Book Review: “The Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever”

This book (Amazon, iTunes) details the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong – from teenage runner / triathlete, to bike racer, through cancer, his TDF victories, and eventual admission of doping.9-small

The book was relatively well written and easy to follow.  And while I think it is a fascinating book, I think it is fascinating for reasons totally unrelated to Lance Armstrong.  And, in fact, the data pieces they use of Lance are poorly written and a bit contradictory.  At times, Lance really comes across as a gigantic asshole, but the author’s don’t spend much time on that, so it reads more like rumor and innuendo than  “facts”.

I can forgive the book for this, because what this book does an amazing job explaining is just how easy it was for Armstrong to pull off such a doping ring.  I for one defended Lance until the end, because I just couldn’t see how he could keep passing test after test after test yet somehow still be guilty of doping.

And thus, this is what made the book fascinating.

Like most Americans who don’t know much about cycling, your exposure to cycling was probably through watching the Tour de France because we were wondering if Lance was going to win again.  Although I do remember watching coverage on NBC when Greg LeMond won his third TDF, that was more because of how it was done – an amazing final stage time trial for the comeback win.

If all you watched is the Tour de France, you probably came away like I did, thinking that international bike racing worked kind of like, say, Formula 1.  You have this big spectacle with a lot of fans, you have teams with big corporate sponsors, you have rules about what was allowed and not allowed for your equipment, etc.  And, of course with cycling, you had drug testing.

But what this book exposes is that, well, cycling during Lance’s ascent was actually a rickety organization held together with duct tape, with ample opportunities for obfuscation and outright corruption.  Until Americans started becoming good cyclists, in fact, the money involved in cycling was pretty awful.  And thus, the American rise in cycling, by introducing so much money, made the things Lance and the USPS team did almost inevitable – it was just too easy.

The UCI (International Cycling Union) which ran the sport and ran testing was, well, sort of compromised.  Here you are as an organization that benefits from donations.  And if, for example, you have a rider who is an international star, and his winning brings all kinds of new excitement to the sport and donations, what happens if that rider maybe had an elevated level of testosterone?  (Which Lance actually did in 1999).  Are you going to disqualify him?  Or are you going to accept his team’s answer that this was due to a cream applied to deal with saddle sores, and oh, by the way, here is a $400K donation to UCI?

Given how rickety the organization was, well, you are going to really be tempted, and yes, the UCI let his failed test slide).

USA Cycling was no better.  This was an organization that didn’t really exist at all until some wealthy Americans who were gaga about cycling and wanted Americans to win created it.  They clearly aren’t going to be motivated to expose American cheaters, because they want the glory of American victories.

And thus, this was how the doping program the USPS created was allowed to avoid detection.  The American cycling body didn’t really care, and the UCI was compromised.

It didn’t really fall apart until the WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and USADA (the US arm), got involved.  These organizations are quasi-government funded, and they are not cycling organizations – they went after doping in the Olympics and other sports.  It was their involvement that eventually broke the conspiracy.

I won’t go into the details on how that happened – read the book LOL.

Back to the character of Lance Armstrong.  I do think the book wanted to show that Lance is not such a great guy.  But as I indicated, I don’t think the authors did a terribly good job in documenting this, and frankly, I’m not sure Lance is worse than any other hyper-competitive person.  This kind of personality type is pretty singularly drive – to win – and that is going to affect their interpersonal relationships.  He might be a jerk, but I don’t think he is any bigger of a jerk than, say, Michael Jordan.  Jordan punched a teammate (Steve Kerr) in practice, for example.

So, don’t go into this book expecting to learn much about Lance that would help you form a more positive or negative opinion of him.  Read this book to learn about cycling.