By David Walsh
Reviewed by Ed Pavelka
Could we please have some truth in advertising? Like “Positively False,” this book is not primarily about the Tour de France. It too went on sale 10 days before the 2007 race, a release date obviously timed to put it in front of the public when interest in the Tour and its controversies is highest.
“From Lance to Landis” is about more than that race and drugged Americans. It’s about doping in the modern era.
It’s obvious that “Landis” is a tack-on chapter, included in the book and title to capitalize on Floyd’s name in the news. In addition, author David Walsh details some doping controversies before “Lance” emerged. By delving into performance-enhancing products and procedures relevant to modern cycling, Walsh says he is supporting “the numerous cyclists who wish to race clean.”
A good deal of his investigative work appeared about two years ago in “LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong,” an image-shattering book that was published only in French but inspired several lawsuits by the Tour champion. No word yet on legal action over this new work, although Armstrong, who admits hating Walsh, has labeled it “more of the same” and full of lies.
Neither Walsh nor anyone can point to a single positive blood or urine sample produced by Armstrong. Walsh’s evidence is circumstantial and, critics charge, provides smoke but no smoking gun.
Walsh does raise valid suspicions about events surrounding a banned substance during Lance’s first Tour victory. He tells of quick work by U.S. Postal Service personnel to produce an after-the-fact prescription for a saddle-sore medication containing corticoids, and the UCI’s rule-bending validation of this medical exemption. Did the illegal substance innocently enter Lance’s body through his skin, or by illegal injection?
Walsh also goes into great detail about the six EPO-positive urine samples linked to Armstrong by retro-testing several years after the ’99 Tour. The charge that Lance had doped was made by the French sports newspaper L’Equipe in 2005, a month after he’d won his seventh Tour. Headlined “Armstrong: The Lie,” the article provided the best ammunition yet for Walsh and others who contend that no clean rider could dominate the sport’s hardest race, setting an average speed record almost every year. Why? Because so many top contenders have been convicted or accused of doping. They’re on performance-enhancing drugs and a clean guy is trouncing them?
Walsh explains the science of EPO, a synthetic blood booster, and the extent to which it increases performance. He says it was obvious to Armstrong and his teammates in the mid ’90s that opposing riders were unnaturally faster, stronger and literally leaving them behind. It had to be drugs, didn’t it? — something now more certain due to admissions by riders of that era. (The confession of drug use by Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour winner, came after “From Lance to Landis” was printed.)
Walsh details the turnaround in Armstrong’s Tour de France performances as he rose from pack fodder to domination. In his first three Tours, Lance routinely lost 20-30 minutes in mountain stages and dropped 5-6 minutes in long time trials. Then he began working with Michele Ferrari, the legendary Italian doctor long suspected of administering EPO and other drugs to cyclists rich enough to pay for his services. In the next seven Tours, Armstrong was at the front in nearly every mountain stage and time trial.
Interestingly, Walsh blows a hole in the CW that Lance’s turnaround was helped by the loss of 14-20 pounds from cancer therapy. His body did look different but Walsh contends it wasn’t due to weight loss. He says that three months after Armstrong turned pro in 1992 he weighed 78.9 kg (173.6 lbs.). Seven years later, after beating cancer and shocking the world by winning the ’99 Tour, he weighed 79.7 kg (175.3 lb.).
Walsh has a penchant for jumping back and forth in time, an organizational flaw that occasionally causes confusion.
For the most part, the medical science he relates is not a chore to read. But if science was all he used to persuade readers that Armstrong’s great success was aided by doping, this book would hardly be so interesting. The majority of Walsh’s evidence is provided by people who were inside Lance’s tight circle. They voluntarily gave him their information, or it was said under oath or in e-mail or phone conversations they never expected to be made public.
Included are Greg LeMond, Betsy and Frankie Andreu, Stephen Swart, Emma O’Reilly and Jonathan Vaughters. All are fellow cyclists, former teammates or former friends of Armstrong. Walsh presents some of their accounts and accusations in transcript format so he can’t be accused of taking statements out of context.
Key to Walsh’s case against Armstrong is an episode at Indiana University Hospital as he recovered from cancer surgery. It was a Sunday in the fall of 1996. Several people, including the Andreus, were visiting their sick friend, who was hooked to an IV drip and moving gingerly. A Dallas Cowboys game was on the TV. Eventually, according to Betsy, two doctors entered the room to talk with Lance.
Testifying under court order in a case involving bonus payments to Armstrong for his multiple Tour victories, Betsy said, “[The doctors] began to ask him some questions — banal questions. I don’t remember. And all of a sudden, boom, ‘Have you ever done any performance-enhancing drugs?’ And he said, yes. And they asked, what were they, and Lance said, EPO, growth hormone, cortisone, steroids, testosterone.”
Later that day, her husband, Frankie Andreu, who was Armstrong’s friend and teammate for several years on U.S. Postal, testified that he heard Lance list the same drugs, except for steroids.
Armstrong, in turn, was asked if any hospital person ever inquired if he had used performance-enhancing drugs or substances. His answer was firm: “No, absolutely not.”
Who’s telling the truth? Walsh clearly sides with the Andreus.
More Than Lance
It can be argued (and Armstrong does), that Walsh’s supporting evidence is weak and based on hearsay and allegations from a small number of people, some of whom have admitted they don’t like him. Walsh, on the other hand, wants us to believe his sources are people of high character who would never lie. At the same time he paints Armstrong as a hardnosed, self-centered man who will do or say almost anything to preserve his heroic public image. Rarely does Walsh give Lance even a mild compliment.
None of that defines objective journalism, but it makes Walsh’s vendetta quite clear. Similarly, in a chapter on Tyler Hamilton, Walsh portrays him as a saint before cutting him down with evidence of lying about certain injuries and incidents. Maybe that’s justified. After all, Hamilton was convicted of blood doping despite denials that dragged his case all the way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But Armstrong has never been convicted of anything.
The chapter on Landis centers on his positive test for synthetic testosterone in stage 17 of the 2006 Tour. Walsh goes into Floyd’s mystifying “I’ll say no” response to whether he’d ever used illegal drugs (see previous book review). He also describes the rider’s significant change in defense strategy. Walsh writes, “Rather than try to explain his 11 to 1 testosterone-epitestosterone ratio and the discovery of synthetic testosterone, [Landis] focused attention on the French lab and the protocols of drug testing. The best defense was a good offense . . . .” Walsh does not include Landis’s 9-day hearing before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s arbitration panel, which happened after the “From Lance to Landis” print deadline.
Walsh’s major revelationabout Landis comes from something Jonathan Vaughters wrote to Frankie Andreu while they were instant messaging. According to Vaughters, Landis’s “rest day blood refill” during the 2004 Tour was ceremoniously dumped in front of Landis by Armstrong and USPS director Johann Bruyneel. Even though they were all on the same team, the intention was “to make [Landis] ride bad” by denying him a transfusion, probably because it was suspected that Floyd was leaving Postal for the Phonak team. Vaughters said he heard this story from Landis himself.
If true, Landis, Armstrong and Bruyneel are connected to blood doping and, of course, this lays waste to their claims of racing clean. The chapter goes on to recount what Walsh calls Postal’s “elaborate and well-organized system of doping involving blood transfusions.” This remains relevant because the team (now Discovery Channel) is co-owned by Armstrong and directed by Bruyneel.
Juicy stuff. “From Lance to Landis” is an interesting book that occasionally becomes too thick with science or testimony. Whether or not you buy his arguments, Walsh has a way of keeping you reading because there’s no telling what revelation or accusation will come next. Doping in cycling is a big topic that is always evolving — and never faster than today. This won’t be the last time David Walsh writes about it.