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From Lance to Landis: A Review

Inside the American Doping Controversy at the Tour de France,
by David Walsh. Ballantine Books, 334 pages


The doping accusations that overshadow this book and its evil twin (Postively False: The Real Story of How I Won the Tour de France, by Floyd Landis with Loren Mooney) are actually the least interesting part of the story. The personal inside views of life in the pro peloton, from the perspective of racers, managers, drug testers, soigneurs and sponsors are what make both of these books compelling reads.

I finished Landis' book, Postively False, with an unexpected sense of optimism. Maybe, I thought, just maybe doping in the pro peloton wasn't as widespread as suspected. Probably I'm naive, but I found (and still find) it hard to believe that someone could so blatantly and unabashedly lie for 50-odd pages -- which Landis must have done if guilty as charged. If. (2012 update: Did.)

From Lance to Landis put a serious dent in my optimism. The revelations in this book hit me in the face like a bucket of cold water. There was still no smoking gun. If there had been one, Armstrong would've been stripped of his titles before 2007, as Landis already had been. But there sure was an alarming amount of circumstantial evidence and an Alpe d'Huez-sized mountain of testimony and hearsay.

The most interesting part of the book is the picture it paints of an early Lance Armstrong -- pre-fame, pre-cancer and, by the author's best guess, pre-doping. You can sense the young, eager, competitive Lance's frustration as his Motorola team keeps losing to inferior riders in the early '90s. "I should be killing these guys!" he says after one disappointing loss. If he did dope early on, as Walsh claims, you can almost understand the motivation. Why waste all all that talent, hard work and training when lesser rivals keep beating you using enhancements?

From Lance to Landis paints a picture of a peloton where almost everyone dopes. The story of the seemingly lone exception, Christophe Bassons or "Mr. Clean," is a sad one. But there's more here than doping allegations. The reader gets to see how a Tour de France team operates: how riders train, who gets chosen for the big race, the politics behind the scene, and what the support staff do. My favorite part of the book was the story of Emma O'Reilly and her (at the start) friendship with Lance Armstrong. As the head soigneur for the U.S. Postal Service team, she was a woman in a sport mostly dominated by men, and offers a fascinating perspective. It does feel as if there's a chapter missing here, though, since in the book O'Reilly goes from trusted friend with a few misgivings to legal opponent in the blink of an eye, with no transition in between. I would've like to learn more her falling out with the team.

Reading this book back to back with Postively False leaves me with two strong impressions. One is that most of the riders probably dope. The other is that WADA (The World Anti-Doping Agency) and the lab responsible for catching the dopers seem incredibly sloppy and unprofessional. Their attitude seemed to be, "Hey, why waste time following protocols and being careful with labels and B-samples when we all know they're guilty?"

Sorry, that attitude isn't going to cut it when you're trying to prove someone guilty in a court of law. If anything, such sloppiness will just make long, drawn out legal (and media-savvy) appeals like Landis's more common and more likely to succeed. The lab that tests these athletes needs to be scrupulous and unbiased. It took more than a year to learn who the "official" winner of the 2006 Tour de France was, and lab's sloppiness was part of the reason for that delay. I almost hoped Landis would win his appeal, just to send a message to the lab to hurry up clean up its act. Because frankly, if everyone really does dope, then what have we accomplished by stripping Landis of his title? Another, better doper gets the yellow jersey? Are we mad at Landis for cheating, or just for getting caught? Are we rewarding the "new" winner for being a better cheater?

All I know is, I enjoyed both of these books, especially when read as a pair. That's the straight dope.

Reviewed by Eric Pinder