Monday, October 13, 2014

WHEELMEN :: Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell

Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever, is a journalistic account of the rise and eventual fall of American cycling, which begins with an apt quote from Abraham Lincoln:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

The abuse of power theme pours out on almost every page of this painstakingly-researched, comprehensive look at how cycling grew in popularity in America, first via Greg Lemond in the late 1980s, then the juggernaut that was Lance Armstrong, all the way through the fall of Armstrong and the American cycling program in 2013 and 2014. 

Certainly the book highlights Armstrong, as he became the face not only of American cycling but the American cancer movement, beginning in the 1990s and continuing through 2013. But despite Armstrong's major role in the downfall of the sport, Wheelmen provides a fair and well-balanced portrayal of all the players in the scandal: cyclists (American and foreign alike), team doctors, owners, sponsors, et al. It feels like a quest for the truth, not a vehicle to lambaste Armstrong, which it rightfully could have been based on the facts presented. 

Arrogant, selfish, and some say pathological, Armstrong took whatever means necessary to get himself to the top of the sport and stay there. Which he did, winning multiple Tour de France victories despite a cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery, and investigations from all fronts. 

Never a good teammate (nor, apparently, a very nice person), Armstrong bullied and demeaned fellow cyclists, pouted or refused when asked to take a supporting role for the good of the team, paid to have doping results hidden, and took part in a successful bribery scheme to ensure a victory. Once his dominance on the team and at the Tour took hold, he demanded his teammates take part in doping or be dropped from the squad, and left behind anyone who dared oppose him, on the course or in life

Always the subject of scrutiny due to the scope of his success, investigations into Armstrong's alleged doping came to a head after he left the sport, when prior teammate Floyd Landis tested positive and was stripped of his Tour victory. Landis and others eventually cooperated with the governing bodies, leading to Armstrong's ultimate downfall. He did not go quietly, however, once again asserting his dominance by threatening and discrediting witnesses and attempting bribery to cover up his history. 

The account is fascinating not only on the factual front, but from a psychological perspective as well; both the psychology of Armstrong and the psychology of a culture that fed and supported his power. Could Armstrong have been the champion cyclist he became without the villainous character traits that cost him so much? At some point did he actually believe his own schtick? Despite the numerous investigations and facts uncovered along the way, Armstrong staunchly denied using any PEDs until the bitter end, facing a lifetime ban from all sanctioned competitions (including triathlons, which he had taken up post-cycling). 

Equally as fascinating is the psychology of a society that assigns such value to the athletic heroes it places on very lofty pedestals. It is a need so strong much of the American public was willing, for a very long time, to overlook what had really become fairly obvious. Does celebrity culture spring from a desire and need to believe in the ideals of the American dream? Is it a dream of power and celebrity we celebrate vicariously? Those questions are a book unto themselves. But what is an equally enthralling question is how and why we are so quick to turn on our heroes when they prove to be less than perfect, as Armstrong certainly is. 

Granted, Armstrong's character flaws run deep, but query whether they would have lead him down the path he took if not for the adulation, money, and attention he reaped as a result. To some extent, Armstrong is a product of our own celebrity-worshipping culture and the "money-mad" world of sports. As the authors conclude: "We are willing to ignore and justify the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful." It's difficult to point a finger at Lance without admitting we might deserve a little bit of that finger ourselves. 

Street Sense: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in sports, cycling, celebrity mythology, narcissism, and/or psychology as it relates to sports and to society at large. A knowledge or love of the sport of cycling is not required to enjoy what is a well-written, fascinating ride (see what I did there?). I listened to the audiobook version and the narration was fantastic.

A Favorite Passage: I can't help but go back to the beginning of this piece and use Abraham Lincoln's quote for this section. It really is the crux of the whole shebang. 

Cover Nerd Says:  I love this cover.  It's no coincidence that yellow is the only color surrounding that fantastic image.  And the photo itself, stark in black and white, is not a glorious image of Lance on a bike, but a gritty and bloody closeup of the man alone.   

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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