April 20, 2014

Two literary takes on Lance Armstrong

“Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong” by Juliet Macur (Harper, $27.99)

“Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong” by Juliet Macur (Harper, $27.99)

“Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever” by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell (Gotham, $27.50)

The cycling section of Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., is vast. And as you stand before it, as I did recently, it’s easy to split the volumes into distinct categories: before doping and after.

In the first realm rest the hagiographies and how-to tomes mostly about or inspired by Lance Armstrong, including “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” “Lance Armstrong: Images of a Champion” and the now painfully ironic “The Lance Armstrong Performance Program: Seven Weeks to the Perfect Ride.”

Sharply separated, as if by the Mason-Dixon line, stand the growing roster of countervailing efforts, most notably the recent “Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever” by Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell and the newly published “Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong” by the New York Times’ Juliet Macur.

“Cycle of Lies” purports to be the “definitive account” of Armstrong’s “rise and fall,” and it’s impossible not to read it as if Macur is an author scorned. While she was one of the few New York Times journalists to write critically of Armstrong before he was taken down by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, Macur nevertheless dismissed early accusations of his using performance-enhancing drugs as a “distraction.”

For the Armstrong aficionado, “Cycle of Lies” does not convey a wealth of new (or provocative) evidence about how Armstrong, his doctors, coaches and teammates used pharmacology and hematology to place Armstrong in the top spot in a record seven straight Tours de France. Where Macur does improve upon the doping dossier is by examining some of Armstrong’s personal relationships; the way he treated others, particularly some purportedly close friends, reveals much about his character.

Macur’s biggest scoop is her access to the recorded recollections of J.T. Neal, a father figure to Armstrong who did not survive cancer, as his protege did. Neal’s tapes show Armstrong to be hopelessly selfish, breaking a promise to accompany Neal during a weeklong bone-marrow transplant because Armstrong scored backstage passes to a Wallflowers concert. Armstrong attended Neal’s funeral wearing a T-shirt and flip-flops, telling his bereaved daughter, “I don’t do funerals.”

What Armstrong did was win bike races – including, in a telling event early in his adult career, sprinting to take first place in a fun ride for children. That self-centered, win-at-all-costs philosophy invariably led to doping and lying under oath when asked about the same, but his egotism also proved to be his downfall in a different manner. Even if professional cycling operated under a Mafia-like code of silence, which kept overt drug use secret for more than a decade, Armstrong discarded so many fellow riders and employees like blown tires that his adversaries ultimately grew in volume and ardor.

Macur bookends her narrative with scenes of a fallen but scarcely humble Armstrong as he must vacate his $10 million Austin estate. Money figures prominently in “Cycle of Lies” – Armstrong craved it, and his riches fed an enabling team of lawyers, publicists, coaches and doctors – but the Lance Armstrong industry is the organizing principle of “Wheelmen.” In their preface, Albergotti and O’Connell argue that the book is “a story about a business that, at least in the participants’ eyes, was too big to fail.”

Even though “Wheelmen” came out before “Cycle of Lies” and is a bit shorter, it feels more authoritative and overflows with forceful details – including how Nike wobbled between keeping and abandoning its prized spokesman as irrefutable evidence of Armstrong’s doping poured in. “Wheelmen” also takes proper and overdue aim at the media for perpetuating and protecting Armstrong’s status as a clean champion even as many credible sources showed him to be a drug-fueled fraud. Macur’s book, broadly speaking, feels like an outsider peeking in, whereas Albergotti and O’Connell write like insiders looking out.

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