We're somewhere in the middle of the great cycle of Lance Armstrong books. First we had Lance's own dishonest autobiography and associated sycophantic team histories, tempered by one or two skeptical books. Then, after the code of silence was broken, we got the USADA report confirming that Armstrong had been cheating for years, and a rash of books explaining in greater detail how. Most of these books have come from journalists and most, like Juliet Macur, are mad at Lance Armstrong for having lied to them and insulted them for so many years. We also have one book by former professional cyclist Tyler Hamilton, about his participation in the cheating. It's unique so far but more like that one are sure to come.
So how does this book compare to its peers?
Macur's hard work and discipline is visible throughout. She spoke with many more witnesses to Lance Armstrong's upbringing, racing, and cheating, than in any other book of this sort. She has turned up a number of things I have not read elsewhere. Kudos to her for getting access to the tape recorded reminiscences of J T Neal, Armstrong's early supporter and surrogate father, who suffered through cancer with Lance before being abandoned by him. She is similarly the first to have spoken with John Hendershot, Armstrong's soigneur in the 1990s, and his guilt-wracked dealer in performance-enhancing drugs. There is other new material here as well; while Wheelmen makes the case that Armstrong was a sociopath from a young age, Macur is the first, as far as I know, to try to explain why this might be. She documents that his mother is a self-aggrandizing, self-enriching, repeated liar and hints that his character was shaped by her example. Personally, I am skeptical -- given that the key evidence dates after Lance had already become rich and famous, it seems just as likely that she learned from *him* that dishonesty is rewarded with respect and riches.
This revelation is characteristic of the book -- it is new, it is well documented, it's sort of interesting, but it doesn't change our understanding of Lance Armstrong or the culture of professional cycling in any significant way. In a sense, there were only ever two big questions here -- did Lance Armstrong cheat, and if so how did he get away with it (in particular, did Heins Verbuggen at the UCI cover up for him, perhaps in exchange for bribes?). The first of these questions was well answered before Macur ever set pen to paper, and Macur adds little to our understanding of the second. The book contains new information, but it amounts to only so much trivia.
On page 40 she describes witnesses to possible doping by Armstrong in 1991-1992, earlier than anybody else has found (and early for any American cyclist, really, though Jeff Evanshine tested positive in 1992). She discusses doper/soigneur John Hendershot's drug deliveries to Lance. Macur got nice detailed stories from George Hincapie and other riders, who doped or in a few cases who refused to do so. She spent a lot of time with the riders' wives, a nice touch given that EPO, in particular, required sufficiently elaborate storage and delivery infrastructure that wives and girlfriends usually knew the riders were doping and often helped. She is the first person to get access to audiotapes recorded by J. T. Neal, which feels like a coup, but there's nothing in the tapes, just as there is nothing from the wives, that changes our understanding of Lance or his world.
There is in this book no sense of the suffering that drove doping, the frustration or even anguish one sometimes feels in Tyler Hamilton's book. Here, virtually everybody just dopes. Chris Carmichael and Eddie B promoted doping. The soigneurs and directeurs sportif and team doctors and owners all knew about it and helped. The sponsors and television commentators probably knew, but covered it up. Everybody is dirty. It's an ugly world. Even the founding of the Lance Armstrong Foundation (Livestrong) is described on page 90 as a cynical public relations move.
The book has clear heroes and villains and victims and cowards. Heroes include Jonathan Vaughters, Bob Hamman of SCA Promotions, Travis Tygart and Betsy Andreu. Victims include especially Dave Zabriskie, whose corruption by Armstrong and Johan Bruyneel could break your heart. Villains include especially Lance Armstrong, Johan Bruyneel, and Hein Verbruggen. Floyd Landis is a wild card. And cowards, so many cowards, people who knew what was going on and lied about it, even perjuring themselves to defend Armstrong to protect their jobs. Stephanie Mcllvain at Oakley, André Birotte Jr, who dropped the federal investigation, Steve Johnson of USA Cycling, who convinced Dave Zabriskie not to go to college but to becomes a professional cyclist instead, and who later heard his lamentations after he was pressured into doping but said nothing. And who, to all appearances, lies about it with horrifying mendacity to this day.
The second half of the book is more exciting than the first. It's almost a shame we have to go through Armstrong's childhood and early career to get to his triumphs and the great unraveling. The introduction of Macur's book and some of its late chapters have the tone of a wounded former rival. She seems to mock his loss of power when he tries to order her around long after his influence has waned. "Your book is called Cycle of Lies? That has to change," he declares. Obviously, she doesn't change it, and she wants us, the readers, to know that *she's* on top now. Is Armstrong's continued self-confidence newsworthy, or is her describing his impotence just petty? You can't blame her for disliking Armstrong; the man and his entourage subjected her to vicious personal attacks after she wrote a page 1 story in the New York Times revealing that members of the 1999 US postal team had admitted to doping. Yet those emotions, however understandable, hurt this book.
The cycle of Armstrong books is not done yet; George Hincapie has a book coming out. It might be the first book about Lance Armstrong in years written by somebody who doesn't hate him.