I’ve noticed many more Trek road bicycles recently. U.S. Postal Service in red, white and blue. Discovery Channel. They’re all over the place. Not that there are more of them around, I’ve just noticed them more.
Why have I noticed them more? Wheelmen. The book, by Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell, and officially titled, “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France, and the greatest sports conspiracy ever,” was just released Oct. 15. It is probably the most complete and probing report ever on Armstrong’s rise and his eventual fall from grace amid allegations of doping.
The subject of sports doping has seen its own rise and fall in interest in the past decade and was largely kicked off by the BALCO steroid bust and scandal in 2003. It’s ancient history now, but the Daily Journal first reported the bust on Sept. 4, 2003, and followed it closely while it revealed a large-scale performance-enhancing drug operation headquartered in the BALCO’s Burlingame warehouse facility.
The San Francisco Chronicle, of course, picked up the coverage with the leaked testimony of the grand jury investigation and that, in time, led to several books on the topic — including “Game of Shadows” by former Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.
Armstrong has long been linked to performance-enhancing drugs despite his strident denials. He often touted that he was the most-tested athlete in the sport of cycling and in any sport, for that matter. Albergotti and O’Connell followed the Armstrong doping story for years and broke the revelation that former Armstrong teammate and disgraced Tour de France winner Floyd Landis had decided to come clean about himself and others on Armstrong’s U.S. Postal Service team.
This book follows the story from 1999 to present with a host of interviews and facts revealing the tangled web of the sport’s drug testing and business relationships. Because it is derived from Wall Street Journal coverage, the focus is on the business side of the sport and how Armstrong’s dominance speeded him to the top of the sport and elevated his persona to superhuman and celebrity status. That dominance was aided with a highly secretive drug program that went on for years and years. And it was that dominance that led to a highly-profitable business empire.
All those Trek bicycles you still see are a direct impact of his influence on the sport and our society. At one time, those yellow Livestrong bracelets were ubiquitous and it was hard to find a cyclist or triathlete who did not greatly admire his accomplishments in racing and in his cancer foundation.
Even now, after Armstrong’s open admission on Oprah, most Americans will simply say that Armstrong was just simply the best at the sport and at doping in a sport well known for doping’s proliferation.
Is he still a hero? No. He is a fallen hero. He has been stripped of his Tour de France titles and may not be able to compete in major sporting events until he is close to 50 years old because of his decision to stop fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s efforts to reveal his drug use.
Wheelmen does not portray Armstrong as a hero, but rather more of an anti-hero who did everything in his power to stay on top and ultimately fell.
Even if you are Armstrong fan, this book is the most comprehensive look at the sport of cycling, Armstrong’s dominance, his relationships and tangled alliances, intricate cheating conspiracies, the tempting allure of superstardom and our society’s shunning of stars once their shine has worn off.
If you look, you may still see a few Armstrong-inspired Trek bicycles around these days — no longer brand-new and proud, but rather dinged up and worn out. Just like Armstrong and his once impenetrable allure.
Jon Mays is the editor in chief of the Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jon on Twitter @jonmays.