With another year coming to an end, this is our annual excuse to look back and recognize those moments from this year that are worthy of further acknowledgment and/or memorialization, even in those cases where the event is something we’d rather forget. But let’s not belabor the point; we’re going to jump in.
The Dr. Seuss ‘Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now?’ Engraved Invitation: Initially Seuss swore that his book, written and published as the Watergate scandal filled televisions and newspapers, wasn’t an allegory of wishful thinking for Richard M. Nixon (the names scan the same), but we know better. This award has to go to Lance Armstrong. Damn it, the only thing I loved more than watching this guy race was watching him in front of the press, especially when I was in the room. He was a world-class prick more carefully doped than East Germany’s entire 1972 Olympic team, but he provided drama in a way that an entire armada of George Hincapies would never be able to deliver. Prior to his retirement, he was never not interesting, which is different than being likable or trustworthy. The Oprah appearance was a disaster for him personally and professionally and his subsequent media appearances have served to underscore the unfortunate truth that he only understands stories that he makes up. I still believe he could play a useful role in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but I doubt it will actually take place. What I most wish he would come to appreciate is that there’s something we hate even more than his ongoing legal defense(s)—the thought of watching him compete … at anything.
The Penn and Teller Disappearing Act Trophy: This goes to the rider who by virtue of his near complete reversal of athletic fortune has caused me to think maybe he really was clean. That man? Bradley Wiggins. I was suspicious of Wiggins’ winning ways in 2012 for the simple fact that he set a record of fitness even Eddy Merckx didn’t manage. Wiggins’ 2012 season (sorry for the refresher course) included the overall victories at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie, the Criterium du Dauphiné, the Tour de France and even the gold medal in the ITT at the Olympics—six months of perfect form. Maintaining that much fitness for that long was so outside likelihood it begged suspicion. It was classic more-than-meets-the-eye stuff. And then Wiggins followed up such an amazing year with … the overall victory at the Tour of Britain. Remember how Fleetwood Mac followed up “Rumors” with “Tusk”? Yeah, it’s like that. If he keeps riding this way, he won’t need to threaten the world with going back to the track. I can’t help but think that if the secret to his success had been something as obvious as oxygen-vector doping it would have been easier to replicate. But I could be wrong.
The Not-Quite Gold Watch Retirement Gift: This is less my award than the award presented collectively by the ProTeam directors who refuse to sign this year’s Vuelta a Espana victor to a contract. For reasons that are hard to understand, European teams have had a hard time paying Chris Horner what he’s worth. Unlike rising Hollywood stars who make the mistake of asking for more money than Tom Cruise makes, Horner has always had the sense to ask for money equal to what others delivering what he delivered make. It’s a sensible approach. Unfortunately, his Vuelta victory has come so late in his career that team directors have been left to think that either his victory was as the result of techniques too risky to pursue or that his amazing wick has only minutes left to burn. Either way, a guy who has earned a seven-figure payday may not see it.
The Biggest News of the Year Effigy: I keep waiting for someone, anyone to mention the single most jaw-dropping allegation contained within Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell’s book, “Wheelmen.” I’ve avoided mentioning exactly what it is because I try only to deliver plot spoilers to my own stories. However, no one is talking about it, so I’m going to out this little detail now: the book alleges that for the 2000 and 2001 Tours, Jan Ullrich rode clean. Why no one is talking about this black hole of a detail I can’t fathom. The very bedrock assumption we work from regarding doping is that everyone was doing it at the top of the sport. That belief is why I criticized the effort to go after Lance Armstrong with a singularity of purpose; I’ve long written that to reform the sport authorities needed to attack the the peloton equally. The great surprise is that our chagrined belief that there was no way to properly apportion the Tour win during Armstrong’s reign becomes a good deal easier than Pi for two of Armstrong’s victories. Just do it old school—hand it to the guy who finished second—Jan Ullrich.
The Horse Head in the Bed Buried Treasure: If this hasn’t already happened to Johan Bruyneel, you have to figure it’s coming. Can there be anyone in professional cycling with less to lose by telling the whole of his story? Similarly, can there be anyone that guys like Armstrong, Thom Weisel, Bill Stapleton and the rest of the Tailwinds mafia is more terrified to go Floyd Landis and spell everything out?
The Barack Obama Overly Biographied Life Pin: He may be the finest sprinter in the sport currently, but at 28 years of age, I’m not convinced Mark Cavendish’s life is already deserving of one biography, let alone two. Nothing against the people who worked on the books or the companies that published them—I can’t blame them for wanting to turn a buck on a big personality, but it takes some hubris to green light a biography before you’ve turned 30. To do it a second time … sheesh.
The Man-Up Commemorative Fist Bump: Recalls are a fact of manufacturing. If you manufacture something and have never issued a recall either you haven’t been at it for very long or you’re not producing goods en masse. SRAM recently took the nearly unprecedented step of issuing not just a massive recall of their road hydro brakes but a “do not use” warning. The root of the call relates to seal failure at temperatures below freezing, something that can occur during some winter cyclocross races. My buddy Byron at BikeHugger had a failure under far less unfriendly conditions and has been vocal in his disappointment. It’s an unfortunately turn of events for a new technology and there will be—without doubt—some people who will use this recall as all the reason to turn their backs on the technology as a result. The recall saves them the need to give the new brakes any thought. It’s not uncommon for a manufacturer to downplay the severity of a problem after issuing a recall in an effort to suffer as little bruising as possible. SRAM’s “do not use” warning staked any face-saving PR effort to the ground before driving the bus over it themselves. Better yet, SRAM created a separate site with an easy-to-find link from the company’s home page outlines what they know, when they found out and what they are doing to address the problem. Wikipedia’s definition for “transparency” has been updated to mention both “SRAM” and “Stan Day.” The approach is a tremendous statement about the company’s integrity and their regard for the consumers who ride their products. They deserve praise for doing what was unquestionably the right thing to do.
The Obligatory “It goes to 11″ Spinal Tap Reference: (Sorry, SRAM, but you guys are the only entity to get two awards, and while my previous award was a compliment, this one will be less so.) After introducing a slightly revamped 11-speed Red group this year, the company persisted in offering only cassettes that begin with an 11-tooth cog. While I know plenty of people who are willing to pedal around in a 50×11 with a cadence in the 40s, I only ride with one guy—Rahsaan Bahati—who can wind out a 50×11 in a flat sprint. The point here isn’t that you can’t make use of that gear, it’s that consumers would be better served with another cog in the middle, especially with that jump from the 19 to the 22 on the 11-28. Shimano offers a 12-25 and a 12-28, why can’t they? SRAM’s unwillingness to offer a cassette that begins with a 12 is my biggest pet peeve in tech, and that’s saying something.
The Red Wing® Lead Foot Book End: You might think this would go to the company that does more to create products to truly make people go fast, say an outfit like Zipp or Enve. In this case the lead refers less to the weight of the foot than the unintended contents of the foot. With their recent cease-and-desist letter to Café Roubaix, Specialized shot themselves in a certain extremity. While a reasonable person may observe that Specialized had some valid concerns where product is concerned, I can’t recall an occasion when public opinion more effectively lynched a company’s reputation. The shame here is that I don’t know of another company doing as much advocacy work on behalf of cycling as Specialized, but getting those stories to go viral the way this one did … well, this just proves how much more delicious bad news is. This dust-up contains a few classic object lessons: 1) counsel needs to think before it writes, and maybe even talk to some people on the inside 2) there’s a reason people hate lawyers and 3) reputations are hard to restore; just ask Lindsay Lohan.
The Best Cycling on TV Believability Index Blue Ribbon: The RedBull Rampage is an event that can cause me to repeatedly exclaim, “I don’t believe it!” Of course, my protestations are unintentionally ironic, a kind of hyperbolic affirmation to antigravity artists who have the ability to turn my inner ear against me even as I thrall to feats that take less time to unfold than the last 5k of a road race. Were drug testing performed at the Redbull Rampage the results would be funnier than a Louis CK routine. There’d be no worries about EPO, transfusions, clenbuterol or insulin; no, I expect we’d see lots of THC and other hallucinogens. Maybe a bit of cocaine, for these pilots are no strangers to euphoria. Watching downhilling and freeriding has become a way for me to watch cycling competition on TV without having to ask any ugly questions when the winner is announced.
The Top Step of the Podium Vindication Media Tour: It’s a four-way tie between David Walsh, Betsy Andreu, Emma O’Reilly and Greg LeMond. ‘Nuff said.
The Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out Bouncer Toss: The shame here is that this can only be awarded to Pat McQuaid when I’d like for history to show that Hein Verbruggen was dispatched with the same prejudice. If we ever heard from Pat McQuaid for any reason other than court testimony it will be several lifetimes too soon. When we try to conclude just who did cycling a greater injustice, McQuaid or Verbruggen, it really is a dead heat.
The Kirk Cameron – Growing Pains Award: Peter Sagan. From groping podium girls to annoying the crap out of his fellow professionals with over the top victory celebrations, this was the season Sagan came to understand that being fast wasn’t the only thing he needed to be, that professionalism is a thing you’re not born with, and that not everyone will give you a free pass, just because you’re not TRYING to offend them.
The Second Coming Award: Brian Cookson. After winning election to the presidency of the UCI, Cookson’s job is just to save cycling’s soul. NBD. Maybe he’ll start by changing water to wine or walking on water, you know, as a warm up.
The Last, Lousy Dorito Award: Lance Armstrong. There’s always that one guy who just can’t accept that the party is over.
The Julius Caesar Award: Bradley Wiggins. You think you’re loved. You think you’ll be emperor for life, but then you’re there bleeding on the theater steps. Et tu, Froome? Et tu?
The Simple Minds Award: Andy Schleck. Once the next great stage racer of his generation, it has to be wondered if Schleck will be anything other than pack fodder in seasons to come. Famously fragile, both physically and mentally, he will probably never return to the sort of climbing form that will overcome his lack of juice in the time trial. “Don’t you forget about me,” may well be the refrain as Trek seemingly bets the wrong horse, again, in 2014.
The Clark Kent Award: Travis Tygart. You see a guy in a suit. He looks like a regular guy, holds down a job, has a thing about truthfulness. But he’s really Superman. He saves the day. No matter how powerful a foe he faces, he prevails. You kick yourself for not realizing the guy in the suit was special, but then he puts his glasses back on and you forget he exists.
The A. Mitchell Palmer Ham-fisted Lawyer of the Year Award: Specialized’s unnamed Canadian “outside counsel” for sending a Cease-and-Desist letter to a small bike shop in Calgary, Alberta, asserting trademark rights over a name for which Specialized didn’t actually enjoy the rights. Yup, Specialized was actually using the name “Roubaix,” by permission of the folks at Fuji, but that didn’t stop at least one eager-beaver lawyer from sending out what the guys at my firm call “the asshole letter” (a written missive that combines a heap of bluff and bluster with a healthy dose of bullshit and carries with it no actual force of law) to the owner the “Café Roubaix Bicycle Studio” threatening to unleash the hounds of Hell for using “their” trademark without their permission.
Look, if you’re going to trademark the name of a French city, why not go for the big prize and register “Paris™”? No one would mind if you sent that Hilton woman a whole boat load of Cease-and-Desist letters. Now, that would be a public service.
The Can We Please Make This Stop Now? Pleeeeease? Award: Michael Sinyard, whose personal visit to Dan Richter, the owner of the aforementioned shop, put an end to the company’s trademark claim. Sinyard looked pained, embarrassed and uncomfortable in the video that came from that visit, but you gotta give the guy some credit for at least trying to clean up the mess.
Of course, it could have all been avoided if Sinyard and Co. could distinguish between the manufacture and sale of counterfeit product and a guy who just wanted a bike shop with a cool name. And no, Mike, it probably won’t stop … at least for a while. That whole Internet thing seems to have caught you by surprise. Being a bully – or by an act of omission, allowing your “outside counsel” to be bullies – carries a heavy price these days. News travels fast and these messes take a long time to clean up.
Here’s a mop.
The Most Deserved Victory Lap In Sport goes to David Walsh of the Sunday Times of London, whose dogged and unwavering pursuit of Lance Armstrong lasted 13 years and subjected him to all sorts of abuse. What is hopefully the last word in the Armstrong story was quickly released by Walsh soon after the Oprah interviews. The cool thing is that “7 Deadly Sins: My pursuit of Lance Armstrong” is, as they say, soon to be a major motion picture, starring the “IT Crowd’s” Chris O’Dowd as Walsh. Break out the popcorn, gang, we’re goin’ to the movies.
The He-sure-called-that-one Award goes to Greg LeMond, who, way back in 2001, said “If Lance is clean, it is the greatest comeback in the history of sports. If he isn’t, it would be the greatest fraud.”
The We-actually-do-it-right-here Award goes to the United States. While the IOC, its affiliate International Governing Bodies and WADA seem to have intended to keep sports governance and doping control separate, the Americans are actually doing it. Try, for a moment, to imagine how this whole Armstrong thing would have shaken out had it been the job of USA Cycling to aggressively pursue the case. Someone, somewhere along the lines, would have uttered those infamous words – “it’s bad for cycling” – and that would have been that. Actually, you don’t have to imagine … just look to the UCI and see how that organization handled what eventually became the biggest doping scandal in sport.
And finally we give our most prestigious and noteworthy prize:
The 2013 WTF?!?! Award to one David LeDuc, of Willow Springs, North Carolina, a (get this) 62-year-old masters racer who tripped the Dope-O-Meter™ for (get this) amphetamines, steroids and EPO at the Masters Road National Championships in Bend, Oregon, back in September.
Look, if you put morality aside, you can almost understand the reasoning behind a guy like Lance Armstrong deciding to step over the line and become a PharmaCheat. I mean, the dude “won” seven Tours de Freakin’ France (a sporting event watched by more than a billion viewers each year), gained worldwide fame (since turned into infamy) and amassed a fortune in excess of $100 million (of course much of that is disappearing fast). It’s like pulling off a huge casino heist for mega-millions. Sure, it’s not right, but you can at least imagine the reasoning and the motivation behind it.
But cheating to win the United States’ 60-65 Master’s title?!?!?!?
That’s like grabbing an AK-47 to rob the local MiniMart of $9.34 (in pennies), a couple of SlimJims and a pack of Marlboros. I mean really … who, aside from your wife, your kids and the other two guys who toed the line in that same race, actually gives a shit who wins the U.S. men’s 60-65 national title? It’s supposed to be fun, Dave.
Hence, the automatic reaction when you read about a guy, already 12 years into his AARP membership, doping himself to the gills to win a tinpot medal and a jersey can only be “WTF?!?!”
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.
With the release of the book “Wheelmen” by Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell of the Wall Street Journal, Lance Armstrong, the US Postal Service, EPO and Greg LeMond are all back in the news. While I’m enjoying the book so far—Albergotti and O’Connell are fine writers and I’m hoping to pick up a few new details in their narrative—what cycling needs going into the off season isn’t more play on Armstrong. Rather, we would do well to focus on the way forward and what the new president of the UCI, Brian Cookson, is working on.
The trouble is, neither LeMond nor Armstrong are willing call it a day and just move forward. Armstrong is still holding out hope that he can sit down with WADA and weave a tale of doping that will rehabilitate his standing with them such that he’ll be able to compete before President Obama leaves office. Supposing for a second that he’s actually able to get his ban reduced to time served, that misses the larger point. The spell has been broken. No one wants to see Armstrong compete. No one.
I respect that Lance’s plan is get the ban cut, then go to Nike, et al, and secure new sponsorship. Maybe not at the rate he used to get, but get a positive cash flow going. What he doesn’t seem to fathom is that right now he is a guaranteed PR black eye. For anyone, but especially Nike.
It’s fair to wonder why Armstrong won’t just curl up in a corner to lick his wounds. Maybe that speaks to why he won the Tour seven times. And for those who are talking to the screen right now, screaming that he didn’t win the Tour, he did. Maybe not fair—or square—but the top of those fields was dirty. One doper beat all the other dopers. That was the game for those years.
The release of “Wheelmen” has served as the perfect opportunity to quote Greg LeMond on all things Lance. In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN LeMond opined that Armstrong would barely have cracked the top 30 as a clean rider. I’m not sure that anyone is in a position to make such a sweeping statement about him or the riders from that era. Armstrong dropped a lot of weight ahead of his fourth place at the ’98 Vuelta—and we have every reason to believe he was on EPO before the cancer. He only got better after the ’98 Vuelta, so what changed? Dutch estimates hold that 80 percent of the peloton was on EPO. Honestly, no one can say that had the entire peloton been clean that Armstrong wouldn’t have finished in the top ten.
LeMond went on to volunteer that he thought Armstrong ought to be in jail. There’s no doubt that Big Tex wronged a great many people. What he did to Emma O’Reilly and the Andreus has not ceased to trouble me. Losing a job for sticking with the truth under oath (as Frankie Andreu did) must qualify you as a martyr. But of Armstrong’s many sins none currently seem to hold the potential for sending him on an all-expense-paid trip to the big house. So why offer the opinion that he ought to be in jail? Certainly that’s not analysis, not the way his assertion that Armstrong wasn’t capable of winning the Tour clean was.
From the earliest days of the LeMond/Armstrong conflict there has been an unseemly, jealous and petty sense to LeMond’s dislike of Arrmstrong. What has always bugged me about LeMond’s ire for Armstrong was the same thing that disturbed me about David Walsh’s pursuit of him, that it seemed personal, blind to the other dopers. Walsh’s book “Seven Deadly Sins” traces his path and demonstrates the circumstances why Walsh was so focused on Armstrong. Without putting words in his mouth, I think it’s fair to summarize Walsh’s Armstrong quest as synecdoche, wherein one small part serves to stand for the whole—referring to your car as your wheels. For Walsh, Armstrong seems to have been (rightly) the tip of the iceberg.
It’s harder for LeMond to claim that he had an overarching concern for doping unless he’s more naive than anyone else who ever raced the Tour. We know that Miguel Indurain, Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci would never have taken the podium at the ’91 Tour without the aid of EPO. Why has he never called them out?
It’s interesting that when LeMond retired three years later that he didn’t reveal that he understand what had hit him. The reason he gave for his retirement was a pathology, mitochondrial myopathy, which he related to his brother-in-law mistaking him for a turkey. At the time, blaming his inability to kick Miguel Indurain’s ass on lead in his chest seemed the most graceful explanation. It was, however, wrong. The real explanation was simpler. LeMond was getting beat because there were dozens of guys on EPO. He was being forced to race well into the red zone for far longer than he had in previous tours. So why didn’t he say anything then?
Armstrong’s problem with LeMond was that he needed to believe LeMond doped in order to think that he was no worse. Armstrong may never let go of his belief that LeMond doped. There’s still a certain amount of derisive snorting about LeMond’s B12 miracle shot, administered near the end of the ’89 Giro. The stupid thing here is that the obvious doping alternative would be anabolic steroids, which were very easy to catch in the 1980s.
The value to the book Albergotti and O’Connell have written is that it is likely to serve as the functional narrative for the EPO era. Because there are people who dismiss everything Tyler Hamilton says, because he previously lied, and because the USADA Reasoned Decision isn’t packaged as a single story, “Wheelmen” may prove to be the definitive version of this story.
The upshot to this is that any further attempt by Armstrong to confess as a means to rehabilitate his image, which will really only be a pretext to getting back to competition, will have to meet a very high bar of revelation. Not only will he need to reveal the juiciest of details behind everything everyone else has documented, but the days of him denying eyewitness accounts are over. Sure, he can deny all he wants, but the problem he faces is that the days of giving him the benefit of the doubt are over. In a he said/she said, we used to award him the point. What he doesn’t seem to follow is that we no longer give his word any weight. This is a point that can’t be exaggerated. If Charles Manson said he watched Armstrong eat babies, no matter what Armstrong said, any reasonable person would send his toothbrush to the lab.
The problem isn’t that Armstrong doesn’t know what the truth is, it’s that he doesn’t understand that he doesn’t have the ability to shape the story anymore. Until he understands that, there’s no reason for him to speak. Until he really understands what “the full truth” means, he’s useless to cycling.
But what of LeMond? He has all of American cycling at his feet. Oakley and Giro have apologized to him. Who knows how many others have quietly made amends. He’s won three Tours, beaten Bernard Hinault into submission, had a bike line developed, distributed and sold by Trek. He is now working with Time to produce his bikes, while he has taken on the distributorship of Time here in the U.S.
By any measure, it’s a charmed existence. Yet, the feature most common to all his dealings is conflict, most often exemplified by lawsuits.
Game, set, match. They are all his. When will he find peace, happiness?
[Ed. note: We reached out to LeMond with a request for an interview but got no response.]
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International