Road bicycle racing was the first sport to ignite my imagination. The dynamics of the peloton (the main group of racers), the nature of the teams in the competitions, the individual contributions to the group effort, the silent sacrifices by the domestique, the physics of the sport, the incomprehensible physical effort, and the epic quality of the races – it was all endlessly fascinating. Later in life, when I heard French philosopher Roland Barthes refer to le Tour de France as a heroic poem – the substance of legend – I concurred.
Many years after the first encounter, I reconnoitered an upcoming Tour de France stage in the French Alps. When I left the car, the gradient was so extreme that I almost toppled over, and when I walked up the mountain road, the altitude offered only exhaustingly thin air. It was easy to appreciate just how extreme these athletes were. But by now I knew that the riders were not just exceptional human beings. With the help of EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone, cortisone, and human growth hormone, many of them were, in a very real sense, superhuman.
Cheating has been part of le Tour de France since the very beginning. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, cheating reached an unprecedented level of sophistication, and ringleader Lance Armstrong – who won Tour de France seven times in a row! – became the face of the deception.
Cycle of Lies is in part a journey through a sport that had become deeply corrupt, but the book also exposes the dangers of weak journalism. When Lance Armstrong began to dominate the Tour de France, American journalists who knew little or nothing of cycling flew over to Europe to write about the superhero. As Armstrong and the Postal Service team crushed the competition, newly arrived journalists saw heroic efforts; veteran journalists who had covered le Tour for years saw something else. What Armstrong and his teammates were doing simply wasn’t possible. Headlines in French media read, “Armstrong, the Extraterrestrial of the Tour,” “On Another Planet,” and “Hallucinating Armstrong.” In the U.S., the mainstream media stood behind Armstrong, and Washington Post reported that the French were jealous: “France’s motto: If you can’t beat them, investigate them.”
The message of Juliet Macur‘s book is clear: Don’t find your heroes in the images produced by media.
When the accusations finally started to find traction in the U.S., writer Malcolm Gladwell defended the actions of Lance Armstrong, but then he went on to say, “When you write about sports, you’re allowed to engage in mischief. Nothing is at stake. It’s a bicycle race!”
He’s wrong, of course. The physical and mental well-being of human beings is at stake here. People’s livelihood is at stake. Their ethical and moral interactions with the world are at stake.
If that doesn’t matter, what does?