From the moment David Walsh watched Lance Armstrong riding the Tour de France 1999 prologue and thought (no, not thought, knew) something wasn’t right, his life became consumed with an Ahabish obsession to slay the biggest fish in cycling’s, perhaps even sport’s, waters. Seven Deadly Sins is his account of how he played his part in Lance’s eventual evisceration and of why he so doggedly pursued the man who had cut him away from his innocent love of professional cycling – a sport the external terrible beauty of which hid an internal terrible horror.
In the early 80s, Walsh was smitten by the sport and its stars – especially fellow Irishmen, the sprinter-turned-Classics-hardman Sean Kelly, the softly spoken Dubliner Stephen Roche and the kid trying to make it, Paul Kimmage. He was soon travelling with the circus, reporting Le Tour and other big races for the Sunday Times and getting his first glimpse of cycling’s unseen world, with the rattle of the pill box in the back pocket, the contempt with which those that rode on “bread and water” were held by the “committed” and cancerous effect of doping on the souls of those that did not dope (and thus lost) and those that did dope (and thus lied). The love faded and the journalist’s instinct for a story took over. David Walsh was no longer in the cycling game, he was in the doping game and he was going to tell that story, come hell or high water. From 1999, it was not about the bike.
The book captures much of the loneliness of the life Walsh chose. Who wanted this journalist to spit in the soup? Not the cyclists, the vast majority of whom knew what was required, and did what was required, without breaking the omerta. Not his fellow journalists, most of whom were as besotted as Walsh had been before the scales fell from his eyes – anyway, their jobs depended on access to riders and such access could be denied. And not the administrators either, whose monuments tottered on piles of used syringes, too plentiful to deal with – take one too many of those riders’ little helpers away and the whole lot might come crashing down.
Walsh’s moral compass never faltered and he began to find allies, find men and women who would talk, each disgusted in their own way about how cycling had been hollowed out by cynics and charlatans. Men and women as spiky and fearless as Walsh, found a confessor and scribe in the Irishman, a man who would listen and believe and, unlike so many others, act. In turn, Walsh got support from his editor over years when readers’ letters stacked up telling him that the punters didn’t want to know.
And there was good reason for so many who suspected (and the few that knew) to keep their heads down. There wasn’t just the carrot of money, glory and glamour for those who went along with the spectacle, but the stick of banishment for those who associated with “the troll” Walsh. Journalists were sued (Walsh and colleague Pierre Ballester’s book LA Confidentiel is not available in the UK for fear of libel), whistleblowers like Christophe Bassons were forced out of the peloton and many veiled and unveiled threats were issued by men with the power to make good on them.
Slowly Walsh found more like Kimmage – those who had been on the inside and knew what went on behind the closed doors of anonymous hotels at races and training camps. Honest men like Italian coach Sandro Donati led him to Professor Francesco Conconi, a man very interested in the impact of blood composition on athletic performance, and on further to Conconi’s protege, Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s long-time adviser, and doctor to many successful cyclists – and believer in EPO’s danger being equivalent to that of orange juice. Walsh’s contempt for the medics with their “training programmes”, their lists with the code names, is greater than that he bears towards the cyclists – except Lance.
If contempt runs through the book as the grotesque freakshow’s scale grows and grows, there’s love too. Donati is praised, but that is as nothing compared to Walsh’s platonic love of two women – Betsy Andreu and Emma Reilly. Betsy, wife of ex-Armstrong team-mate and friend Frankie Andreu, was fired by a zealous sense of right and wrong as it affected her and her husband. She would not stand for Frankie doing drugs and she would not lie for Lance – she told Walsh that Lance had admitted to using PEDs in hospital during his cancer treatment. She also lent Walsh some of her indomitable spirit just when he needed it. Emma Reilly was Lance’s soigneur and confidante – she was on the inside and happy to tell anyone who would listen and sod the consequences. (Both women clearly liked Lance – a man who could be monstrous, especially when threatened, but who could be charming, decent and good company in a world where the testosterone didn’t just come in hypodermics).
The feeling that something wasn’t right in 1999 had grown into a case against Lance that resided in that space that eats at the soul of the journalist – strong enough to convince any reasonable editor, but not strong enough to stand up in a court. Walsh’s evidence had been compiled over years, but still Lance could, and did, say that he had never failed a test (at least not one he couldn’t make disappear). And for all the rickety worthlessness of so many of the drug protocols, plenty did fail tests – that, and the fact that Lance only really rode to win on five days of the year, made me believe in the Armstrong cult for too long. Roll in the despicable bullying of those who suggested that cycling’s Emperor had no clothes and it becomes easy to see how this big lie lasted so long and why it took a state-backed agency and Floyd Landis’ ethical crisis and flatly damning confession, to provide the smoking gun and see the seven jerseys lowered at long last.
Seven Deadly Sins shows signs of being a somewhat hurried in its publishing (it really should have an index) and there are occasional stylistic ticks that grate a little – I just can’t abide the one sentence paragraph – but what it loses in polish, it more than compensates in its fiery righteousness. Walsh had the energy of a lover scorned – cycling had done that to him – and he had his small coterie of believers which took on the characteristics of a terrorist cell, plotting and planning to explode truths in a sprawling landscape of deceit. I’ve written of my own feelings about Armstrong here, and, 400+ pages later, little has changed on that score. But I have a newly revived respect for those that dare to stand up for their beliefs, for those that won’t be browbeaten nor warned off, for those who refuse the easy option in full knowledge that the harder option will be very hard indeed. And, not for the first time and not for the last, I am reminded that – even in these media saturated days (perhaps because of these media saturated days) – the best place to hide is in the full glare of the spotlight.
(This review will also be published at Made Good. Thanks to Michael Beattie for the gift of the book).