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.

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  1. cash

    Agreed, this book is crucial if one cares about the doping era. However, I would hesitate to call it the definitive account. That book has yet to be written because that history has yet to be lived. The section on Jan was jaw dropping, yes; but, the story of Landis, for me anyway, was far more compelling.

    I’m still fascinated by this story because the key players-racers-villains are my contemporaries. I started riding and racing at about the same time but quickly hit my full and meager potential. So, they lived my dream, which has turned out to be their nightmare.

    I’m looking forward to watching The Armstrong Lie doc in a few weeks.

  2. Patrick O'Brien

    I will not buy or read this book. I will not contribute another penny to this combination of slow motion train wreck and witch hunt. You can follow the money, and many people and organizations made lots of it, but without the full weight of criminal prosecution, I think all anyone will find is dead ends and “no comment.”. And like you say, the statute of limitations has run out on most of this mess, so why talk unless you can secure what money you have left or make a little more? Well, they won’t get anymore of mine. I would rather have some wool riding socks than this book on my shelf.

    1. Author

      Patrick: If I may, I’d like to offer an alternate perspective. Buying a copy of this book does nothing to enrich those who hurt cycling, while the cash that flows to the publisher and ultimately O’Connell and Albergotti is a vote for good journalism and chasing a story that needed to be told. If we want the truth to be reported in the future, I think we need to support books like this, otherwise they won’t be written.

  3. Gary

    At this late date, the book just feels like another log on the fire no matter how well written or factual. Humans are easily pulled into drama and conflict. It seems that most avid cyclists are just plain tired of the whole pro doping situation therefore reading more about it only keeps the wound fresh.

    Last time I checked, our sport is cycling, not doping.

  4. Patrick O'Brien

    Padraig, thanks for that other view. I will certainly give this book another thought, especially after just listening to a NPR show ( Diane Rheem) about the problems in journalism today. But that Hamilton book, The Secret Race, really soured me on the subject. I tried to sell my copy at the local bike shop swap meet. Almost had to give it away, just like my 1999 to 2005 TdF DVD collection which I DID give away.

  5. Aaron

    I suspect we can/will be able to get this book at the public library for free eventually – so those of you adamant that you don’t want to “buy” the book to read it, there’s always that option – which is what I’ll probably do. I’m in no hurry to read it, but I probably will; like turning your head, slowing down to soak in the wreck on the side of the road. I think we can handle the “truth,” which is always some where between what is written and said on all sides. In fact, we must stomach the truth so that the sport can render itself “clean” again. Or can it?

  6. Patrick24

    Its not a bad book, but I found to be a bit too heavy on the one-sided vilification of Lance. I find this hard to say because he was a supreme cheater and a__hole. Just the same way the press found easy to jump on the bandwagon of supporting him, just going “Lance is evil, EVIL” even though he was, is too simplistic.

    1. Author

      Patrick24: I have to disagree with you. Albergotti and O’Connell reported facts, but never told the reader how to feel about Lance. In that regard, I don’t think their reporting of negative information about him can be considered vilification. They didn’t editorialize. To put a finer point on it, they didn’t do as Matt Taibbi did, which was to call Goldman Sachs a “giant vampire squid.” That’s vilification (never mind that it was wholly deserved). The weight of evidence against Lance is what does him in, not name-calling.

  7. Mike Hancock

    I knew more than I ever wanted to know before I picked up this book. At a certain point, through the wonders of the interwebs, I had developed a pretty good picture of how this perfect storm of doping happened, and the book pretty much confirmed what I already knew. At this point, I’m all out of outrage. To be honest, the only thing I hate is the fact that I can’t suspend disbelief anymore when I watch a race video, because I know the superhuman feats are just that- superhuman. To put it simply, I just don’t believe anymore. Everyone has to grow up sometime.

  8. Paul

    I’m curious, but not jumping to get this book.

    My family found a Discovery Channel jersey for my last birthday. The jersey was signed by George Hincapie (cool to me, but not as cool as say before Landis). I groaned more at the Thom Weisel Partners logo. I would like to know if that reaction is fair since it’s based mostly on the Tyler Hamilton’s opinion in The Secret Race.

  9. Terri Thater

    Thank you, Padraig, for pointing out that some have been penalized while others have gone unscathed in the fallout from the USADA investigation. Thom Weisel, Steve Johnson and Jim Ochowicz are all still profiting from the sport. Ochowicz is one of several from the BMC Pro Team who are mentioned in the book. How are these people still working in cycling? Why doesn’t the press come down on these guys like they do Armstrong?

  10. Susan Tomlinson

    Well, I hope you do a post about the Jan Ullrich shocker, because I think I missed it.

    I knew most of this story before reading the book from following the news of cycling, but somehow seeing it all laid out like this was very disheartening. I am simultaneously reading _Slaying the Badger_, and can see those shenanigans as part of the entertaining intrigue that has always been a part of cycling. When EPO showed up in the peloton, though, cycling suddenly turned dark and ugly. Time for a reboot to bring back the sport of it all.

    One of the things that struck me as particularly sad was that all of the top cyclists that were doping were also brilliant athletes who will now forever be tainted. Without the PED culture driving things, Landis could have been a legitimate Tour winner–perhaps several times over. Now his brilliant comeback ride in the Tour is reduced to…what? How do we view that now?

    All the more reason to be diligent about cleaning up the sport. It’s better for everyone–cyclists who wouldn’t dope, cyclists who would be tempted to dope, fans who love the sport–when the “level playing field” is a clean playing field.

    I still love cycling, much as one would love any friend who has gone through a rough patch and wants to start over.

  11. 1speed

    As soon as I read your review, I ran out and bought this book prepared for an education on the reality of doping culture, but I have to say that all I found was an absolute letdown. Is there anything in it that’s actually revelatory? Maybe a few minor details, but nothing of great substance. It has always seemed entirely plausible that the sophisticated doping that went on was highly coordinated. I feel that all we really get from this book is some names to go with the shadows that propped up Lance. And I’d be very curious to understand what you think is the big revelation concerning Ullrich — I suspect I know what it is, but I hope I’m wrong actually, because it certainly wasn’t an obscenity-inducing detail by any stretch. The only learnings I took from this book is that every story we get on this subject will require a healthy recognition of the perspective of the storyteller — e.g., parts of the details reported here stand in contrast to how the same stories are told in Hamilton’s book, so is that Hamilton being self-serving, or is it conjecture on the part of Albergotti and O’Connell? But overall, I’m disappointed. I am by no means an insider and yet I already knew much of what was reported here and what I did not know was not in any way shocking.

  12. Derek

    Everybody is so hurt by this there is nothing rational happening. Anyone who has taken the time to sort out their thoughts and put them to paper deserves not only a read but a purchase. To keep the book in your library is up to you otherwise recycle, donate to a library, your choice. Read on. Ride on.

  13. Jeff C

    I agree this book is the best in describing the business side of doping in American professional cycling. The authors do a great job in exposing the main players and piecing together the business plan. Tailwind like Countrywide are fascinating stories of capitalism but ethically corrupt.
    Secondly the book clearly highlights the role Floyd played in the plot.

    I like you padraig would love to know the backstory on the justice department dropping the Armstrong charges.
    Was it a result of connections Lance had higher up to get the charges dropped or was it a calculated act by the government to “lower the bar” by fight Lance & Co in arbitration instead of a federal courtroom. We still do not know .

    With Tygart’s case closing in, Lance admits to doping in a “Lance in Wonderland” twisted way . “Here’s the deal: Athletes cheating in sports, that’s bad. But what these guys (USDA) are doing are far worse.”
    In hindsight it looks like the government made a brilliant move and Lance to this day still lives inside the looking glass, “my punishment is a thousand bigger than the ‘crime’ I committed”.

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