Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hail, Hail David Walsh, "The Little Troll"

For thirteen years Irish journalist David Walsh has been on a crusade to prove that Lance Armstrong is a doper. When he saw Lance ride away from everyone in the first mountainous stage of the 1999 Tour, his first post-cancer Tour, he couldn't believe it.  Rather than being thrilled, as most were, he was repulsed, knowing how rife drugs were in cycling. From that point on he has been obsessed with proving what few wanted to believe, earning Lance's enmity and  harsh condemnation as "The Little Troll."  He's written three books on Lance and his doping, the latest "Seven Deadly Sins, A Journalist's Thirteen Year Quest for the Truth About a Champion," along with biographies of Irish cyclists Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche and a profile of The Tour de France.  The man is a genuine authority on cycling, having covered it for more than twenty years.

His latest book is a most personal chronicle of his quest, beginning with having his eyes opened to the prevalence of drug-taking in sports when he heard the rattle of pills in the jersey pocket of his hero, Sean Kelly, before a race.  He couldn't bring himself to report on that, but he was in the forefront of challenging the unexpected success of the Irish swimmer Michelle Smith at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she won three gold medals and instantly became a national hero.

Walsh traces his scepticism and strong urge to seek out the truth, regardless of how painful it may be, to his son John, who was hit by a car and killed when he was thirteen.  His son had the strength to question teachers and to name a classmate who had dissed a teacher when no one else would.

In his early days of sports writing he was a devoted fan who celebrated the heroics of those he was covering.  He cried in the press room at the 1992 Tour de France thrilled by Claudio Chiappucci's brazen attack in the Alps on the first of several climbs more than one hundred miles from the finish in Sestriere, holding off Miguel Indurain to win the stage by one minute and 45 seconds, replicating the storied feat of Fausto Coppi forty years before.  "I stood there and wept," he wrote.  "Not alone either."  By 1999 Walsh knew that Chiappucci's feat was fueled by drugs, just as he knew what Lance accomplished in his return, on the very same climb, had to have been. "Happy tears in the salle de presse would be no more," he writes.

Walsh confesses that it is "embarrassing" to remember those tears of his in 1992, but as someone with as intimate a knowledge of the sport as one can have without having competed in it, he knows how intrinsic tears are to cycling. Tears are sprinkled throughout his book.  Lance brings them up during his first interview with Walsh during the 1993 Tour before they became arch enemies. Walsh was writing a book on The Tour and wanted to do a chapter on Lance as a new-comer to the sport.  He was mightily impressed with his confidence and frankness and determination and knew he was someone who would make his mark.  During the three-hour interview Walsh asked him about his father and his step-father.  Lance said they were of no importance to him and that he couldn't understand how friends of his would fall apart and break into tears when their parents got divorced.  When he and his mother threw out his step-father it was a happy day.  And then he asks Walsh the prophetic question, "Is something wrong with me?"

As hardened as Lance could be, he was not immune to the loosening of the tear ducts.   Walsh describes him as weeping after the death of his teammate Fabio Casartelli in the 1995 Tour.  He doesn't report any other Lance tears, but he knows that when the truth of his doping is finally proved, "His time for tears would come."

One of the central characters of Walsh's pursuit of Lance was Betsy Andreu.  She offered him encouragement and evidence all along the way after they first talked in 2001. It was Betsy who asked a mutual friend to have Walsh call her, as she had much to tell him that would help make his case. They communicated regularly, often talking for hours at a time.  Walsh regarded her as a sister.  Lance tried to discredit and intimidate her in any way he could. As tough as she was, tougher than her husband Walsh says, Frank revealed, "she shed many tears."

Betsy and Frank had at one time been virtual best friends of Lance and his wife Kirsten. They were at his hospital bedside in Indianapolis in 1996 when he told  doctors that he had taken performance enhancing drugs before he was diagnosed with cancer. Betsy later defended Kirsten on a cycling website when someone wrote that Kirsten no doubt would have a nanny to look after their first child.  When Betsy told Kirsten about it, Kirsten was so distraught that some stranger would write such a thing about her, "She burst into tears."  Lance angrily told Frank that he didn't appreciate Betsy making his wife cry, despite the fact she was defending her.

Greg LeMond was another of the few who supported Walsh during all those years.  He is often accused of being jealous of Lance, but LeMond says that when Lance surprised everyone and convincingly won the Prologue of the 1999 Tour he was close to tears.  He wanted to believe, even though there were those who were immediately suspicious of his stunning performance.

Coincidentally, it was on the very same 6.8 kilometer course that had been used as the Prologue for the 1993 Tour when it likewise commenced at Puy du Fou. Lance had finished 81st that year, 47 seconds behind Miguel Indurain.  Six years later Lance improved his time from 8 minutes and 59 seconds to eight minutes and two seconds, ten seconds better than Indurain's had been. That was an astounding difference.   Walsh was among the sceptics, but he wanted to wait until the mountains before he made certain his suspicions.

Despite the mass euphoria over Lance's remarkable achievement winning The Tour, Walsh was one of the few doubters and did not hold back.  The headline of his story on the Sunday The Tour finished in Paris was "Flawed Fairytale."  He never wavered in not believing, though it took years of plugging away to find the evidence.  One of his early breakthroughs came when he could prove that Lance was working with the notorious Italian doping doctor Michele Ferrari, known as Il Mito, The Myth, by his Italian clients.

Court records revealed that Lance's teammate and close friend from Texas, Kevin Livingston, was a client of Ferreri.  Walsh was certain that if Livingston was, then Lance was too.  He got the Italian police to investigate hotel records in Ferrari's home town and discovered Lance had spent two days there in March of 1999 and had three visits in 2000 and one more in May of 2001.  Walsh broke the story that Lance was a client of Ferrari at the  2001 Tour during the rest day in Pau, something Lance had managed to keep a secret for six years since his first meeting with Ferreri in November of 1995 at the arrangement of Eddie Merckx.  Several days later when Walsh called LeMond for a reaction, LeMond uttered the prophetic comment that got him in a heap of trouble with Lance and all his supporters: "If Lance is clean it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports.  If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud."

Greg eventually was pressured to apologize for his comment, something he greatly regrets.  He and his wife Kathy were also victims of Lance's wrath over the years.  Trek withdrew production and distribution of the LeMond brand of bikes at Lance's insistence.  During Kathy's deposition for the 2006 SCA Promotions trial of Lance over whether it had to pay Lance a five million dollar bonus she broke into tears from the years of harassment.

Walsh's coverage caught the attention of Emma O'Reilly, a former masseuse of Lance's who had evidence of his team doping.  She gave him a call in 2001 after the Ferreri story broke and offered him the most incriminating information yet.  Walsh was so consumed by the story he wrote of that call, "I don't know if this was the happiest day of my life, but it would give the others a run for their money."

When Walsh went to visit O'Reilly he didn't immediately start quizzing her about what she knew.  He first established a rapport having a casual dinner with her and her husband.  When they finally sat down for a formal interview it went on for six hours and produced 40,000 words.

Along with all the praise Walsh heaps on O'Reilly and the Andreus and the LeMonds, he is unflinching in outing Armstrong's toadies in the press, who wouldn't listen to Walsh's arguments and treated him with less than respect.  He has special disdain for John Wilcockson, retired long-time editor of "VeloNews," whose benign attitude towards doping had always irritated him. The day before the start of the 2004 Tour in Liege Wilcockson told Walsh that he could not ride along with him in his car following The Race as Lance would not speak to him if he did, forcing him to make last minute arrangements.  It put him in a desperate situation, but he writes, "There are worse things in life than being dumped in the middle of Liege by John Wilcockson!"  He aptly describes Wilcockson's biography of Armstrong published in 2009 to coincide with his comeback as a "hagiography."

Walsh has similar disregard for veteran "New York Times" writer Samuel Abt.  He likewise turned a blind eye to Armstrong's true nature and was fully committed to doing his bidding.  He refers to a story he wrote on Emma O'Reilly as being "cutesy," with minimal relevance, a good summation for most of his cycling coverage.  He also quotes Abt as saying his first Armstrong book, "LA Confidential," that was only published in French as Armstrong was able to prevent its publication in English, had nothing of substance in it, though others applauded it for being the basis of the USADA report that brought Armstrong down.

Commentator Paul Sherwen would also seem to be among those who will not receive an invitation to any of the weddings of Walsh's five children.  He is given one incidental and unnecessary mention in the book as having been a "Motorola PR flunkie" in 1996.  The book was rushed into print, so there is no index to search the reference out.  It comes on page 244 for those interested.

The book does not dwell at all on the USADA report, so there is no analysis of the various confessions of Armstrong's teammates.  Christian Vande Velde appears once.  He is with Armstrong when he meets O'Reilly for the first time and has to explain to O'Reilly Armstrong's rather self-absorbed nature.

With the book rushed to print it couldn't help but have a few extra typographical errors, but more surprisingly several factual errors.  Walsh writes that Merckx tested positive twice. It was in fact three times, unless he discounts his 1969 Giro positive that was waived. The others were the Tour of Lombardy in 1973 and Fleche Wallone in 1977. He is wrong when he writes that Floyd Landis gave up the lead to Oscar Pereriro in the 2006 Tour "in the Alps."  It was in fact before the Alps on a 230-kilometer flat stage from Beziers to Montelimar.  The book also disagrees with itself when it says that Lance was the youngest ever world champion on page 101 and then on a caption to a photo that he was the third youngest.  The caption gets it right.  According to Wikipedia Karel Kaers in 1934 is the youngest at 20.  Jean-Pierre Monsere in 1970 is the second youngest three weeks shy of 22, one week younger than Armstrong was in l993.

I'm sorry to point out any shortcomings in this exceptional tale of a journalist who wouldn't quit, but I do it in the spirit of that very same journalist who committed himself to putting truth first after initially not doing so when it came to his friend Sean Kelly. Bravo, bravo.  And what next might he tackle?  He could follow up on the little nugget he drops in from the Festina trial in 2000, quoting Thomas Davy, a teammate of Indurain's at Banesto, that there was a systematic doping program while he was there.


parrabuddy said...

Particularly well written and absorbing post !
David Walsh tenaciously tracked Lance's efforts to avoid exposure of his regime . There were many trying to protect the myth that Lance projected , self interest , if for no other reason !

Read the first chapters of the " SSS " but not had time to go further , would recommend the book from what i have read to date .

george christensen said...

Skippy: The book flows with conversational ease. You'll love it, especially knowing many of those he writes about. Have you had any encounters yourself with Walsh during your many years of following The Tour?

Robert Matter said...

Very thorough review written by the most qualified person to write it!