bergamo, northern Italy, in October 1993 when there was a knock at the door.
“It was a young American fellow rider,” he said. “He gave me a panettone in a gift box wishing me ‘Merry Christmas’ and went on his way. In the box there was $100,000 in small denomination bills. That fellow rider was Lance Armstrong.”
Shortly beforehand, Armstrong, then aged 22, had been crowned world champion in Oslo, but the money Gaggioli claims he paid him related to a race that had taken place across the Atlantic four months earlier.
Pharmacy chain Thrift Drug had put up a prize of $1 million, insured at Lloyd’s of London, for any rider managing to win a trio of races in the United States that year under the name of the Thrift Drug Triple Crown of Cycling.
All three races took place in the space of three weeks and Armstrong won the first two the the Thrift Drug Classic one-day race in Pittsburgh, and the K-Mart West Virginia Classic stage race.
He headed to the third and final event in Philadelphia, which also doubled as the US national championship, intent on winning that seven-figure purse.
But Gaggioli, an Italian who had emigrated to the United States, was the red-hot favourite for a race that he had previously won in 1988.
“So much time has passed, now I can talk about it,” Gaggioni told the Corriere della Sera. “Lance came up to me before the start. He told me that my team, Coors Light, had agreed and spoke to me about my compensation – $100,000. I understood that everything had already been decided.
“Two laps from the end, I got into the decisive break with Lance, Bobby Julich and some Italians from the Mercatone team. On a signal from Lance I turned and pretended not to see him attack. He won by a distance.
Asked why the other Italian riders hadn’t reacted, Gaggioli said: “They had very good reasons not to.”
The Corriere della Sera asked the four Mercatone Uno riders about their recollections of the race.
One, Simone Biasci, said that once the break had formed, Armstrong struck a deal with another Mercatone Uno rider, Angelo Canzonieri. “It went well,” he said. “We earned more in one day than our team mates did in three weeks at the Giro d’Italia.”
Another, Roberto Pelliconi, remembered: “Canzonieri and Lance agreed for ‘fifty’; Angelo was thinking in dollars, Lance in lire. At the Giro di Lombardia, he delivered 50 million lire to us, saving 40 per cent thanks to the favourable exchange rate.”
Canzonieri, however, has no recollection of the episode. He told the newspaper: “Leave Armstrong alone, he’s paid enough. I don’t remember anything.”
Gaggioli and the Mercatone Uno team weren’t the only ones allegedly paid off by Armstrong that year – New Zealand ex-pro Stephen Swart says his team was paid $50,000 to ease off in the stage race in West Virginia – but there would be a sting in the tail for the American.
The prize was only $1 million dollars if anyone winning it agreed to accept the money in 20 annual instalments of $50,000; choosing to take cash, it reduced to $600,000, which would also be subject to 20 per cent tax.
With the alleged backhanders to be paid and money also to be given to his Motorola team mates and staff, the Corriere della Sera says that Armstrong would have been left with just a “pugno di dollari” – the name in Italian of the Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars.
Last year, Armstrong was banned from sport for life and stripped of all results dating back to his return from battling cancer in 1998 – so while that prize money may be long gone, he does get to keep his victories in that trio of races.