Book Review: Wheelmen
Our species likes stories to be relatively straightforward and with a minimum of characters. Just think of how many movies you’ve seen with half a dozen or so speaking parts. Off the top of my head I came up with Rear Window, Castaway, Gravity, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, The Shining, My Dinner With André, The Sixth Sense and No Country for Old Men. Those are all great stories, but they are just stories.
History is different. The real world is crawling with hordes of people all with their own agendas, generally central only to one story—their own. It’s why so many films that we describe as epics—think Ben Hur, the Godfather films—are histories.
Such is Wheelmen by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell. Simply put, it is a history of doping in U.S. professional cycling, which is to say it is much more than just an account of Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace. I’ve heard a fair number of friends of mine say they plan to pass on the book, that they know everything contained within it. I can say with some confidence that this book will contain plenty of surprises for nearly any reader.
There are questions this book doesn’t answer, such as the mechanism that caused the Justice Department to shut down its investigation into Armstrong and Tailwinds, and while it’s a question I’m desperate to have answered, the book cannot be faulted for what it didn’t do. Too often, books are criticized for not anticipating a reader’s every desire instead of attacking only what they did poorly.
Sharp-eyed readers will notice some factual inaccuracies. In defense of the authors, I’ll note that the errors I caught were minor points and not ones that ultimately skew the narrative. They’re on the order of writing that Trek is based in Minnesota, not Wisconsin.
This is a sweeping narrative, one that in film form would benefit from Cecil B. DeMille or Francis Ford Coppola. It’s that most American of stories—rags to riches—and then because we can’t abide anyone staying on a pedestal for too long, a tipping of that pedestal—with prejudice. We’ve been reading this story in bits and pieces, one small episode at a time, but now, with “Wheelmen” we get a chance to read it as one flowing epic, and because the writers know an active verb from a passive one, the book is a compelling read, difficult to put down until either nature or dinner calls.
To their credit, Albergotti and O’Connell stick with the rule not to editorialize. Believe me, this is a book with culprits by the bushel, but you’re left to decide how to apportion the blame. While there’s been plenty of ire for Trek because how how Greg LeMond was treated, I think the authors show what a no-win situation John Burke was in, or at least what a no-win situation he believed he was in. They also do much to bolster Julien Devries’ credibility as a witness to the internal workings of Tailwinds with respect to both doping and illicit payments. As a result, Nike comes off looking much worse than Trek in that they are alleged to have been actively involved in the coverup of one of Armstrong’s alleged positives. It is Oakley that comes off worst for having taken a very active role in discrediting the Andreus. To the degree that any company who protected Armstrong might be in for some backlash, Oakley is the most deserving of the bunch. (Guess they won’t be advertising with us….)
There seems to be a fair amount of lingering ire for the riders who confessed to doping while on U.S. Postal/Discovery. Now that we have a single narrative that paints a much more complete history of the top echelon of pro cycling here in the U.S., it is my hope that Thom Weisel, Steve Johnson and Jim Ochowicz receive the scrutiny they deserve. When I think of the harm done to cycling by the doping of the last 20 years, guys like George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer seem like small potatoes compared to the disservice done the sport by Weisel, Johnson and Ochowicz, and yet there’s no discussion of banning them from the sport. Justice is rarely just, huh?
The single most surprising detail contained within the book concerned not Lance Armstrong, but Jan Ullrich. To say any more would make for an epic plot spoiler, one on the order of an obscenity spewing anger that I’d richly deserve if I broke the drama by revealing it here. That one page of the book deserves a post of its own.
Because we know this story in broad strokes, it would be easy to skip this book. Don’t make that mistake. This will stand as the definitive account for American cycling during the EPO era, a documentary of how cycling’s power brokers lacked the moral compass to do that right thing, ever.