The road to success is never easy. Champions invest thousands of hours of hard work and see off numerous failures to cultivate a winning attitude. However, without integrity and discipline as two cornerstones, a champion’s stay on the top could be short-lived. Over the years, we have been witness to numerous stories of heroes falling from grace; stories of ignominy, where success got to the heads and knocked people off kilter. ‘Wheelmen’, written by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, tells one such shocking tale. A no-holds-barred account of the worst doping scandal ever to hit the cycling scene, ‘Wheelmen’ is a dark journey into a world indoctrinated with drugs, lies and deception, and how one person, Lance Armstrong, became the embodiment of it all.
In the US, cycling has never ruled the roost, so to say, not even during the heydays of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. It has always been a fringe sport. Just to put things in perspective, only 40 odd Americans have competed in Tour de France since its inception in 1903. Armstrong’s much-publicized battle against cancer and his phoenix-like comeback to grab seven tour de France titles on the bounce, however, did boost the sport in shape of monies from media rights and sponsorships. But even that did not pull the sport into the mainstream from the periphery.
When a canny investment banker from San Fransisco, Thomas Weisel assembled his first professional cycling team in the late ’80, he immediately set his sights on the most coveted prize in the world of cycling – Tour de France. An unwarranted leap of faith for an American team of that time. But Thom Weisel’s determination saw him pull out all stops to propel his team to reach the summit, even if it meant that success was pursued at the risk of doping banned substances and blood transfusions. The Copernican pivot in Weisel’s blueprint, as it gradually turned out, was Lance Armstrong.
Armstrong was much more than just a gifted athlete. He was a born fighter who even stared down death, he was also an astute marketer who leveraged his underdog image to build a million dollar enterprise. On the vile side though, he was a machinating string-puller who never balked at hoodwinking his own teammates; he was an expert con-artist, as the book reveals, who led the world on for years.
The authors make no bones depicting Armstrong’s sinister persona the way it was. He had an egotistic, contemptuous streak, which he took pleasure in unleashing on others. In an initial chapter, the duo notes his slights at his coach, “Lance never wanted to rest. But Lance’s single-mindedness had its downside…. He refused to take direction from anyone.” He disliked his step-father even though the latter worked tirelessly to contribute to Armstrong’s success. In a later chapter, the authors remark, “Lance distanced himself from several of the people who invested the most time and effort in his success – including his mother.” In the nutshell, Lance was someone who allowed success and fame to get to his head. His shockingly rude dismissal of Greg LeMond – the three times Tour de France champion – when the latter dropped out of the race due to an illness, bears testimony to his hubris.
In the authors’ words, cycling in the ’80s and ’90s as such had become a sport where everyone, inside the sport, knew about the prevalence of doping. It was like a family secret that everyone wanted to guard, but no one wanted to discuss for the fear of a recriminating backlash. The focus of every team was to outplay the others by cranking up their respective doping machineries. Doping had reached a whole new level. Athletes weren’t only injecting themselves with banned substances, they had graduated to blood doping. During the Armstrong’s reign, many skeletons were hidden, palms were greased to protect the secret and those who dared to expose the truth were armtwisted into submission.
‘Wheelmen’ reads like a neat investigative thriller with lots of subplots and backstories. A peek into the sinister side of Armstrong – the accounts of his debaucheries with women and drugs and his Machiavellian stratagems to solidify power and protect his position – makes ‘Wheelmen’ all the more engaging.
Inordinate success can send us to dizzying planes of corruption and fallibility. But it’s when mortals become legends that their responsibility to protect their legacy multiplies. A legend’s fall is often decried, but we all know, how badly the press and the media blowhards love to see the bubble burst. Even ordinary folks get off on a heady pleasure of schadenfreude at the misery of fallen legends. In case of Armstrong, however, his brazen defense of his descent into the morass of drugs and lies, leaves no one in doubt that their hero was indeed a rogue and deserved his fall from grace.