Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell were reporting on the triumphs and trials of cycling superstar Lance Armstrong for the Wall Street Journal and have just released Wheelmen, their blistering chronicle of Armstrong's career and the breakaway expose on the high stakes, scandal ridden world of international cycling.
This book is one hell of a ride (sorry). It opens with a ghoulish scene de actione with the entire USPS Pro Cycling Team on the floor of the team bus, being transfused with their own undepleted blood, collected weeks before, while they pretended to be stranded in the Pyrenees passes. From there the authors track back to what brought Lance, the ringleader, to this point.
Armstrong had a difficult childhood, he never knew his father and he had a contentious relationship with his mother and stepfathers. As a teen he became a high school swimming champ and triathlete. Cycling became his main pursuit, and by his early twenties he embarked on his instant meteoric rise on the international cycling stage. Before he got to the biggest events though, he was felled by testicular cancer that had spread to other parts of his body. If that wasn't enough to deal with, after chemo, Armstrong had to undergo brain surgery to remove two legions that had formed.
Facing forced retirement, Armstrong courageously fought his way back from death's door, literally up mountains as he started to train to reclaim his place as an elite athlete. In two years he was a contender for the penultimate race in the Tour de France, which he won seven consecutive years . It Is an unparalleled American Horatio Alger Story, with a lot of Rocky thrown in. Indeed, it seemed like a fiction and in many ways it was.
As the authors chronicle, Armstrong was using various performing enhancing drugs, mainly EPO (which he called butter), the whole time. EPO is a synthetic replica of a natural hormone that cues bone marrow to produce red blood cells. In a key scene during his recovery from cancer Armstrong admitting he used steroids and acknowledges that doping was pervasive in the sport.
But like most stories of use of performance enhancing drugs in professional sports there is a code of silence and invisible tentacles that can reach to the top, if just by implication. Cycling on the elite international level is as gritty and brutal a sport as say, pro-wrestling. The investigations about steroid use, blood doping, manipulated urine tests all became part of the grift. There is never a lack of hush money.
Whatever he intimated from that hospital room, Armstrong subsequently denied ever using drugs after he started competing again. His stonewalling network worked with Nike, Radio Shack and other sponsors and even, in some cases, racing officials, whose own interests prompted them to look the other way.
After his final Tour de France win, Armstrong retired. And he almost got away with everything, an untouchable champion, but then in 2009, he made the mistake of returning to competition as a triathlete and eventually cycling.
The sport's luminaries like Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France and other mentors like Frank Adreau, previous captain of the US Postal Team, as well as his coaches, mentors and business owners who previously backed Armstrong, all turned out his enemies.
Armstrong's Iago is Floyd Landis, who was as talented as Armstrong and a competitive threat, relagated to be his leader's tactical support during races. Landis himself, was unlucky, suffering repeated injuries that kept him out of competition and eventually he was barred from competing after failing a drug test. He wasn't going to take the fall alone and harbored enough resentment to finally go public about personally witnessing Armstrong using performance enhancing drugs.
Yet, Armstrong still controlled the media narrative, saying that Landis was a resentful and bitter player. Meanwhile, virtually the whole top flight cyclists were on the same doping regimen, for the US team, orchestrated by Armstrong who sought out the most effective, up to date furtive researchers and labs.
By the time Armstrong was making overtures to return to the sport, his brazenness and Floyd Landis caught up with him. Landis was pursuing a federal whistle-blower lawsuit, for one. In short order, Armstrong's whole empire was crumbling around him as one colleague after another testified against him in a series of investigations in the sport and he was summarily barred from competition.
At the center is Armstrong, who was a master of deception, with a relentless drive is apparently only matched by his ego. Yet, he is obviously not evil, even though he manipulated many people for personal gain.
Armstrong finally admitted using performance enhancing drugs to Oprah Winfrey and swiftly lost his medals, his livelihood, the cancer charity he founded, his friends and his iconic status as an athlete. The day after he admitted to doping, his sponsors, endorsement and financial structure collapsed in one day to the tune of $74 million dollars. His full net worth is still in jeopardy from impending lawsuits involving alleged professional fraud and perjury and his part in a drug ring.
Even though they don't really unlock the key that reveals what drove Armstrong as a gifted athlete to risk everything, what they do reveal has veracity and is a portrait of a fascinating man and ultimately tragic figure, a Faustian, but with Lance selling his talents and soul to his own maniacal drive to win at all costs.
To many, Armstrong's biggest betrayal was the way he used The Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer as a smoke screen to protect him from accusations of disloyalty. How could such a courageous good guy, who fought cancer himself, be so deceptive. In fact, there are implications in the book that steroid use may even have been linked to his having cancer in the first place. Of course untraceable. But other things like Armstrong skimming from speaking appearance at charity event in which all the donations were to go to charity, were provable facts.
The authors make this a gear-shifting story in the dizzying world of pro cycling. The book is smartly anchored on thrilling accounts of each Tour de France race, with all of the principal players from cyclists, CEOs, trainers, lackeys, drug-dealers and even politicians all in Armstrong's orbit as he globe-trots and careens into his maniacal must-win trance.
Albergotti and O'Connell seemingly don't leave out any of the nuts and bolts of the story, but it is such a large story and many of the main players told various bits of it for many different reasons. At press time, Armstrong is already taking steps to return to professional sports, he may be back in the saddle before Wheelmen is out in paperback.
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