Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong

Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong

On its own, cycling isn’t very interesting to the mainstream media; at least, not in the U.S. In civilized nations, cycling occupies its rightful place alongside football (you know, the one you play with your feet) as one of the world’s most popular sports. To gather enough of the attention of the New York Times for a story to run anywhere but the back of the sports section requires … well let’s just go with a technical term: dirt. Allegations of cheating and fraud are the minimum necessary for such a paper to devote a reporter to chasing the sport.

The story that finally saved Juliet Macur from the NASCAR beat was news that Tyler Hamilton had tested positive for blood doping back in 2004. It sent her career in a new trajectory, chasing Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong.

We know how the story ends. Armstrong is bleeding millions the way Bruce Willis does real blood—in any of his movies—and now every journalist who was savaged by Big Tex and his cohort—which reminds me, why hasn’t Bill Stapleton been disbarred yet?—is enjoying a luncheon of loin of Mellow Johnny. The book advances are enough to make any journalist grateful they stayed on the case.

While I’ve tired of the fallout from that generation of doping, I have a compulsion to read each of these books that come out. I was afraid that “Cycle of Lies” (Harper Collins, $27.99) would rehash much of what I’d read in David Walsh’s “Seven Deadly Sins” or Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell’s “Wheelmen,” but that didn’t happen. I was grateful for that, but also fascinated by the pressure Macur brought to bear on her subject. She was a magnifying glass to an ant.

My father reads what appears to be every book published on the Pacific Theater of World War II. I’ve often wondered how it could possibly hold his interest. I’ve got my answer in parallel. I’m powerless to turn away. The drive here is less that I need resolution; I’ve got that. No, I’m fascinated to see human nature play out under a microscope, especially when it applies to my favorite sport. Of course, that’s a statement about me as a reader, not about the quality of the book.

To say that what Macur does is character assassination is unfair. “Character assassination” is a highly prejudicial term and Armstrong has no character. None. This book proves that. Still, Macur disassembles him, bit by bit, taking every supposed truth (raised by a single mom? Pure B.S.) about Armstrong and scrutinizing it for any scrap of actual. What we arrive at is that Armstrong is like Oakland was for Gertrude Stein—no there there. It’s not unfair to compare Armstrong to a great white shark, though in this case, one backed by the PR and legal team of a powerful corporation. Armstrong exists for one reason alone—competition. It is in the most classic sense his raison d’etre.

If ever Macur felt anger, hostility, sympathy or pity for the world’s greatest cyclist (cough, cough), she doesn’t show it. Hers is a classic journalism, as one would expect from the Gray Lady. She’s all film, no lens.

Armstrong has been called a sociopath and a psychopath. The two are distinctly different. When we talk sociopath, think gang banger, someone who commits random crimes with zero forethought. Prisons are full of them. A psychopath shares with sociopaths a fundamental inability to feel empathy for others or guilt for their actions, but they plan, they execute. They are machines that stop at nothing to achieve their goals. What “Cycle of Lies” shows is that for all of us comfortable with armchair psychiatry (and I am), Armstrong is a classic psychopath. Anyone who didn’t sign on for his campaign, anyone who got in the way, anyone who didn’t hold the line got tossed aside (his mother included), with prejudice. The decent people in Armstrong’s life, everyone you could say had a moral compass, became part of the devastation left in his wake.

Armstrong told Macur he knows where the bodies are buried. That much I believe. He could help cycling, could expose the crooked ways of not just Thom Weisel, but USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson, BMC boss Jim Ochowicz and of course Hein Verbruggen, who is still a member of the IOC board. Armstrong says he’s not a rat, but what I smell in him is pragmatist; he wants the simplest quid pro quo. There is one thing Armstrong desires: to compete. Should USADA dangle a ban reduction of less than eight years in front of him, he’ll sing so loud and long you’ll be able to call him Willard. We need the old guard exposed for what they are—man-sized vampire worms—but at the cost of seeing Armstrong run a marathon? That’s quite a price. It might be cheaper to pay off all the outstanding student loan debt.

I spent years laboring under the belief that Armstrong was little different from other riders, just more driven and of rougher hew. Arnold Schwarzenegger in the original Terminator. What Macur shows is that Armstrong was that rarest of phenomenon, the one-in-a-million personality who, with the help of the machine behind him, skewed the whole of the sport, tilting the entire enterprise toward something reprehensible, as pointlessly selfish and self-serving as a Bond villain. I can’t help but wonder where cycling would be today had Armstrong not come along.

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23 comments

  1. Aar

    Oh, where do I go from here? Do I waste more time reading this book about the psychopath who destroyed my perception of competitive cycling and essentially all spectator sports? By all accounts, it’s a great read. Only time will tell if I love reading about a train wreck as much as the average American.

    As far where cycling would be today without Armstrong, I can only guess that we would still be naive to all of the nasty that underlies high level competitive sport. I no longer take Armstrong as the singular blight on cycling that he is. Rather, I see his case as a lens into professional sports as a whole. Extending the Armstrong case study learnings to other superstars, the difference between a competition fueled stellar performer and a psychopathic megalomaniac can be a very fine line.

    Another case in point is Verbruggen still being a prt of the IOC. That he still is only speaks to the rampant corruption in the IOC. This is not lost on me when I see the headlines about the 2022 & 2024 Games having trouble finding potential host cities. I don’t like feeling schadenfreude over this. Enjoying the Olympics is part of my personal fabric. However, it appears to me that the IOC may, finally, be reaping the fruits of the corruption they have sewn worldwide for so many decades.

    I know, a bridge too far…

  2. Scott G.

    Pro racing was better before Armstrong ?
    How does Macur compare the pre Armstrong era doping
    and body count to the Armstrong days ?

  3. MCH

    Did he tilt the enterprise, or exploit what was already tilted?
    I’m as ready as anyone to move on, and have no interest in giving LA anymore opportunities for exposure. But like you, I keep getting drawn back to this story. After reading your review, I suppose that I’ll have to buy the book.

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  5. Full Monte

    “He could help cycling, could expose the crooked ways of not just Thom Weisel, but USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson, BMC boss Jim Ochowicz and of course Hein Verbruggen, who is still a member of the IOC board.”

    And that’s just the beginning, methinks. Reading between the lines of other books and articles about Armstrong, there are many individuals and organizations and corporations complicit in Armstrong’s pollution of the sport — vampire worms still at work in cycling today.

    So would I quid pro quo? In a New York minute. I’d let him do his triathlon thing in far less than eight years if he agreed to sing.

  6. Robot

    I think what is super compelling about this story is not Armstrong, but what he tells us about where our sport was, where it might be now, and what competition for money can be, if not carefully managed. It’s easy to get distracted by the man, but really, he’s a cipher for our worst impulses. He’s a worst case scenario. And in that sense, I think the story is very instructive. Armstrong has caused us to evaluate how we want our sport (or any sport really) to work. I don’t give him credit it for that, because that’s not what he was trying to do. He was trying to win at all costs.

    OK, so now we know what those costs can look like for a sport we love. We’ve decided we’re not willing to pay that price. How do we manage ourselves looking forward to get the spectacle we want? To answer that question, you have to understand this story not in the personalities, but in the principles.

    That’s why I will always read a book like this.

  7. JohnK

    Excellent article. It is such compelling, addictive stuff, I think too because it is so human. My comment is about the last line of your article, wondering where cycling would be today had Armstrong not come along. It is undeniable that PRO cycling took a terrible hit in the wake of the scandal, but sometimes I wonder if in some way it made enthusiast cycling healthier. I may be a pollyanna, but I love the diversity of pursuit I see in cycling today. Skinny jean kids on fixes. People going on epic mountain bike rides, BMX, Enduro, NAHBS, Gran Fondos, gravel rides, single speed, etc… Could part of this be people seeing there is more than one god, than he in lycra that is fastest, and since there is no point chasing that character, (you’ll never catch him anyway), maybe you should just hop on whatever bike puts a smile on your face and go for a ride?

  8. Larry T.

    Excellent review. Like you I’m a sucker for these books and thought this one was right up with the best. Sadly, I can’t say the same for Hincapie’s book. I should have known better based on the title, but like that car accident I couldn’t help but want to look. My advice is to skip that one, a truly “nothing here to see folks, just move on” kind of work.

  9. khal spencer

    What would cycling look like if Armstrong had not come along? What would winter sea navigation look like had the Titanic not hit an iceberg? What would superpower relations have looked like if we never bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki? I guess these rarest of events catch our attention and cause change, because we are incapable of change unless we have the brown stuff our faults blow up in our faces.

  10. Anonymous

    I don’t think commentary like this ads value to much of anything. You present no new information, yet you present your opinions as if you are are well-informed, which I doubt you are. I agree that there seems to be a lot of damning facts on Armstrong, but how are you so sure about the others? What entitles you to sell your version of their story? You would crucify some without proof — some of whom are probably actually victims of a malignant culture — while at the same time idolizing (you may call it forgiving) others who were the actual drivers of the whole process. Shouldn’t you have facts before claiming that people are corrupt?


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Anonymous: You needn’t agree with me or my position, but I hope you’ll bear in mind this was just a book review and not a piece meant to shed new light on our understanding of Armstrong. The idea that we should have “facts” before claiming someone is corrupt begs the question of how we define a fact. How many corroborating witnesses is enough for you?

  11. Dan Jean

    I wrote this a few hours before the airing of Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong. That story is important in part because I was a “believer”, holding on longer than most in assuming that Lance was telling the truth. Also, I involved others in my belief, publicly using the story of Lance’s battle with cancer, his recovery, and his success as examples of courage and perseverance. Finally, I think there might be an important teaching waiting to be found in all of this trouble.

    The story is over. The incredible seven Tour de France victories are gone. So is the Olympic medal. The IOC, the UCI, and the USADA have acted decisively. Public opinion is powerfully negative, and I think the storm of judgment and punishment is only about to begin. As I accept the facts, I too am disappointed. The disappointment is deep and personal. As I decide how to act out my disappointment, another story comes to mind. By now all of you have seen The Wizard of Oz, and you know the story well. Why does a movie matter here? Because the title character – the Wizard himself – was a fraud. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” he cried when Dorothy and the others exposed him. Fraud. Fake. Guilty.

    It is at the guilty verdict that I stop and wonder–not only about that wizard, but also about Lance Armstrong. Yes, Oz was only a movie, but in it the Lion became courageous, the Tin Woodman found his loving heart, and the Scarecrow turned into a wise leader – all because of one Wizard. It took the power of the legend of the Wizard, the Story, to make those changes possible. Fraud or not, the characters exposed to the Wizard’s Story were changed.

    The Lance Armstrong Story, at least the one that existed in the minds of many, had the power to change lives. Through the Livestrong Foundation, the cancer community found a place to come together and live better, sharing hope through their own stories. The sport of cycling moved from a European obscurity to a July highlight as the Tour de France exploded in popularity around the world. The cycling community thrived, and the bicycle industry was reborn– all because of the “Story.” It is one possibility that all of this will unravel completely as the anger swells over the deceit. The sad tale will vanish – forever.

    There is another possibility that I would like to see ultimately triumph. I hope that somehow Lance’s Story will be allowed to age and mellow. He may never be publicly forgiven. Most likely he will never again compete at a meaningful level in any sport. His personal victories are gone. But there is something here worth preserving. It is my hope that somehow the “Story” will survive, the Camelot dream of a challenged hero winning over the ordinary. If the good is thrown out with the bad, nothing is left at all.

    Dorothy was justifiably angry when she snapped, “Oh – You’re a very bad man!” A contrite man, an ordinary man, replied, “Oh, no my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad Wizard.” Remember, it was after his exposure that the “Wizard” granted courage, caring, and wisdom to those who once believed. Rather than rushing to judge, erasing all that Armstrong’s Story represents, let God judge. May the Story itself continue to bear good fruit.

    1. John K

      Nicely said. I have never been able to go into full-on vitriol mode regarding Lance. Maybe in part because I benefitted from the story he sold. I had a brain tumor. Shortly afterwards, I watched Lance famously look back at then drop Ullrich. It helped inspire me to move from the self-pity and suffering of recovery to suffer on the bike and get better. I wager, in the end, Armstrong’s punishment and public excoriation will outweigh his crimes. I haven’t heard as much outcry from the cancer community as I have from the cycling community — but I guess this makes sense — that victory, the one against cancer, still stands. And since it was never a secret that drugs helped him win that one, it can’t be taken away.

  12. Pat O'Brien

    I got caught up in pro cycling, believed the myth, and paid the price. I thought it was better than other pro sports, and in some aspects, like the treatment and pay of the athletes, it is worse. It is no different than any other pro sport save for the testing for doping. Armstrong taught me that even that was not as good as I thought. I have read enough of the books about it. Tyler’s book was the last one. I will follow some pro racing, but I won’t buy another team jersey or be surprised again, especially if the UCI continues to sanction it.

  13. Dan Murphy

    Regarding this:
    “We need the old guard exposed for what they are—man-sized vampire worms—but at the cost of seeing Armstrong run a marathon? That’s quite a price. It might be cheaper to pay off all the outstanding student loan debt.”

    There’s a gangster named John Martorano who has admitted to killing many people for Boston’s infamous mob boss Whitey Bulger. He’s been on 60 Minutes and other shows where he very calmly explained how he blew someone’s brains out. He’s also a free man enjoying life in the town next to me because he cooperated with the authorities and testified against Bulger. I can’t imagine being a friend/relative of someone Martorano killed and knowing he’s walking free.

    Anyways, if Martorano can walk free, letting Lance compete again is a no-brainer. I would very much like to see Verbruggen et al. exposed and Lance can help.

  14. Carrie Cheadle

    I was also one of the many that thought Lance was cut from a different cloth – and he is – just turns out it’s not the cloth I thought it was. You pose a really interesting question – it’s interesting to think about where cycling would be had Armstrong not come along. I’m not convinced that the sport would be better or worse … I think people try to simplify something that is just not that simple.

  15. Jude

    Lance Armstrong hasn’t changed. He is still able to influence and put money in people’s faces to get what he wants. I had to test my sugar level after reading/photos July issue of Esquire article on LA. LOL’d the phtoto of LA with hand on cheek eyes closed. Couldn’t get more cornball. I think Lance wrote it about himself or writer was paid by Lance it is that syrupy.. Ironic as US Postal Services lawsuit and other lawsuits draw near; all these “I forgive LA” articles personal appearances grand marshalls for events suddenly pop up.
    Just shows how we as people have degraded to new lows in the human decency category. We can be lied to laughed at ridiculed embarassed and list goes on. And yet many come back for more of the same. In which case fill your boots. You deserve one another. I’m not having any thanks.

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