Re-finding Greatness


Another book review, you say? Well, I did do a lot of reading while I was home for Thanksgiving, because as you know, no TV! This was a book I started a bit ago, but got distracted by library books with deadlines on them.

Tour de Lance, by Bill Strickland, is a fabulous book that follows Lance Armstrong as he comes back to the sport in 2009 after a 4 year absence. Now, Strickland is quite a fan of Armstrong. He says so himself. But he’s not super keen to hear that Armstrong is coming back, as comebacks historically only serve to tarnish the legacy left behind from the first retirement. And, he was looking forward to a new generation of cycling stars! (such as, oh I don’t know, Alberto Contador!) Despite his trepidation at Armstrong’s un-retirement, he decides to chronicle Armstrong’s journey, as an outsider, as objectively as possible.

This is a great book for someone who’s new to the sport, just interested in learning more about how the Tour works, or looking for a different perspective on Armstrong. Unlike The Rider, it was written with cycling novices in mind, and there is a lot of explanation of race tactics, team tactics, race and team politics. However, as the book progresses further into 2009 Tour de France, there is a reflection of Strickland’s increasing  obsession with Armstrong’s success, as Strickland loses some threads started early in book. Not only is there less explanation and description of race tactics, stories of cancer survivors/fighters who relate to or are inspired by Armstrong are forgotten on the sidelines as well. Although I can’t say I minded losing that thread too much, as it doesn’t appeal to me, it is an important part of who Armstrong’s public persona, what he’s done, and the justification for his comeback. (btw, yeah right. He just missed racing- the cancer research and awareness mission was just a good cover. Not that I blame him. When you’ve been competitive since 15, you can’t just turn that off.)

Even though Strickland is an unabashed Armstrong fan (“I have been at times an embarrassing ardent fan…”) and paints a picture of him using a pretty positive brush, Strickland doesn’t shy away from the less public, less admirable parts of Armstrong’s character – such as his retaliation against people who he feel have betrayed him (of those who speak negatively in the book, almost all do so anonymously), his mind games, his acerbic wit that more often than not is insult thinly cloaked in humor. (I can’t say how much other Armstrong books portray this side of him, as I’ve not read any other Armstrong-centric books)

While I feel Strickland looks at Armstrong somewhat objectively, I’m not sure if he does the same for Contador. I’m inclined to take what he writes about Contador with a grain of salt, as I suspect his desire for Armstrong to win colored how he portrayed Contador. That being said, the image Strickland creates of Contador does fit with the picture I had in my head of his character – a quiet guy with a wounded personality problem who’s a bit selfish. Not that it’s so bad to be a bit selfish, but when you climb over others to serve yourself, you can’t expect everyone to love you for it. Such as when Contador was criticized for attacking after Andy Schleck dropped his chain, he seemed offended and hurt at that criticism. While he needed to attack to gain back the yellow jersey, he had to realize it was going to ruffle some feathers! Same for when it came out that he failed a doping control. Instead of just accepting consequences (whether or not the clenbuteral was ingested on purpose or not, it’s still a no threshold drug!) and taking the punishment, he’s just going to quit the sport?! Yeesh. He seems unwilling to take any blame upon himself for his actions.

Anyway, however much Contador’s personality made life on Astana difficult, I don’t think you can blame of the team’s problems on Contador, and while I don’t think Strickland does outright, he does place a fair amount on Bertie’s shoulders. The divisions on the team came just as much from Armstrong as Contador – one seemed just as capable as the other when it came to underhanded, subtle criticism. They are too similar to co-exist peacefully on the same team. Not to mention Armstrong’s less-than-ideal fitness level.

But I like it! I really do!

For all the listing of what I perceive as shortcomings, I actually loved the book! I read as slowly as I was able to soak up as much as possible. I loved the little vignettes of the riders I know and love, and even those I don’t know. I loved the insider look into the peloton; I loved how his explanation of team and race tactics confirmed what I had already figured out on my own; I loved learning new things about the Tour and race tactics; I loved the pictures he painted with his words.

The attention to detail is astounding. While I was hesitant to buy a book about Armstrong, as I am not a huge fan of biographies and was not interested in “listening” to Armstrong espouse his greatness and successes, as I sat in the bookstore reading the first few pages, I was drawn into his description of the motion of Armstrong’s foot, the muscles in his calf, the fit of his skinsuit. After I read those descriptions, I couldn’t look the same way at cyclists! I also enjoyed reading about Armstrong from the perspective of someone who’s known him from the start. As I’ve only become aware of cyclist Armstrong recently (as opposed to celebrity Armstrong), I didn’t have a clear picture of who Armstrong was as a person or as a cyclist. As such, it was interesting to read about Armstrong from the perspective of someone who has known him from the start.

As Armstrong’s comeback and tour progresses in a less than ideal fashion, Strickland finds himself hoping for a miracle, even though he knows miracles don’t exist in sports, especially in cycling. As he admits, what everyone else sees as a miracle is seen by the athlete and his coach during months of training. This doesn’t stop Strickland for cheering for Armstrong like a mad man on the Col de la Colombiere. Through his book, Strickland helps you understand why he can’t help but support Armstrong. He does that by explaining what makes cycling so great, what makes (made) Armstrong so great and what makes him human. And maybe this book will make you cheer for Armstrong (and cycling!) too.

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2 Comments

  1. From Hate to Love (or, from intense dislike to grudging admiration) « Mastering the Uphill Shift
  2. Episode 12: We’re Just Haters | We Have Pelotonitis

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