'Wheelmen': Lance Armstrong and 'the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever'

Liar, liar, wheel's on fire

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He was so close to getting away with everything. It was early 2012 and Lance Armstrong was living in Hawaii, biking up the Kohala Volcano and swimming in Kailua Bay as he trained for what would likely be a lucrative second career as a triathlete.

The federal government had just dropped its investigation of him, and this decision came after covered-up failed drug tests, incriminating testimony from former teammates and a hospital-bed confession about drug use when he was suffering from cancer in the mid-1990s.

By Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell
Gotham ($27.50).

His 15-year escape from the consequences of cheating had been Houdini-esque. It was only after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency publicly released a report detailing the use of performance-enhancing drugs by him and his cycling team last fall that support for Mr. Armstrong eroded, leading to his confession, lost sponsorships and lawsuits still working their way through court.

In "Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever," authors Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell tell this tale in excruciating detail, examining the people, events and trade secrets that kept him America's cycling savior and the personal vendettas wrought by Mr. Armstrong that facilitated his downfall.

We all know the story's ending -- an unapologetic, still tight-lipped Mr. Armstrong meets Oprah and confesses -- but Mr. Albergotti and Ms. O'Connell, both reporters for The Wall Street Journal, fill in the blanks. They answer the much more important "how" in addition to the "why" and "what."

On the front flap of the book, they present an illustration of the convoluted, intertwining doping underworld governed by Mr. Armstrong. It looks like the periodic table transferred into flow chart form. Indeed, dopers can't just stick a syringe in their arm and hop on a bike. It's complicated. We learn that Mr. Armstrong had the help of team doctors, the president of USA Cycling and quite likely the leader of cycling's international governing body, who might have been paid off by Nike to conceal a positive test in 1999.

As damning as the drug charges were to his reputation, the descriptions of Mr. Armstrong's personality in "Wheelmen" might be more revealing, particularly for casual fans who wore one of his yellow bracelets back in 2004 and knew him solely as the celebrity athlete who beat cancer. In reality, the hero was kind of a jerk. He forsook a long-term mentor who was dying of cancer, regularly cheated on his first wife, Kristin Armstrong and belittled his teammates constantly, forcing some of them to dope. Had he been a nicer guy, this book might not exist.

The authors knew the icy pettiness of his wrath, too. After breaking the story that cyclist Floyd Landis was cooperating with the feds, Ms. O'Connell and Mr. Albergotti attempted several times to interview Mr. Armstrong. He described Mr. Albergotti as a "C-level journalist and even made insulting comments about his appearance."

The authors' status as outsiders, however, is one of the best parts about this book. Mr. Albergotti covers white-collar crime for the Journal, and Ms. O'Connell is the newspaper's entrepreneurship editor and previously reported on tobacco, alcohol and insider trading. Whereas the American mainstream sports media was reluctant to investigate a savior, they dug in, and this book is the result of several years of interviews and hard-earned perspective.

Too many sports writers live in a black-and-white, good-bad world, always reaching for extremes. They would have made the story of Lance a morality tale. Ms. O'Connell and Mr. Albergotti don't hold any grudges. They simply report. Regardless of Mr. Armstrong's temperament, they write, he still helped raise $500 million for cancer research and made countless unpublicized visits to cancer patients deep in the throes of this terrible disease.

Ms. O'Connell and Mr. Albergotti smartly point out that the corporations and organizations castigating Mr. Armstrong were in some ways hypocritical for censuring him. After all, suspicions swirled around him for years, but they kept feeding the narrative, paying Mr. Armstrong while reaping returns worth multiples of their investment. Mr. Armstrong, they write, was a business, Lance Inc., and he was too big to fail.

On this sprawling path of currency, cycling's great ride continued, unobstructed, for more than a decade. Mr. Armstrong achieved fame, Nike and Trek made piles of money, and American cycling got its breakout star.

The only thing ever missing was the truth. In "Wheelmen," we get it.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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