Lance Armstrong, an icon under fire
A year or so ago I likened reporting on Portsmouth FC's financial freefall to my stint doing car reviews for a motoring website - if I missed a deadline I could wait 12 months and resubmit the story, with a few tweaks, once a new version of the car, with those tweaks, had hit the forecourts. Following Lance Armstrong's career is going the same way.
A month or so passes and another damning report, with a few tweaks, hits the newsagents. Nothing much changes, though. The same people who think Armstrong is Mother Theresa with muscles still think that, only more so. And the same people who are convinced he is the biggest sporting fraud of all time also still think that, with added certainty.
And yet, something has changed, or feels like it is about to change.
Depending on whom you believe (the saint or sinner camps), eight months of image-eroding reportage is about to be exploded as malicious gossip, or Armstrong will be charged with using public money to run a systematic doping programme. In other words, the reputation of a global sports star and cancer campaigner is on the line and, possibly, in the dock.
But before I outline what might happen next in this remarkable tale of an extraordinary man (and that much is true whether you are pro- or anti-Lance), I should bring those who haven't been following this story up to speed.
Armstrong's comeback from cancer to rule the Tour de France captured the American imagination Photo: Getty
Last May, news broke that Floyd Landis, the winner of the 2006 Tour de France, had just confessed to doping throughout his career. This revelation came in a series of emails to US cycling officials and followed four years of repeated claims his failed drugs test during that race was a miscarriage of science and justice.
But as stunning as this about-face was, Landis's mea culpas were only part of the story. The disgraced rider also claimed he was not alone in carrying a guilty secret: Armstrong cheated too.
On its own, this testimony would probably not have made much of an impact on an all-American hero like Armstrong. After all, Landis was hardly the first to point a finger at the seven-time Tour de France winner. Many cycling experts, particularly those in Europe, had already decided Armstrong was probably the one who got away with it.
But nothing really damaging ever stuck. The Texan seemed Teflon-coated and the wider public appeared happy with every explanation offered by the cancer-beating, pop-star-dating, friend-of-presidents icon.
And well they might, the "evidence" against him was either too complicated or compromised, whereas his body of good works was plain for all to see.
But Landis's claims found a receptive audience at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency of the US government. Quite why this happened is unclear but the theories divide along the usual lines: Landis has either given them a smoking gun they cannot ignore, or a rogue unit has latched itself on to a muck-raking exercise based on a liar's word. That argument will rage right up until the point the investigation is wound up with an apology or charges are handed down.
What is without question about the FDA's intervention is that the previously piecemeal probe into Armstrong's long domination of professional cycling has become a different beast entirely. Whereas Team Lance had been deflecting blows from unnamed sources in foreign newspapers, it would now have to deal with federal agents and the threat of perjury charges.
This investigation, led by the agent who took down the Balco conspiracy, Jeff Novitzky, has been putting witnesses before a grand jury (a step in the legal process that has been scrapped in the UK but remains an integral part of the US system), collecting evidence and conducting raids.
Each new flurry of grand jury activity in California, or leaked visit to a European laboratory, has ratcheted up expectations that something important, one way or another, is about to take place. We are still waiting but events this week suggest we may not be waiting much longer.
With the 39-year-old currently riding in his last race on foreign soil, the Tour Down Under, Sports Illustrated, America's most famous sports publication, has published a lengthy report titled "The Case Against Lance Armstrong".
For those who have read any of the numerous books outlining Armstrong's alleged doping, there is not much in the way of new information here - a point made angrily by the rider himself - but the real significance of the piece is that it appeared at all.
This is a magazine which has previously ignored all the negative whispers about its "2002 Sportsman of the Year", even when heavyweights like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal started to ask uncomfortable questions. Armstrong has lost an ally.
The Tour Down Under was meant to be a farewell ride but it has become an ordeal Photo: Getty
Having said there is not a mass of new evidence in the SI piece, there are a few nuggets that have clearly come from sources a lot closer to Novitzky's team than I am.
There are allegations of failed tests during the 1990s, new claims from a former team-mate called Stephen Swart, surprising revelations about the raid on another former colleague Yaroslav Popovych's house in Tuscany and an aside about the possible abuse of a blood-boosting drug that never made it through clinical trials.
But don't take my word, read the article and make up your own minds.
Armstrong's supporters have leapt all over SI, pointing out its failure to highlight the numerous denials of many of those mentioned and its retelling of stories which have been tested in court and come up wanting. And Popovych's lawyer has been dismissive of SI's claims about his client.
But one prominent critic of Armstrong, who has been involved in the investigation, told the BBC that "so many people have been talking to the investigators, it's just a matter of time" before an indictment comes. That event, and it would be an event, could happen as early as next month.
The witness, who was only prepared to speak anonymously because of the sensitivities surrounding the grand jury process, said of Armstrong: "His goose is cooked."
It is vital to stress nobody really knows what, if anything, will come from the FDA investigation. It is also important to note a grand jury only decides if there is a case to answer: it is not supposed to be a mini-trial that establishes guilt for a subsequent trial to confirm or deny.
The bad news for Armstrong, should an indictment come, is that it can often look like that. It is one of the reasons the UK dropped grand juries.
In the meantime, the rider, who claims to be the most tested athlete in the world, continues his retirement victory lap and unstinting efforts to promote cancer awareness. The sad news is that nobody really talks about his cycling achievements anymore.