I’ve become very fond of saying that Lance Armstrong is Richard III on a bike. The cyclist, the cancer survivor and American hero who won the Tour de France 7 consecutive times, rose to stratospheric heights and tumbled down to public disgrace the likes of which even the Bard would take his hat off to. The greatest sportsman of the past 30 years was unveiled as a serial liar and bully who led arguably the most sophisticated doping ring in the history of cycling. Years of accusations finally came to the forefront and resulted in him being stripped of his Tour victories, the loss of all his sponsors, a series of extremely costly lawsuits and the scorn of a duped public. It may be a very long time before we see the likes of this in sports, so it makes sense for the Armstrong case to be documented extensively. Several journalists and individuals involved have written their own books (such as Armstrong’s former masseuse Emma O’Reilly, journalist David Walsh and former teammate Tyler Hamilton, whose testimony helped blow the case wide open), and now it’s time for New York Times journalist Juliet Macur. While she had some involvement with Armstrong throughout his cycling career, she had more distance from the subject than others, although that doesn’t automatically mean her account is emotionally detached.
Cycle of Lies opens with Macur visiting Armstrong in his Texas home as he and his family prepare to move out. The truth has been uncovered, the lawsuit bills are mounting and Armstrong is being forced to move to less grand accommodation. The Armstrong Macur meets is aggressive, regretful and a step away from calling himself a martyr. The tone is immediately set as Macur’s account goes back to the beginning of Armstrong’s life, with the ‘single mother’ who raised him and profited from speaking gigs exploiting the rags-to-riches story of her son.
The unravelling of narratives is a key theme throughout as the entire Armstrong mythos is dissected from its origins (Armstrong’s adoptive father was present throughout his youth, refuting claims of a poor single mother) to his rise through the world of road cycling (where he began doping early as well as fixing races in order to win the large cash prizes on offer) and through his cancer treatment and rise from the ashes to win the Tour de France seven times. Armstrong isn’t the only one guilty of pushing this narrative. The story of the cancer survivor who came back from the brink of death not only fully healthy but in even better shape than before is an appealing one, and it helped to sell a lot of Nike products. It revitalised the image of cycling as a sport after many years of corruption and doping scandals. It helped fund millions in cancer research through Livestrong and it gave people hope. It’s that hypocrisy that seems to drive Macur’s writing. Everyone may have been doping, but nobody did it like Armstrong, whose “win or die” philosophy saw him bully numerous people out of the sport, publicly smear several former friends and colleagues and use his status as a cancer survivor to deflect criticism even as questions arose that his doping may have exacerbated his illness.
It’s an extensively detailed read and one that delights in dismantling Armstrong the man. Macur never shies away from descriptions of his brutish nature, his spewing of profanities and his arrogance that saw him lose a lot of friends only to be replaced by yes people. Macur doesn’t buy Armstrong’s assertion that he was a fall guy for one moment, and claims it was this hubris that led to his downfall – if he hadn’t decided to make a comeback, he probably never would have been caught.
Macur’s research brings some key figures omitted from other accounts to the forefront, such as 26 hours of taped testimonies from JT Neal, Armstrong’s mentor from his early cycling days, and cyclists such as David Zabriskie who dealt with Armstrong’s doping first hand. While there are no jaw-dropping revelations here (Tyler Hamilton really cornered the market there), enough tidbits are shared as to give a richer context not only to Armstrong’s exploits but to the state of cycling as a sport. More time could have been given to taking on the authorities who were implicit in covering up Armstrong’s wrongdoings. One gets the feeling that there’s a whole other book waiting to be written about them. There will be some who justify Armstrong’s actions by pointing out how extensive doping was in the Tour. That is true but it cannot undo what he did and Cycle of Lies is determined to destroy the hero myth, and it does that with brutal skill.