Book Review: Wheelman — Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever
A friend of mine recently finished Wheelmen and gave me his copy to read. Wheelmen is an extremely well researched and detailed account of US Cycling and Lance Armstrong’s persona, career, and doping practices. While Armstrong is on the cover and the focal point of the doping scandal, it’s equally a story of American cycling and Armstrong. It covers the birth and rise of American cycling up to present day.
Before I read the book, I knew little about Armstrong and less about American cycling. I knew of the mainstream story lines. Lance Armstrong beat cancer, won the Tour de France year after year, dated Cheryl Crow, started Livestrong, sold yellow bracelets, was accused of doping, aggressively denied doping, came clean in a weird 2-part interview with Oprah, and retired disgraced.
My stance on Armstrong going into the book was fairly neutral. I enjoyed watching his run thru the TdFs, was disappointed to find him come clean, but realize that many in the sport dope. Doping is how the game is played. Before he admitted his guilt, I thought he brought a similar level of fame and attention to cycling that Michael Jordan brought to the NBA. Despite his doping, I thought the cycling community owed a lot to Armstrong for raising the visibility of the sport. I wish he would have admitted guilt and moved on. Americans have short memories, they forget fast.
The book was mostly all business — focusing on the history of US cycling and Lance Armstrong’s career in it. While some Tour de France races were detailed, the majority of the book was about the politics and the doping practices more than the athletics and strategy behind the sport. The book is well researched and goes into excruciating detail about the history of US cycling, the personalities involved, Lance Armstrong’s character and involvement, the business deals that drove cycling, the doping practices, the lawsuits, the rise and fall of Armstrong’s career and personal life. Its goal is to highlight what they deemed the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever as opposed to the sport of cycling or the strategies and training regimen the teams took to win races.
After reading the book, I realized that some of my first impressions of Armstrong were completely accurate:
- He is dedicated, talented, and an extremely hard worker. He was winning triathlon races before doping and he’d continue to win races today without doping. He’s a competitor.
- He brought tremendous attention to the sport of cycling.
- He hurt himself by so vehemently lying.
- He is polarizing. He reminds me of LeBron James — loved or hated — no in between.
The most important lessons I learned were (if the book is true — which given the wealth of research most certainly is):
- Doping is rampant in sport, which I knew, but this book made me realize that it’s really, really big. It’s a huge ethical issue.
- Armstrong was really arrogant, deceptive, and used people.
- It was amazing Armstrong was able to cover up years of elaborate doping — especially after he won a few TdFs (the scrutiny) and with all this evidence!
- Armstrong’s lying and attitude brought him down. Had he come clean earlier, or not pissed off so many people, his legend may have stayed in tact.
- People were obsessed with bringing him down — the authors included. They were obviously biased against Armstrong.
Other random thoughts on the book
- The history of US cycling was rather dull. I appreciated how the authors tried to weave all the pieces and history together, but it didn’t work for me. There were too many people, story lines, and interrelated relationships to keep track of. The story didn’t flow well for me.
- The insights into the postal team and the methods of doping were fascinating, but a bit overdramatic.
- I’m more into the grueling training and techniques of sport than politics. This book was about politics.
- The Government lawsuit against Armstrong is legally correct but still a huge shame. The Government’s claim is that Armstrong defrauded the Postal Service by violating their non-doping clauses in their contract. While legally correct, they miss the bigger picture. The Postal Service made more money off Armstrong than anticipated or deserved. I see their stance, but feel they should call a truce and drop the case.
Thoughts on Doping
It turned out the most thought provoking, interesting issue in the book wasn’t cycling or Lance Armstrong. It was doping in sports. Wheelmen either solidifies or makes you question your stance on doping. I’m against doping. I also realize that entire sports, like cycling, are doping. If you want to compete at that level, you’re seriously disadvantaged if you don’t. It’s a shame, but it’s the truth.
We don’t live in a perfect world. Everyone is a doper to an extent. We all can and do take different drugs and enhanced substances that can improve performance. Where do you draw the line between acceptable use and doping? If you take vitamins, are you a doper? Caffeine? Ibuprofen? Protein powder? Supplements? Creatine? Testosterone? EPO? Blood transfusions? At what point in that chain should we consider someone a doper? Where do you draw the line? I can see the other side of the argument.
Wheelmen’s detail on the history and politics of US Cycling and Lance Armstrong’s career is impressive. The authors put almost too much detail into the book and made it hard to follow. If you are seriously into cycling or want to know more about the history of US Cycling from the 70s until the mid 2000's, you’re not going to find a better researched book than this one. If you are interested in sport, competition, training techniques, or the athletics involved in cycling, skip this book.