I am sure somewhere along the way you have heard of a fellow named Lance Armstrong. You may also know that this guy is famous for riding a bike and winning a very famous bicycle race seven straight times. Love him or hate him he is both famous and infamous in the sport of cycling as well as a worldwide athlete. I am a cyclist but I largely missed his career and can only barely remember the tail end of it along with the long drawn out downfall and legal battles that followed him. I have always wanted to read more about his life and understand what happened to this world famous athlete. Wheelmen is the story of Lance Armstrong, cycling, the Tour de France, Nike, The Livestrong Foundation, and doping. How all these things intertwine is quite amazing.
Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell are the coauthors of this book. Both have worked for the Wall street Journal for a number of years covering sports, any number of scandals, as well as the Deep Water Horizon BP Oil Spill. Albergotti is also an avid cyclist as well as a producer of online videos dealing with the Olympics.
This story follows Lance from his troubled childhood through stardom and finally his downfall. He was raised in Texas and his parents divorced at an early age. Eventually he was hooked on triathlons (swimming, biking, and running). And this was where he was first noticed by cycling coaches that wanted to put together competitive teams to compete in world renowned races. Lance had potential on the bike but he refused to listen to any coaching in his early career and his stubbornness cost him a few victories along the way. But that same stubbornness also led to some harsh learning moments that he would use later in his career. Even though he had great potential it looked like he was just going to be another average professional cyclist until he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Throughout his treatment he continued to train and eventually made a monumental comeback to the sport with the goal to once again race in the 1999 Tour de France. When he crossed the finish line after the 21 day race as the leader wearing the yellow jersey he felt his career was complete and that he could now retire and focus on what he felt was his true mission, cancer awareness through his new foundation, the LiveStrong Foundation. This was the first of 7 straight victories in cycling’s biggest event. While fame and fortune quickly followed so did the doping allegations along with one of the most disastrous downfalls of any professional athlete in any sport.
I found this book to be extremely interesting and even if you are not a fan of cycling or Lance Armstrong I think it is definitely worth the read. Overall the book itself is a pretty quick read even though it is a bit lengthy. But as with most nonfiction books there has to be a certain amount of detail and I think this story hits it right on the nose. There are backstories of the biggest players but not overly done. This is where a lot of writers get bogged down and spend too much time filling in backstories and useless details that have little to do with the actual story. So from strictly a writing perspective I think this is one of the better nonfiction books I have read.
With that being said now on to the actual story. Even after reading this I am still on the fence on what I think about Lance. I have talked to a few of my cycling friends who have read this and their opinion of him is quite low, and that is putting it gently. I would consider myself somewhat of a cycling fan, although not overly fanatic, but it is hard to really judge Lance even though he technically cheated his way to victory. The reason I say that is because at this time in cycling and through most of its history it has been a very dirty sport. I dare say that only a select few in the sport could truly say that they never doped or used PED’s.
So to me all things being equal, meaning that if the entire field is all doping, and there was substantial evidence to suggest that was the case, then on some very bizarre level it would seem that it was indeed a level playing field. That seems backwards but if everyone is doing it then no harm no foul, right? I’m not saying I agree with it but I’m saying that, but that is the way it was. The guy that blew the lid off doping in cycling and who also was a teammate of Lance on the US Postal team, who also won the TdF, Floyd Landis was also convicted of doping. He was stripped of his TdF title because of this.
Landis is one of the major players in this mess. He was a gifted cyclist but being on Lance’s team he used PED’s and when Lance retired picked up the torch in both doping and winning the Tour. He was the scape goat for the entire sport and became the proof that the powers that be, were cleaning up the sport. Landis did not feel that what was happening was right and he certainly did not want to be the only one to take the fall for everyone in the sport when he knew that others especially Armstrong were doping or had in the past to win.
As I have said throughout this review to me it is hard to judge Lance looking at his total body of work, what I mean by that is what he has done for cycling as well as with his foundation and fundraising for cancer research. To me, as with most things, I think it is hard to level the blame to one person or one entity when something like this happens. After reading the book and talking to those that remember more of his career as it happened it seems clear to me what happened. While Lance did cheat to win, massive corporations such as Nike, Oakley, and Trek, in my opinion, seemed to turn a blind eye to what was really going on. I also blame UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) which is the governing body for cycling, as they had all Armstrong’s positive tests yet they either covered them up or simply did not care that he was testing positive both are equally terrible. There was also evidence that Armstrong paid off UCI officials to cover up at least one positive test. Look during Lance’s run cycling went from a mostly European sport to a worldwide multimillion dollar sport, especially in the US where middle aged men had money to burn. The sport was reaching new heights in terms of popularity and that directly translated to dollars, so do you think at the height of its popularity and success that the UCI or a single sponsor was going to blow the whistle and tell the public that its biggest and best athlete was cheating. Not a chance!!
So for those reasons I think it is much harder to call Lance a cheat and a liar. Look if you are doing something wrong in an industry that is regulated and the regulators know what you are doing and you have been doing it for years and they have said nothing, what then? Do you stop doing it? Probably not. Cycling during this time period and honestly throughout most of its history has been a very dirty sport, as I said. So while Landis should not have been the one to take the fall for the sport neither should Lance, yet that is exactly what happened. I will also say that his attitude and demeanor toward those bringing the allegations as well as friends certainly did not help when the punishment was laid down. Which I think was being stripped of all 7 Tour de France titles and an 8 year ban from competition. Not to mention the loss of all of his sponsors. The book said that within 24 hours he lost $75 million in sponsorship money. OUCH!
While Lance may have been an asshole, I don’t know the guy personally, but from the book it made it seem like he used a lot of people along the way and then threw them aside when they were no longer useful. The book also used the term “psychopath” to describe him at times, while all that may be true I still have a difficult time giving my full opinion of him. His cancer foundation has helped countless lives and given millions to cancer research. The book also said that he would personally call doctors and try to get regular Joe’s appointments to see special doctors. He would also give advice and names of specialist to patients who were looking and struggling to find answers at the most confusing times in their lives. So you may think he is a terrible human being, but I think it is much more complicated than that. On some level I think it is a push in terms of if he is terrible or a good person. Yes he cheated but he also helped people with cancer, so in the grand scheme of things which is worse or better?
Another point I wanted to make is that he single handedly built cycling in America. I am positive there is a generation of cyclist out there that got into the sport because of Lance. I cannot name another individual or athlete that single handedly build an entire sport. Maybe James Naismith for basketball, but that is different because he invented the sport. Lance did not invent cycling he just made it popular. Which despite all that has happened I find fascinating.
This is somewhat of a side note but I think it is also interesting but may fall in the lines of conspiracy theory. From what I can tell and I do not know the exact connection but somehow Spain is wrapped up in this scandal as well. Either some of the doctors were from Spain or the drugs came from Spain, but during all the trials and outing of everything that happened somehow much of this got traced back to Spain. Now the reason I think this is interesting is because during this time Spain’s national soccer team won an record and unprecedented 3 major tournaments in a row (two Euro Cups and a World Cup). This feat had never been done before and I doubt it will ever be done again. A Spanish judge sealed documents that some say would implicate Spanish doctors that were caught up in the cycling scandal that also had ties to the Spanish National Team. I am also a soccer fan but doping in soccer may or may not be a problem, but it is different. While running long distances is certainly important, it is only one aspect of the game. Skill is just as important if not more so and during this time Spain had anywhere from 5-7 of the world’s best players at that time all at the peak of their careers. That may not seem like much but they were all playing for the same national team. That is something that does not happen hardly ever. Even mighty soccer powers like Brazil can only count on having 2-3 of the world’s best players at the same time on any given year. So while they may have been doping I can still remember them playing and they were a near unstoppable juggernaut that would dominate teams with their skill and style of play. I do not know what role if any PED’s played in their dominance but again I think it’s interesting that cycling has blown open another possible doping scandal in the world’s most popular sport.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book as I feel it did a good job of presenting all the facts and not just bashing a person, which would have been quite easy to do. I will say that toward the end it does get a bit wordy with all the pending trials and lawsuits and such, but still not too bad. This is a great book and even if you are not a cycling fan I think it is worth a read to try and understand what drives athletes and how their minds work. Check this one out if you get a chance and don’t be scared by the size of the book, it reads quickly.