Before a doping scandal brought him down, Lance Armstrong was more than a cycling hero – he was also a big business, says the author of a investigation into his cycling career.

And the shockingly large amount of money he brought to the American team, in sponsorships and salaries, led to a culture where a web of associates were willing to cover for him, according to Reed Albergotti, author of Wheelmen:  Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever.

The Wall Street Journal reporter has produced a detailed account of Armstrong’s career, character, associates, and doping history.

Armstrong Doping Cycling

Lance Armstrong, left, and Floyd Landis, both members of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, smile while riding side-by-side during the second stage of the five-day Tour of the Algarve in February 2004. (Miguel Riopa/Associated Press)

The book shows how “Armstrong Inc.” built a web of allies among sponsors, fellow teammates, and Tour organizers that made everybody – especially Lance – a great deal of money.

“It was shocking. When we sat down to write this book, that was one of our big questions. How did this stay secret for 14 years? So many people knew. His inner circle became wider and wider over the years,” Albergotti said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

It was the large amount of money involved that pulled so many people into the web, Albergotti said.

Among Armstrong's big endorsements included big deals with many high profile companies.

  • $7.5M in sponsorships and deals after his first Tour de France win, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Penguin Books, Kickstart.com, Nike, BrainLab, WebMD, Wheaties, and Shimano.
  • A $31 million sponsorship deal with the Discovery Channel.
  • $40 million from the U.S. Postal Service to sponsor the U.S. team over a period of several years.

“He had sponsors, big companies like Nike, Oakley the sunglass maker, Trek, the bicycle maker and many others and those sponsorships added up to estimates of roughly $25 million a year at the time," Albergotti said.

Because so many people relied on Armstrong to grab the headlines and bring in the cash, Armstrong himself came to take it for granted that the doping would remain a secret. He also played a role in pressuring anyone who seemed uncomfortable with drug use in the sport.

Armstrong was in denial about being found out, Albergotti said.

“In the end, there were so many things that occurred – coincidences – that created a perfect storm for this conspiracy to be exposed. It really was a vast conspiracy,” he said.

“If it wasn’t for Floyd Landis, his former teammate who wrote a series of emails detailing the doping program on the team in 2010, this whole thing never would have happened. The Landis emails led to a criminal investigation that really forced former riders and team staff members to finally tell the truth.”

The result was Armstrong’s public outing in 2012, which led to him losing his seven Tour de France titles. Even then he denied using drugs until his interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2013.

In Wheelmen, Albergotti says Armstrong put American cycling into the top ranks and made it popular, which made his disgrace all the more painful.

“Even as allegations would come out from year to year, the American public just did not want to believe that it was possible that Lance Armstrong was cheating,” he said.