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This is an amazing period for cycling fans who followed the ascendance of Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis in the 1990s and 2000s and marveled as they were discredited and fell from grace, condemned as cheaters. For those reading on the topic, the first great text is the USADA's own report on cheating at the U.S. Postal team. It's vivid, detailed, shocking (or was when it was released), and freely available online. Then came Tyler Hamilton's book, The Secret Race, which describes his own decision to cheat and how it all fell apart. If you are going to read only one book on this topic, Hamilton's is so far the best. Now we get Wheelmen, by two reporters from the Wall Street Journal. The last in this round will probably be Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong by Juliet Mancur of the New York Times. That one comes out next year.
These books overlap each other, and a reader might reasonably wonder whether or not it makes sense to read more than one. For me, the answer is very much yes. The USADA report is amazing as a primary source. Hamilton's book gives additional, vivid detail including an extended discussion of how and why great riders chose to cheat, and what it felt like when they did. It also provides some color on Thomas Wiesel, Chris Carmichael, and other players in the doping story who were not discussed in the USADA report because they weren't directly involved. Wheelmen, by contrast, purports to be about the "business" of Lance Armstrong and his doping conspiracy.
What's good? Lots of research, very strong conclusions. Where Tyler Hamilton hints that Wiesel was dirty, this book states plainly that he supported doping. The USADA never addressed the question of why the UCI seemed to back Armstrong despite recurring evidence that he was cheating, but this book spells out the various ways in which Hein Verbruggen was corrupted by Amstrong and his backers. The book reveals things about Armstrong's wives and girlfriends helping in, or at least witnessing the doping that I had never heard before. (Evidently, Sheryl Crow was among those who ultimately testified against him).
What's not so good? First, I found the spin of this as a "business" book to be farcical. We all already know how much money pro athletes make, and we know they make it through team and sponsor payments. We know how rich and powerful people and organizations can intimidate weaker and poorer ones. This material, which supposedly differentiates this book, is not interesting in the least. Second, I found the book oddly mean-spirited. Not only Lance, but many other riders besides, are portrayed without any compassion at all. With few exceptions, their cheating is portrayed as stemming from avarice and a sort of sociopathic commitment to victory at all costs, with little or no recognition that these men may have been suffering and afraid and that they probably made complex moral calculations that contained, in all likelihood, a fair amount of regret. Other journalists and the public are, in this book, routinely mocked for having fallen for Armstrong's lies. Armstrong himself is portrayed as being a sociopath from a young age. Maybe he was, but I bet a more nuanced portrayal would be fair.
Third, the text shows some signs of being rushed. Some people are introduced more than once in nearly identical terms. There are typos, including a comment on page 279 about $19 million of the USADA's $14 million budget coming from the government.
I look forward to Juliet Macur's book, and hope it answers some of the remaining mysteries of the story. Why precisely did the U.S. prosecutor drop its case in early 2012? Just how much did Thomas Wiesel know about what was going on? Did Armstrong actually bribe the UCI in 2002? Did Nike bribe Verbruggen $500,000 to cover up a 1999 positive test by Armstrong?