Lance Armstrong’s story has been equal parts inspirational journey and tabloid fodder. After he was publicly shamed as a cheater, his epic collapse culminated in a highly anticipated, tell-all interview with Oprah Winfrey. Except he did not tell all. Armstrong admitted to using a wide variety of performance-enhancing drugs (P.E.D.s) and methods to win all seven of his Tour de France titles, but he withheld key details. He would not, as investigators demanded, elaborate as to how he did it and how he got away with it for so long. Wheelmen, by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, is an attempt to fill the gaps left by Armstrong’s admission. The result is an engrossing, detailed, and, at times, infuriating portrait of the undoing of an American hero.
It is clear that Albergotti and O’Connell, Wall Street Journal (W.S.J.) reporters who helped break the stories that led to Armstrong’s eventual downfall, do not admire him personally. Indeed, the word “asshole” is used to characterize him on more than one occasion. However, they are careful to point out and illustrate how Armstrong was only a piece of a larger conspiracy:
It isn’t just about Armstrong as an individual, an athlete, or a cancer survivor. It’s not solely about doping and cheating—or merely about sports. We view this as a business story—a story about a business that…was too big to fail.
For a conspiracy this broad to succeed, a great many people have to be involved and keep quiet. Coaches, managers, trainers, teammates, assistants, sponsors, friends, family—dozens of people either knew about Armstrong’s doping and helped to facilitate it, or turned a blind eye. By Albergotti and O’Connell’s account, Wheelmen is the product of more than 100 interviews, mainly of people directly involved in the elaborate doping scheme. They also spoke to Armstrong himself several times. Furthermore, Albergotti and O’Connell sifted through the mountain of documents available to them: e-mails, financial records, sworn statements, court documents, and grand jury testimony. Some of these are public record and some were leaked by confidential sources. They even used Armstrong’s own memoirs to paint a clearer picture of his life. Though much of this information was crucial to their W.S.J. articles, the book is not a collection of their columns. Rather, it reads more like a biography of Armstrong, with an obvious focus on the end of his career. What emerges is, if not a complete picture, a fuller understanding of Armstrong’s tainted rise and fall in the world of competitive cycling.
Wheelmen does reveal its share of the salacious details. Armstrong had a very pubic relationship with the singer Sheryl Crow, and she actually testified against him to investigators, saying she had accompanied him to an illegal blood transfusion while they were dating. Jonathan Vaughters, a former teammate of Armstrong’s, described to investigators a scene in which Armstrong came out of the bathroom of their hotel room while brushing his teeth and cavalierly plunged an Erythropoietin-filled needle into his stomach. Individuals who were part of Armstrong’s inner circle suggest to the writers that Armstrong was interested in his cancer foundation more as a vehicle for generating attention and personal profit than any philanthropic ideals. The most damning personal story comes from Floyd Landis, another former teammate. As a young rider, Landis, who was raised as a Mennonite, was drawn to Armstrong’s squeaky-clean image. It was an image that Armstrong had consciously cultivated, in part in his autobiography It's Not About The Bike: My Journey Back To Life. One of the first nights Landis spent in Armstrong's company, however, was far less wholesome. To Landis’s shock, it included strippers and cocaine. This account is one of Wheelmen’s most glaring examples of Lance Armstrong’s private and public selves at odds with one another.
Perhaps the book’s most significant revelation concerns a conversation that occurred in Armstrong’s hospital room in the fall of 1996, before he had won his first Tour de France. Armstrong was a relatively unknown young cyclist at the time and just beginning his treatment for testicular cancer. It is a conversation around which subsequent investigations revolved:
As [Armstrong’s] friends chatted, two doctors entered the room, introduced themselves to Lance, and began asking questions. Betsy [Andreu, wife of teammate Frankie Andreu] interrupted and suggested that Armstrong’s friends leave the room to give him privacy, but Armstrong insisted that they all stay. Among a series of routine questions, one of the doctors asked Armstrong if he had ever taken performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong responded matter-of-factly, listing E.P.O., testosterone, growth hormone, cortisone, and steroids.
For years afterward, Armstrong would vehemently deny that this exchange ever took place, despite there being close to a dozen witnesses present. When questioned later, most of the people in the room refused to swear that they ever heard Armstrong admit to using performance-enhancing drugs. One of the witnesses, Stephanie McIlvain, worked alongside her husband for Oakley, one of Armstrong’s major sponsors. According to Albergotti and O’Connell, “Stephanie said her husband had been called into a meeting by an Oakley executive. If Stephanie testified about the hospital room scene, the executive said, she and her husband would lose their jobs at Oakley.” Wheelmen regularly makes it clear that Armstrong did everything in his power to silence those who could damage him. Betsy Andreu, despite Armstrong’s intimidation and badgering, steadfastly maintained her version of events and was eventually vindicated by the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s (U.S.A.D.A.) investigation—which in turn confirms that Armstrong was using P.E.D.s for the bulk, if not all, of his professional career.
Albergotti and O’Connell assert that doping in professional cycling was the rule rather than the exception, a point Armstrong himself has made in his own defense. Armstrong was far from the only one cheating—he just did it better. It was basically an open secret that few people seriously cared to address as long as the money continued to roll in. Indeed, as it is stated in Wheelmen:
As a general practice, riders, and staff were given enough advance warning before the [blood] tests that the team doctors could inject riders’ veins with a saline solution, which caused their hematocrit levels to drop temporarily. These invaluable warnings suggested that the U.C.I. [Union Cycliste Internationale, competitive cycling’s governing body] wasn’t serious about curbing EPO use—it simply had a public relations problem on its hands and needed to appear to be reacting.
Wheelmen goes on to suggest that several high-ranking officials in charge of drug testing may have willingly ignored, downplayed, or hidden evidence that pointed to Armstrong’s guilt. And certainly those around Armstrong, especially his sponsors, saw little need to investigate the doping claims.
For Armstrong’s financial backers and sponsors, it was all about money—and the glory of it, too, of course. Lance Inc. was big business. Sponsors such as Nike, Oakley, Trek, and others actively advanced Armstrong’s career, fame, and wealth, capitalizing on what they stood to gain from his successes. When Armstrong’s critics accused him of cheating to win—and over the years, there were many such allegations—the sponsors asked no questions. Instead, acting as enablers, they offered Armstrong their unwavering support and continued to feature him in their marketing efforts, making him ever more visible in the public eye.
The business was dirty, though it seemed to work out for everyone. Cycling was flourishing, Armstrong and his sponsors were getting rich, and the American people had their superstar. But for the persistence of a small group of tireless investigators, led by Travis Tygart of the U.S.A.D.A. and aided by the likes of Floyd Landis and Betsy Andreu, Lance Armstrong could have gotten away with it.
What Albergotti and O’Connell reveal is the tremendous scope of Armstrong’s story, the enormity of his fall from grace. The subtitle of the book is Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever. Indeed, his downfall is a tragedy in the classical sense of the word. Armstrong’s collapse is Shakespearean. There is no denying that he is a great athlete, perhaps the greatest cyclist ever. But he was brought down by his own ego, his own ambition, and his own inner circle. His hubris was his undoing. His tremendous, unshakeable belief in his own invincibility led to both his success and his eventual failure.