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Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell's "Wheelmen" is a well-written, documented, organized book, and an easy read. One needs not be a cyclist to follow most of the book, but one who has cycled will perhaps receive a more visceral appreciation for this work. As a former mountain bike and cyclo-cross racer, who has put a lot of time on the roads, I am neither an antagonist of, nor an apologist for Lance Armstrong. I remember a conversation among racing friends during the early 2000's about Armstrong and the professional peloton. While most defended Lance, one, with perhaps more insight than the rest of us commented, "they are all dirty".
I will use a somewhat different tact with my review. My review will be more about feelings I had during the reading of "Wheelmen". If Albergotti and O'Connell's Wheelmen has any weakness at all, it falls short in categorizing the participants of the professional peloton as the cream of the crop, the best of the best, the elite, of the elite. You cannot take an average Joe off the street, allow him to blood dope, take PED's and put him on a bicycle and expect to get Armstrong's results. Both mental and physical toughness and a willingness to accept and work through extraordinary pain are required.
What we had, were the finest cyclists in the world, all looking for that "advantage" over their fellow competitors. I recall cycling 3+ weeks in the mountains of Colorado and then returning to the "flatlands" and cycling with my club team. The extra blood my body produced to cope with the rarified atmosphere of Colorado gave me a distinct advantage within club rides, which wore off after a couple of weeks. It helped me understand the culture of doping in cycling.
Blood doping and PED's not only affect performance, but also are important in regard to recovery. The bottom line is, one had a good chance of being out of a job in the world cycling scene if they did not dope. These were "ALL" adults who made the decision to dope, or not. As a reviewer, I am not condoning the process. Doping appears to have been rampant within cycling for a long time. Add Lance Armstrong to the mix, a self driven, rather egocentric individual, and unnaturally talented endurance athlete, who was willing to make the sacrifices to be great, as well as expecting those associated with him to make these sacrifices, and we have a story.
Armstrong made a science of taking advantage of the system and contributing to the corruptness of the said system. He not only leveled the playing field for himself and his team, but also got that competitive edge through the best medical help that money could buy. I wonder though, if through it all, the punishment was greater than the crime. Armstrong's drive made money for everyone and every organization that became associated with him. His foundation provided hope and assistance for many without hope.
Lawsuits that ruled in Armstrong's favor, with Bob Hamman and SCA promotions and The Times of London require restitution, now that the truth about Lance's doping is public knowledge. Money is one thing, but I have always felt that if Armstrong was indeed dirty, and he admitted to it, a large and sincere apology was in store for Greg LeMond. Armstrong had it all. Family, money, fame, property, idolatry and a continuing love for endurance competition. With his "headstrong" instance that he was clean, rather than cut deals when he could, he put everything he had into jeopardy. He could have been the most important vector for eradicating the specter of doping from professional cycling. He chose the dark side and put all that which he had sacrificed for at risk.
One wonders why the apex of competitive greatness continues to seek edges that yield unfair advantages. Is it necessary? Did Marian Jones need PED's? Did Barry Bonds require steroids? An irony exists in punishments. Jones was stripped of her titles and did jail time. Armstrong was stripped of his titles, and an enormous amount of money thus far, and one wonders if jail time is in his future. Mr. Bonds? Why do the relatively minor sports of track and field and cycling follow through on punishments meted out, where the enormously wealthy organizations of MLB and the NFL all but turn the other cheek?
In conclusion, Albergotti and O'Connell have put together a very well organized, documented, and readable book. They are neither scathing nor unfair of Armstrong, but report on what was observed and weave it all together in "Wheelmen". One can only hope that the moral of the story contributes to the complete abstinence of PED's in sport.
As a postscript, Albergotti and O'Connell are both reporters for "The Wall Street Journal". One can only hope than one day we will read their book about the investigation, punishment and return of money to everybody hurt by those on Wall Street and the banking industry who all but caused a global financial collapse.