On the other hand, if you are a close reader (paging my bike riding attorney friends), if you are hostile to Lance Armstrong, or if you are immersed in the world of roadracing and have a keen eye for details, you will find this book less impressive.
I apologize for the length of this review, but I'm leveling serious charges at a serious journalist, and think it's only fair to back up my assertions with details.
Wilcockson’s primary flaw as a biographer is failing to offer a detailed pro and con discussion of Lance’s personality and his history, ignoring or readily dismissing Lance’s bad acts, and most of the time merely alluding to the character flaws that must inform one’s judgment about who Lance Armstrong really is. Instead, Wilcockson offers a variety of viewpoints on Lance, ranging from pro-Lance, to very pro, to unquestionably pro-Lance viewpoints. Contra-Lance viewpoints appear only in strawman form, and only long enough for Wilcockson to set them alight with a dismissive shrug or conclusory argument. Lance is Go[o]d, after all.
For example, Wilcockson sticks to the narrative Lance tells about those who have left his life. Inevitably, it is a story of treachery, betrayal, of poor little old Lance betrayed. The furthest Wilcockson strays from script is to gently disagree (at most) with Lance’s account of things. Lance’s stepfather Terry (a flawed man, but not a terrible father) is savaged for cheating - Lance says something damning, Terry admits it, and Wilcockson moves on. The departures of former teammates like Kevin Livingston, Tyler Hamilton, Bobby Julich and Phil Anderson are not explained. They all left Lance’s team for very good personal and professional reasons, and all tried to stay on good terms with him. Yet Terry Lance insists that “we gotta kill these guys” whe they have the temerity to show up at subsequent races. Only Lance’s view of events is given any credibility, even when he clearly acted like a complete bastard – such as committing various felonies and misdemeanors in a sports car that his first major sponsor, Jim Hoyt, co-signed for.
The problem with Wilcockson’s gloss of Lance’s personal life is that all these formative encounters with others are recounted - a great wealth of basic factual detail that I am grateful for - but when the relationships go bad, the question “why” is never asked. We can infer that Lance deserted his de facto father and mentor J.T. Neil, he screwed over and was long estranged from bike sponsor and early racing mentor Jim Hoyt, and that Armstrong distanced himself for unknown reasons from his beloved mother Linda during the Cheryl Crow years. When Neil dies of cancer post-TdF, we are told that the reason Lance couldn’t be at his bedside was because none of the people at Lance’s house for a post-TdF party managed to give him the phone when his mom called to say J.T. was dying. Yet this wasn’t news to Lance; J.T.’s impending death was a known fact, his leukemia kept him from providing his normal level of support to Lance during the TdF. So what really happened? Why didn’t Lance call when he got home, or take Linda’s call? There are bad explanations and good ones for acting as Lance did, but none are given in the book and the reader is left to wonder. There are similar questions about Lance’s breakup with Cheryl Crow, though Crow suggests that Lance was innocent in her case.
But we shouldn't have to work so hard to develop an inference. A good biography shouldn’t be suggestive; it should provide definitive answers if available, or at least definitive viewpoints from each participant, especially when most of the primary sources are still living. Maybe this stuff is none of our business, but given Lance’s collaboration with Wilcockson on this book, it seems like the questions should have been at least asked.
Wilcockson’s dodging of major questions about Lance’s character is an enormous mistake, because even if he is trying to write a pro-Lance polemic, the failure to take seriously opposing arguments deprives Wilcockson of a chance to shoot them down properly. Wilcockson’s failure to ask the tough question leaves Lance looking like a traitor and hypocrite for engaging in the two behaviors he absolutely won’t tolerate in others, abandonment and dishonesty. This is an unfair rap on Lance, but it’s how Wilcockson makes him look by failing to ask the tough questions.
It’s not that there aren’t interesting facts in the book. There are many, and those facts alone make this book worth purchasing - a good thing because the critical thinking contained herein does not.
We find out that Lance made a deal, a promise to win a race with Davis Phinney’s and Alexi Grewal’s Coors Light squad, to enable Lance and Motorola to take the much-discussed but never-previously-awarded million Thrift Drug Triple Crown. That consisted of three mid-Atlantic area pro races culminating in the 1993 CoreStates USPRO Championship in Philly. Sharing prize money, the buying and selling of results, is something you hear about occurring on the Belgian kermis circuit since it is accepted practice in Europe, but it is surprising to hear that the venerable race up the Manayunk Wall might have been affected by the practice. We also find out that Lance’s closest friends find him a harsh judge of others, but that he is even tougher on himself. These are interesting things to know about Lance’s palmares, and his character.
Yet as strong as the book is for its supply of facts, there are also some disturbing errors or editing mistakes that cause a close reader to question the reliability of the book’s factual assertions. For example, former motorcycle Grand Prix great Kevin Schwantz is referred to as Kevin Schwarntz. Um, Google or Wikipedia, anybody? That’s a minor mistake but it’s evident at page 208 and in the index too, so it was made twice. It’s not like Schwantz wasn’t well-known in Europe, or in Texas, and he is listed as a friend of Lance so it’s not an insignificant error. Who was fact-checking this thing anyhow?
There is some really blatant question-begging going on as well, most significantly on the doping question. Wilcockson frames the doping discussion thusly:
“The sport changed a lot in one year,” Lance told me at the time. “I’m not going to say why it changed or how I think it changed, but I will say that it changed a lot – and a lot of the guys got a lot stronger and a lot faster.”That’s a self-interested statement by Lance, which lays the groundwork nicely if he is ever caught doping. The follow up is, “sure, I doped. But everybody did. There was no way to compete otherwise, even if you were the most naturally gifted rider ever.” Someday, we may hear Lance utter that line, or something very much like it. But Wilcockson never takes on that very suggestive pre-excuse. Instead, in the next dozen or two pages, he discusses how Motorola started getting crushed at races, how its riders started looking around at other teams and hearing about EPO, then about how Lance started to win again all of a sudden. Then cancer hits and Lance comes out the other side training harder than ever, and riding like superman. The problem with this is that the juxtaposition of events and dismissive treatment of doping forces the reader to infer that Lance’s weight loss and new training methods post-cancer caused Lance’s sudden improvement in performance. Or as Lance would put it, even thinking that he is doping is “an attack on the cancer community,” another ridiculous assertion Wilcockson swallows whole.
From the time he was diagnosed with Cancer, until he won his first TdF, Lance lost about 9% of his body weight, his power output shot upwards about 9%, so his power:weight ratio improved 18%. Is that even possible without dope? For a Cat 4, yes, I’m sure it’s do-able. We just aren’t that good. But for a young albeit relatively well seasoned and well trained pro, a world champion, to lose a lot of muscle then suddenly get 10% stronger? I suppose that’s possible as well but it pushes the bounds of credibility. World class athletes, particularly pros at the very top of their sport (such as world champions) normally compete at or near the very limits of what the human body is capable of, such gains are extremely rare. I can accept the 9% loss of bodyweight (with it’s corresponding 9% increase in power:weight ratio) but picking up 9% more power at threshold? It strains credibility. But Wilcockson again doesn’t ask the hard questions.
Wilcockson makes one other mistake that grates on me as an attorney. Lance filed a libel suit against the British Sunday Times in a London court, claiming that he was libeled by doping accusations. Lance won, and Wilcockson presents the court win as proof of Lance’s clean riding, or at least proof that there is no evidence to the contrary. But Wilcockson leaves out one fact that is surely known to an international journalist like himself: it is notoriously easy to file and win a libel claim in a British court. It has been said that an American grand jury will indict a ham sandwich. That may be true, but only a British judge could find the kosher pickle on the side complicit in libel. You can claim you were libeled in just about any part of the world, file a lawsuit in Great Britain and win. Such is the low, low threshold for filing and winning a libel claim under British law. The practice of foreigners filing libel claims in British courts even has its own term: libel tourism. There is simply no way this key fact could be unknown to Wilcockson, and when he relies on the lawsuit victory as a key fact ‘proving’ Lance’s innocence, Wilcockson’s omission feels like intentional deception, an impression that badly undercuts his efforts elsewhere in Lance.
There are other points I could raise because Wilcockson very generously left many of them behind for reviewers to pick at, but I won’t raise them here. We do need to discuss the relationship between Wilcockson and Lance, however, and how that affects the book as a whole.
In jocking Lance, Wilcockson isn’t alone. It’s the new normal in relationships between reporters and athletes.
In the old days, jocks and journalists lived the ‘sporting life’ together. They did their jobs separately, but they played together after the whistle blew, chasing women, boozing, gambling, and generally carrying on. Yet there was a professional distance between the two, and for the most part, sports journalism was about the game. There was little human interest fiction, unless the slugger happened to stop by a cancer hospital and promised to hit one for little Jimmy, or if the fans were weeping about the old champ losing a lot of steps. Because the fans were frankly more mature and less nuts than we are today, writers felt less of a need to insert themselves into athletes’ personal lives, and athletes did not feel a need to share their crib, their pimped ride, or their search for Ms. Right with the public. In our Oprah-fied society, fans don’t settle for a focus on the game. They want to know what Lance eats for breakfast, what golfers think about politics, and whether an NBA player’s lodgings are suitable for “Cribs” and whether his ride is pimped. We’ve lost the social distance we used to have from our heroes, maybe to everybody’s loss.
It would be unfair to blame ESPN for the changes, but it bears noting that the “E” stands for “Entertainment.” They merely reflect changes in our society. The great triumph of 60’s radicalism was not free love or an interesting period in music; it was destroying social convention. Thus people no longer have a sense of social propriety. You see people in T-shirts in The Palm, shorts in church, and talking in public, loudly, about things that in the past were quiet sidebar conversations with friends or family, if they were mentioned at all. Consequently, we know (and care) more about whether Tony Romo’s breakup with Jessica was amicable than we know about whether he showed up at Cowboy camp at playing weight, and whether he can hit his wide receivers on timing routes (two much more important questions if you happen to be more of a sports fan, than a celeb fan). We wept at Di’s funeral and ignored her more vacuous ramblings, which frankly lowered her a couple notches from the sad princess image we were all in love with. We wept at JFK Jr.’s funeral, even though he appears to have been, basically, an amicable goofball with famous parents. And when Heath Ledger did himself in with some ill-advised doping of his own…
What I’m getting at, is that sports reflects society, and it is partly our fault that reporters feel compelled to become best friends with jocks, and then write ‘best friend’ books like Lance. None of this stuff is any of our damn business. Athletes have started to play the inside game with the media because we demand it. LeBron sells more sneakers because we want to see him play ball, joke around on an ESPN commercial, see his pimped ride and fly crib, and get his Twitter feed with at least a dozen tweets a day. And the damnedest thing about it, is that the “authenticity” we’ve gotten today, the thing sought by the radicals, is patently inauthentic. Cameras and notebooks bring with them a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that affects humans. When a reporter closely observes a subject, it affects how the subject acts, so that the observer, the reporter, can’t really know the truth about the subject. If the reporter is willing to back off a bit, to look at the big picture more, the intimate personal details of that athlete’s life can’t be known, but maybe a better approximation of who the athlete really is emerges. When Wilcockson falls in love with his subject, refuses to answer hard questions, and then builds an extended press release that passes for history… it’s not entirely his fault, and maybe we’re wrong to expect him to report accurately. Perhaps when you’re that close to a subject, it’s impossible to report on it accurately, and maybe he's just selling us what we have asked for.
It may not be entirely Wilcockson's fault that his book has turned out this way, but it is largely his loss. This was his chance to be the definitive early biographer of Lance, to produce a durable history of cycling’s greatest grand tour rider, the landmark biography that all later writers would have to either genuflect to, or at least openly declare war upon. Either is an enviable position for an author. Wilcockson's book turns out this way after all that hard research and spent effort. Instead of a first draft of history, Wilcockson has given us a fanboy polemic, providing a well written timeline of Lance’s life, and a series of strawman arguments that are more akin to crass political punditry than to sound history and biography.
A lot of this comes back to his relationship with Lance. Wilcockson has put his reputation on the line for Lance, and clearly is great friends with Lance; the racer’s use of Wilcockson as a sounding board to discuss The Great Un-Retirement demonstrates their closeness. Wilcockson seems to live in Lance’s camp, and give Lance loyalty in return for Lance’s confidence in him. Nothing would be wrong with that were Wilcockson not also posing as a disinterested Velo News reporter, supposedly reporting the news.
I suspect there is always a delicate dance that goes on between reporters and athletes, with one side trading access and the other selling favorable coverage. Wilcockson appears to have gained something close to total access, but the price was seemingly a book (and a series of articles this spring) that is unflaggingly supportive of Lance Armstrong, right or wrong. Considering his stature as one of the deans of cycling journalism (Paul Kimmage being the Marquis, I suppose), the cost was probably too high.
It's still a nice book, providing a lot of facts about Lance you probably didn't know, and that makes it a Lance: The Making of the World's Greatest Champion a good book to buy. Just don't buy it expecting to find out exactly what really went into the making of Lance Armstrong.