Title: Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong
Author: David Walsh
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Order: Simon & Schuster
What it is: The first of the post-USADA Lance Armstrong books, from the man who doggedly pursued the former Tour de France winner even when it was neither profitable nor popular
Strengths: The best bits are less about the story and more about getting the story.
Weaknesses: The worst bits are written in haste to be read at leisure.
Twenty years. Go back twenty years and that's where this all begins. The garden of the Château de la Commanderie hotel, south of Grenoble. July 13th, 1993. A Tuesday afternoon, the rest day of the eightieth Tour de France. It's the middle of that great terra incognita, the Induráin era, and David Walsh -after putting together two books about Sean Kelly and two about Stephen Roche - is working on his fifth cycling epic, Inside the Tour de France. Loosely structured around The Canterbury Tales, Walsh wants to tell thirteen tales about the men and women of the Tour, one person encapsulating a whole class. There'll be the climber's tale, about Claudio Chiappucci. The doctor's tale will be about Nicolas Terrados. Vincent Lavenu and Sean Yates will tell the tales of the manger and the équipier. And Lance Armstrong will open the show as the neophyte.
"Lance Armstrong," Walsh wrote back then, "has the spirit of a champion." When they met that July day Armstrong was twenty-one years old, the Benjamin of the Tour. Two days before the interview he'd won the stage into Verdun and was the hero of the hour. The day after his reality cheque bounced and Armstrong lost six minutes to Miguel Induráin in the fifty-nine kilometre time trial around Lac de Madine. That contre-la-montre performance sat heavy with the kid from Texas:
"The time trial, it's the biggest thing on my mind. I know I gotta learn how to do it. At the same time I know I can do it. I lost six minutes. [...] If I can get a minute a year, a minute a year isn't that much. I'm twenty-one, [Induráin] he's twenty-nine. When you're thirty you're not gonna be nine minutes faster than you are at twenty-one but maybe in three years I will be three minutes faster. Then you are dealing with something manageable."
Walsh came out of that interview smitten by Armstrong, as he notes in the opening of Seven Deadly Sins:
"It was the force of his personality that struck you the most: like a wave crashing forward and carrying you with him. [...] As he machine-gunned his way through his past and speeded into the future, he had me at his side, and on his side."
Six years later, in the aftermath of the Festina affaire, Armstrong and Walsh faced off and picked opposite sides. Two strong personalities were pitted against one and other. The irresistible force of Planet Armstrong and the immovable object of Walsh's convictions. Something was always going to give. You just never knew when.
* * * * *
Walsh, by the time of that first meeting with Armstrong in 1993, was a seasoned hand on the cycling scene. His story had begun a decade before when, in 1982, he'd gone to France for the last two days of the Tour, traveling with Sean Kelly's wife-to-be, Linda Grant, and her father Dan, along with a shopkeeper from Carrick-on-Suir. A year later Walsh took two weeks' leave in order to cover the Tour. The year after that he and his family upped sticks and moved to Paris for a year to cover the whole season.
That year, 1984, is where Walsh begins the story proper for Seven Deadly Sins. Two men sit across a Parisian breakfast table, croissants and coffee and a single copy of L'Équipe. David Walsh and Paul Kimmage. Two innocents abroad, one losing his innocence quicker than the other. Cut to Paris-Brussels, a month later. Walsh and Kimmage at the start of the race, chatting to Sean Kelly and hearing the sound of pills rattling in his back pockets when he rode off:
"It should have been a seminal moment. We had inadvertently seen the realities of professional cycling, but we weren't ready for that. I had a biography to write, one in which the hero is a farmer's son from Carrick-on-Suir, a man who as a boy had eaten raw turnips when hungry. [...] Pills rattling against plastic didn't fit into the story. When you're a fan, as I was, you don't ask the hero about the sound that came from his pocket."
Cut to Walsh on a plane, en route to Milan for the Giro di Lombardia, reading L'Équipe and discovering that an unnamed rider has popped a positive at Paris-Brussels. Follow that with Walsh meeting up with Kelly and Kelly naming himself as the rider. Then the process of denial and appeal and how Walsh chose to paint that particular story:
"When I wrote about the 1984 Paris-Brussels in the biography, I didn't mention the rattle of pills in the morning and I tried to make the case that it was hard to believe Kelly had used a substance so easily detectable. I chose to see the ridiculous leniency of the authorities as proof that, at worst, it was a minor infraction. It wasn't how a proper journalist would have reacted. At the time I knew what I was doing."
The first part of Seven Deadly Sins, then, is largely about Walsh. The next part becomes about the story itself: Walsh's pursuit of it and the sources who co-operate along the way. This is 1999 and onwards. The scales have by now fallen from Walsh's eyes, his spurs earned when he was one of the few who dared to ask questions about Ireland's Olympic heroine Michelle Smith and her unbelievable performances in the pool at the Atlanta Games. This is an older, wiser Walsh, no longer wide-eyed, no longer willing to be the cheer-leader. A father who's had to bury a son, a journalist questioning his own trade.
This part of the story isn't a rewrite of LA Confidentiel or From Lance to Landis, this isn't really about Armstrong and his doping, it's about how the case against him was compiled. Walsh teaming up with Pierre Ballester. The meeting with Sandro Donati and the revelation that the wider story was already out there, for those who wanted to pursue it Then we're introduced to two of the stars of the story, Betsy Andreu and Emma O'Reilly. Walsh takes us through the process of how he came to meet them and how they told him their stories. Then we work through the difficulties of getting LA Confidentiel to press and the agonising over how to distil its story for the Sunday Times.
We get a moment to celebrate the success of the book in sales and plenty more time to mourn its failure to alter the future, as Armstrong rides on to more Tour victories, unchallenged. Then comes the hope of L'Équipe's Mensonge Armstrong headline and the SCA depositions, only for this section of the story to end with failure. The little ruffians have pointed and squealed at the Emperor's nakedness, but the Emperor is still the Emperor, and nothing's changed for the ruffians.
Then we're into the uplifting final act. Start with Walsh high in the Himalayas, getting a text message from Paul Kimmage telling him Floyd Landis is preparing to unburden his guilt. There's the long trek down the mountain to find an internet café, an almost symbolic journey, as much about a man who has stepped back from the story getting sucked back in.
From then we've got ... well, what have we got? How do we get from the Himalayas to the happy-ever-after ending, the Emperor naked, stripped of his titles? Well here's the problem with Seven Deadly Sins: it's got a great opening and a brilliant middle. But the ending is an absolute mess.
Walsh is at his best when he's telling the story of the journalistic process, serving up old school New Journalism, the sort of stuff Tom Wolfe preached in the sixties, a bonfire of the vanities. Armstrong is not the star, the stars are Walsh's sources and collaborators, the story is about people. These best bits of the book feel like they've been a long time written, sitting on Walsh's computer waiting for their day to come.
The worst bits, on the other hand, feel like they've been thrown together without time to sit back and take in what really happened in the end. Whereas the first three quarters of the book are light on detail and assume the reader is already familiar with large parts of the story, the final quarter is a too-detailed rehash of the federal and USADA investigations. You've either got a book which is too light on detail in the first three quarters or too heavy with it in the final. You've got a book that's forgotten who it's aimed at.
More importantly, in the final quarter of the book, there's a distinct absence of Walsh as the story happens around him: between his filing of a story from the Himalayas and his phone suddenly bursting into life after the USADA judgement, reading Seven Deadly Sins you're left with the impression that Walsh had no role to play in how the story ended, that his dogged pursuit of Armstrong had already worn itself out.
The 'real' book feels like it finishes at the end of the SCA arbitration, Bob Hamman defeated but still smiling slyly, believing there's a ticking time-bomb in the depositions, waiting to go off. The hundred pages or so that follow feel like those contractually-obligatory add-ons you find in too many 'updated' cycling books, new chapters that miss the mood of the original and unbalance the book, leaving you finishing it with a bad taste in your mouth.
As bad as the final quarter of the book is, the rest of Seven Deadly Sins is worth reading. There's humour in it, Walsh is cutting with his catty asides or sets up scenes that are faintly ridiculous (that Parisian breakfast table shared with Kimmage and a single copy of L'Équipe, Walsh reading out the cycling news only for Kimmage to tell him to keep quiet as he wants to read it for himself). There are also touching moments in it, moments of real humanity, particularly when Walsh is taking about his sources.
Those sources are one thing that troubled me as the stories told in Seven Deadly Sins played out in real time: were they just being used to tell a story? David Walsh, well David Walsh is a big Irish wolfhound, David Walsh I always figured could take it as hard as he dished it out. He knew the rules of the game when he stepped into the ring. But what about the others, particularly what about Betsy Andreu and Emma O'Reilly who seemed to suffer the most at the hands of Armstrong because of the role they played in LA Confidentiel?
The way Walsh tells it, Betsy Andreu found him as much as he found her and was well prepared for the fight that would follow, willing to face it. That's not to suggest it was easy for her, and certainly Walsh didn't make it easy for her when - having protected her somewhat in the pages of LA Confidentiel - he carelessly threw her to the wolves in a radio interview. Rather it's to acknowledge that she knew - or ought to have known - what she was getting into, had some understanding of how Armstrong was likely to respond.
But what of Emma O'Reilly? She ended up being the central source for LA Confidentiel and suffered much from the blowback. Walsh admits that maybe mistakes were made:
"In the run-up to publication of LA Confidentiel, Marc Grinsztajn, a slight, engaging and clever man who worked for our publishers, had said to me a couple of times to look out for Emma in the aftermath. Of all of us she would be the one most vulnerable. I nodded but didn't see it."
Maybe collateral damage was necessary, maybe it was the only way to tell the story. Whether telling that story was ever the right thing, well that I still don't know. I don't mean to suggest that Armstrong - like so many of the other frauds who preceded him - should have been allowed ride off into the sunset, still a hero. I mean whether Walsh was ever right to make it solely about Armstrong. Early in the story, having been introduced to Sandro Donati, we get a piece of advice the Italian offered the Irishman:
"Sandro told me something important: going after Lance Armstrong couldn't be what it was all about because the bigger picture was what mattered. Cycling was far more important than one competitor and if you pursue one and become too associated with that pursuit, that is not good."
How and why Walsh came to disregard that advice is one of the untold stories of Seven Deadly Sins, one of those stories which a slightly less rushed run to print might have allowed time to ensure was properly told. Maybe one day it's a weakness that will get rectified. Walsh got two spins on the merry-go-round with Kelly and Roche, and even LA Confidentiel offered a second bite at the cherry with From Lance to Landis. Maybe time will show that Seven Deadly Sins is just the first draft of this story.