Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Wheelmen" and "The Armstrong Lie"

It was several months after his Oprah confession that Lance Armstrong finally agreed to meet with Travis Tygart, the man who brought about his downfall with his report on his doping.  Armstrong no longer flew around in a private jet, having sold his after losing $75 million in endorsements, and knowing he would be losing millions more of his fortune in law suits.  But he still had money enough to charter a jet for the flight to the meeting in Denver, bringing along his girl friend and their two young children.

Tygart was concerned that Armstrong might be suicidal, as his findings in another case had caused a star athlete to take his life.  Armstrong's lawyers assured Tygart that Armstrong was doing okay, but that he would be much better if Tygart would reduce his life-time ban from competition.  Armstrong sat outside the meeting until certain arrangements had been made.  When he joined the proceedings,  he was wearing a baseball hat and was looking haggard.  Armstrong was willing to cooperate with Tygart if he would reduce his punishment to a one-year ban.  Tygart wouldn't go further than eight years.  That was totally unacceptable to Armstrong, as he had his eyes set on winning the Triathlon World Championship, and that wouldn't be possible as a 49-year old.  So nothing was accomplished at the meeting.

Such is the intimate detail that "Wall Street Journal" reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell offer in their remarkably well-researched "Wheelmen." The book traces Lance's entire career and American cycling since the 1984 Olympics where blood-doping helped American cyclists won nine medals, their most ever.  Their research included spending two weeks with Floyd Landis in a remote Southern California town where he was living in a cabin, taking days to persuade him to talk.

Landis makes some startling accusations, not all of which they can corroborate, but they are too juicy not to publish, as they betray not only his mindset, but the climate of the sport during its recent era of rampant, high-tech doping. Landis claimed that when he switched from Armstrong's team to Phonak, he asked the team owner Andy Rihs to provide help with his doping, as he'd recently had a bad reaction to a blood transfusion that he had attempted on his own.  Rihs denied to the authors through a spokesman of any knowledge of doping on his team.  Landis also claims that during the 2006 Tour de France, when he was in the lead, that Armstrong offered any rider $20,000 to prevent him from winning The Race.  The authors asked around, but they couldn't get anyone to acknowledge this.

The authors spice their book with other gossipy items. They report that Armstrong had a high sex drive and "like many of his ilk, slept with other women often."  He dated Tyler Hamilton's ex-wive Haven after he and Hamilton had become arch enemies.  Armstrong would invite strippers to his agent's office to party.  Oakley rep Stephanie McIlvain was known to give him blow-jobs.

If anyone should be on a suicide-watch it is McIlvain.  She is also trashed in the just-released documentary "The Armstrong Lie."  She was among those in Lance's hospital room in 1996 when he told doctors he had taken performance-enhancing drugs.  When forced to verify this under oath, she denied Lance said any such thing, contradicting Betsy and Frank Andreu.  After her testimony she left a phone message with Betsy that someone ought to break a baseball bat over her head.  The documentary replays that phone message, including subtitles to insure that it is fully understood.

Unlike the authors of "Wheelmen," who had a less than amiable relationship with Armstrong, even mentioning that Armstrong made insulting remarks about the appearance of one of them, the director of the documentary, Alex Gibney, liked and got along with Armstrong.  He spent a considerable amount of time filming Armstrong in 2009, the year of his Comeback, following The Tour that year.  He was set to release the film in 2010 until Landis made his sweeping confession during the Tour of California about all his doping with Armstrong.  Gibney couldn't release a film that glorified Armstrong under such circumstances despite all his outstanding racing footage and behind-the-scenes interviews.

Over three years later now he has been able to salvage his film by recutting it and adding two additional interviews with Armstrong after his Oprah confession and lots of other interviews.  He got  the Andreus and Jonathan Vaughters to talk after refusing to be part of the original movie, perceiving it as a puff piece on Armstrong.  He also added lengthy interviews with George Hincapie and journalists who wrote books about him--Bill Strictland, Daniel Coyle, Reed Albergotti and David Walsh.  Gibney accompanied Armstrong to the Oprah interview. He filmed him on the set greeting Oprah and then interviewed him, looking a little battered, immediately afterwards.  He conducts a more thorough and reflective interview with him later. 

His tight camera shots catch Armstrong's every inflection and smirk, giving glimmers of his cold-hearted cockiness, such as when he tells how the team dreamed up a story of using a cortisone cream to explain his positive test during the 1999 Tour.  He confesses to some of his drug-taking, but not all.  He reveals that his doping guru Michele Ferrari, the best in the business, wouldn't let him take EPO during the 2000 Tour, as he was concerned a test to detect it was imminent.  That made Armstrong nervous, as he feared he couldn't win without it.  He admits he was always on his heels after 1999 denying his doping.  

His doping, or at least the more serious doping, didn't begin until after the 1994 season that he spent wearing the World Champion jersey.  He was getting annihilated and knew he had to resort to EPO to keep up.  Hincapie explained, "We weren't trying to beat the system, just be in the system."  It is a tough, grueling sport.  Hincapie couldn't understand why Lance wanted to return after three years of retirement.  "This sport is not glamorous.  You just suffer all the time," he says.

A teen-aged Armstrong earlier in the film explains what motivates him--"I like competing with the best.  I like beating people."  The two-hour film includes considerable racing footage from his entire career with a heavy emphasis on the 2009 Tour.  There are many interviews in his hotel room after a stage.  Gibney catches him quite crestfallen sitting on his bed watching his time being beat in the Prologue.  He is quite giddy after he outsmarts his teammate Alberto Contador on a later stage and gains a few seconds on him.  He is thinking Yellow Jersey.  But then he has to acknowledge that Contador is the better rider after he convincingly beats him on the first mountain stage.

Gibney is also allowed to film Armstrong with his agent Bill Stapleton and director Johan Bruyneel sitting around like corporate sharks expressing frustration that The Tour may not let him ride in the 2009 Race because of drug insinuations.  They'll strong arm their way in if need be.

"Wheelmen" too gives plenty of examples of the bullying nature of Armstrong and his accomplices.  One of his early and chief supporters was Thom Weisel, a big-time investor who poured millions of dollars into the sport and was used to having his way in all things. When The Tour de France doesn't fully cooperate with their wishes, he considers buying the organization that runs The Tour for one-and-a-half billion dollars. He is portrayed as a virtual thug, someone who would often yell at his wife and bragged about his art collection.  Greg LeMond was so repulsed by him, he would no longer invest with him despite the great return of his investments.

The authors of "Wheelmen" have no difficulty getting LeMond to criticize Armstrong.  He tells them that Armstrong's mother flew up to Minneapolis early in his career to ask for advice on how to handle her son.  He had no advice, as he could be a jerk himself.  Before Armstrong won his first Tour he told LeMond at a dinner at LeMond's house that he intended to win The Tour four times, one more than LeMond.  Everyone at the table was totally baffled, as Armstrong had shown no evidence at that point that he could accomplish such a thing.

"Wheelmen" abounds with nitty-gritty insight into the Lance reign.  Albergotti isn't merely a journalist who was assigned to the cycling beat. He grew up with the sport and races as a Category Two.  His father was an avid amateur racer and served as a director of cycling competition at the 1984 Olympics.  The book though does make some less than fully-informed observations.  It states that Lance finished second in the 1996 Paris-Nice, "so he knew the course."  Like The Tour de France, Paris-Nice changes its course every year.  Early on the book states that Hamiiton was suspended for EPO, but twice later gets it right, stating it was for being found with someone else's blood in him.  It also makes a faulty assumption stating that it was clear to everyone that Armstrong slowed down and let Pantani win on Mont Ventoux during the 2000 Tour.  Lance didn't slow, he just didn't challenge Pantani at the line.

The book is incorrect when it states that during Armstrong's sixth Tour win he was dominant in every aspect of the race--"the sprints, the climbs, the race against the clock."  He did win five stages, but none of the sprint stages.  It mistakenly refers to Santiago Botero as a Spaniard.  He's from Colombia.  It states that Coyle wrote an article on Landis' pending hip surgery for the "New York Times" Sunday magazine in June before the 2006 Tour.  It actually appeared on the first rest day of the 2006 Tour and was startling news.  I thought it confused Christian Vande Velde and David Zabriskie when it called Vande Velde "goofy" and Zabriskie "shy," but Christian told me he was "a bit goofier than the other guys" early in his career.

The book is also not precisely correct on a number of other points.  It states the US was so successful at the 1984 Olympics  because of the Russian boycott.  Even more significant for the cyclists was the boycott of the East Germans.  It claims that team coach Eddie Borysewicz was only peripherally involved in the blood doping.  That is highly unlikely.  It exaggerates when it states that the apartment of the Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was discovered to contain blood plasma from half the professional peloton.  There was a lot, but no where near half.  There is also an occasional slip of not capitalizing the "T" when referring to the "Tour."

The book validates itself though with its multiple mentions of tears--Armstrong in a BMX race as a kid when he wipes out, crying with his mother after winning the World Championship, his wife crying over an email from Betsy Andreu, his agent and his wife crying when Lance put on the Yellow Jersey for the first time in 1999 after his Prologue win, Livestrong staff members when Armstrong stops by to apologize on his way to the Oprah interview.  

There are two instances of Zabriskie crying--on the phone with his mother after Bruyneel orders him to start taking EPO and then as he gives his deposition.  Hincapie is said to be near tears after winning a mountain stage in the 2005 Tour.  The lack of tears is given a mention too.  It says none were shed by anyone on the Postal Service team when Landis broke his hip in a training accident months before The Tour, despite being on the Postal Service team, reflecting what a business it is.

"Wheelmen" should also be commended for appropriately placing the writing of long-time "New York Times" reporter Samuel Abt in perspective, saying he "built a career as Armstrong's unofficial post-cancer propagandist."  That is a bold and brave statement, as the retired Abt is generally respected for his thirty-one years of covering The Tour, many of those as the lone American, even earning a medal from the French.  Besides his fawning over LeMond and Armstrong, his coverage was extremely superficial and non-controversial.  Despite his years of covering the sport, his knowledge of it didn't compare to his European counterparts.  He avoided negativity as much as possible.  He did not pursue the stories that a true journalist would have.  That had to be galling to the authors of "Wheelmen," who have made a career of getting to the bottom of whatever they were covering.  They certainly weren't concerned about hurting the feelings of many of those they profile in their book.  Theirs is not the final word on Armstrong, but it is a worthy contribution to reaching it.


Stuart said...

Some very interesting reviews. Some small corrections from the grammar gestapo: at the beginning of the fourth paragraph, I think you meant, "...which they couldn't corroborate..." and at the beginning of the 10th paragraph, I think you meant "serious" not "series."

I was an avid follower (TV only) of the Tour for many years and was taken in by the Armstrong legend. I really feel like an idiot now. I don't think I will ever take an interest in bicycle sports again. I am sure other professional athletes in other sports have done and are doing the same. I can't even watch the Olympics anymore.

george christensen said...

Stuart: Thanks for the corrections. We all could use an editor.

None of the drug revelations have really startled me. Doping and cheating have been a part of the sport since its earliest days. Riders used to even sprinkle nails on the road. A German rider even wrote about the best nails to use. I am still most enamored by the beauty of the sport and the great will it takes to excel.

Dan Trigoboff said...

I think "Oakley rep Stephanie McIlvain was known to give him blow-jobs" overstates, just as the book did. At best, it would be fair to say she was "said" to have done this. I have no doubt Ms. Andreu heard it and reported accurately what she heard. But given the sordid nature of the underlying statement, I thought it was tacky to include it in the book with no more than gossip to support it.

george christensen said...

It wasn't the only not fully substantiated claim the authors made. They could almost be accused of a shade of yellow journalism for some of their reporting, as I tried to portray in my commentary. They imply Lance had an affair with Hamilton's wife, when their "dating" may have been no more than a dinner. They are clearly biased regarding Eddie B. and other matters.