As many of you who follow Quickdirt know, I recently read Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever by Reed Albergottti and Vanessa O’Connell, two reporters from the Wall Street Journal.
It’s no secret now that Lance Armstrong used performance enhancing drugs and techniques to cheat and that cycling had a big doping problem. This book weaves all the pieces into one fascinating story about how it was done and the culture that allowed it to happen.
Do you think that Lance’s lifetime ban from cycling was too harsh? Let us know in the comment section. But – before you answer you should consider reading this book. The behind-the-scene details are fascinating. It’s not like Armstrong only lied once. He did it again and again and ruined the careers of people who dared betray his secret. He was driven, competitive and also vindictive. He was given multiple chances to come clean with the US Anti-doping Agency and basically just gave them the middle finger.
As I was reading the book I couldn’t believe these authors had the guts to write about this guy. Weren’t they afraid that Lance would come after them too? What motivated Reed and Vanessa to investigate this story so thoroughly?
James Knott: Were you always confident that Lance Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs? Were you on a mission to expose him?
Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell: Based on our reporting starting in 2006, we had strong suspicions that Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs. But as journalists, we are trained to remain objective and to seek out the point of view and response of those we write about. So we tried to remain as objective as possible in our coverage along the way.
Interestingly, the question of whether he had doped wasn’t a big motivation for us at first. Going back to 2006, we were mostly interested in looking at the sport’s governing body, the UCI, and exploring why there was such as culture of doping in the sport.
That’s partly because Armstrong had retired following his seventh Tour de France victory in 2005. He was out of the sport, dating Sheryl Crow, and enjoying the good life as a celebrity rather than a pro athlete. His past performance on the bike wasn’t much of a sports story, and neither were the allegations that he had doped during his then-over career.
It wasn’t until Armstrong returned to professional cycling in 2009, very publicly proclaiming that he was clean, the question of whether he had doped previously to win was highly relevant to us—and other journalists— once again. In 2010, Reed obtained from an anonymous source a series of emails written by Floyd Landis describing the doping on the U.S. Postal Service team. The emails seemed outrageous, and hard to believe, because they described the details of blood doping that hadn’t up to that point been widely known.
We initially weren’t certain the doping Landis described was true. After all, Landis had lied for years, saying he, too, hadn’t doped. But over the course of a few months, we were able to find other riders and sources who could confirm the veracity of Landis’s account. We were blown away by the intricacy of the doping scheme on the team, and by how the riders at times doped together in secret. We began meeting with and interviewing riders, sponsors, agents, coaches, friends, drug cheats, and lawyers. We developed a long source list of names, people we felt we could largely trust. After all that, by mid 2010, yes, we were fairly confident that Armstrong had used performance enhancing drugs. Yet, again, as journalists, we were still obliged to try to get his point of view and understand his response to the allegations.
Even then, we weren’t so much on a mission to expose Armstrong as a doper as we were on a mission to fill the gaps in the public’s understanding about who Armstrong really is. He had fed the public incredible stories about his talents and his dedication to training. They were great stories, but they were half truths.
Frankly, there was a need to put Armstrong in the broader context, as well as to show readers the doping culture in cycling, and of course, later—after Armstrong confessed to doping in a limited way– to explain to readers in a clear and understandable way, how it all went down. We came to see the potential for a fantastic non-fiction human interest story—a tale about fame, fortune, money, drugs, friendships, lovers, jealousies. That’s what we aimed for.
To me, this book is similar to “All The President’s Men” about the Watergate scandal with lots of characters driven by different motivations. Was it hard to weave all these details into one narrative?
Yes. There are more than 45 people in the WHEELMEN character list alone—riders, girlfriends, coaches, mentors, sponsors, wealthy businessmen. And some of the characters we introduce at the beginning drop out of the narrative by the end of the book. We worried that readers might become overwhelmed.
Yet, in the end, we decided that we had an obligation to tell the most complete and detailed story possible. We didn’t want people to buy the book and then feel deprived because we had chosen to leave important characters out, just to simplify the narrative.
Of course, the one character who is consistent throughout the book is Armstrong. So we hoped that would provide WHEELMEN with a cohesiveness that makes it easy to read, as well as definitive.
Have you ever been afraid of retribution from the Armstrong camp?
As journalists, we’re quite used to dealing with the wrath of difficult sources who don’t like what we write. So we have tough skins and we also take great care in our reporting and in writing stories to be fair to all. However, in 2009, Reed wrote a story about Armstrong’s feud with three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond that mentioned a dispute from eight years earlier that had spawned a lawsuit and personal attacks. Armstrong wasn’t happy with the story and called a high ranking person at our employer to complain. In the end, the editors stood up for our work. But the takeaway for us was the sense that Armstrong would very quickly call our top bosses if we did anything he felt was unfair or wrong.
Do you have any sympathy for Lance Armstrong? Do you think that he feels any remorse about his actions or does he just regret getting caught?
We do feel some sympathy for Armstrong. He made some terrible choices and bad mistakes. People worshiped him. It’s impossible to imagine he can ever regain his popularity at its prior levels. That’s sad.
So far, however, he has seemed mostly just sorry he got caught. Just in the past few months, he has made an effort to begin to apologize to some, such as his former friend, an Irish masseuse and team assistant, or soigneur, Emma O’Reilly. He also has put a generic apology on his Twitter profile. So perhaps these signs he’s on his way to genuinely feeling remorse. He’s facing some big legal challenges, and has several lawyers fighting them on his behalf. So that could also be why he hasn’t really expressed a lot of remorse—because he’s stuck in fighting mode.
Of course, Armstrong’s resilient. He’s in his early 40s. He’s got time to figure out a plan for the rest of his life. If he opens up and talks more about what he did wrong, specifically, and shows he’s sorry, then people probably will forgive him—and perhaps forgive him quickly. At the moment, because he hasn’t opened up in what feels to like a full and complete way, most people are still very very skeptical of him and a perhaps still angry about being misled.
Has professional cycling been cleaned up in a way that would prevent a situation like this from happening again?
It seems cleaner but there’s still doping and cheating in cycling. What might help prevent a situation like this from happening ever again is social media, frankly and a more sophisticated sports media. Fans no longer just read the sports pages of the newspaper and discuss sports at home with friends and family. Today, fans get on twitter and facebook and Instagram and share knowledge and trade information in real time with other fans. It’s easier for accusers and critics who might suspect doping—or even have evidence of doping— to spread the word (even anonymously via Twitter) now than it was from, say, 1999 to 2005.
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