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.