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It’s Not About the Bike: The “Book” on Lance Armstrong

It’s not about the bike anymore, no. It’s not even about character flaws from the loss of a healthy father figure in his life. And you know what else? It’s not even about the drugs now.

Lance Armstrong’s 2001 memoir, It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back To Life now seems rich in irony. It’s revealing about the details of surgeries, IV drips, chemo, his wife’s in vitro fertilization, and other “insider” information in the world of cycling. He says he felt abandoned by his biological father and mistreated by his overbearing, unworthy stepfather. He says he isn’t into playing the hero because there is too much to do to help others, too many other cancer victims he wants to help become survivors. It reveals all that can be revealed in such honest and exacting detail perhaps because so much needed to be concealed. It ends with his first triumph in France.

Like so many others in the early 2000s, I became a cycling fan because of the wonders of Lance Armstrong. I defended him right up until you just couldn’t. I suppose I still have an appreciation for the Tour de France and its majestic panoramic views of the cyclists racing some 2000 miles every July, but it’ll never be the same.

In Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever, Wall Street Journal investigative reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O’Connell examine how sponsors fought over contracts with Armstrong as the entire sport of cycling began to benefit from the “Lance effect.” What had been a quirky, working-class hobby became a worldwide sensation, an explosion of growth in the industry. They reveal the broader story of how Armstrong and his supporters used money, power, and cutting-edge science to conquer the world’s most difficult race. Published in January 2013, Wheelmen introduces the cast of characters to set the stage for a drama that has many acts.

It’s a spectacular Greek tragedy, and, as they claim, “easily the biggest sports conspiracy ever.”

The fascination with Lance Armstrong had not run its course from a year ago. Recently, yet another series of revelations has come out.

Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong won’t surprise anyone anymore. Or maybe it will by adding depth to the reasons behind the flawed character of Lance. Macur’s intrepid journalism is ambitious and comprehensive. Her writing on the fascinating topic of sports cycling through the 90s and into the 2000s, and on Lance Armstrong himself, is compelling. She offers at least two new bombshells to the complicated story.

She reveals John Hendershot’s testimony, the closest soigneur (massage therapist and general trainer and caretaker) to Armstrong and his American team when they first arrived to professionally tour and train in Europe.

“What we did was tread the fine line of dropping dead on your bike and winning,” Hendershot said.

In Belgium, where cycling has long been a top professional sport, pharmacists didn’t question Hendershot’s requests for large quantities of drugs. In exchange, Hendershot would give the pharmacist a signed team jersey or all-access passes to big races. He’d leave with bags filled with the blood booster EPO, human growth hormone, blood thinners, amphetamines, cortisone, painkillers and testosterone, a particularly popular drug he’d hand to riders ‘like candy.'”

She also considers the now damning testimony of John Thomas Neal, a generous wealthy man who helped Armstrong in his earliest, pre-professional days. J.T. Neal ended up with cancer around the same time that Armstrong got his, but Neal didn’t survive and died in 2002. Before he died, though, he had wanted to write a book on his experiences with Armstrong. Instead he only managed to record 26 hours of audiotape that laid dormant in the closet of one of his son’s rooms for years. The family granted Juliet Macur exclusive access to these tapes, and let’s just say the testimony is not flattering.

For as familiar as Macur seems to have become with her subject, she doesn’t much consider the moral complexities of the cycling history context that all riders faced. The book reads more as a deposition against Armstrong and what an awful and arrogant person he has been his entire life. Maybe that’s what sells. Or maybe she really has a sincere disdain for the deeply flawed person we have come to know as Lance Armstrong. This book will not change the opinions of those who do.

For as outrageous as the systematic doping schemes in cycling became (and surely still exist), it would be more interesting to consider “insider revelations” about how and why the sport became so associated with doping. And what about the moral and ethical complexities of where one draws the line between hydrating and regenerating and flat-out, drug-induced cheating? Why is the line still so unclear? And why all this attention on the fallen “hero” but still nothing much on who else in cycling has any responsibility? Cycling authorities had to know. Just like everyone knew about steroids in baseball.

The once revered Lance is now reviled. We get it. The real reason why is that he lied and lied and lied about it.

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