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Cycle of Lies, by Juliet Macur

Juliet Macur of the New York Times tells the story of the rise and fall of Lance Armstrong, the former seven-time Tour de France champion.

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Cycle of Lies, UK editionTitle: Cycle of Lies - The Fall of Lance Armstrong
Author: Juliet Macur
Publisher: William Collins
Pages: 459
Year: 2014
Order: HarperCollins (US) / (UK)
What it is: All the lies that he told us
Strengths: Puts the record straight on some key facts, and contains plenty of new revelations, major and minor
Weaknesses: At times it does feel a bit personal, that Macur is settling old scores and revelling in Armstrong's downfall

"It was when curiosity about Gatsby was at its highest that the lights in his house failed to go on one Saturday night - and, as obscurely as it had begun, his career as Trimalchio was over."
~ F Scott Fitzgerald

"What ruined Lance was the fact that he was the incarnation of the American Dream."
~ Paolo Savoldelli

Cycle of Liesm US editionLance Armstrong is the Jay Gatsby of American cycling. One could list all the minor similarities, from the changed past to his role in an era of prohibition but, really, the comparison hangs on one central similarity: like Gatsby in the hands of Fitzgerald, Armstrong is the epitome of the American Dream, the quintessential kid from Nowheresville who made it all the way to the mansion on the hill. And he is - as Gatsby was in the hands of Fitzgerald - the personification of all that is wrong with the American Dream, the manner in which so many who believe in it wilfully allow themselves to be seduced by it and refuse to recognise reality, for to do so would challenge their own belief in the Dream.

Does this then make Juliet Macur - his latest biographer - Armstrong's Nick Carraway? Would it were that easy. Macur, though, does not fit the frame for that role. Carraway was seduced by Gatsby and largely sympathetic toward him in the telling of his tale. Macur, she never bought into the Texan's mythologized world. And - certainly in Cycle of Lies - she has very little sympathy for Armstrong and all that he has brought upon himself.

There are, today, two extreme views of Lance Armstrong: Armstrong the villain, the kingpin of a sporting conspiracy that towers above all other cheating throughout the history of sport; and Armstrong the victim, the kid from a broken home who just happened to be good at a sport that was rotten to the core and corrupted all who touched it. While Macur mostly seems to subscribe to the former view - repeating comments from others such as "Armstrong's doping had begun an arms race among top-level riders in Europe, Landis said" or (again from Landis) that "cycling's pandemic of doping could be traced to the Postal Service team's band of what he called Mafia-esque enablers" - she does occasionally plant a foot in the other camp and try to see the Texan as a victim. The most notable example of this comes near the book's end, during one of Macur's interviews with the former champion: "I wonder if his turning his back on his father, and basically saying he had never been a Gunderson, was the denial that began the pattern of lies that would come to symbolize his life."

Obviously, both views of Armstrong - villain and victim - are wrong. Portraying him as a victim is, you can imagine, something he would rail against, given how he dislikes the V-word and has tried to make clear that he and all who his cancer charity, Livestrong, support are cancer survivors, not cancer victims. As for him being a villain, while he was without the shadow of a doubt a crook and a cheat, the level of his villainy can only be understood when compared with others (the whole of Generation-EPO along with all those who gave birth to that generation).

Most of the recent Lance Armstrong And My Part In His Downfall books fail to address this issue, ignore the real arms race between Spanish and Italian teams, barely even touch upon what we know (through confessions and the Freiburg report) of Deutsche Telekom's team-sponsored doping programme. Armstrong's claims that everyone was cheating, that it was a level playing field, do need to be debunked (there are riders who rode clean, even then, even at the Tour and post-Festina the sport was very much à deux vitesses) but among his peers - among those who followed the same path Armstrong did and doped to win - was the American really worse than Jan Ullrich, really worse than Marco Pantani?

While, as I say, Macur plants a foot in both camps, most of the weight is put on Armstrong as villain, with the New York Times reporter recounting the story of his rise and fall and noting where myth and reality diverge, exposing the lies at the heart of the Armstrong myth. The story of the child raised by a single parent, for instance, is thoroughly debunked, with Macur extending a lot of sympathy toward Armstrong's biological father Eddie Gunderson and adoptive father Terry Armstrong and painting a very unsympathetic portrait of Armstrong's mother, Linda. From these Lies of the Family (the book's first section) Macur moves through the Lies of the Sport, the Lies of the Media, the Lies of the Brotherhood and the Lies of the American Hero, before closing out with The Truth.

One of the problems with all of these Armstrong books is that, through news reports and previous books, most all of us are pretty familiar with the story already. Through LA Confidentiel and From Lance to Landis we know that Armstrong opted to join Gen-EPO in 1995, through The Secret Race and the USADA report we know much of his doping regime during the seven years he ruled the Tour. We know - having had cheap seats in the stalls and watched it all happen before us - all the various attempts to convince the world the Texan was a fraud and how each of them ultimately failed, until Floyd Landis blew and blew and blew and the whole house of cards trembled and Armstrong fell. With so much having been written about Armstrong, most of us already know most of the story.

There are, therefore, parts of Cycle of Lies which you will just trudge through, knowing the story. But Macur also offers plenty that is new and is capable of holding your interest. There are the 26 hours of audio recordings left behind by JT Neal, a former confidant of Armstrong's who grew to dislike the monster he'd helped create. There's the claim that Armstrong paid off a rival to ensure victory in the 1995 Clásica San Sebastián. There's a claim by George Hincapie that the team once did a transfusion in the Postal bus at the finish line of a Tour stage. From the major additions to the story such as the JT Neal tapes through the minor titbits there's enough new bits to keep you turning the page, no matter how much you already know about the story.

Very few people come out of Cycle of Lies with their reputations enhanced. Jonathan Vaughters and Frankie Andreu are painted as doping veterans even before Armstrong entered the picture. We are reminded of the manner in which some senior USA Cycling staffers like Sean Petty went in to bat for Armstrong and how some like Steve Johnson turned a deaf ear to all the doping stories surrounding the goose that was laying golden eggs for everyone involved with the sport in the US. The man who suffers the most reputational deflation, perhaps, is Max Testa, the former 7-Eleven and Motorola team doctor who, heretofore, has been painted as something of a tainted-hero, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who tried to discourage his riders from doping but provided them with information so that if they were going to do it they would at least do it without harming themselves. That view has primarily been promoted by David Walsh in his accounts of Armstrong's path toward doping, accounts in which the use of cortisone and testosterone pre-1995 aren't really considered doping. Macur's not buying that lie and paints a picture of Testa as a man who, while he may not have promoted the use of EPO, certainly had no qualms about handing out other doping products.

Contrawise, some must have hoped to come out of the book with enhanced reputations, such as Allan Lim, who worked with Armstrong, the early incarnations of Garmin and Floyd Landis. That hasn't quite worked for Lim - who is increasingly turning into cycling's version of Nigella Lawson, with his recipe books and the doping stories he just can't stop people linking him with - with Landis pointing out the inaccuracies in what Lim told Macur.

Compared with the other recent Armstrong books - The Secret RaceSeven Deadly Sins and Wheelmen - Cycle of Lies is the one to read if you want the whole story nailed in a clear and concise narrative. Some will tell you it is the definitive account of the Armstrong era and you should treat such people with kindness and pity: Cycle of Lies is far from being definitive. As a major for instance, we still don't have a clear picture of Armstrong's pre-EPO - pre-1995 - doping. Macur is clear that he was already hooked to the needle by the time the 1992 Olympics rolled around and that cortisone and testosterone were freely available at Motorola but that's as clear as she is on this subject. And, of course, there is the perspective problem I've already touched upon.

Cycle of Lies also suffers from sometimes feeling like Macur is settling old scores, paying back the pain and humiliation heaped upon her by Armstrong and his circle of friends at the height of their power. But it is also a book that can be quite subtle at times and contains moments of beauty (the ending of the Prologue - the image of the drum - being a good example of this), making for a rewarding read.

* * * * *

There are all sorts of questions I have about Armstrong, many concerned with the what and when of his doping and how it compares to others. But what I would love most to understand is why so many people believed in him when it was clear from an early point that there were legitimate reasons to doubt the story being sold. On that, Macur has this to day:

"In one sense, Armstrong satisfied a primal human need to create models for our sanctification. He was an underdog-turned-superhero, first in a cancer ward, later on a bike. Those who believed in him saw only the good side, or convinced themselves that was all there was."

As he did on the way up, so too on the way down is Armstrong satisfying a primal human need to create models, this time of desecration. Some need their villains as much as they need heroes and Armstrong today is as much the super villain as he once was a superhero. The problem with this is that the Armstrong-as-villain narrative is as equally distracting from the real problem as the Armstrong-as-hero one was. In his pomp Armstrong was able to deny that cycling had a doping problem, in his decline Armstrong is still being used to hide the real problem.

Perhaps, though, we are too close to events at the moment to really be able to handle the problem of a villain whose villainy must be underplayed a bit in order to understand the real crime and the real criminals of the Armstrong era. And, of course, the story is not yet over. Armstrong wants his lifetime ban from all WADA-accredited sports to be reduced to six months, two years at tops. USADA are offering eight years, four tops. In other words, there are still at least another six months of Armstrong dicking USADA around, possibly even two years, before he will feel the need to answer the unanswered questions, for only then will the benefit be tangible.

If we can't yet judge Armstrong the athlete - we can say he was guilty, but of what we're not quite sure - we can judge Armstrong the man. A decade ago, when Daniel Coyle served up Lance Armstrong's War, many seemed surprised by his portrait of an American hero with a potty mouth, the swearing somehow having been edited out by others before then. We have watched, with riders like Jean-Cyril Robin, Christophe Bassons and Filippo Simeoni, how Armstrong bullied other riders. We saw how he bullied the media with writs and the threats of writs, how he bullied the media by threatening to cut off access, how he bullied the media by attempting to humiliate journalists who dared to question him. And we saw, through what he did to Betsy Andreu and Emma O'Reilly, just how vicious Armstrong could be when it came to those who blew the whistle on his doping.

It is perhaps here, in judging Armstrong the man, that Macur is at her best in Cycle of Lies. She acknowledges the role played by nurture and acknowledges - certainly in relation to the comeback - that Armstrong became trapped by events. But while Macur doesn't say it explicitly, I think it is implicit in what she does say that, ultimately, Armstrong chose to become the man he did, he had the opportunities to take a different path and become a better human being.

But, of course, most of us don't really care about Armstrong the man and want to know how history will judge Armstrong the athlete. Maybe one day he will end up just like Jay Gatsby did in Fitzgerald's novel, forgotten and unmourned. Or, maybe, one day he will end up like the novel itself. When The Great Gatsby was originally published in the 1920s it was a failure and by the time its author died a decade and a half later it was out of print. Then something changed. Following the Second World War new readers were willing to accept Fitzgerald's criticism of the American Dream and those who dream it. Who knows how the attitudes of future generations will change and how they will judge Lance Armstrong. My guess is they'll be a lot kinder than we are being today.