Tuesday, March 25, 2014

"Cycle of Lies" versus "Wheelmen"

Juliet Macur brings a strong female perspective to the Lance Armstrong saga in "Cycle of Lies," the latest book detailing the downfall of the seven-time conqueror of The Tour de France.  She cultivated many female sources in the decade that she covered Armstrong and bicycle racing for the "New York Times."

She's the reporter who convinced Frankie Andreu to confess to his use of EPO, revealed in a front page story in the "New York Times" in September of 2006.  She had been visiting Betsy Andreu at their home in Michigan.  Her husband wasn't happy at all that Macur was there.  He argued with Betsy about it, but relented to Macur's persistence and became the first of Armstrong's teammates to bravely acknowledge that things with Lance weren't so clean. Jonathan Vaughters also admitted to drug-taking in that article, but anonymously.

Macur spoke with Betsy hundreds of times over the years.  Macur's book answers the question, "Did the wives and girl friends of the racers know about their doping?"  Of course they did.  At the bachelorette party for Christian Vande Velde's wife-to-be, Leah, she tearfully comments to Vaughter's wife Alisa, "All the needles.  Its just so hard."  They hugged and they both cried.

Macur uses tears repeatedly to emphasis a point, citing over thirty incidences, including some of her own.  It is quite a contrast to the mere nine in "Wheelman," a similar version of the same story published just a few months ago by the two "Wall Street Journal" reporters, Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell, who had been on the case for years too. The third book in this trilogy of books published after the official report documenting of Armstrong's doping, "Seven Deadly Sins," by Lance's chief nemesis the Irish sportswriter David Walsh, mentions tears twelve time.  

The latest two books by rival American writers have a slightly different focus, though they both are determined, as was Walsh, to portray Armstrong in the lowest light possible. The "Journal" reporters go on at length castigating the money-man behind Armstrong, Thom Weisel.  Macur doesn't pursue that side of the story at all, barely even mentioning him.  

She directs her strongest ire, other than that for Armstrong, at his mother.  She calls her a fraud for claiming to be a single mother, as she was married during most of the years of Armstrong's youth to a very hands-on husband who very avidly supported Armstrong in his athletic endeavors and takes partial blame for making him such a beast of a competitor.  He officially adopted Armstrong, with Lance taking his name, and would correct anyone who referred to him as a step-father.  He considered himself his father, though Armstrong later renounced him and refused to have anything to do with him, just as he did with his biological father.

Macur devotes several pages to the mother and sister of the young man who fathered Armstrong when he and his mother were just teens.  Even though he and Armstrong's mother quickly divorced, the women on his side of the family still helped out babysitting and looking after Armstrong.  Once when Armstrong's mother came to pick him up from his mother-in-law when he was four years old, he reluctantly left in tears.  When Armstrong's mother broke off relations with them, refusing to let his grandmother give him some Christmas presents when he was five or six, she was brought to tears.

Lance's tears as a four-year old is the first of five instances Macur cites of Armstrong crying.  The next was a few years later when he crashed at his first BMX race.  "Wheelman" also mentions this, one of three crying episodes both books share.  The other two involved Dave Zabriskie.

Zabriskie was a prime source for Macur.  He earns an entire chapter, more than any other of Armstrong's former teammates.  He was a close friend of Floyd Landis, acknowledging they doped together while training in the off-season before his 2006 victory in The Tour.  When he learned that Landis had been stripped of his title, he cried for hours, unable to leave his bathtub.

Landis chose not to talk to Macur, evidently having enough after Albergotti spent two weeks interrogating him at his cabin in a small town in California.  Besides the assistance of Zabriskie, Macur pursued the Landis side of the story through his physiologist Dr. Allen Lim.  He reveals that when he discovered Landis injecting himself with EPO when he was with him in Spain in 2005, he dropped him as a client and flew back to the US.  But he was hard-up for money and when Landis sent him a check for $7,000, he returned two weeks later.  

Macur states that Lim's time with Landis in Europe that year was the first time he had been to Europe.  Evidently she does not keep up with the podcasts of Michael Creed, essential listening for anyone interested in the true ins-and-outs of professional racing.  When Lim was a guest on the show while she was writing her book he tells of racing in Europe in 1989 as a sixteen-year old.  While there he attended The Tour de France and met Greg LeMond.  He can also be seen in the one-hour highlight video of that year's Tour standing at the top of a mountain pass on the tenth stage of The Race cheering the passing peloton.  That was about the only factual error in the book.  Macur had better fact-checkers than did Albergotti and O'Connell, who had quite a few mistakes, even referring to the Colombian Santiago Botero as a Spaniard.

Lim was a great source, as he went on to be one of Armstrong's coaches during his comeback.  Lim claims that Landis was a much stronger cyclist than Armstrong and makes the bold assertion that if there had been no doping in cycling he would have won The Tour ten times.  Lim also corroborates the story of Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel flushing a bag of Landis' blood down the toilet during the 2004 Tour, as they were upset with him and they knew that it would make it harder for him even though he was on their team.  

Zabriskie also confirms this story, a story that Landis inexplicably denied to Paul Kimmage in his seven-hour interview with him.  The story first came to light during the trial when Armstrong sued the company that didn't want to pay him a five million dollar bonus for winning The Tour five times over the suspicions of his doping.  It was introduced as evidence in a text message between Frankie Andreu and Vaughters.  The several pages of their conversation is published in its entirety in David Walsh's "From Lance to Landis, Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France."

 Macur doesn't give the background on the story, but she implies she knows its uncertainty, as she mentions the dumping of the blood three different times.  "Wheelman" avoids it altogether.  The two books also differ on their perception of Eddie Borysewicz, the coach of the 1984 American Olympic team that blood-doped.  The "Wall Street Journal" reporters write most favorably of him and say he was only marginally involved, while Macur, as if in response to their book, refers to his "dubious reputation" and that  he pressured riders to take blood transfusions, the more accepted version of the story.

Although Macur does not list "Wheelmen" in her bibliography, her extensive footnotes list several "WSJ" articles by its authors, and its clear she read the book as she also allows Armstrong to respond to the mention in that book that he dated Tyler Hamilton's wife.  In one of his diatribes to her during a June 2013 interview at his ten-million dollar mansion in Austin on the day he was moving to a more modest two-million dollar house in central Austin he ranted, he "didn't sleep with his idiot teammate's wife, but the thought crossed his mind."  Macur does not identify the idiot teammate or provide any footnoted explanation, just offering this juicy morsel for those knowledgeable enough to be aware of the story.  She also somewhat forsakes her responsibility as a journalist to give the full story when she does not identify the seven Olympians Borysewicz convinced to take blood, just that two became sick and four won medals, including a gold.

Both books recount Armstrong's one and only meeting with Travis Tygaart, the investigator who made the case against Armstrong.  They met in Denver with lawyers and the ex-governor of Colorado on December 12, 2012 to discuss reducing his life-time ban from competing in any Olympic sport.  Macur had better sources than Albergotti and O'Connell, going into more detail, having the advantage of being published second.  Macur quotes Armstrong as calling Tygaart  a "motherfucker."  She may have a feminine slant to her coverage, but she is much less restrained including Armstrong's profanity.  The f-word turns up eighty-one times in her book, compared to just twenty in "Wheelmen," and thirty-three in "Seven Deadly Sins."  She says Armstrong "gave profanity a bad name" during her Austin interview at his home.

It would be impossible though to choose one book over the other.  They are both written by reporters who have covered the story for years and know it well.  They differ in having closer relationships with different sources.  Macur virtually ignores the LeMonds, while they were a principal source for her rival book.  Both mention Armstrong's mother and his close friend J.T. Neal flying up to Minneapolis to talk with the LeMonds.  Macur says it was to discuss dealing with sponsors, with also the subject of how to rein in Lance's runaway ego coming up, while the "Wheelmen" authors imply that was the main reason for their visit, as the LeMonds would probably have it, being such ardent Armstrong-haters.

Both books share a most one-sided portrayal of the Armstrong story.  Long-time Armstrong friend Jim Hoyt, who I spoke with for an hour this past January in his mammoth bike shop in Richardson, Texas, refused to talk to any of these reporters, knowing their agenda.  Still  the story of him helping Lance buy a car when he was a teen is recounted in both books.  The car was in Hoyt's name, and when Armstrong abandoned the car after a high-speed chase from the police, they came to Hoyt.  Hoyt has long since forgiven Lance and only had positive things to say about him during our conversation.  He was there in Paris when Lance won his first Tour in 1999 and Lance was a surprise guest at a ride celebrating his 60th birthday and his bike shop is full of Lance memorabilia.  That is a side of the Armstrong story these attack-books ignore.

The dust-jacket of Macur's book calls it "the definitive account of Lance Armstrong's spectacular rise and fall."  It is difficult to say that it is even more definitive than "Wheelmen."  It is far from the last word on Armstrong.  That won't come until Armstrong fully opens up and an author receives the full cooperation of all the principals in the story.  But both books are a giant step towards gaining that definitive account of this tragic Greek-myth of a story.

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