Upland, California: The long road to Lance Armstrong's downfall began here, across the world from the French Alps where he climbed to the pinnacle of cycling, at a strip-mall tattoo parlor in the foothills east of Los Angeles.
Covered in ink from his legs to his neck, Kayle Leogrande, the owner of this shop, competed full time as a professional cyclist for only a couple of years. He met Armstrong only once, he said, at a 2005 race in Ojai, Calif. (Read:Sponsors dump Lance Armstrong as he quits Livestrong)
"I talked to him briefly after the race," Leogrande, now 35, said. "I'm sure he thought, 'Who is this stupid tattooed guy?' "
But whether Armstrong remembered this tattooed guy or not, their fates would soon become intertwined.
Four years ago, the United States Anti-Doping Agency suspended Leogrande for using a blood-boosting hormone known as EPO. His case grew into the lengthy investigation that culminated in Armstrong's lifetime ban from the sport. (Also Read:Why Nike dumped Lance Armstrong but not Tiger Woods)
"When I see what's going on with Lance now, I have to laugh to myself a little bit," Leogrande said as he sat in his shop this week, still dumbfounded that he played a pivotal role in the fall of one of the most accomplished cyclists in history.
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the antidoping agency, said Leogrande's doping sparked a series of events that led the agency and federal investigators to Armstrong and his United States Postal Service team.
"Without Leogrande, who knows, the Armstrong investigation maybe never would have happened," Tygart said.
Just a few years ago, that kind of connection would have seemed impossible. In 2004, as Armstrong was wrapping up the sixth of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles, Leogrande had not touched a bike in years.
A high-level cyclist as a teenager, he gave up racing at 17. He married, had children, divorced and worked at a series of tattoo parlors.
But after watching Armstrong on television in that 2004 Tour, Leogrande began riding again. Despite his long layoff, he was still a talented rider, and the next year, he was signed by a professional team.
By this point, however, the landscape of competitive cycling had shifted drastically from the one Leogrande had departed a decade earlier. When he began to race competitively again, other professionals started talking to him about doping.
"They would just talk about it in the way that most people would talk about eating healthy," Leogrande said. "I immediately knew I shouldn't do it. I knew there would be consequences. But I was strangely attracted to it at the same time."
He added, "I wanted to see what the effect would be."
Leogrande said he first bought EPO in late 2006 from Joe Papp, a former pro cyclist who has since pleaded guilty to distributing performance-enhancing drugs. Without a doctor to advise him, Leogrande was not sure how much EPO to take, or when to take it. The first few times he took it, he said, it left him feeling as if he had the flu.
In 2007, he signed with the Rock Racing team, where he was introduced to former teammates of Armstrong's. He also began doping more regularly, he said.
Leogrande said he continually felt like a child skipping school. After training rides, he would study every car parked by his house, worried that drug-testing officials were waiting for him.
But improved results followed. After leaving his professional team, he won the amateur national championship in 2006, then finished in the top 10 in the professional division at the national championships in 2007. Racing in the Tour de France suddenly seemed close enough to taste.
"That was the year I felt like I could do anything I wanted on a bike," Leogrande said. "I could climb with the climbers. I could win a sprint."
But during a race in July, he was required to take a drug test. Worried that he would fail, he confided in one of his team's assistants, Suzanne Sonye, the soigneur, about his doping.
"I remember thinking she was O.K. with it because that's what cyclists did," Leogrande said. "I was naive. I knew cyclists on other teams that did it, and we would talk about it. But Suzanne wasn't O.K. with it."
That casual confession - not the drug test - opened a Pandora's box. Though Leogrande had no firsthand knowledge of Armstrong's doping, the confession provided the initial thread that would lead investigators to others who did.
Leogrande's drug test did not come back positive. But Sonye reported his confession to the antidoping agency. Her testimony, and evidence provided by Papp - photographs of Leogrande with EPO and a handwritten note - sank Leogrande.
At the end of 2008, the antidoping agency suspended him for two years based on "nonanalytical" evidence, rather than failed drug tests.
Soon after the suspension he moved out of the house he had been renting, leaving behind a box of EPO in the refrigerator. When his landlady found it, he said, she called and asked him what she should do with the "box of drugs."
Depressed, with his biking career derailed and his second marriage on the cusp of divorce, Leogrande said he did not care - even after she threatened to call the authorities. He did not try to stop her, or go back and pick up the box and dispose of it. He told her, "Do what you need to do."
She called the Food and Drug Administration. A few weeks later, Leogrande said, Jeff Novitzky, the F.D.A. investigator who had connected several high-profile athletes to steroids, including Marion Jones and Barry Bonds, showed up at his door.
Leogrande talked. He said he told Novitzky what he knew about doping in cycling, without naming names.
Novitzky had just begun his investigation into doping in professional cycling. But already, Leogrande said, he asked about Armstrong.
"He would ask, 'Do you think Lance is doing this?' " Leogrande said. "I would tell him: 'He's racing in these barbaric cycling races in Europe. If you were a rider at that level, what would you do?' "
More than a year later, in spring 2010, Floyd Landis, one of Armstrong's former teammates, had come clean about his own doping, telling officials from the antidoping agency that he and other top riders, including Armstrong, had doped while on the Postal Service team. Landis also said he had information that Michael Ball, the team owner of Rock Racing, was involved in doping.
Those antidoping officials suggested that Landis reach out to Novitzky with information about Ball, because a criminal investigation into Rock Racing was ensuing. They also said he should tell them what he knew about doping on the Postal Service squad.
After that initial connection was made between Landis and Novitzky, federal agents began knocking on the doors of other former Armstrong teammates, some of whom later testified against Armstrong.
As the case moved slowly toward Armstrong, Leogrande had his own legal problems.
While he was still part of the Rock Racing team, he sued the antidoping agency and brought a defamation case against Sonye. When the lawsuit against Sonye was dismissed, the court ordered him to pay her legal fees, a crippling sum, he said.
Leogrande served his suspension. He focused on tattooing. And last year, after admitting that he had doped - "I even called Usada and apologized," he said - he began racing again on a new team that he founded.
He knows he will never race in the Tour de France. But now, he said, he views his suspension in part as a blessing, for allowing him to regain perspective and spend more time with his children.
"I'm happy with where I'm at," he said. "I knew better the whole time, just like I'm sure Lance knew better."
(Juliet Macur contributed reporting)
© 2012, The New York Times News Service