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David Walsh on Armstrong, Froome and making a movie

David Walsh
Mark Bailey
28 Oct 2015

David Walsh talks to Cyclist about his 13-year pursuit of Lance Armstrong, his issues with Team Sky, and seeing his book transformed.

When Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France in 1999, David Walsh wrote in The Sunday Times: ‘There are times when it is right to celebrate, but there are other occasions when it is equally correct to keep your hands by your sides and wonder.’ Sixteen years later, having been vindicated in his assertions that Armstrong was a liar and a cheat, Walsh’s hands are neither applauding the demise of Armstrong, nor punching the air in celebration. As the 60-year-old journalist from Slieverue in County Kilkenny sits in the garden of his family home in Suffolk, his hands are nursing a mug of tea and a scone smothered in jam. The immediate impression is one of a contented journalist and grandfather relaxing at home, not a victor revelling in glory. Walsh is no longer wondering if Armstrong will be caught, only whether he has any desire to see the American again. 

‘I don’t know, maybe at some point I would. I don’t really have any great desire to, but if he initiated it,’ considers Walsh. It’s the one question to which he genuinely seems uncertain of his answer in an hour-long interview that otherwise resonates with the clarity, passion and sincerity that characterised his years in pursuit of Armstrong. ‘I know Lance continues to say to journalists that he absolutely hates me, that he thinks I’m the bad guy.

David Walsh interview

‘If I did meet him I wouldn’t want it to be in public. I wouldn’t want to write about it – just he and I having a private conversation. And I would be saying to him, “Go away and live your life quietly, stay out of the public light, and find a way to tell the whole truth. Break yourself down in order to build yourself back up. But break yourself down properly, not selectively.” And I don’t think he has a mind to do that. I think, in a way, he still thinks he can get away with it. Get away with not telling the whole truth. Get away with keeping a lot of his ill-gotten gains.’

The toll

A call from a 001 512 number in Austin, Texas, is unlikely to flash up on Walsh’s mobile any time soon. But to observe Walsh at home – sharing jokes with his wife Mary, talking in his soft Irish lilt about his seven children, Kate, Simon, Daniel, Emily, Conor, Molly and John, who was tragically killed in a cycling accident, aged 12, in 1995, and his beloved grandchildren – provides an essential reminder that at the heart of the dark Armstrong saga are human beings with families, emotions, careers and lives to live, repair and enjoy. 

With so many heroes, heroines and villains, the story is a director’s dream and a new Hollywood movie about the Armstrong affair is in cinemas in October. Called The Program, it is an adaptation of Walsh’s 2012 book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit Of Lance Armstrong, directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) and starring Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma, The Messenger) as Armstrong and Chris O’Dowd (The IT Crowd, Thor: The Dark World) as Walsh. But this is a true story, and the grim daily grind for those involved is equally poignant. 

Walsh suffered vitriolic personal abuse. Armstrong dubbed him a ‘little troll’ and a Sunday Times reader suggested he had ‘a cancer of the spirit’. He faced the professional humiliation of witnessing journalists – friends – deny him access to their car at the Tour, lest they be tainted by association. He endured bruising litigation, with The Sunday Times forced to settle a libel case with Armstrong (it has since recovered its money). 

In a touching entry in Walsh’s book, his wife Mary writes of the endless questions from strangers: ‘Lance followed us everywhere – to dinner parties, weddings, gatherings in the village hall.’ Walsh can recall cutting short a hike in the Himalayas in 2010, scrambling to an internet cafe in the remote town of Pheriche to read the news that former US Postal rider Floyd Landis had implicated Armstrong. 

‘I knew we were being sued and I was going down to London for meetings with barristers endlessly,’ says Walsh. ‘But it never felt bad to me. It never felt tough. I wasn’t lying awake at night worrying. We discussed it as a family when we sat around the table. The kids would have a laugh and tell me, “Dad, he is never going to be caught.” They didn’t ever worry that I was wrong but they did feel Lance would get away with it, as did I.’ He chuckles at a memory. ‘When the kids saw the trailer for the new movie that shows me ranting, “The man is a cheat!” they said, “Dad, we have heard you say that so many times!”’ 

David Walsh on Lance Armstrong

Walsh refuses to allow violins to form the soundtrack to his story. ‘It was my job. I was being paid,’ he says. ‘And I was helped by the fact I worked for a Sunday newspaper. I could get away without having access to Armstrong. If you were a daily journalist your life was going to be much more difficult. I have often wondered: if you were from a daily, would you have compromised your access to Lance? No, I wouldn’t, but I would always have felt I was being a fake.’

Lance resonated around the world and if he was a fraud, well, bloody hell, what are we saying to our kids?

What upsets Walsh is the impact on his sources and the riders who risked it all. ‘They were the ones who had it tough,’ he insists. Emma O’Reilly, the US Postal soigneur who smashed cycling’s insidious omerta, was labelled an ‘alcoholic whore’ and bombarded with subpoenas. Christophe Bassons, the outspoken anti-doping French rider, was bullied out of the peloton, his life symbolic of the invisible generation of cyclists whose careers were crushed. ‘The single greatest driving force for my wanting to tell the truth is represented by the person Christophe Bassons was,’ says Walsh. ‘It’s not about going after Armstrong. It’s about standing up for Bassons.

Simple questions

Walsh treasures a story about his late son, John. On learning about the nativity, and hearing that Mary and Joseph were visited by three wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh but later lived a humble life in Nazareth, John asked his teacher Mrs Twomey: ‘What did they do with the gold?’ She hadn’t been asked that question in 33 years of teaching. ‘That is what journalism is about,’ thought Walsh. ‘That’s the way I need to be for the rest of my life.’

His investigation into Armstrong was founded on asking those same, simple, incisive questions: how could an athlete increase his time-trial performance by eight seconds per kilometre between 1993 and 1999, when in 1996 he was having a testicle, lung cysts and brain lesions removed? How could a rider with a VO2 max of 83 obliterate Christophe Bassons, who had a VO2 max of 85, by 26 minutes on a mountain stage? 

The journalist also had to ask himself an important question: in an era of widespread doping, why target Armstrong? ‘There were a lot of factors but the biggest one is that he had become a global icon,’ says Walsh. ‘Lance resonated around the world and if he was a fraud, well, bloody hell, what are we saying to our kids? That it’s OK to cheat and get away with it? That you can become one of world’s most famous people and be flying everywhere in a private jet, socialise with Hollywood superstars and have a rock-star girlfriend? If he was pulling the wool over our eyes it was a heck of a deception.’

Walsh also thought Armstrong’s aggressive verbal attacks on people were ‘outrageous’ and his lies to the cancer community shameful. ‘On the one hand he has got this charity [Livestrong] which is trying to do so much for people with an appalling disease. But on the other hand he is lying to their faces, so how much respect had he for those people?’

David Walsh portrait

Does Armstrong’s character and status justify the witch hunt, given that his peers escaped with lesser bans and successful riders from earlier generations such as Stephen Roche and Miguel Indurain don’t suffer the same suspicions? ‘Maybe it’s a hardline view but I think what Lance has got, he pretty much had coming to him. I think other guys have got away with cheating, and not being caught, and not having their reputations properly investigated. 

‘I wrote a story in 2002 about Stephen Roche coming up in an [Italian] judge’s report where Judge Franca Oliva said Roche and his Carrera teammates did receive EPO from Professor Francesco Conconi. Indurain has never had any real focus on him in that way. But Lance was like a guy in a poker game who always wanted to up the ante, to get more chips onthe table, so his pot kept accumulating but it made him more vulnerable.’

Walsh says he felt no sense of vindication or pleasure when Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour titles. ‘I felt uncomfortable now being on the same side as [former UCI President] Pat McQuaid. He should have had the good grace not to associate himself with kicking Armstrong out of the sport because that felt like poacher turned gamekeeper. I saw [former US Postal managing director] Johan Bruyneel was at Wiggins’ Hour record in the centre with McQuaid, having a drink like long lost friends, and I thought: Pat, if you are genuinely affronted by what these guys did, if it’s a shock to you that they were doping, and had such a deep antagonism towards the fraud perpetrated by Bruyneel and Armstrong and their entire team, you wouldn’t want anything to do with Bruyneel. But that evening in London we saw something closer to the reality.’

The Program

Walsh was shocked and humbled to hear that his book would be turned into a movie. He was consulted throughout by the film’s production company Working Title – makers of Frost/Nixon, Senna and The Theory Of Everything. ‘They were very respectful, showing me scripts, asking for feedback, then pretty much ignoring all of it,’ says Walsh, smiling. 

The triumph of the film is in not over-simplifying the protagonists. Decent men prove to be meek journalists. Armstrong, however ruthless, was capable of kindness. Walsh highlights a take that he hopes makes the final cut. ‘There was a scene in which a woman gets her book signed by Lance Armstrong and says, “I am alive because of you.” And he looks really uncomfortable, because he knows he’s a fraud. Suddenly he is confronted with this woman – a very ordinary person – and Lance was her inspiration. I thought it was tremendously important. There is another scene with Lance and a kid [suffering from cancer] which is very authentic. Lance wouldn’t be the most natural guy with kids but you can see he is trying and he is moved because how could you be human and not be moved? The film shows Lance in all his complexity, good and bad. There are many shafts of light that comprise most human beings, some dark, some bright, some in between. Lance is no different.

Froome under the microscope

The shadow of Armstrong continues to hang over professional cycling today. Tour de France winner Chris Froome and Team Sky bear the brunt of the lingering suspicion. After spending a year inside Team Sky, Walsh believes the team is clean but he remains critical. 

‘They need to do more,’ he says. ‘Chris Froome has said he will be tested independently. Once you’ve said that, you’ve got to do it. Much of it [their unpopularity] is something they can’t control: it’s anti-Murdoch, it’s anti-one team being successful, there is an anti-British element. But they should be doing more. Tim Kerrison [head of athlete performance] said after Froome’s performance on Col de la Pierre St Martin that he has done 15 better performances than that in the last four years. So why not put them all out there and let people see that Chris Froome does incredible rides in training? I have spent time at training camps, saying to whoever is driving the car, “Does Froome train this full-on every day?” And they say, “Yeah.” He sometimes trains on his own as he feels the intensity he wants can be compromised by other riders.’

David Walsh Team Sky

Walsh investigated Froome before agreeing to ghost-write his autobiography The Climb in 2014. ‘At this point in the Armstrong story I had six people in the team saying he had doped, and loads of evidence. With Froome, nothing. So what am I supposed to do? Make it up? Just so I can seem like a real tough guy who believes in nothing when I think there is a really decent basis for trusting Sky and Froome? When Lance was telling you he was using an altitude tent, you find out he’s not and you realise he is a liar. Stuff like that hasn’t come out about Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome or Bradley Wiggins? With Armstrong there was always that flow of evidence.’

In the Armstrong era a generation of clean riders were let down by the drugs cheats. With Froome soaked in urine and spat at during the 2015 Tour, is there a danger that the current generation of riders is being let down in a very different way, by an aggressive suspicion that fails to acknowledge sporting achievement? ‘Yes, I think there is a real danger,’ Walsh says. ‘What happens in 15 years’ time when we become pretty convinced that Chris Froome did it all clean? Do we say we were terribly unfair? People who are accusing him will feel the questions are justified. I would say the questions are justified, but with no answers to justify the questions it should have stoppedat scepticism and not gone into suspicion, hostility and accusation.’

The future

One problem for modern cyclists is that the events of the past have yet to be fully settled. Who is innocent and who is guilty? Walsh believes the ongoing US Justice Department lawsuit, which claims Armstrong defrauded the government-sponsored US Postal team, might prevent him opening up. ‘That potentially could have a very big financial penalty for Lance and maybe he is very worried about that and maybe that stops him telling the truth about lots of things. But am I the only one curious about what exactly did [Armstrong’s lawyer/agent] Bob Stapleton know? What exactly did [US Postal backer] Thom Weisel know? How involved was Mark Gorski when he was general manager of US Postal? Somebody as low down as a Dan Osipow, the PR guy, did Dan know? Did Jim Ochowicz know when they were at Motorola? I would love Lance to go into that stuff in great detail and leave you with the sense that he had genuinely told you everything, because I don’t have that sense at all.’

Walsh is unsure whether Armstrong has the humility to fully unburden himself of his secrets then quietly retreat into the shadows. He highlights Armstrong’s ill-fated comeback in 2009 and his controversial and antagonistic involvement in the footballer Geoff Thomas’s One Day Ahead charity bike ride during the 2015 Tour as evidence of a man who craves the oxygen of publicity. 

‘What I’ve seen is a guy who is desperate to become relevant again, to become part of the conversation,’ concludes Walsh as our interview draws to a close. ‘I think mostly he is sorry for being caught.’

Ruthless, ambitious, egocentric, perhaps Lance Armstrong would never have been happy with a career founded on bread and water. David Walsh is about to see his professional endeavours immortalised in a Hollywood movie, but you sense he would be quite content with that scone and tea.