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.
I summon that famous, nay iconic, line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail as a means of framing a certain perspective on Pat McQuaid and the election for the office of UCI President that looms a few weeks away. I’ve avoided writing about McQuaid for some weeks in part because my stomach and central nervous system couldn’t take me thinking about him any more than the weekly story that would pop up on him. However, since my last missive on cycling’s resident ebola case, there have been just too many surprising and twisted turns not to revisit this particular fever.
When last I devoted the bulk of a post to the McQuaid problem he had just been jilted by his own Irish federation, wherein votes were cast largely along generational lines. The old guard’s defense of McQuaid consisted almost exclusively of a half apology, summed up as, ‘Sure, he’s got his faults, but look how much he’s done.’ Fortunately, the young bucks held the day and McQuaid’s nomination went the way of a great many cockroaches—one down, several more to go.
Next up was the Swiss nomination. On deck was the question of whether McQuaid deserved to be nominated by the Swiss federation by virtue of the fact that McQuaid was a resident of the country. Fortunately for us, that question doesn’t need to be resolved and will never be resolved. Here’s why: in nominating McQuaid, the Swiss federation had circumvented its own rules in order to prevent members who disagreed with the nomination from shutting it down. When the Swiss federation president refused to withdraw McQuaid’s nomination, one board member of the federation, Mattia Galli, resigned and then joined a coalition including Skins CEO Jaimie Fuller to challenge the nomination. It’s worth noting here that McQuaid “joined” the Swiss federation even prior to the fiery crash of his Ireland-based nomination.
Civil cases such as the one brought by the Galli/Fuller group carry a prohibitive bar in Swiss courts. To bring a case, a payment to the courts of 100,000 Swiss francs must be paid. The claimant (Fuller, et al) must pony up 50,000, while the respondent (Swiss cycling) must cough up the other 50,000 in order for the case to go forward. To my American eye, it seems a silly system. To kill the case, all the respondent has to do is not pay his 50,000 CHF share and hope that the gambit deters the claimant from proceeding. However, the claimant, if he believes his case is of solid merit and this isn’t just a spurious claim, can advance the respondent’s share. Certainly, such a system will cut down on frivolous actions, but it seems destined to chill legitimate actions. After all, how many people have the resources to part with 100,000 CHF (roughly $107,000) for months, maybe years?
Fortunately, Fuller has proven that he’s more than willing to put his company’s resources to use in his pursuit of McQuaid, so he advanced not just the first 50,000, but also the other 50,000, calling their bluff. The lawsuit was a go. That put the Swiss federation in a losing position. Because they had violated their own governance rules in putting forward McQuaid’s nomination, they would lose the case, and once they lost the case, they’d have to pay their lawyers, the opposition’s lawyers and that full 100,000-franc bond. Those with knowledge of the federation’s finances said it would be a ruinous amount, a Great White Shark at their leg. There seemed to be a few days in which it seemed the Swiss might be considering proceeding, but McQuaid proved to be worth a good deal less than 100,000 CHF. So they withdrew his nomination and saved themselves the equivalent of a luxury car.
Even after the Swiss federation announced that they had withdrawn his nomination, McQuaid’s spokesman was telling the world they hadn’t. But they had. As folks nearly say, saying it ain’t so doesn’t make it not so.
Here’s where the story gets comical. McQuaid declared that he was a member of “six or seven federations.”
Really? Why stop there? Why isn’t he a member of all of them? Weirder still, why is it six or seven? How is it he’s not certain just how many federations he’s a member of? Is he joining them drunk? Has he invented blackout governance?
What. The. Hell.
But that’s not even the part that’s funny. He went to the Malaysian federation and cajoled them into proposing a retroactive revision to the UCI’s constitution that would allow him to be nominated by any two federations, and he has now secured a nomination of that variety from the federations of Morocco and Thailand. For this nomination to be valid, Article 51 of the UCI’s constitution, which defines how a member may be nominated, must be changed. But it’s not enough just to change it now; it must be changed retroactively, meaning that to keep the office of president, McQuaid needs a time machine.
In an interview on Irish radio McQuaid claimed he was not only not breaking the rules, he was “not even bending the rules.”
Okay, so when I write it like that, it’s not that funny. Maybe we should cue a laugh track. I’m sure Monty Python could have made a better joke of it, provided we weren’t talking about Pat McQuaid, but something humorous, like the Spanish Inquisition.
For some weeks I have been entertaining the thought that the world of cycling should allow one or more of McQuaid’s latest nominations to stand. Let an election go forward. Surely Brian Cookson would trounce McQuaid in any election where reasonable people cast the votes, right? I haven’t even bothered to endorse Cookson because the need to acquit ourselves of McQuaid is so great that I’d vote for Attila the Hun before I’d vote for McQuaid, providing I had a vote and all. Which I don’t. The point here is that losing the election would be the final, irrefutable verdict on McQuaid’s tenure, the outcome that would send him packing, publicly.
But then I remembered that McQuaid had managed enough arm twisting to secure the following:
- The Swiss federation to nominate him (even if only briefly)
- The Malaysian federation to propose a change to the constitution
- The Moroccan federation to nominate him
- The Thai federation to nominate him
If he can get four different federations, at least one of which should know better than to participate in shady politics, to take a public stance in support of him, then securing a vote is, scarily, probably infinitely easier. So far, Australia is the only nation to go on record saying they will definitely vote for Cookson. Representatives from Cycling Australia have intimated that all the nations of Oceania are likely to vote with them, but that’s still only a handful of votes. Consider just how many nations there are in Africa and Asia alone. Every nation in Europe and North America could vote against McQuaid and he could still win.
That’s when I realized that we can’t leave this outcome to something as easily manipulated as a democratic election. An election is worse than a game of chance.
That the presidents of so many federations have remained completely silent on McQuaid mystified me for some months. Then I realized they knew something I didn’t. You have to figure that in the awful event that McQuaid should be re-elected to the presidency, anyone who has taken a public stand against him will feel painful retribution and it’s safe to assume that retribution will extend to the whole of the federation and its licensed riders.
Is it too much to think that there would suddenly be a rash of positive tests from riders of that country? No, I don’t think so.
For that reason, I’m enormously heartened by the emergence of the Gang of Five (as they are being called). The federation presidents for the U.S., Russia, Canada, Finland and Algeria have collectively signed a letter sent to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) asking them to rule on the validity of McQuaid’s rule changes. Before we get to the meat of their request, let’s consider this collection of nations: the U.S., Russia, Canada, Finland and Algeria. Not France, not Germany, not the Netherlands, not Belgium, not Spain, not Italy—hell, not even Ireland. I take this collection as a corollary to my previous point.
In their letter, the signatories described their reaction to the rule changes as, “amusement to outrage, from bewilderment to astonishment.” They are asking CAS to rule on the validity of these rule changes because they fear a protracted legal battle over the presidency should McQuaid win the election. Yet another corollary to my previous point. The UCI is in enough of a mess that a legal battle over who is the rightful president would only further damage cycling, but because we understand that what drives McQuaid isn’t the good of the sport, he’d be willing to fight by any means at his disposal in order to keep power. I have to imagine that he’d spend the UCI into bankruptcy because I simply can’t foresee a circumstance in which he’d relinquish power for the good of the sport.
It seems likely that CAS will rule against the rule change, but this will only come swiftly if the UCI voluntarily agrees to the hearing. Can someone find me a Vegas bookie to take that bet?
It also seems likely that the UCI, as an instrument of McQuaid’s arrogance and desperation, will fight this hearing from happening. If they do, the election will be delayed, probably for months. Of course, that will keep McQuaid in power just that much longer. But that’s his endgame; every additional day of power is a day of survival.
Given the way the whole of cycling has suffered here in the U.S. in the wake of the Armstrong scandal, I’m heartened that Steve Johnson has taken this step as the president of USA Cycling. Johnson, it’s worth noting, he was installed as president in the wake of the near-bankruptcy of USA Cycling, which was rescued by none other than Tom Weisel. Johnson’s ties and relationship to Weisel (which could merit a post of its own) has made him one of the targets of criticism that doping is endemic less to the riders than it is to the leadership of cycling itself. No other federation has suffered as great a loss in reputation thanks to the USADA Reasoned Decision as the U.S. has. Johnson and the the other signatories to the request for the CAS hearing isn’t exactly a rebuke of McQuaid, but it could be construed as a shot across his bow. Asking for a speedy resolution to a thorny question suggests you don’t have a dog in the fight, and that ought to give McQuaid pause, but it doesn’t seem like anything penetrates that thick exterior.
McQuaid aside, that Johnson and USA Cycling would finally take a public stand in support of good governance is the first indication I’ve seen that things might change at USA Cycling, that there could be a way out of this morass.
What a difference four years makes. Had Floyd Landis woken up on July 28, 2006, and called a press conference to announce to the world all the things he detailed in his e-mail to USA Cycling’s Steve Johnson, we might have hailed him as a sort of fallen hero.
An Icarus of the pedals.
As fate would have it, Landis’ non-negative result for was synthetic testosterone, essentially the one drug he claims, now, not to have taken in 2006. So he believed what almost anyone else would have believed—that he could beat the rap.
He didn’t count on a few details. First, he didn’t count on the Machiavellian nature of USADA, which pursued the case with a ‘win at all cost’ mentality. As I wrote in my BKW post “At All Cost,” had this case been tried in the American judicial system, Landis would have won the case because the lab performing the work did such a lousy job. However, USADA’s zero-tolerance policy toward doping also happens to be a zero-loss policy as well, and clearly Landis didn’t understand that actual innocence didn’t matter.
He also didn’t count on the details of a phone conversation he had with Greg LeMond would become public. LeMond’s recounting of the conversation will seem entirely more believable for anyone who previously doubted his testimony. Four years hence, one wonders if Landis comes up with a different answer to the rhetorical question he put to LeMond when urged to confess. He asked, “What would it matter?”
While we don’t know the exact details of what Landis confessed to Johnson and the UCI, we have the substance in broad strokes.
1) He did drugs, lots of them, beginning in 2002.
2) Lance Armstrong did more drugs and told him who to work with.
3) George Hincapie did all the same drugs.
4) Former roommate David Zabriskie did drugs.
5) Levi Leipheimer did drugs.
6) He has no proof.
7) Those closest to him didn’t know what he was up to.
8) He confessed to his mom.
We should note that Landis has only implicated American riders. One wonders why he has implicated only Americans. Could his full and complete confession be leaving something out?
After four years of his strenuous denial and seven-figure defense that was, in part, paid for by fans who believed his innocent plea, for him to come out now and say, ‘Okay, now I’m telling the truth,’ credulity strains. UCI President Pat McQuaid said Landis’ statements were “scandalous and mischievous.”
Even if we believe everything his says lock-stock-and-barrel, in this case, his truth-telling comes a little late. As a means to restore respect and reputation, his confession is a failure. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t listen. On this point, McQuaid has it wrong.
“These guys coming out now with things like this from the past is only damaging the sport,” McQuaid told The Associated Press. “If they’ve any love for the sport they wouldn’t do it.”
Come again? We don’t want dopers to confess? Please tell us you’re kidding.
I’ve heard from several sources that Landis has been drinking heavily, heavily enough to affect his fitness and relationships. It’s a tragic turn of events given what he has already experienced. It’s easy to connect the drinking with the events he says he is now confessing, the truth he needs to get off his chest. In 12-Step programs, you are directed to confess your wrongs, but there follows quickly one caveat: except when to do so would hurt others.
Which brings us to the meat of his confession. Most of what he has confessed involves others. To clear his conscience, he need only to confess his own deeds. Whatever motivation he has to tell what he says Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie have done, it isn’t his conscience; it sounds more like retribution—‘If my ship is going down, I’m taking yours with me.’
Backing this up is the fact that Landis pointed out the eight-year statute of limitations, which is due to run out on some of the alleged acts, as a motivating factor to come forward.
“Now we’ve come to the point where the statute of limitations on the things I know is going to run out or start to run out next month,” Landis said. “If I don’t say something now, then it’s pointless to ever say it.”
He wants cases opened into the acts of Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie while there’s still time, which means his confession is less about his acts than the acts of others. He wants to see others punished.
But he says he has no proof. Naturally, Armstrong, Hincapie, Leipheimer and Zabriskie will have to defend themselves and because Landis detailed them in e-mails, meaning they were written, not spoken, they rise from slander to libel. Because these are public figures, the odds are against any of them meeting with success in a court room following a civil suit.
Landis may have a tougher time defending himself than they do.
Federal investigator Jeff Novitzky, the man who headed the investigation into Victory Conte and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) is one of the investigators involved in checking out Landis’ claims.
One of the first questions Novitzky and other investigators will have for Lanids will be who his sources were. Where did he buy his stuff? His suppliers may have sales records. If they have sales records that can substantiate his claim that he was a customer, then it is also possible they would have sales records detailing their relationship with other clients, and it’s a safe bet that if it is true Landis was taking his cues from others, then he was probably shopping at the same market, so-to-speak.
Armstrong has pulled out of the Tour of California following what sounds like a minor crash. Cynics will probably surmise that it was a strategic decision to avoid media scrutiny.
And what of Landis’ actual confession? That is, what of what he claims he did? These would be new infractions worthy of their own case. While I have advocated a truth and reconciliation commission to encourage athletes to come forward and tell what they know, this case is ugly and really perverts the way you hope justice will work.
Should Landis get a slap on the wrist in exchange for his cooperation? Or should he get the proverbial book thrown at him yet again? It may be that he has already come to the conclusion that his return to the pro ranks won’t be what he had hoped and that he is ready to depart.
If that’s the case, then his confession is 200-proof revenge.
This case may well make it to a grand jury, which will be much more likely to result in actual justice than any action USADA takes. Getting at the real truth should be the goal, rather than just handing out punishment.
But what of Landis’ original case? He was within his right to defend himself and we should never forget that. However, his defense built a sham identity that wasn’t enough to escape conviction. Hopefully, that will be a sobering thought to the new generation of dopers, a la Bernard Kohl and Riccardo Ricco. However, Landis’ defense turned into the most costly prosecution ever for USADA. In mounting such an expansive defense he cheated not just those who contributed to the Floyd Fairness Fund, but all those of us who follow cycling and depend on the anti-doping authorities to uncover and prosecute doping. One wonders who escaped prosecution because USADA was mired in a more than year-long case with Landis.
I have often thought that there will come a day where we look back on the EPO era with different eyes. We should never condone doping, but there may come a point when we understand that during the time when EPO use was rampant, there were no heroes and very, very few villains, that these men were flawed, like all of us, and a product of their time.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International