What’s amazing about the Lance Armstrong saga is how brazen doping had become. Testimony has emerged of pro cyclists moving into quarters vacated by other riders and finding syringes under the bed. Drugs were stored openly in the fridge and passed around in front of spouses. A racer moved out of an apartment and left drugs behind; when his landlady called and asked what to do with his stuff he shrugged and said he didn’t care.
From the mid-1990s, cyclists started carrying around thermoses of ice. The sight was tacit acknowledgment that the rider was using EPO, the blood-boosting drug of choice, which needs to be kept cold.
While the scale and specific details of Armstrong’s doping were not then publicly known, no one involved in the sport could have had any illusions about him being clean. So why did it take so long for the truth to filter out of the fraternity?
Irish sportswriter David Walsh has hounded Armstrong for years – suffering bullying and character assassination – and his take will not endear him to fellow reporters.
“For too long, sportswriting has been unrestrained cheerleading, suspending legitimate doubts and settling for stories of sporting heroism,” he recalls writing for the Sunday Times after Armstrong’s first victory, in 1999. “Of course there are times when it is right to celebrate, but there are other occasions when it is equally correct to keep your hands by your sides.”
Walsh was by then a veteran sportswriter and cycling fan. He took a long time arriving at his hard line on doping, admitting that he managed to overlook apparent evidence of drug use by Irish great Sean Kelly. And when he interviewed a young Lance Armstrong in 1993, for a book on the Tour de France, he walked away impressed by his drive.
“Physically I’m not any more gifted than anybody else but it’s just this desire, just this rage,” the rising American rider said then. “I’d never quit. I’d never, just never. And that’s heart, man, that’s not physical, that’s not legs, that’s not lungs. That’s heart. That’s soul. That’s just guts.”
But Armstrong failed to perform and then vanished from the scene in 1996, sidelined by cancer. And Walsh slowly soured on the sport as drug use became rampant.
EPO was changing cycling through the mid-1990s, pushing up speeds rapidly and forcing non-dopers to get on the program or retire. There was no test for EPO at the time and it is generally accepted that a free-for-all broke out at the top ranks of cycling.
The best-funded cheaters, the ones willing to take the biggest risks, dominated the field.
The situation came to a head in 1998, when a staff member of the French team Festina was caught crossing a border with a carload of drugs. After arrests, rider strikes and hotel raids, the next year’s race was dubbed the Tour of Renewal. And who better to lead the charge than the American cancer-survivor, who had missed the ugliness in 1998? But Walsh found he wasn’t seduced.
He noticed the difference between Armstrong’s dominance in 1999 and his middling performances earlier. He saw the American rider crush the field in the 6.8-kilometre race prologue, covering the ground nearly a minute faster than his time on the same course six years earlier, when he finished 81st. He saw a rider who had never contended in the big mountains race past climbing specialists.
Cycling devotees have for decades acknowledged the presence of drugs in the sport. And some dopers have been cut slack by fans for riding with great panache. But Armstrong, on whom suspicion quickly fell, had a more methodical style, which brought him victory but failed to win over many spectators.
His use of drugs in 1999, when the sport was trying to clean up, also fuelled criticism that he ushered in a new era of doping. And the way he wielded cancer as a shield to deflect attacks over the years disgusted many. His lashing out at anyone who questioned his bona fides ruined careers and now has analysts wondering if he is sociopathic.
Through it all, Walsh was one of the few reporters to look seriously and critically at the Armstrong myth, slowly picking away at the facade.
This is his third book on the subject and it has the feel of being rushed into publication. Some key points are not sourced, including the claim that Armstrong wasn’t “anything special physiologically.” And the lack of an index will frustrate some readers.
The book strays occasionally into technical matters such as hematocrit (percentage of red cells in the blood) and VO2 max (aerobic capacity), but is accessible to the lay reader. And while its material will be familiar in broad strokes to those who have followed the saga over the past 14 years, Walsh provides intriguing new details and probes into Armstrong’s personality.
“Lance Armstrong’s greatest strength was also his greatest weakness,” he writes. “People. He could impress people, he could charm people, he could cajole people, he could extract love and loyalty. But when he was finished, he had no feel for keeping people.”
Walsh gradually tracked down many of these former Armstrong insiders. Their accounts were vehemently denied at the time, but the genie could not be put back in the bottle. And years later, their testimony was at the heart of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to strip Armstrong of his titles and ban him.
But by then, they had suffered vicious personal attacks for telling their stories. Not content with alleging his innocence, the American had demonized those who questioned the myth.
“Watch him,” Walsh writes about Armstrong denying doping in 2005, the only time in all his legal battles that he had to give testimony under oath. “Lance sits patiently in a lilac shirt and crew cut and describes a world wherein a good man is beset at all times by a motley army of whores, drunks, addicts, cheats, liars and trolls. It is too much. He is above this.”
The author prefaced his final chapter with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Show me a hero, and I will write you a tragedy.” Armstrong has been banned from competing and humiliated on Oprah. His sponsors have fled and his cancer-awareness foundation has cut ties. He faces multimillion-dollar lawsuits and possibly criminal charges. But David Walsh – who was labelled a “little troll” by the cyclist – says he feels no sense of vindication.
“This has been a squalid story from the beginning, conceived through greed and cynicism and then fuelled with the best drugs money could buy,” he writes. “He’s history now, another aging story of cheating and lying and doping and bullying and sport that wasn’t sport. An icon until the mask was taken away.”
Globe and Mail reporter Oliver Moore is an amateur cyclist who has watched and written about pro racing for years. He has few illusions about the sport.