There’s no place better suited for supermen than long distance cycling. Take the Tour de France, the sport’s greatest race. This year’s event covers 3,656 km over 21 days (think Detroit to Los Angeles with the Alps standing in for the Rockies and the Pyrenees for the Sierras). As one 1924 rider put it, the (then shorter) tour “is like martyrdom. And even the Stations of the Cross had only fourteen stations, while we have fifteen stages.” Condemned to pedal these two-wheeled crosses, competitors have always sought a chemical Simon of Cyrene to help them along this Chemin de Croix. Macur’s historical inventory of performance-enhancing drugs would make Charlie Sheen blush: amphetamines, cocaine, strychnine, wine (we are in France, after all), human growth hormone, nitroglycerin, folic acid, aspirin, cortisone, testosterone, ephedrine, nicotine, horse ointment (whatever that is), whiskey, caffeine, chloroform, morphine, anabolic steroids and the Armstrong-favorite, eruthropoietin.
This last drug, developed for patients with severe anemia and AIDS, thickens the blood and increases its oxygen-bearing capacity. Take too much and that blood congeals, growing too thick for the heart to pump. In the worst cases, the blood becomes so hard to move that the heart stops beating. From 1987 to 1993, performance enhancing drugs, including eruthropoietin, played a role in the deaths of at least 23 cyclists. From 1996 to 2010, only one Tour de France winner—2008’s Carlos Sastre—has never tested positive for PEDs. Playing it safe and following the rules is not an option for tour competitors. And so Macur shows us that what enables Armstrong to win seven tours in a row is less his athletic ability (he’s world class, but, according to one teammate, there were a half-dozen other cyclists with more talent) than his spectacular gift at doping and not getting caught. On the Tour de France, morality is for losers.
So, what better setting could there be for a morality play? Macur writes one that reads like a can’t-put-it-down thriller. As Armstrong wins each successive tour and more and more people are drawn into his doping and its coverup, Lance starts to look like a Texan Michael Corleone—watching him, your faith in humanity’s goodness fades and you wonder to yourself, “just how much is he going to get away with?” Everything and everyone around Armstrong contrived to keep him winning “clean.” Remember those ubiquitous yellow Livestrong bracelets? Turns out their creation was timed to steal the news cycle from a first set of doping accusations aimed at tour riders. Armstrong’s drug dealers laundered their money through his team’s spare bikes, provided—with a wink and a nod—by Trek. Even Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, is implicated—lobbing threats at the government organization investigating Armstrong. The book is worth reading for those details alone.
It is also worth reading for Macur’s delightful characterizations. Most impressive is her portrait of Betsy Andreus, the wife of an early Armstrong teammate, Frankie Andreus. Forthright and fearless, Betsy, the “fresh-faced brunette,” demands to know if her future husband is Catholic and pro-life before she’ll date him. Her world is black and white, good versus evil, and she plays the perfect foil to Armstrong’s guiltless lying.
Considering the depth of her portrayal, it’s all the more odd that Macur’s portrait of Armstrong himself comes off as one-dimensional. To Macur, Armstrong is nothing more than a bully willing to do whatever it takes to win. It is difficult to believe Lance could be so simple. One wonders if Macur is not so offended by Armstrong—he has the regrettable habit of comparing those investigating him to Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler—that she cannot see straight.
Which is O.K., really, because the book is not about Lance. This is a tale of good and evil. Macur has transposed a medieval morality play into contemporary cycling. Performance-enhanced, win-at-all-costs, Armstrong plays Vice, casting off futile and debilitating morality so that his will might triumph. Virtue is Betsy Andreus, whose singleminded commitment to fidelity, fairness and the truth lead her to place her family’s livelihood at the feet of Armstrong’s lawyers in a never-ending crusade to reveal the truth about Lance’s ill-gotten success. Betsy recalls the first encounter between good and evil: “You can’t control everything in your life, you know,” Virtue warned Vice, “because that’s what God’s for.” Vice’s reply? “Betsy, that’s bullshit, I control my own fate.”
Macur’s parable shows how ugly and foolhardy that Randian hero can be. For all the Atlas Shrugged talk on the Christian right—think Rand Paul and Paul Ryan—living out Ayn Rand’s philosophy, as Armstrong did so well, seems less than Christ-like. “He treats people like bananas,” one friend described our former champion. “He takes what he needs, then just tosses the peel on the side of the road.”
Rare is the book today where the good guys win. And rarer still is the book where this triumph is free from sentimentality, and—at the same time—unabashedly moral. But Macur does it—harnessing our disgust at Armstrong’s amorality to remind us that good and evil do still exist and sometimes good wins. Armstrong’s fall is our hope.