Author Interviews
10:22 am
Mon October 21, 2013

'Wheelmen' Exposes Doping Culture And The Armstrong 'Conspiracy'

Originally published on Thu October 24, 2013 2:33 pm

By the time champion cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed a career of doping to Oprah Winfrey in January, he'd already been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from further competition. Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell covered and regularly broke stories about the investigation that ended Armstrong's career.

"It was amazing how quickly everything happened," Albergotti tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. In "the second half of 2012, he went from being an athlete really on the top of the world, making a comeback in triathlon, to losing all of his sponsors, all of his income, all of his Tour de France titles. It just happened so fast and I think that hit him like a ton of bricks. He was completely shocked by that."

Albergotti and O'Connell have written a new book called Wheelmen which chronicles Armstrong's emergence as a rich and powerful athlete, and explores the remarkable breadth of the doping culture embraced by his pro cycling team. There were many co-conspirators, group blood transfusions on the team bus, and extensive efforts to silence and intimidate those who might expose the abuse.

Albergotti and O'Connell had several conversations with Armstrong in their reporting. Armstrong declined our invitation to appear on Fresh Air.


Interview Highlights

On how team racing works

RA: There are nine riders on each team in the Tour de France — and these are trade teams, they're not national teams so the riders can be from all over the world. In Lance Armstrong's case they were the United States Postal Service Team, and eight of those nine riders will all take turns essentially blocking the wind in order to make it as easy as possible for that ninth rider, Lance Armstrong, to ultimately finish as high as possible in the overall standings in the race. Now, the Tour de France is three weeks long, so every bit of energy savings makes a huge difference over the course of those three weeks, so on the Postal Service Team the stronger Lance's eight teammates were, the better off he was because they could stay in the wind where they have to pedal 30 percent harder, blocking the wind for Lance.

... The name for those guys is "domestique," ... to be a domestique in the Tour de France, it's like being a starter in the Super Bowl. You might not be the quarterback, but you're playing a very important role. It means you're really one of the top 200 cyclists on the planet.

On an admission Armstrong made while he was undergoing cancer treatment

VO'C: [Armstrong] was in the hospital on a Saturday when, according to Betsy Andreu, who is the wife of one of his teammates, Frankie Andreu was there as well. The doctor came in and asked him if he had ever done performance enhancing drugs and he answered, "Yes," and listed human growth hormone, testosterone and other performance enhancing drugs that he had done. So that was a very important scene in the book and in Armstrong's story, because later when there were allegations that he had used performance enhancing drugs, Armstrong denied that that had ever happened. There was an arbitration, way back in 2005, 2006, where there was a lot of testimony taken, it was a confidential arbitration, and that hospital room scene was pivotal. The arbitration ended without ever having any kind of finding of whether Armstrong had ever used performance enhancing drugs, but during the arbitration there was a lot of pretty damning testimony about that hospital room scene and about what Armstrong had said.

On the new method of blood doping

RA: Eventually there was a test for EPO [a popular performance enhancing drug], it was detectable in urine tests, so they had to find new ways to boost their red blood cell count. What they settled on was blood transfusions and that involved taking out about a half liter of blood, months, weeks before the Tour de France, and then re-infusing that blood during the race. And essentially what they were doing was increasing the amount of blood in their body beyond what its normal capacity was, so they had more red blood cells, more oxygen going to their muscles, it was essentially the same thing as taking EPO, but it was their own blood so it was very difficult to test for. Once they started doing that it became much more complicated because you had all these people watching over you, the French law enforcement were raiding hotel rooms during the Tour, and to get away with doing two blood transfusions per rider per race, which is what they ultimately did, it involved transporting blood in motorcycles with refrigerated saddle bags and unmarked trailers and campers and multiple doctors, so it was a huge operation in the end.

On the shocking discovery of how the team did a secret blood transfusion

RA: During the 2004 Tour de France they were extremely worried about French law enforcement so they had already done one re-infusion of blood on the first rest day during that race ... and they wanted to do another one. None of the riders really knew exactly when this was going to take place, but one night, as their team bus was driving back to their hotel room, the bus pulls over on the side of the road, the bus driver gets out and puts up some cones as if the bus is broken down, but it hadn't broken down, actually. They wanted to do a secret blood transfusion on the side of the road and the broken down bus was the decoy. So all of the riders lie down on the floor of the bus, team doctors hang blood bags from the luggage racks, and connect the end of those bags to the riders' veins.

On Armstrong's ability to cover his tracks

RA: There really was a scandal every single year and because of his position as this crusader against cancer he was larger than life and people did not want to believe that he could cheat in bike racing. So they really just — and this includes mainstream media — ignored all of this evidence that showed that he was doping. He was so charismatic and able to lie to the face of so many people including all of his followers and convince them that all of these allegations were completely false.

VO'C: In hindsight Armstrong had two very powerful arguments that really held sway with the public: One was, "I survived cancer, why would I take drugs? Why would I do that to myself?" That was an argument that I think really resonated with the public even though it was as lie. The other is, "I've been tested hundreds of times and I've never had a positive drug test." And people really also bought into that. They didn't fully understand that it was easy for the cyclists to beat these tests and get around them, and that drug testing at that time was meaningless.

On what could be next for Armstrong

RA: I think a lot of it depends on the outcome of the whistleblower lawsuit. If he loses a significant chunk of his net worth then he's going to have find some way to make income and he can't compete, at least not now, so I think there are so many questions.

VO'C: Although we can't pretend to know what Armstrong will do, I think that it's likely that he'll try to come out with his own narrative, his own account, if he can, when the time is right. I don't think that time will be anytime particularly soon, but I'm sure he feels that he has a story to tell and he would like to get his side fully out so we can anticipate he'll make an attempt to do that, and certainly, he'll make an attempt to rehabilitate his image, when he feels the coast is clear and the time is right. How far that will go, or how successful that will be will really depend on how he does that and whether people believe that he is truly remorseful.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. By the time champion cyclist Lance Armstrong had confessed to a career of doping to Oprah Winfrey in January, he'd already been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from further competition. Our guests, Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell, covered and regularly broke stories about the investigation that ended Armstrong's career.

Now they have a new book that chronicles Armstrong's emergence as a rich and powerful athlete and explores the remarkable breadth of the doping culture embraced by his pro cycling team. There were many co-conspirators, group blood transfusions on the team bus, and extensive efforts to silence and intimidate those who might expose the abuse. Albergotti and O'Connell had several conversations with Armstrong in their reporting. He declined our invitation to appear on FRESH AIR.

Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell's book is called "Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever." They spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

Well, Reed Albergotti, Vanessa O'Connell, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to give us a little bit of a primer, here. Explain how team racing in an event like the Tour de France works, I mean, how a team - what formations it uses, what the roles of the different riders are as they compete.

REED ALBERGOTTI: Well, there are nine riders on each team in the Tour de France, and these are trade teams. They're not national teams. So the riders can be from all over the world. In Lance Armstrong's case, they were the United States Postal Service Team. And eight of those nine riders will all take turns, you know, essentially blocking the wind in order to make it as easy as possible for that ninth rider, that Lance Armstrong, to ultimately finish as high as possible in the overall standings in the race.

Now, the Tour de France is three weeks long, so every bit of energy savings makes a huge difference over the course of those three weeks. So on the Postal Service Team, the stronger Lance's nine - or Lance's eight teammates were, the better off he was, because they could stay in the wind where, you know, they have to pedal 30 percent harder, you know, blocking the wind for Lance.

DAVIES: Right, and these supportive roles, there was a name for it, the domestiques. Is that right?

ALBERGOTTI: Domestique, right. The name for those guys is domestique, which is - kind of - it sounds sort of like a derisive term, but it's actually - to be a domestique in the Tour de France, it's like being a starter in the Super Bowl. You know, you're - you might not be the quarterback, but you're playing a very important role. It means you're really one of the top 200 cyclists on the planet.

So these domestiques were - you know, they had the ability to win races on their own, but in the Tour de France, you know, they were the linemen, essentially.

DAVIES: So the domestiques, at times they're in front drafting, in effect, kind of creating a vacuum for the leader behind. At times, they actually go back and fetch water bottles. Is this right?

ALBERGOTTI: Yeah. I mean, what happens is the race itself, if you watch the Tour de France, there's a huge pack called a peloton of, you know, 150 or so riders at times, and the pack gets stretched out. And at the very back of the pack is all the team cars, and those are the directeur sportifs, they call them, of all the individual teams.

So for all the riders to go back and get water from those team cars - there's dozens of water bottles in each car - would take a lot of energy. So they would have to drift all the way back to the pack, and then catch back up and get to the front. And so what they do in order to keep it efficient is one rider will drop back and sort of ride next to the team car and literally stuff as many bottles onto his bike, into his jersey, you know, as possible, and then bring it back up to all the riders.

So it's sort of a - if you watch the race, it's this ritual. And it's sort of fun to watch.

DAVIES: So, in the early '90s, Lance Armstrong becomes a professional cyclist, is making a name for himself. Then in 1996, he is diagnosed with cancer. How serious was his prognosis?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, he waited a long time. He had some symptoms, but waited a long time to get checked out. And so the cancer had spread to his - you know, up his body, essentially, all the way to his brain. And it was very serious. I mean, at first, it was, you know, a surgery, and then it turned out it was, you know, a lot of chemotherapy to try to get rid of it. It wasn't actually brain cancer. It was testicular cancer, but it had just spread.

VANESSA O'CONNELL: And one of the moves that Armstrong made, very shrewdly at that time, was to search out some of the physicians who were well-known for the kind of treatment that he could receive without injuring his lung capacity. So, instead of sort of being treated locally - even though he is from Austin, Texas and a big fan of Austin, Texas and tends to do a lot locally - he sought out treatment instead in Indiana, essentially, where he had heard that one of the physicians there was well-known for treating testicular cancer in a manner that might enable him to continue to race after he recovered.

DAVIES: There's been some speculation that Armstrong's doping, use of human growth hormone, might have sparked or contributed to his cancer. What are we to believe of that?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, the science on that is really - it's very contentious. I mean, some people feel that these drugs can contribute to cancer, but a lot of research shows that it probably doesn't. What we tried to do was get in the heads of some of the people, including Lance himself, and find out what they thought. And we found a guy named Jim Woodman, who was an early influence for Armstrong in the triathlon world.

And Woodman was one of the few people with Armstrong shortly after he was recovering from cancer. And we had this anecdote where Woodman's actually in Lance's kitchen, and they're talking about performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and Lance essentially admits that he's done all manner of drugs. And Woodman asks him, point blank: Aren't you worried that that might have contributed to your cancer?

And Lance said, well, not about the EPO - and that's the blood-boosting hormone that increases your red blood cell and oxygen going to your muscles. He said he wasn't worried about the EPO, but he was worried about human growth hormone, that that might have done something to maybe advance the rate of the cancer spreading in his body.

DAVIES: And there was a famous moment in his hospital room when he was recovering, at which he made an admission. You want to tell us that story?

O'CONNELL: He was in the hospital room on a Saturday when - according to Betsy Andreu, who was the wife of one of his teammates, Frankie Andreu. Frankie was there, as well. The doctor came in and asked him if he had ever done performance-enhancing drugs, and he answered yes, and listed human growth hormone, testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs that he had done.

So that was a very important sort of scene in the book and in Armstrong's story, because later, when there were allegations that he had used performance-enhancing drugs, Armstrong denied that that had ever happened. And there was an arbitration way back in 2005, 2006, where there was a lot of testimony taken. It was a confidential arbitration. And that hospital room scene was pivotal.

The arbitration ended without ever having any kind of finding of whether Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs, but during the arbitration, there was a lot of pretty damning testimony about that hospital room scene and about what Armstrong had said.

DAVIES: All right, so assuming that Armstrong was telling the truth, this was in a medical context, a physician was asking him for medical reasons what he might have taken. And assuming that the accounts are accurate, that would suggest that he was pretty heavily involved in doping before he had cancer.

ALBERGOTTI: Oh, absolutely.

DAVIES: When Armstrong got cancer, at that point, I mean he'd - he was well along into his pro career and had a lot of business relationships, and he was used to being a public figure. How did he handle the cancer, you know, publicly among his friends and followers?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, he started a charity, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which was originally geared toward curing testicular cancer, and later became - had a much broader goal, which was, you know, increasing funding, increasing awareness, really, of cancer.

O'CONNELL: And then, in addition to that, his agent and his advisors realized that Armstrong's story was really much more powerful, especially in the United States, as a cancer survivor. So not only is he a cancer survivor, but he goes on to win the Tour de France in 1999, so he of course subsequently wrote an autobiography. He was selling the movie rights to his life story.

His agents and his advisors figured out that he was a much more compelling character, essentially, post-cancer, as a survivor who came back and went on to win the Tour de France.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Vanessa O'Connell and Reed Albergotti. Their new book is called "Wheelmen." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guests are Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell. Their new book is called "Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever."

So after Lance Armstrong is declared cancer-free, he goes to France and wins seven straight Tour de France titles. And there's a moment that you describe it as first, in 1999 when he's won one of the stages of the race, where it's one of these high mountain climbs, and what a remarkable feat he put on, I want you to just talk about what he did there and also a conversation that you report Greg LeMond, the cyclist, having with a mechanic who was watching Lance at the time.

ALBERGOTTI: Well, the stage you're describing is the climb to the top of Sestriere, which was a really decisive stage in that year's race. And, you know, Lance had already won the prologue of the race, you know, he was looking like a favorite, but on that stage he really surprised everyone because he had never been much of a climber. He wasn't a pure climber.

He could do it on one - you know, for a one-day race, maybe one stage during the tour, but here he was beating the best climbers, some of the best climbers in the world, and it was shocking to people. And that was the day that I think many people really remember Lance Armstrong coming into his own.

And during that stage, it was a rainy day, he was sort of, you know, flying up the mountain, and it's almost eerie. There weren't a ton of fans on the road, and he's got this sort of wet, yellow jersey. I mean, it was - I'll never - I mean, it's a very vivid picture in my mind.

But Greg LeMond was watching it on TV, and LeMond, you know, had won the Tour three times. He had sort of at times been almost a mentor to Lance. He had talked with him. He talked with Lance's mother about, you know, what it was like being a young professional cyclist.

And he's sitting next to one of the mechanics for another team. LeMond hears this mechanic - he turned - the mechanic turns to LeMond and he says, you know, (French spoken), like he's on the juice, he's doping. And LeMond's like, What are you, what are you talking about?

And this mechanic explains that everyone in the sport now is on EPO and a cocktail of drugs, and they just don't get tired anymore. And he points out how Lance is just flying up this mountain and it doesn't even look like he's breathing hard.

And LeMond kind of scratches his head and thinks, you know, well, I'm not sure if I believe this mechanic and kind of forgets about it. But that was the moment when, you know, Greg LeMond's eyes really started opening to the doping problem in cycling.

And throughout the book, you know, we kind of show how LeMond learned more and more about the doping on the U.S. Postal Team and became more and more disillusioned and eventually ended up talking about it publicly and becoming, you know, enemy number one for Lance and his minions.

DAVIES: Let's talk about how it actually worked. I mean you say this was - this wasn't somebody, you know, popping a needle in a men's room. This was a conspiracy that involved a lot of people. What were the drugs they were using? How were they ingesting or injecting them?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, it really evolved over time. I mean early on, you know, when he won his first Tour de France, they were just taking EPO, which you couldn't test for at the time. So you could really use as much as you wanted. There was also testosterone patches and cortisone and even an experimental drug called Actovegin, which was an extract of calf's blood, you know, which was sort of crazy.

But eventually there was a test for EPO. It was detectable in urine tests. So they had to find new ways to boost their red blood cells count, and what they settled on was blood transfusions. And that involved taking out about a half-liter of blood, you know, months, weeks before the Tour de France and then re-infusing that blood during the race.

And essentially what they were doing was increasing the amount of blood in their body beyond what its normal capacity was. So they had more red blood cells, more oxygen going to their muscles. It was essentially the same thing as taking EPO, but it was their own blood, so it was very difficult to test for.

And once they started doing that, it became much more complicated because you had all these people watching over you. You know, the French law enforcement were raiding hotel rooms during the Tour. And to get away with doing two blood transfusions per rider per race, which is what they ultimately did, you know, it involved transporting blood in motorcycles with refrigerated saddlebags and, you know, unmarked trailers and campers and multiple doctors. So it was a huge operation in the end.

DAVIES: Tell the story of the bus faking the breakdown.

ALBERGOTTI: Well, OK, so during the 2004 Tour de France, they were extremely worried about French law enforcement. So they had already done one re-infusion of blood on the first rest day during that race, or around the first rest day. They wanted to do another one.

So none of the riders really knew exactly when this was going to take place, but one night, as their team bus was driving back to a hotel room, the bus pulls over on the side of the road, the bus driver gets out and puts up some cones as if the bus is broken down, but it hadn't broken down. Actually they wanted to do a secret blood transfusion on the side of the road, and the broken-down bus was the decoy.

So that all the riders lie down on the floor of the bus. Team doctors hang blood bags from the luggage racks and connect the end of those bags to the riders' veins.

DAVIES: And the blood bags are delivered by a guy on a motorcycle, right?

ALBERGOTTI: Right, exactly. And you know, that scene was first told by Floyd Landis in emails that we uncovered in 2010. And reading that, I mean it was just one of the most shocking things that I've ever heard about professional sports, I mean just incredible.

DAVIES: Did Armstrong himself pressure other folks on the team to dope?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, they - riders have testified in sworn affidavits that he did. And Lance's point of view is, look, I never - I never said you had to dope on this team, and he points to riders who left the U.S. Postal Team and continued to dope on other teams as evidence that they weren't forcing them to do it.

But the reality was, if you weren't on the program, you weren't going to keep up in these races, you weren't going to make the Tour de France squad, and frankly, you couldn't be trusted. So riders who decided not to participate in the doping program, and there were some, and we interviewed them, ultimately were pushed out after one or two years on the team, and their careers in cycling really fizzled out.

DAVIES: And you know, people wonder why the U.S. Postal Service would spend quite a lot of money on a bike team, on a, you know, a bike racing team that did most of what it did in Europe. How much did they spend on the postal team?

O'CONNELL: Over the course of many years, the Postal Service spent about $40 million, but it really started out with relatively small amounts, $1.5 million a year. What happened was the Postal Service renewed its contract as the team continued to win the Tour de France and as Armstrong continued to dominate the sport. It renewed the contract and continually upped the amount it was spending.

So over the course of several years, it was $40 million in total, and it wasn't just the U.S. Postal Service that was a sponsor of the team. The team lined up many other sponsors, from the Trek to Nike to Giro helmets. And over the years, you know, these companies spent many, many millions of dollars to have their logos essentially on the team jerseys, and essentially the riders were like, you know, billboards on wheels.

DAVIES: And did the Postal Service think it got its money's worth?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, when we reported this book out, we wanted to understand that same question, which was, you know, why did the Postal Service do this, and did they feel like it was worth it. And we interviewed Lauren Smith, who was the director of marketing for the United States Postal Service at the time, and he had been involved in cycling before, and he had seen that you could get a pretty good return on investment by sponsoring it.

So he felt like it was a way to expand the Postal Service's reach in its international offering, so overseas, where people really cared about cycling. And they did, I mean the Postal Service did feel like it eventually got its money's worth. Of course now they're arguing that they've really - their reputation has really been tarnished because of this scandal that has come out.

DAVIES: Let's talk just a little bit about Lance Armstrong's personal business relationships. We're talking about a period in which he as a cancer survivor has come back to do the unthinkable, to win the Tour de France again and again, year after year. Give us a sense of what kind of sponsorships and business relationships he had and what kind of wealth it amounted to.

ALBERGOTTI: Well, he had huge corporate sponsors, the biggest of which was Nike, Oakley, probably the bike-maker Trek. You know, at the time, after his second comeback, around 2008, he added, you know, car manufacturers, Radio Shack. There were estimates that he was making 20 to 25 million a year just in endorsements. It was probably more than that.

So it's unclear exactly what his net worth is because we don't know how much he spent on - you know, he had a private jet, for instance, and several homes. But you know, it could be over $100 million. It could be less than that.

DAVIES: And do you know what he was spending on doping? I mean, this can't have been cheap.

ALBERGOTTI: Well, he paid Michele Ferrari, who was the Italian doctor really in charge of his doping regimen, anywhere from, you know, payments of 10 to 20 thousand dollars to six figures in some seasons. We don't think we have the full picture of what he paid to Ferrari just because a lot of those payments were in cash, we believe.

But, you know, it could have been, you know, in the six figures every year. It probably didn't put a big dent in his overall net worth.

GROSS: Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell will continue their interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Their new book is called "Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with the authors of the new book "Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, The Tour de France and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever." Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell are Wall Street Journal reporters who covered and regularly broke stories about the doping scandal that ended Armstrong's career.

DAVIES: The last half of the book is this really fascinating account of the unraveling of Armstrong's career and the exposure of his doping. But you know, long before the investigations that really brought him down unfolded, there were plenty of stories. There were, you know, there were - some tests were done of his blood samples from 1999 which revealed he had EPO. And there was a guy named David Walsh who was working on a book, who were talking to people who had witnessed statements and activities about him. There was a lawsuit by a company that felt it shouldn't have to pay a bonus owed him because he had been doping and therefore cheating to win some of his Tour wins. And a lot of this was reported but it didn't seem to have much impact. Why?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, that's the fascinating thing about the story is that, like you said, I mean there really was a scandal every single year and because of his position as this crusader against cancer, he was so, he was larger than life and people did not want to believe that he could cheat in bike racing. And so they really just - and this includes mainstream media - really just ignored all of this evidence that showed that he was doping. And he was so charismatic and able to lie really to the face of so many people, including all of his followers, and convince them that he - that all these allegations were just completely false.

O'CONNELL: And also, I would say in hindsight, there were - Armstrong had two very powerful arguments that really held sway with the public. One was, hey, I survived cancer. Why would I take drugs? Why would I do that to myself? That was an argument that I think really, really resonated with the public, even though it was a lie. The other is, I've been tested hundreds of times and I've never had a positive drug test. And people really also bought into that. They didn't really fully understand that it was easy for the cyclist to beat these tests, to get around them, and that drug testing at that time was meaningless. So you know, Armstrong had some very, very powerful messages and people really bought into it.

DAVIES: When you say drug testing at that time was meaningless, why?

ALBERGOTTI: It was so easy to get around the tests. I mean we talked about the Michele Ferrari. Well, you know, Ferrari was a...

DAVIES: He's the doctor who was known for doping. Yeah. Yeah.

ALBERGOTTI: Right. And, you know, he knew one of the doctors very well who was actually coming up with these tests. So before the tests would even come out, like the new test for EPO for instance, Ferrari would've already figured out how to beat the tests, exactly when you had to take the drugs and when you had to stop taking them. And you know, it was a total joke.

DAVIES: So Armstrong would vehemently deny doping. I mean he would attack people who suggested that he did and say, you know, why on Earth would I jeopardize my health and everything I've achieved by doping. But how did he react to people who were, you know, prepared to reveal part of the story or that he considered a threat in some way?

ALBERGOTTI: He was really vicious with a lot of people, including Greg Lemond, who, you know, at first Lemond was actually trying not to get involved in this, was sort of almost not commenting on this but said a couple of things that Lance felt was, you know, raising questions about whether or not he was clean. And he immediately attacked Lemond, and through Track, the bicycle maker, who Lemond was in business with and Lance was sponsored by, you know, tried to really hurt Lemond's business.

DAVIES: And he went after some former team members. You mentioned Frankie Andreu and Betsy, his wife, right?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, he also learned that Betsy Andreu, the wife of his former teammate, Frankie, had been talking with David Walsh, the journalist from the Sunday Times. I mean he just was irate. And Frankie at the time was a television announcer and - in cycling - and Lance actually, you know, made Frankie feel like he was going to get blacklisted from the sport if any of this went forward. So I think if you ask the Andreus today, they would say that, you know, Frankie's career was severely harmed. I mean their family's income was significantly lowered because of their essentially telling the truth.

O'CONNELL: And some of the people that were leveling charges against Armstrong were pretty easy to pick on, even though they were telling the truth about Armstrong. You know, for instance, Floyd Landis, because he himself had tested positive and denied doping for years, it was pretty easy for Armstrong to dismiss him as a serial liar and a cheater who was bitter about Armstrong's success. So you know, that was a very shrewd way that Armstrong sort of convinced the public that it's possible that he really was clean.

DAVIES: Yeah. So Landis wins the Tour de France after Lance Armstrong wins seven and retires, and then is caught with a positive test, has his title stripped and goes through a long set of appeals to try and fight it. What was Lance Armstrong's relationship with him then? Because he knew that if Landis were to start telling stories about the past, he could have a lot to say about Armstrong's activities.

ALBERGOTTI: Well, Armstrong, a lot of friends of Lance actually supported Landis, you know, behind the scenes. They funded his fight against the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after his positive test, so Landis was actually getting money from many of Armstrong's supporters. And at the same time, you know, Landis was thinking about maybe just coming clean. Like it was always, when we researched for the book, we found that, you know, he was always kind of floating this idea to people really close to him, that he would just come out, come clean, and you know, move on with the whole thing. And one of the reasons Landis says he didn't was because he felt like if he just kept his mouth shut, fought the doping ban, served his ban and then came back, he would be let back into the sport - let back into the inner circle. Ultimately that never happened.

O'CONNELL: Where things kind of went wrong for Armstrong in our view is when Landis really wanted to have a spot on Armstrong's team and wasn't able to get one. Armstrong wouldn't you give him a position on the team and that, you know, Landis was sort of bitter essentially and felt like he was shut out of the sport that he once belonged to and had nowhere to turn. So as Reed says, he was thinking about coming clean earlier, but that sort of precipitated these emails that were very explosive at the time that Floyd Landis wrote them to cycling officials, where he just sort of laid it all out.

DAVIES: Right. Right. He wrote these enormously detailed accounts, searching his own memory and diaries to make a convincing case that there was a lot of doping going on. And he ends up, of course, eventually talking to federal authorities. A grand jury investigation gets underway. Why would the feds interested in this?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, that's actually a really funny coincidence in the story. And the feds were actually already investigating an American cycling team for EPO use. So there was already this investigation in place. So when Landis came out with those emails around 2010 - and when I say came out, I mean it's not like he blasted them out publicly, I mean only a small handful of people really knew about them - the federal authorities who were looking into EPO already got wind of this and quickly Landis became the key witness in this investigation which turned really its sights toward Armstrong and the U.S. Postal Team. So had there not already been a federal investigation, the Landis thing might have just blown over.

DAVIES: So a federal grand jury investigation gets underway and you two report on this quite a bit, right? I mean what kind of people came to talk to the grand jury, former riders?

ALBERGOTTI: Well, some of them talked to the grand jury. I mean many people were subpoenaed, and some riders and, you know, former team officials just went in and talked to the feds. In fact, many of them we spoke with were just happy to do it. I mean they felt like they had been keeping the secret for so long, like they could never talk, and all of a sudden now they're legally compelled to tell the truth. And I think for a lot of them, ironically, it was almost like being forced to talk was almost freeing to them.

O'CONNELL: Some of the riders spoke before a grand jury and others of them spoke, you know, separately with prosecutors and not necessarily before the grand jury, so not everybody was sort of providing grand jury testimony. But regardless, as Reed says, it was a, this investigation was a watershed even though it eventually went nowhere and was shut down because it got the riders to actually go through the process of coming clean, which many of them had not done for years and which was very cathartic for them, sort of open the floodgates whereby they were sort of able to talk about something that they had really buried deep inside for so many years.

DAVIES: So if you're Lance Armstrong and you're seeing all of this happening in a there's a criminal investigation and eventually an equally serious investigation by the Anti-Doping Agency, how did he respond?

ALBERGOTTI: I mean during the criminal investigation, Lance was completely terrified. I mean the guy was, it wasn't just he might lose his titles, this was - he could go to prison. And I think he told one person, actually, and we found out about it, that, you know, he would be happy if they just took his titles as long as he didn't go to prison. So - and this was a whole, this was whole new territory for him. This wasn't just, you know, trying to save his reputation. This was saving, you know, keeping his freedom. The federal investigation was dropped in February of 2012, and at that point, I think, he was really breathing a sigh of relief and he started to compete in triathlons, sort of move on, you know, with his life. And before he could really even do that, this USADA - the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation began. And riders who had testified in front of the grand jury or just talking with federal investigators started to go in and tell their stories to USADA, and that's when USADA really, their case started moving forward and, you know, pretty soon Armstrong realized that he had a whole new headache on his hands. And, you know, it was amazing how quickly everything happened. I mean in the six months, the second half of 2012, you know, he went from being an athlete, you know, really on the top of the world making a comeback in triathlon to losing all of his sponsors, all of his income, all of his Tour de France titles. I mean it just happened so fast and I think that hit him like a ton of bricks. He was completely shocked by that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Vanessa O'Connell and Reed Albertgotti. Their new book is called "Wheelmen." We'll talk more after a quick break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guests are Wall Street Journal reporters Reed Albertgotti and Vanessa O'Connell. They have a new book about Lance Armstrong. It's called "Wheelmen."

There was a point when Armstrong, you know, facing the condemnation of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, thought he might appeal to them personally and strike a deal to allow him to continue competing. Tell us about that meeting.

ALBERGOTTI: Well, so Lance went into this meeting in Denver last year saying, you know, look, I'll come clean, I'll tell the truth and I'll talk about lots of other people and their role in this whole conspiracy. But I want to get back to competing in triathlons within a year, a year or less. And USADA's response to that was, look, there's nothing in the rules that allows us to let you get back to competing at that point. We can reduce this from a lifetime ban to, say, a ban of eight years but that's about as much as we can do. And Lance, he rejected that. He said I'm not going to talk to you then. And we know what happened next. He went to Oprah.

DAVIES: Yeah, I wanted - so how did he do with Oprah?

ALBERGOTTI: I mean I think all the critics would say he did horribly. I mean he - his attempt was to salvage his image, but he came across as a guy who was not really sorry for what he had done and, you know, he cracked some sort of crude jokes and, you know, just a lot of people you heard describing him as a sociopath after that interview.

DAVIES: A couple of things. You write that his sponsors stuck with him through thick and thin. What moral responsibility do they have in, you know, in protecting Lance. And I mean are they complicit in maintaining a doping culture?

ALBERGOTTI: Without getting into the morality question, I mean I think the lesson here is that, you know, you can't, if you sit around and you ignore and you're willfully blind to all of those allegations over the years that we talked about, you know, one day the truth is going to come out and all these people, you know, around him, they now look bad because they did ignore it over the years. So, you know, his sponsors and business managers and all these people close to him, I mean they all sort of have egg on their face.

O'CONNELL: And not only that, but I mean essentially the sponsors were endorsing him. These were endorsements and they continued to endorse him. In the public's eye that really meant a lot. I mean the fact that Nike stood by Lance Armstrong despite all of those allegations really almost up until the very end meant a lot in the public eye. And it wasn't until Nike really dropped him towards the end of 2012 that a lot of people were like whoa. Now let's pay attention.

DAVIES: So Lance Armstrong now has had all of his titles stripped. He's banned from competition. He's lost these sponsors. But that's not all. He faces some other legal problems, doesn't he?

ALBERGOTTI: So Floyd Landis sued him in 2010 under the Federal False Claims Act, which a U.S. citizen can sue anyone on behalf of the government for fraud against the government. So because his sponsor - because Lance's sponsor was the United States Postal Service, and the contract with the USPS said he couldn't dope, it's therefore, you know, fraud against the government, or at least that's the allegation.

And last year the U.S. Department of Justice actually joined Landis' suit. So - and because if you lose a Federal False Claims Act lawsuit you could be responsible for up to triple damages, we're talking about $123 million, or three times the $40 million that USPS paid over the years.

DAVIES: Wow.

O'CONNELL: And that's partly why we've always seen this story as, you know, not just a story about doping in sport or cheating in sport, but rather a story about cheating a business enterprise, essentially, and even a very interesting kind of legal truth-and-justice type story. The fact that this lawsuit is going to play out this fall means that there are still sort of a lot of, you know, moving parts.

We have yet to see what's going to happen with the lawsuit that's seeking $120 million from Lance Armstrong and a couple of his close associates.

DAVIES: And what has this case meant for doping in cycling and in sport generally?

ALBERGOTTI: I think in cycling it, you know, it's obviously going to cause short-term harm for cycling but you're already seeing leaders at the top level of the sport who've been there for, you know, well over a decade ousted. I mean, the head of the UCI, the international governing body, was just booted out. And, you know, they've got a new guy coming in and he's promising to clean up the sport and not make the mistakes of the past.

So I think for cycling it's a great thing and I think for doping in sports in general, I mean, it just - it raises awareness about the problem.

DAVIES: You know, Lance Armstrong's fall is one of the most remarkable stories in American sports. I mean, you know, from where he was to where he is now is just stunning. He's only 42. What do you think the rest of his life might be like?

ALBERGOTTI: I think a lot of it depends on the outcome of the whistleblower lawsuit. I mean if he loses a significant chunk of his net worth, then he's going to have to find some way to make income. But he can't compete, at least not now. So I think there are just so many questions.

O'CONNELL: And although we can't pretend to know what Armstrong will do, I think that it's likely that he will try to come out with his own narrative, his own account, if he can, when the time is right. I don't think that that time will be any time particularly soon, but I'm sure he feels that he has a story to tell and he would like to get his side fully out.

So we can anticipate he'll make an attempt to do that and certainly he'll make an attempt to rehabilitate his image when he feels the coast is clear and the time is right. How far that will go or how successful that will be will really depend on how he does that and whether people believe that he is truly remorseful.

DAVIES: Well, Vanessa O'Connell, Reed Albertgotti, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ALBERGOTTI: Thank you.

O'CONNELL: Thanks so much.

GROSS: Reed Albergotti and Vanessa O'Connell spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Their new book is called "Wheelman: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever." Albergotti also appears in the new documentary "The Armstrong Lie" directed by Alex Gibney. It opens in theaters next month. You can read the introduction to "Wheelman" on our website freshair.npr.org.

DAVIES: Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan tells us why she found the new Bridge Jones novel painful to read. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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