Confession: I’ve been a little obsessive about Lance Armstrong for the last while, reading books, articles, opinions and watching every documentary, interview I could get my eyes to, finishing off most recently with THE movie. This is not the first time I’ve confessed to this and readers of my running blog will be aware of my cycling interest already. Thing is – I’m a lawyer so I like to believe I can approach something in a purely objective manner, remain emotionally and personal removed throughout and emerge with perfectly balanced analyses and opinions. The other thing is however, that this is Lance Armstrong. And Lance does not provoke the usual reaction in most people. That is the just the problem: he provokes a reaction.This being a book blog, I’m going to zoom in on two of the books I have just finished reading on Lance and these are Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong written by Sunday Times journalist David Walsh and The Race to Truth by Emma O’Reilly, a soigneur who worked with the US Postal Team during Lance’s time with the team. Coincidentally, both perspectives are Irish but please don’t make the mistake of assuming they probably contain a similar story. They do not. Although both of these people were instrumental in bringing Armstrong down, each came to this story in a very different way and had very different relationships with Armstrong. The results, their stories and the differences between them are startling. Lance, as ever, divides people and nowhere is this more evident than in these two books.
Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh I received this book as a birthday present from my little brother this year and at first glance, the immediate thought that flashed across my mind was “Wow, really interesting”, quickly followed up by “Eh, I probably won’t finish it”, if I’m being honest. I’m not good with non-fiction. Thanks to Lance (and Con-thanks for the book!), that has now changed forever. I couldn’t put the book down. Literally, I was making excuses to get away from people just to get away to a quiet corner and continue reading. It is that good.
If you’ve seen the recent movie The Program, you may be aware that this blockbuster is based on Walsh’s book and the movie actually stays very close to the book from start to finish. The movie was fine but the book is better. People always say this but it has never been more true than in this instance. On context, background and most interestingly, on cycling analytics and understanding the differences in Lance as a cyclist pre-cancer and post-cancer, the book provides more detail than a movie ever could. Walsh does an excellent job of arranging the book in a way that tells the story and knits together all the various threads that combine to make up this story. His writing is excellent in the book and if you never knew anything about cycling, it is still a great book to read.
If you were to criticize Walsh in any way, it would probably be for a blatant lack of objectivity. He makes no secret of the fact that he was a fan of Armstrong in his very early days, as the confident, young, self-assured American cyclist. But as he grew more sceptical and suspicious of Armstrong after his return to cycling post-cancer, he becomes increasingly more focused on Armstrong. His personal dislike of the use of performance enhancing drugs in sport is not made a secret of in the book and it is this, combined with the animosity that grows between Armstrong and himself, that ultimately fuels his investigation and ultimately, his pursuit of LA. Emma O’Reilly has her opinions of Walsh and how he allowed his treatment of his sources to take a backseat to promoting his own profile but purely as a writer and an investigative journalist, I think his work merits applause. There is no doubt that without Walsh, Armstrong would still be sitting on his throne. However, as regards his treatment of Emma O’Reilly and effectively leaving her hanging out to dry, I’ll pull no punches here in saying that he should not have done that. Used and abused, are the words that come to mind. Tis a pity.
The Race to Truth by Emma O’Reilly Fascinated by what I had read in My Pursuit, I immediately went in pursuit (sorry couldn’t help it) of more material. This book is written by Tallaght native Emma O’Reilly who worked for the US Postal professional cycling team during Armstrong’s time at the team. In fact, Emma was there before Lance, which is part of what makes her account of events so fascinating. In what is laid out in a very clear chronological order, you get a feel for the team, how things were prior to the arrival of Armstrong, and how things gradually changed and changed so dramatically. As Emma says herself, the team went from being a virtual nobody in the world of cycling to winning the Tour de France in the space of about a year. And the changes were radical- from management, training and the daily running of the team, to the relationships between team members and the overall atmosphere at US Postal.
It’s a mesmerizing read and particularly interesting coming from having just read David Walsh’s account. Emma was a co-worker and close friend of Armstrong, something Walsh never was. So for her, and this obvious throughout the book, she seems to be constantly torn between her loyalty and love for Lance and the other riders, and a concurrent hatred for the awful situations she was placed in and Lance’s behaviour towards her. What is clear however, is that Emma O’Reilly was never “out to get” Lance and her sense of loyalty towards him is commendable, to a fault. Her self-proclaimed goal was only ever “to clean up cycling”, eliminate PEDS from the sport so as to create a cycling world that is clean and fair. This is a goal shared by Walsh, although for him, taking down Armstrong was instrumental to the achievement of that goal. For Emma, it would appear not so much. She believes that he was made something of a scapegoat, that he wasn’t the first nor the only cyclist to lie, cheat and dope, and that it was unfair to hang it all on Lance. In her book, she highlights the differences in Lance’s cycling sanctions as compared with those of other cyclists.
And this is where Emma and I differ. Sometimes, you meet people in your life who get to you – a friend who clicks with you more than others – someone you laugh more with – someone you feel a strong bond with above other friends – someone who sticks with you for years after they’re no longer in your life and despite everything they may have done to you or howsoever they may have hurt you in the intervening years, you would jump in front of a gun for tomorrow if you happened across them in the midst of a bank robbery. You might hate what they did to you and have been terribly hurt by them, but you still love them. Still drawn to them. Still loyal. I wouldn’t make any presumptions as to how anybody else feels but I think Lance may be one of these people to Emma.
What I did like about this book is that although it is a very personal account, Emma tells it like it is. She’ll describe an enjoyable friendship scene with Armstrong as honestly as she’ll describe a scene in which Lance’s behaviour is appalling. You go from one minute of loving Lance and thinking he’s the best guy, to being absolutely disgusted with him the next. Much like how I’d imagine she feels about him. She doesn’t sugarcoat it and she doesn’t leave out the bits that would make you like him nor the bits that would make you despise him. I love that honesty because apart from anything else, it gives you a taste of how complicated Emma’s situation was/is and how difficult it must have been/be for her torn between her relationship with good Lance and bad Lance.
The Race and My Pursuit are well worth a read and I would advise reading the two together to get the most of it. I also plan on reading Lance’s own book soon – It’s Not About the Bike – for perspective, you understand, not obsession.
While you’re at it, you may want to watch the documentaries The Armstrong Lie and Stop At Nothing (on Netflix) and the famous Oprah Winfrey interviews. Frankly, the movie is pretty poor compared to these. However, if there is one thing I’ve taken away from engulfing myself in all of this is that whatever you’re reading or watching, keep some perspective and keep in mind that everyone has an angle.