Monday, August 9, 2010

Another Lance Book

Just as last year, when I returned to Chicago from The Tour de France I had the treat of a just-released biography of Lance by an editor of an American bicycling magazine to read. A year ago the book was "Lance Armstrong: The Making of the World's Greatest Champion" by John Wilcockson of "VeloNews." This year it is "Tour de Lance" by Bill Strictland of "Bicycling" magazine.

Wilcockson's book caused a stir in Monaco last year at The Tour start, as it quoted Lance as saying that one of the reasons he came out of retirement was he thought the previous year's race was "a bit of a joke" with Carlos Sastre winning it and Christian Vande Velde finishing fourth--an incendiary remark that Wilcockson saved for his book and didn't report at the time, not the most responsible of journalism. Lance was forced to apologize. No word though if he stopped speaking to Wilcockson, or if Wilcockson was taken to task by his magazine publisher.

Wilcockson's book started out looking as if it could be the definitive biography of Lance, what with that comment and interviews with Lance's step-father and people who knew him in his younger hooligan days and many of his insiders, though not Sheryl Crow or Frankie Andreu. I should have realized the book was going to be strongly one-sided tilting in Lance's favor though, as its stated thrust was that Lance may be the greatest champion ever of any sport, greater than Pele or Woods or Jordan, and discounted the many drug charges leveled at him over the years.

Though Wilcockson elaborated on some of the less developed stories from Lance's two autobiographies, such as hitting the flaming tennis balls, it passed over many of the negative episodes of his story--his falling out with his best friend College and many of his teammates, the Vaughters-Andreu text-message exchange, his three top lieutenants over the years (Roberto Heras, Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis) all leaving his team to go be team leaders elsewhere and all getting busted for doping. There's a lot of smoke to the story he ignored. Though the book touched on issues that no other Lance book had, it failed to live up to its early promise of covering all bases, ending up as somewhat of a disappointment.

Strictland begins his book with an inflated description of Lance's greatness as he rides the opening time trial of the 2009 Tour in Monaco. Strictland finds it beyond belief that Lance can go as fast as he can, and not because of his age or his three-and-half year absence from racing, but just because he races too and he can't go that fast. What he says of Lance could have been said of any of the other 179 riders racing that day, a day that Lance wasn't even the fastest. I feared this book was going to be a hyped-up portrayal of Lance as some sort of deity by another of his worshippers.

I didn't think I could take 290 pages of such fawning--a book that wanted to be taken seriously enough to have a ten-page index. But in contrast to Wilcockson's book that started out tough on Lance and then turned soft, this book started out soft on Lance, then turned tough tackling the drug issue head-on in an objective and fair-minded manner. Strictland acknowledges that he has been an ardent fan of the sport and Lance for years. He undertook this book so he could come to a greater understanding of him. He is refreshingly frank saying he was rooting for Lance to win the '09 Race, but that he also wanted to be as objective as he could.

Strictland spent months following Lance during his comeback year. He was there at the race in Spain when he broke his collarbone and at the Tour of the Gila and the Giro d'Italia and of course The Tour de France from start to finish. Strictland's previous book was ghost-writing Johan Bruyneel's biography, a total puff job. It was so shallow and inconsequential that Strictland somewhat disclaims it in Lance's book, saying he had to be careful not to include anything negative that might have upset any of Bruyneel's colleagues. It was quite a contrast to Strictland's book before that, "Ten Points," a brutally honest memoir recounting his abusive father, who literally made him eat shit, and how it made him a tougher person and bicycle racer.

The Bruyneel book at least won Strictland Lance's confidence and access to his inner circle and his team. Strictland is invited to ride in the team car at races and hangs out with the team mechanics. He's urged to become even more involved, but he wishes to keep some distance. This book didn't have to be approved by anyone he was writing about, unlike the Bruyneel book, so he could go back to being frank and honest. He says he learned many things he wished he hadn't, though he keeps many of those to himself. As to whether there is truth to any of the doping allegations, he can't say. He calls himself an "agnostic."

As good as this book is, Strictland suffers the disadvantage that most American writers have when writing about cycling--they didn't grow up in a culture where it was a prominent sport receiving the thorough coverage of baseball and football and basketball. He's had to play catch up, learning about the rich history of the sport and all its nuances on his own. Though he knows a lot, he doesn't have an innate sense of the sport that Europeans have, such as Wilcockson, who is English, though he now lives in Boulder. Its like someone learning a language later in their life, unable to shed their accent.

He betrays his lack of a full grasp of the sport here and there, even though he claims early on, "I understood and love cycling in a way few do." He does in comparison to most Americans, but not compared to those who grew up with it. He says no one ever lucks into a Tour de France win. He's doubtlessly read many Tour histories, as I have, but he forgets that in 1904, the second Tour, Henri Cornet was declared the winner two months after the race's conclusion when the first four finishers were disqualified for taking trains. Cornet is the youngest Tour winner. He was 19 during the race, but turned twenty by the time he was declared the winner. Books alternately refer to him as the 19-year old, or the 20-year old winner. Cornet rode in The Tour eight more times and never finished higher than 8th, not even finishing The Tour in the subsequent three editions after he was declared the winner.

Strictland knows about Cornet, as he cites him when he comments that some books falsely declare Lance the youngest world champion and youngest winner of a stage of The Tour. He is well read enough to know Tour books frequently don't get the facts right, yet he is a victim himself. See a review at for many more.

Another of Strictland's false generalizations is that there is always a breakaway on the last stage of The Tour that finishes on the Champs Elysees, but it never lasts. That too is patently false. How could he not remember the legendary time when Hinault broke away wearing the yellow jersey for one last emphatic stage win?

When he describes the points race for the Green Jersey he writes that points are won "at two or three sites on the course or at the finish." Maybe that was a typo. Points are accumulated during the race and at the finish. During his opening passage on the great effort Lance put into the time trial for its twenty minute length, he adds that sometimes Lance maintains that pace for six hours. As someone who has done a little racing himself, Strictland ought to know that it is utterly impossible to give an all out effort for that length of time.

The caption on a photo says that the pistol became Contador's trademark after the Verbier stage. Lance and others have criticized Contador for a year or more for his somewhat adolescent pointing of his finger and thumb, imitating a pistol, as his victory salute.

Despite these and other frustrating lapses, this book had much to offer. I was reading hard, eager for the next insightful tidbit, and observation. He says that Lance and Bruyneel both have piercing blue eyes, "though Bruyneel's communicate more humor." He reveals that Dr. Lim, the team's physiologist, fed Lance pill-size, wireless thermometers to study the changes in his core temperature as he rode.

Even though I devour every book on cycling I can get my hands on I never knew that Coppi was so dominant that from 1946 to 1954 he was never caught after he broke away from the pack, such an astonishing stat that Eddie Merckx brings it up in deference to Coppi. Nor did I know that Contador dropped out of school when he was 16 to devote himself full-time to racing or that Eddie B., the Polish coach of the American 1984 Olympic team that used blood-doping, advised the eating of horse meat. I knew that Lance had the number 1274 on his bike, the number of days he had gone between competing in a professional race, but I did not know that he also had "FSU 2009" on his bike. Strictland had to ask what it meant. "FSU" stood for "Fuck Shit Up." Perhaps the next Lance book will use that as its thesis to try to define him, along with the quote from a Lance insider who told Strictland that Lance returned to racing because, "He's a killer and he missed killing."

When Strictland accompanies Ekimov in a team car during The Tour he describes how he inserts a metal tongue into the seat belt so it won't beep. He divulges that none of the directors ever wore seat belts. He reveals, too, that Ben Stiller damaged Lance's chain clowning around on his time trial bike just four minutes before the Stage Four team time trial in Montpellier. It would have been unthinkable for such a thing to happen back when he was dominating The Tour and taking it so seriously. He never allowed Robin Williams to show up until late in The Race when he had secured the win.

Lance accepted Strictland enough to let him accompany him on occasion when he trained. On one ride Strictland thought he might be relaxed and off-guard enough to give him an honest explanation for the incident late in the 2004 Tour when Lance was wearing the yellow jersey and had the race won and bridged up to a breakaway group containing the Italian Filippo Simeoni and brought him back to the peloton, an incident so notorious that it makes Wikipedia. Lance and Simeoni shared the same Italian doctor--Michele Ferrari. Simeoni had accused Ferrari of prescribing him EPO. Simeoni was pretty much a pariah in the peloton for making such a confession.

Lance didn't want Simeoni to win a stage or even have any TV time being in a breakaway. It was a brazen gesture from Lance doing this deed himself, rather than summoning a teammate for the task. It was obvious to all who know the sport that Lance was saying "keep your mouth shut about the dirty underside of the sport. Speak up and you can have no glory," But Lance gave Strictland a phony, laughably bogus explanation, saying he was just feeling aggressive that day. It was such a ridiculous comment that Strictland justifiably doesn't even comment on it, just letting it stand by itself.

Lance gives Wilcockson a similarly outlandish explanation for "The Look" on the L'Alpe d'Huez stage when he left Ullrich behind after feigning fatigue. He said he was merely checking to see if his teammate Ruberia was anywhere near in case he needed his help. Everyone knows he wanted to see the look on Ullrich's face when he left him in the dust and was saying "See ya." Strictland quotes a Lance insider as saying Lance "knows how to mind-fuck better than anybody."

Lance is forthrightly honest though in reflecting back on calling Sastre's Tour victory "a joke." He admits, " It was a dickhead thing to say," but then adds, "even though I was right."

Strictland immersed himself deeply enough in The Tour to have encountered my friend and fellow race follower Skippy as he was hanging out with the Astana mechanics at the Giro. Skippy doesn't make the index though. You'll have to go to page 185 for the two-page description of Skippy. He also mentions The Devil and the American fan who wears the football helmet with horns and Yvette Horner, the French woman who played the accordion in the caravan back in the '60s. He also makes a coded allusion to me. He mentions that the Italian Nocentini, who wore the yellow jersey for a few stages, posed for "five, six, seven pictures." 567 is my bicycle messenger number.

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