Book Review: Wheelmen details Armstrong’s rise, and then collapse

Two Wall Street Journal reporters unveil new details about the Texan's past

Just as there was a virtual cottage industry of books about Lance Armstrong as he built up his legendary status, get ready now for a rash of new accounts about his downfall. The fast-moving and information-packed Wheelmen, written by Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, is just the first in what will be a widespread chronicling of Armstrong’s collapse told across book, film, and television.

Wheelmen is written from a business perspective; the authors are business writers, and they approach the Armstrong saga as a story of white-collar crime. They spend most of the book recounting and describing Armstrong’s personal and business dealings — with less time on his sporting achievements. As they write in the introduction, this is a “story about a business that, at least in its participants’ eyes, was too big to fail.” Indeed, before even reaching page 1, the inside cover displays a detailed chart portraying the intricate web of Armstrong’s complex business dealings, which itself required 10 minutes of study to comprehend.

The book is rich in details, facts, and figures — many of which have not been made public before. The first several chapters of the book are basically a rehash of the origins and rising crescendo of the Lance legend, including many stories about the early years that we’ve already heard from John Wilcockson, Daniel Coyle, and others. But where the book becomes more interesting, even gripping, is in its detailed coverage of previously unreported events over the past 12 months, since the release of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report on doping at the U.S. Postal Service team. One of the more sensational details is that Armstrong’s one-time girlfriend, musician Sheryl Crow, watched him give blood transfusions to himself, and later told federal investigators about it. His former wife Kristin is also heavily implicated. But these are just the headline grabbers; there are countless other details and intriguing background themes that the authors weave together from their exhaustive base of interviews.

Much like Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race, if only half of the sensational and lurid details in this book were true, Armstrong comes across as more arrogant, deceptive, and vindictive than we already thought he was. Sending an e-mail to Michael Barry instructing him to lie to the grand jury? Assuring Hamilton that he would make his life “a living hell?” Threatening the wives of his teammates? Demanding his own brand of Oakley sunglasses not only be tested in a wind tunnel to minimize drag, but also designed to look stylish upside-down in his own brand of Giro helmet when he was climbing? Stories of Armstrong’s exploitation and discarding of women over the years? Each is richly detailed here, often via crude quotes attributed to Armstrong himself.

In the end, the detail and sheer volume of incriminating information in Wheelmen obliges one to step back and contemplate the central themes of the entire Armstrong saga. First, how could such a vast conspiracy between Armstrong and his inner circle of sycophants have been sustained for so long? How could one man for so long mislead and maintain control of such an enormous network of business organizations and personal relationships, including many otherwise widely respected individuals like Rick Reilly? How could so many gold-plated sponsors have stuck with him for so long? And finally, how could so many millions of people continue to believe in the Lance legend even as its building blocks were tumbling down? It is a testament to the fierce drive, determination, and control that Armstrong could exert, but it also suggests that many of us simply believe what we want to believe. As the authors wirte, “Lance is the product of our celebrity-worshipping culture and the whole money-mad world of sports gone amok.”

On the other hand, this recounting of just how systematic and widespread doping already was in the peloton reminds us that most riders in the Armstrong era were simply caught in the middle. There were a few people strong enough to stand up, take a position, and refuse to dope, and they generally paid the price with the loss of their careers. But most riders decided (probably against their better judgment, in most cases) to just “go along to get along.” Everybody did it. So, we should ask, is Armstrong getting a fair shake here?

The man has to be credited with greatly expanding the global visibility of cycling, and he has been an indisputable inspiration to millions of people. He was a superb athlete, and nobody planned, prepared, or trained as hard as he did. Lance Armstrong certainly didn’t invent doping; he simply realized what he needed to do to win, and then went about doing it in a very systematic, perhaps authoritarian, manner. And there are plenty of other dopers out there in the shadows who still haven’t been called to task. Armstrong can at times seem vulnerable or almost naive; he plaintively whines that he didn’t “get the same deal” as George Hincapie, Christian Vande Velde, and the others. He continues to insist that he will be the “first one to line up” at a truth and reconciliation process — not seeming to have any clue that such commissions mete out punishment as well as amnesty. But one way or another, Armstrong is destined to be the whipping boy for the cycling reform movement, and it’s not like he didn’t bring it on himself.

Albergotti and O’Connell don’t have much sympathy for Armstrong, and they make it clear that it was Armstrong’s personality and behavior that brought him down — not just the simple fact of his doping. There are a lot of “ifs” here, but Armstrong essentially undid himself; if he hadn’t bullied and threatened so many people, if he hadn’t made so many enemies over the years (helpfully pointed out recently by Jan Ullrich), and if he’d been satisfied with a mere seven Tour de France victories and just stayed retired, the whole saga might well have stayed hush-hush and the legend might have survived. If he had been less vindictive and offered Floyd Landis a spot on the team in 2009, Landis might have kept quiet, and the whole thing might never have exploded. There are a lot of “ifs,” but had a few of these events gone the other way, the outcome might have been quite different.

Finally, despite the thorough reporting here, some intriguing questions remain unanswered. For example, why exactly were UCI presidents Pat McQuaid and Hein Verbruggen such unabashed Lance supporters for so long? Was it simply because he was good for the global visibility of cycling, or was there something more sinister to it? And why did U.S. attorney Andre Birotte Jr. suddenly and inexplicably drop the federal case against Armstrong on Super Bowl Friday? Was that an independent, legal policy decision, or was there some political intrigue and as yet undisclosed pressure applied behind the scenes by Armstrong’s apologists? There are still some missing pieces to the puzzle; this story is not over yet, and more details are sure to continue leaking out.

Find many of those details in Wheelmen, available now from Gotham Books.