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.
So last week the Wall Street Journal published a piece on the death of Lycra cycling clothing. As if the use of man-made fibers, clipless pedals and shaved legs was one elaborate fad. Or fraud. The Journal doesn’t mind wooing controversy, and this was one of those occasions. The piece, “Cycling’s Spandez Coup d’Etat,” is a piece of work I honestly would have thought was beneath the publication. Why? Well, it confuses correlation with causation in that there has been an increase of riders not wearing Lycra and Lance Armstrong has fallen from grace. However, Armstrong’s fall did not cause people to huck their Lycra in the trash can anymore than he caused the rise of the hipsters. Then there’s the fact that while the writer cites Rapha as one of the brands selling clothing that subscribes to this new ethos. Nevermind the fact that most of what Rapha sells is, uh, Lycra. Pesky details. Similarly, Giro’s New Road line is an intriguing take on what cycling clothing can be. But it hasn’t exactly achieved the sort of penetration that merits the suggestion that Lycra is on its way out. Ditto for Levi’s.
While Giro’s new line has taken some flack, it’s truly an innovative take on what cycling clothing can be. Will it replace my RKP kit? Um, no. Do I think I could find a place for it in my wardrobe? Absolutely. It’s the sort of stuff I could see me wearing for a coffee ride or for running a bunch of errands by bike, or when heading out for a ride with my son.
The reader relatively unfamiliar with cycling will probably miss the fact that the only magazine editor quoted—Mia Kohut of Momentum—works for a lovely but tiny publication well out of the mainstream of cycling. Why not talk to Bill Strickland or Peter Flax of Bicycling? Similarly, my friend Josh Horowitz of Broken Bones Bicycle Co. was quoted, rather than anyone from Trek, Specialized or Giant. Josh is a good guy and has a fun take on the bike biz, but if you want to talk to someone who is actually influencing the industry, you’d be well-served to talk to John Burke.
Let me be ultra-clear about this: Using the shallow end of the bell curve as a bellwether for a new norm is just shoddy journalism.
Did Armstrong’s fall make it less fashionable to wear Lycra cycling clothing? Well that begs the question of whether or not it was ever fashionable, to which I have to answer only maybe. There’s no doubt, though, that the water has receded from whatever high-water mark wearing cycling clothing reached in relative hipitude. But what reporter Kevin Helliker misses is the simple fact that for 90 percent of us, Armstrong was never the reason we wore Lycra. We wear it because it works. What would have served both cycling and the reader better is if he’d chased the real story, not the sensationalist BS of projecting the demise of Lycra (which he prefers to refer to as Spandex).
There is a real story here in how cycling’s numbers are growing, thanks almost entirely to the hipster fixie movement. And it is a movement; we can no longer call it a fad. I’ll admit that you’ll never find me riding a fixed-gear bike in traffic. Why? I want to survive a while yet. You’ll never find me wearing skinny jeans. Why? I’m not skinny. You’ll also never find me growing facial hair for ironic reasons. Why? I’m not funny enough.
That said, I dig anything that gets more of us—and by “us” I don’t mean the us of cyclists, but the us of homo sapiens—out there. And that’s really the bottom line: More cyclists is better for anyone who rides a bike. An increased presence means more facilities, greater awareness on the part of drivers (at least, the ones who aren’t drunk), and more cyclists mean more livable communities. So while Giro has taken some heat for their New Road line, I honestly welcome it. People will ride more and longer if they are comfortable. For new cyclists, the idea that the price of admission means looking like a shrink-wrapped pro bass fisherman is too high for most people who self-select as normal. What Giro is doing has the ability to gradually integrate less-casual cyclists into die-hards of the sport.
And while we’re on the subject of Giro taking heat, last week also saw the arrival of a new ad campaign by the folks who brought back the lace-up shoe. In response to criticisms that the new Air Attack helmet looks like a skateboard helmet, they went to a skatepark with a road bike, a photographer and, well, let’s call him an acrobat. I’ll be honest and say that I don’t think it does anything to further the stated mission of the helmet—improved aerodynamic performance while still protecting your head—but it shows that they have a sense of humor and can laugh at themselves. Far too many people and companies in the bike industry lack this ability, and while there’s no requirement that you need to laugh at yourself, Giro’s perspective is refreshing. This ability to sit back and look at something critically, objectively is at the heart of the New Road line of clothing. Little wonder that they are responsible for both.
I’ve yet to wear the new helmet, but I’ve been wearing a few of the New Road pieces, a Merino top and the bib shorts and baggy-ish outer short. The fit is good and it’s comfortable. How much more than that is necessary is up for discussion. I’ve had a fair number of friends who understood adventure and a good time, but they’d never ride a bike because in their minds putting on Lycra meant surrendering their manhood at the garage door. I wish stuff like this had been available 20 years ago. It would have made my job at bike shops more interesting, more successful. Had there been a middle ground clothing-wise, I think we could have turned more bike buyers into committed cyclists.
Ultimately, my willingness to welcome Giro’s New Road line, or Club Ride or any of the other forays into this territory comes back to a point I made earlier. Even if they never wear Lycra, more cyclists on the road is good for those of us who choose to wear it. We’re less “other” once we’re both cyclists. More cyclists means better awareness that we’re out there and more acceptance that we have a right to be out there.
Since Steve Jobs’ recent death I’ve learned more about the iconic leader of Apple Computer than I ever wanted to know. I admit I was curious about him. Based on my read, he and I shared some basic traits: creative, big-picture thinkers on the intense side. So that made him interesting to me and even, on occasion, a north star to stay true to my personal views and beliefs.
His taste was impeccable, even if he did tend to dress day-in-and-out in the same wardrobe. I wish I had his taste. But as I’ve read more, I’ve learned other, less attractive features about the man. He could be tone-deaf to others’ feelings; I’ve suffered that at times. He could be both cruel and petulant. He could be a bully. I’m relieved those aren’t mine.
Malcolm Gladwell has called him the ultimate tweaker. It doesn’t seem to be a job title many of us would want, but Jobs turned it into something memorable. He seems to have been a man of extremes. His complicated nature make me more curious about him, even if I wouldn’t want to share more in common with him. I may have to read Walter Isaacson’s book.
The bike industry is full of complicated figures, too. Mike Sinyard of Specialized burns with a holy light for cycling. He rides more miles each year than plenty of guys I know half his age. He can be generous and warm. I’ve also heard that he can direct his wrath at employees who don’t measure up.
Friends in the industry who have worked with the Bikes Belong Coalition have told me that the great unsung hero of bicycle advocacy is Trek’s John Burke. People say that Bikes Belong wouldn’t be as well funded or as effective without his involvement. Yet from the sources I have, Burke never rides and he is known for being callous. One former employee told me that the wife of a staffer made a wistful comment about how she wished she saw more of her husband, to which Burke replied, “Get a dog.”
Cycling just lost one of the most interesting guys in the sport: Bob Stapleton. By all accounts he had vision, was both organized and disciplined and even ethical. The sport’s loss.
Then there are guys like Rob Vandermark of Seven Cycles, a guy whose business acumen seems as natural as Michael Jordan’s basketball talent, but whose personal life couldn’t be more shielded from public view. No one seems to know if he rides or not, if he does anything other than work. As a public figure, he’s unfortunately two-dimensional. On the other hand, we have Richard Sachs, a frame builder who has had more words devoted to his work than all other frame builders combined. Hmm.
The question today is: Who interests you, and why? Do you like the principled monastics like Sachs or do you find the complicated figures like Burke interesting? Or both?
Naturally, this leads to yet another question: Are there figures we ought to turn the spotlight on here at RKP?
Some things in this world are unlikely. Finding Bigfoot is pretty unlikely. So is peace in the Middle East. Other things are just impossible. Finding Bigfoot eating dinner at a diner with Elvis, safe to say, is impossible.
Somewhere in the middle of these two poles lies the possibility that the suit Greg LeMond has filed against Trek Bicycles and their countersuit against him will be settled out of court. LeMond, for better or worse, seems to want his day in court.
In broad strokes, the cases are pretty simple. LeMond is suing Trek for failing to “exert best efforts regarding the LeMond brand.” In realpeople speak that’s, ‘They didn’t sell enough of my bikes.’ Following LeMond’s suit, Trek countersued and terminated its licensing agreement in April of this year. Today, the Lemond Bicycles web site is a single page allowing purchasers to register their bikes for warranty.
The real issue here isn’t sales figures, it’s LeMond’s mouth. It’s roots are in a report that LeMond read in 2001 that revealed Lance Armstrong’s relationship with Michele Ferrari. To LeMond, who was very familiar with Ferrari’s past vis-à-vis doping, that relationship could only mean one thing: Lance was doping. There was a certain sort of logic to it. Say your best friend is John Gotti. And say you tell a newspaper that he has a great mind for business and he has helped you with some of your business dealings, a reasonable person could understandably come to the conclusion that you, my friend, are a mobster.
Does that give anyone the right to accuse you of being a mobster in public? Not unless he is a prosecutor preparing to bring charges under RICO against you. To be fair, LeMond hasn’t actually said, “Armstrong is on dope,” but if you take the body of statements LeMond has made, his belief is clear. Consider: “If Armstrong’s clean, it’s the greatest comeback. And if he’s not, then it’s the greatest fraud,” and “In the light of Lance’s relationship with Ferrari, I just don’t want to comment on this year’s Tour. This is not sour grapes. I’m disappointed in Lance, that’s all it is.”
Would you say that about an athlete you thought was clean?
So LeMond thinks Armstrong is a doper. Newsflash: he’s not alone. There are plenty of cycling fans, competitors and members of the media who think so as well. The difference is, with the exception of a guy named Walsh, they all have the good sense not to accuse someone of something if they lack proof.
This was LeMond’s downfall. Word on the street is that Armstrong placed Trek CEO John Burke in the unenviable position of needing to mediate between the only two American Tour de France winners. Burke asked LeMond to temper his statements and confine them to speaking generally about doping. LeMond was unable to.
The case before Judge Richard Kyle has gone far afield. LeMond is notoriously unpleasant to do business with (an inside source pegs him as the downfall of the Clark Kent brand and the near failure of the paint and restoration company CyclArt), in part because he is unafraid of litigation. One former business associate who asked to remain anonymous used a single word to describe him: “Nightmare.”
Were the case really about the bikes, Lance Armstrong’s ex-wife, Kristin Armstrong would not have been deposed, nor would he have showed up at an Armstrong press conference to question him about his planned anti-doping program. In short, LeMond is attempting to make the case about Armstrong rather than his dissatisfaction with Trek’s efforts to sell his brand.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, LeMond attempted to cast his concern about doping in general and EPO in specific as a concern for athletes. He cited the deaths of more than 100 cyclists who are believed to have been taking EPO. However, LeMond never brought up his concern before the controversy with Armstrong. Put another way, have you ever heard LeMond mention the name of Johannes Draaijer, a Dutch cyclist on EPO, who had a heart attack and died in his sleep?
Trek claims it has done right by LeMond and that the relationship was lucrative for both. Since 1995, Trek reports it has earned more than $100 million, delivering some $5 million to LeMond’s coffers. LeMond points to a meager $10,393 in sales (possibly fewer than five bikes) in France between 2001 and 2007. Given the success of Bernard Hinault’s line of bikes in the United States, one can ask if LeMond could reasonably expect to do more in France.
What’s that you say? Hinault isn’t a household name in America? True, but nearly anyone willing to spend more than $2000 on a bicycle (only one bike in the LeMond line retailed for less than $2000) knows the Hinault name. And while LeMond may have had a large fan base in France, it can’t compare to the legions that adore Hinault in his home country. Fair comparison.
The point? LeMond’s case seems rather weak. I’ve written on this once before, for Slowtwitch. And while I’d rather see LeMond leave Armstrong alone—and addressed an open letter to him on Road Bike Action’s site—that’s really what this case is about.
But, you ask, what does Armstrong’s alleged doping have to do with LeMond’s bike business? LeMond will tell you it has everything to do with it. If LeMond can demonstrate to the court that Armstrong has doped, then he can demonstrate that Armstrong had motivation to have LeMond silenced. But what could silence LeMond? How about the threat of the shelving of his brand?
In short, LeMond will turn this case into an accusation of extortion against John Burke and Lance Armstrong. His legal team has already deposed Armstrong’s ex-wife; don’t think for a second that he won’t at least try to depose Mr. Seven.
The real question isn’t what LeMond and his legal team will reveal about Armstrong and his alleged doping but rather what LeMond’s actual motivation is. While it is conceivable that LeMond and his team could find a person or persons to allege doping on Armstrong’s part, finding definitive proof that Armstrong doped is as likely as finding Buggs Bunny sharing a slice of pie with Elvis and Bigfoot at our aforementioned diner.
Given the difficulty of the challenge facing LeMond, one must wonder what his motivation truly is. It can’t be exposing the danger of EPO, otherwise he would have been speaking out against EPO use more forcefully earlier. LeMond didn’t have a lot to say during the Festina Affair in 1998, yet just three years later, he had a lot to say about the second American to win the Tour de France three times.
That’s the rub: LeMond’s legacy. While this is pure conjecture on my part, no other explanation makes sense of the energy and money LeMond has sunk into this case. While the psychic toll this case has taken on his family can’t be calculated—it was enough, though, that Kathy LeMond sat across from Kristin Armstrong during her deposition (one wonders who was more unnerved by Mrs. LeMond’s presence)—the cost in legal fees can, and is said to be at or above seven figures.
If LeMond can impeach Armstrong and demonstrate a strong likelihood that he doped during his seven Tour de France wins, LeMond could win two things. First, he could show that in silencing LeMond and dropping his line, John Burke wasn’t acting in the best interest of the LeMond line. Second, by tearing down America’s most successful cyclist, LeMond will regain his rank as the best American cyclist.
But what’s the chance he’ll succeed, and even if he does, in whose eyes will he have won?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International