Tour De Lance – Review

Jul 27 2010

This is—to date—the fourth book I’ve read on Lance Armstrong, and as far as I can tell, the first written by an actual cycling fan. Dan Coyle seems to have gone into Lance Armstrong’s War without too deep an understanding of the sport, and after slogging through Every Second Counts, I’m fully convinced that Sally Jenkins regards the sport of cycling, and indeed the craft of writing, with utter contempt.

I begin my review with this note because Tour de Lance is most certainly written from the perspective of someone who knows the sport. The opening pages describe how inconceivable it is that Armstrong should be able to propel a bike at 38mph, with the technical intimacy that only repeated failure in attaining such speeds can provide. Another welcome angle is that Strickland’s involvement in cycling predates Armstrong’s. In a world where so many of us—“haters” and “fanboy$” alike—are only here because of Armstrong’s post-cancer media exposure, it’s refreshing to read something from someone with a longer-term perspective.

The book follows a reliable pattern of chapter alternation, first a stage of the 2009 Tour de France, then a period of the training and racing preceding it, with the intent of drawing parallels between Armstrong’s fight to regain top form, and the fights of the millions he inspires. It’s an effective technique, and (while I can only speak directly for one group) keeps a nice balance of content and storyline for both the audience reading the book because they like cycling, and the audience reading the book because they like Lance.

Despite the fact that I’m hardly the Texan’s biggest fan, I found it a pretty entertaining read. Sure, Strickland and I differ our interpretations of the events of the 2009 Tour—he sees an aging champion, satisfied enough with the effort of merely attempting a miracle; I see a hollow celebrity painfully and pointlessly trying to revive old glories.

But the narrative elements of Tour de Lance scarcely attempt to sway the reader to a favorable point-of-view; Armstrong, when popped off the pace at the Giro, mumbles into the radio about troubles with his shifting. When failing to win a stage against mere domestic American talent at the Tour of the Gila, it’s made clear Armstrong has gone all in—and come up short.

It’s no small challenge for a writer with a strongly-held opinion to present facts in a way that appears objective to those who disagree with him—and it’s all the more difficult on a topic as divisive as Armstrong. Still, Stickland rises to the task admirably, and hopefully a stroll through the pages of this book will prompt readers on either side of the issue to a thoughtful reconsideration their opinions.

As an aside, I’m not quite convinced of the totality of “unabashed fandom” that Strickland proclaims. Throughout the text are scattered what the careful observer will be hard-pressed not to consider hints about the ’99-’05 run. Unprovable “things I wished I’d never been told” about the inner workings of Bruyneel’s operation; mentioning an “unknowable past” while describing faith that at least Armstrong’s comeback was clean; and perhaps most surprisingly, in light of Armstrong’s frequently-referred-to-speech after the 2005 Tour, “I know there are no miracles at the Tour de France”.

If there’s a frustrating aspect to this book—and as any regular reader of this site can tell you, I’m hardly the one to be pointing this out—it’s the relatively lax attention to factual detail. Not sure if I received an advance copy not subject to full editorial rigor, but here’s a brief list of some not-quite-accurate points I found before I got tired of looking them up:

  • Page 14 – Fleche Wallonne erroneously included as a Monument in a summary of Eddy Merckx’s palmares.
  • Page 20 – Armstrong’s famous bluff against Ullrich on the Alpe d’Huez stage mentioned as taking place in 2002, a year in which Ullrich did not compete and Alpe was not raced.
  • Page 43 – “No one ever lucks into a Tour de France win”. Roger Walkowiak is widely regarded as having done so, as is Oscar Periero, to a lesser extent.
  • Page 44 – Armstrong domestiques described as not having opportunities for stage wins. In 2005, both Hincapie and Savoldelli took individual stages that didn’t directly benefit Armstrong (although their presence earlier on in those breakaways did).
  • Page 46 – Vuelta a Espana 2008 described as taking place in October. The Vuelta finished on 21 September of that year.
  • Page 57 – ‘Cross Vegas in 2008 described as Armstrong’s first cyclocross race. Armstrong won the Texas State Cyclocross Championships in 2002, as reported here, and in a Sports Illustrated feature on Armstrong.

While the above certainly don’t demand a rewrite, after the events of these past three months, I’d really like to see an updated version of Tour de Lance. In my mind, Armstrong’s story arc hinges so heavily on the results of this last Tour (and, longer term, on the Land Grenade) that, even though I finished reading it before the Tour began, I struggled to find an appropriate moment to publish this review. With the final word on Armstrong’s 2010 Tour changing on a near-daily basis, I just wasn’t comfortable presenting an assessment of this book until after the final lap in Paris.

Now that the Tour is over, and Armstrong has (as I see it) wasted the efforts of some teammates, failed to support others, and made an optimistic-to-the-point-of-folly effort to win an eight-up sprint to take home some positive from the race, Tour de Lance feels almost like a time capsule; a snapshot of unfounded optimism in the face of what were clearly overwhelming odds. Armstrong’s 3rd Place in ’09 feels like a near-miss at the end of this book, but after this year’s event, it might be the miraculous achievement of Armstrong’s career.

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