Monday, July 20, 2009

Lance, Lance, Lance

Over the years, my feelings about Lance Armstrong have shifted many times. I started as an admirer and fan -- though never truly fanatic -- around the time he won Tour de France #2 in 2000 (I hadn't followed pro cycling previously). Eventually, I decided he's kind of a jerk (which may be a polite understatement), but I also acknowledge that he has accomplished a lot more on and off the bike (winning seven Tours and assisting cancer survivors through his foundation) than I ever will. Oddly, although I consider Armstrong to be a polarizing figure, I personally feel ambivalent about him.

I think the problem most people have with Armstrong is that he isn't what they expect or want him to be. Many expect winners to be gracious and humble, but he's brash and arrogant. Some want to praise God for his recovery from cancer, but he is not religious. Amazon reviewers even criticize him for using the f-word in his book, as if Lance the Hero isn't allowed to swear. I give him credit for being himself and not trying to meet the expectations of others, but at the same time, I don't think he's particularly likeable.

In the past four years, I have accumulated several books about Armstrong, picking them up at bargain prices (total cost $12). With his return to the Tour this year, I decided that if I don't read them now, I never will. Thus began two weeks of Lance overload.

Chasing Lance: The 2005 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong's Ride of a Lifetime by Martin Dugard - A quick read, this book is the weakest of the bunch. It's part sports reporting and part travelogue but isn't exactly riveting as either. Only the greenest of pro cycling fans will gain much from it. Dugard describes the 2005 Tour as experienced by a sports journalist. He writes about the press tent and the logistics of getting from the start to the finish of each stage. He details the daily phenomena of the Tour, such as the assembly and disassembly of a miniature city in each host town along the route. Actual race coverage is inconsistent. This book could have been a long magazine article. The ideal Chasing Lance reader would probably be someone with little cycling knowledge who has been assigned to write about the next Tour and wants to know what to expect.

Every Second Counts by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins - Wow, a book from the 2000s without a lengthy subtitle! I read It's Not About the Bike many years ago. That popular book, the now familiar story of Armstrong's life up to his first Tour victory, is a tough act to follow. Every Second Counts is Armstrong's version of the middle years of his Tour reign. Armstrong fanatics will no doubt enjoy this book (they've probably already read it). It gives a good feel for who he is and also what he has to put up with (such as the drawn-out French doping investigation of his team). He shares many anecdotes from cycling as well as his relationships with cancer survivors. It's a decent book, but knowing how Lance controls his image, one feels like it's only half the story. By the way, a third memoir is coming in December: Comeback 2.0: Up Close and Personal.

Lance Armstrong's War: One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France by Daniel Coyle - This is the best book of the three. Coyle covers all facets of Armstrong's 2004 cycling season: training, racing, equipment, doping allegations, Sheryl Crow, teammates, trainers, business, lawsuits... plus his primary Tour competitors Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton, and Iban Mayo. Although I followed pro cycling religously in the mid-2000s, I still found new information in this book. It gives the reader an idea of Armstrong's environment with all its challenges and distractions. I think it's reasonably balanced, tilting in Armstrong's favor. Since bookstores are filled with Lance hagiographies, some Amazon reviewers actually think this book is negative, but it's nothing like David Walsh's accusatory, innuendo-filled volumes. Aside from devout Lance-haters, any cycling fan should enjoy the breadth and depth of Lance Armstrong's War.

Current tally: 57 books finished, 54 books acquired

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