A week after the most recent Tour de France, the Nobel Prize winner may indeed have been onto something when it comes to Tour legend Lance Armstrong. A year after he came out of a three-and-a-half year retirement to claim a place on the podium, the seven-time winner had high hopes for this, his final Tour.
It was not to be.
After a strong first week, a pair of crashes sealed Armstrong’s fate, making the final dozen stages for him a slow and painful final lap around the course he had spent thousands of hours on and about which he knew nearly every detail. Armstrong’s 38-year-old body and the other riders in the peloton denied him the glory of one last stage victory, as the closest he came during the ending weeks was a sixth-place finish. Even his efforts to highlight the plight of cancer sufferers worldwide was stymied, as race officials made Armstrong and other Radio Shack team members shed their special shirts with the number “28” on them in favor of standard Tour garb.
Bicycling magazine editor Bill Strickland followed the build up to, and action during, last year’s race. The material he gathered during his reporting formed the basis for The Tour de Lance, an admiring look at one of the world’s most passionate, controversial, and, for many, inspirational athletes.
Armstrong’s life has been thoroughly chronicled. He himself has penned two memoirs, was the protagonist in Daniel Coyle’s work about his 2004 quest to win an unprecedented sixth consecutive Tour, and is the constant example for coach Chris Carmichael in his book. As a result, there is relatively new ground that Strickland breaks in the central elements of Armstrong’s story: the prodigious physical talent; the youthful arrogance that became tempered through his battle with cancer; the insatiable quest for victory; the mind games he so successfully played on his rivals; the ever-growing list of accusers saying they know Armstrong used illegal drugs; and Armstrong’s resolute defiance and continual pointing to his never having failed a drug test.
These are all in the Tour de Lance, and Strickland adds a couple of new elements to the narrative. The first is the difficulty Armstrong experienced in preparing for the Tour. At one point, after breaking his collarbone, he considered abandoning his return, and had to be asked point blank and coaxed by long-time trainer Johan Bruyneel into resuming his quest with his previous intensity. These scenes are a poignant reminder of something I read once about gymnasts in the former Soviet Union, like oxen who have been temporarily freed from yokes, not wanting to get back to training after taking a few weeks off for vacation.
This aspect relates to the second distinctive component in Strickland’s work: his documentation of Armstrong’s age, increased vulnerability and gradual recognition that not only can he not defeat Astana teammate Alberto “El Pistolero” Contador, but he might not have been able to do so during his peak. For any athlete as insanely competitive as Armstrong-Coyle’s book recounts how he used to love calling rivals like Jan Ullrich from one of the Alps’ highest peaks and asking, “Guess where I am?”-this has to be painful and disturbing knowledge to acquire.
Strickland writes about the physical strain Armstrong experiences throughout the race in small details like the slightly looser skin underneath his skin or the possibility that the Tour is bending Armstrong to its will, rather than the other way around, as had been the case for so many prior races. He presents this information to evoke an image of a more human, mature and sympathetic Armstrong, even as he is physically diminished. Strickland’s relationship with Armstrong from his pre-cancer days strengthens that trajectory.
Strickland largely gives Armstrong a pass on the drug issue, basically saying that each side draws its conclusions based on the available evidence, but leaving little doubt about that his sympathies lie with the Texan. A federal case against Armstrong looms, with all kind of implications for his legacy, and that is a story for another, later day. Strickland also shows the increasing division on the Astana team, the result of which that Contador’s entire team, in addition to the rest of the racers, were hoping that he would falter and lose.
He did not, of course, last year or this. By becoming the ninth man in history to win at least three Tours, Contador continued his ascent into extremely rare air indeed, while Armstrong’s career ended more with an Eliot-like whimper. For a brisk ride through Armstrong’s final glory, Strickland’s book could do the trick.