Sunday, November 3, 2013

Armstrong's rise and fall outlined in compelling book

It is doubtful a more compelling account of Lance Armstrong's demise could be presented than that achieved by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell in their book Wheelmen.

The two Wall Street Journal writers have provided an in-depth account of Armstrong's life and it is not a pretty read.

Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell. Published by Hachette NZ.

Criticised throughout his domination of the Tour de France for his bullying attitude, Armstrong still managed to win support for his feats because of the seeming quality of his achievements.

The constant defence that he was the most tested rider in the world was a deliberate and calculated ploy to stave off those who wanted to know why more was not showing up in tests done on him. There was a fear he was one step ahead of the chemists and so it proved in a sport that had an on-going problem on the basis of past inaction on doping matters.

His dominance also started to hit home to others that all was not quite right.

Former Tour winner Greg LeMond recalled to the writers the first time the question of Armstrong doping was raised with him. It was in 1999 on the climb on Sestriere when the American blitzed the field on the climb.

"As Armstrong conquered Sestriere, everyone in the room, including LeMond, was cheering like mad. Except one man. A former mechanic on the Festina team named Cyrille Perrinn tapped LeMond on the shoulder and whispered to LeMond, 'sur le jus'.

"LeMond knew what this meant – Armstrong was juicing [taking drugs]. But how could the mechanic know this? 'What? Why?" LeMond asked, among the commotion and cheering.

"'No effort,' Perrin said. 'Look at his eyes, his breathing,' he said. Perrin went on to explain that cyclists were now using a powerful cocktail of drugs that propelled them up mountains without effort. 'They feel no pain,' he said to LeMond."

As much as the blatant cheating on the bike there were the machinations on the periphery of the game and those involved on the corporate side of the  Armstrong phenomenon. One example the authors highlighted was the relationship with Thom Weisel whose USA Cycling Development Foundation became a power player in the administration of the sport.

When Weisel gained control of USA Cycling, he appointed Jim Ochowicz as president while also installing him as a broker in his own banking firm. When Ochowicz joined him, one of his clients Hein Verbruggen went with him. Verbruggen was the head of the sport's world body, the UCI. That, the authors claimed, opened up ways in which Weisel could influence UCI decision-making.

They said: "Verbruggen now had several disincentives to police Armstrong's doping, and Armstrong would be thankful for them at various times throughout the remaining years of his career."

Armstrong wasn't beyond exerting his own threats, as LeMond found after he talked to British journalist David Walsh when Armstrong's links with controversial doctor Michele Ferrari confirmed to LeMond that Armstrong was doping.

LeMond said to Walsh: "When I heard he was working with Michele Ferrari, I was devastated...If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn't, it would be the greatest fraud."

Armstrong attacked LeMond through their corporate connection with Trek bicycles saying one call to the company boss could shut down LeMond's work with the company.

An example of Armstrong's vindictiveness and control was seen when in 2004 lowly-placed rider Filippo Simeoni attempted to form an inconsequential breakaway group which would have no bearing on the final outcome of the race. But sensing sponsors would not be happy with lowly riders getting some publicity, Armstrong chased them down.

A factor in that thinking was that Simeoni had testified against Ferrari and  sued Armstrong after he criticised Simeoni. Armstrong rode them down, and in a famous scene that had television commentators wondering what was being discussed as he had his hand on Simeoni's back, delivered the message to the rider.

What Armstrong told him was: "You made a mistake when you testified against Ferrari and you made a mistake when you sued me. I have a lot of time and money and I can destroy you."

He told the rest of the chasing group they wouldn't get away as he would not let the breakaway survive. The other riders put pressure on Simeoni and they drifted back to the peloton. When they got there Armstrong made a zipping motion across his mouth to warn there should be no more talk about doping.

The authors also gave full coverage of the plight of Floyd Landis and the battle he had in potting Armstrong who had unleashed a smear campaign against him. Things looked to have succeeded when the US Attorney for the Central District of California was ending its two-year investigation into Armstrong.

It was to prove the lull before the storm.

As the full facts surrounding Armstrong's use of drugs emerged via USADA, the US anti-drug agency, the collapse of the Armstrong empire was prompt and graphically caught by the writers.

Theirs is a readable and graphic account of all that occurred in the Armstrong era appearing well-sourced and a permanent reminder of what may well prove LeMond's words correct, 'the greatest fraud'.

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