Just finished up reading Wheelmen, the Armstrong doping story variation done by two Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell.
For those who have followed the tangled Armstrong saga and his astonishing fall from mythic status, Wheelmen won’t provide too much startling new information. If you’re not as familiar, then it’s a must-read and often just plain scary.
But then God is in the juicy details and in that respect Wheelmen tells a well-constructed story that lays out the reasons for Armstrong’s rise as a talented triathlete to winning seven Tours de France before the big lie finally exploded and ripped his life apart.
What stuck Twisted Spoke was the consistent portrait of Armstrong as a relentlessly self-centered personality right from the git go. Most people are aware of how he attacked his critics without mercy but less well known is the way he cast aside so many close friends without a second thought. And that’s not even factoring in all the marital infidelities and womanizing.
It’s not a flattering portrayal and in Wheelman, you’re given a close look right from the beginning of his career. We were familiar with the Postal stories but didn’t know about the cautionary tales from his early teams — Montgomery Subaru and Motorola. Say what you will about Armstrong — at least he was relentlessly consistent — he insisted the world revolve around him, 24/7.
Wheelmen also recounts the influential role played by Thom Weisel in the Armstrong story. The rich, hard driving investment mogul doesn’t come across as a very likable guy either — a kind of venture capitalist version of Armstrong. The cycling-obsessed Weisel treated the sport as another business competition, one to be dominated, rivals crushed and ethics weren’t part of the action plan.
According to Wheelmen, Weisel was completely aware of the doping from day one and condoned it as a whatever-it-takes-to-win situation. It’s no stretch to imagine Weisel is about as contrite on doping as Lance. They’re both Type A personalities and the win was all that mattered. (By the way, Weisel is fabulously rich, and you ain’t and that’s him laughing in the background.)
Wheelmen is also not kind to Jim Ochowicz, another Armstrong mentor and team principal in the early days. Now the boss at BMC, Ochowicz is described as fully onboard with whatever doping program was required. You get a strong sense of the Armstrong rocket taking off, the momentum and big money to be made by those ambitious enough to take the wild ride.
Plenty of research went into Wheelman and you get a true sense of the incestuous nature of the relationships between USA Cycling and the people who would guide and profit from Armstrong’s meteoric rise and protect him for over a decade. For cycling history wonks, the tangled roles and power struggles between Steve Johnson, Eddy Borysewicz, Thom Weisel, Mark Gorski and Ochowicz make good reading.
Taken as a whole, the book lays out the American side of the doping culture in pro cycling — one that would later produce the famed “most sophisticated doping program in the history of sports.” No one is spared and there is plenty of guilt-manure to spread around.
In particular, Wheelmen takes several long-time Armstrong sponsors to task for knowingly supporting him even when the evidence became damning — if you only bothered to look. Nike, Oakley and bike sponsor Trek are presented as 100% focused on profits — and they were significant — and unwilling to question the most inspirational athlete in the world.
In an ugly and acusatory passage, Wheelman makes a case that Oakley management threatened their two employees Stephanie McIlvain and her husband with termination if they testified against Armstrong. Meanwhile Trek took a willful look-the-other-way approach and bowed to Armstrong’s request to shut critic Greg Lemond down; a move that destroyed Lemond’s bike company.
The chapters on Armstrong’s dealings with US Anti-Doping CEO Travis Tygart are fascinating. Worth noting that it was a Mennonite (Floyd Landis) and a Methodist (Tygart) who tore down the Armstrong Legend. God works in mysterious ways but on occasion does get the job done. Armstrong and Tygart are oil and water, neither willing to budge; the drama being that Tygart had all the power and Lance mistakenly thought he did.
Armstrong’s serial blindness and ego drive every misstep he made on his way to being stripped of his seven Tour titles. Despite an army of $1000/hour lawyers — an asshole bunch you’d never want to meet at a party — Armstrong seems to feel untouchable until its too late and then furious that he missed all the good suspension deals. As business writers, Albergotti and O’Connell sketch the legal poker games with great skill and insight.
We learn, among many colossal bad judgements, that Armstrong went against the advice of almost all of his advisors when he decided to spill his guts to Oprah Winfrey on national television. It won’t be news to anyone at this point that the gamble backfired. Casual fans might have known he cheated but had no idea what a nasty, vindictive and unrepentant character he could be. (Three different public opinion polls showed he came out far worse than he went in.)
Are there any heroes in this nasty tale of money, power, doping and corruption? Well, not too many. Betsey and Frankie Andreu are already seen as the two people with any moral capacity and unwillingness to be intimidated. That characterization is only made stronger in Wheelmen.
While Betsey (like Lemond) sometimes comes off as shrill, you have to admire her fearless insistence on the truth. Anyone who is married will appreciate how hard Frankie worked to back his wife while still keeping a job and in the printed emails and scene reconstructions, it’s clear that Frankie always called a spade a spade. He was one of the rare people capable of saying “Fuck you, Lance.”
In a moral vacuum, there are few people who rise to the occasion. However, one Livestrong CEO resigned after just six months on the job after he asked Armstrong’s friend and agent Bill Stapleton point blank if he could guarantee Lance wasn’t doping. Stapleton couldn’t and the CEO walked out on a high profile job with major salary.
Finally, there is the lonely, lost and angry Floyd Landis. Wheelmen charts his descent into doing Hell and his conflicted attempts to find a way out. Landis will always be the wild card in the Greek meets Texan tragedy; The Man Who Shot Lance Armstrong.
By personality, Landis was black or white and no gray (a trait he shared with Lance) and when he decided to light the match, he went scorched earth, no prisoners, fight to the death. He’d already lost everything so there was nothing in the Armstrong arsenal to stop him. In Wheelmen, Landis is the tortured soul that finally decided the entire sport was a cynical lie with Armstrong telling the biggest one.
While there will be more Armstrong books — and movies — on the way, Wheelmen is a well-documented tale that sets the moral corruption in a society driven by ego and money. In that sense, we’re all wheelmen — a point the book makes in closing. It was the greatest sports story in history and our weakness and complicity was a need to believe it heart and soul without question.