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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20 Responses to “Tour De Lance – Review”

  1. GWR 27 July 2010 at 5:46 pm #

    Many thanks for the detailed review! I think, on balance, if this lands at my local library I will give it a read.

    Generally, though, I think North American audiences have been poorly served by cycling writers. The two major books to come out recently – this one and the one by John Wilco*kson – have both been on Armstrong.

    I hope I’m not the only one thinking that it’s time to move on; how many books is that on him now?. It would be great to see something on, for example, the 7-Eleven team along the lines of ‘Roule Britannia’. Actually, given the quality of William Fotheringham’s writing, perhaps he’d be willing to take it on.

  2. BTD 27 July 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    One part of the book that shocked me was that Bruyneel recruited Lance to come back and go to Astana, in a seeming bit of pettiness over Contador’s flirtation with other teams. The way Strickland tells that story is not flattering to Bruynell from my vantage point. He permanently poisoned his relationship with Contador.

    Before I had heard the story as it being Lance’s idea. The book tells it as Bruyneel’s ideain response to Contador’s wandering eyes.

    It seems tome that when you read that, it is hard to blame Contador for not trusting Bruyneel.

    And frankly, I think it makes Lance’s comeback a lot more sympathetic.

  3. Brad Eddy 27 July 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    Well you really do dislike lance at least you admit it. 3rd in the TDF is hardly a washed up hollow celebrity. You should give him more credit, he would whip your arse at any age in any sport and he just beat approx 150 of the best riders in the world and completed 3000km. If your so cynical I wonder why you would bother reading it. You know if you don’t have anything nice to say shut your hole.

  4. Sebastian 27 July 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    You’re right that the release of this book feels weirdly timed. Presumably it was meant to coincide with a miraculous eighth victory; instead it lands (as you say) with the thud of false optimism between a failed Tour bid and a looming legal knife-fight between several American cycling greats.

    In general I’ve been disappointed to find that many of the requiems for Armstrong published over the last few days have repeated the old line that he transformed cycling from a sloppy, parochial, amateurish sport into a competitive and high tech one (i.e. one worthy of the attentions of whoever’s writing the article). I know that they’re writing in partial ignorance, but I still find myself wishing that Francesco Moser would walk up and give these people a fist-sized history lesson. My hope is that Taylor Phinney blooms into a classics start over the next few years, under the Armstrong brand, thus drawing out American interest in the sport but widening its focus beyond the TDF.

  5. Miller 27 July 2010 at 11:30 pm #

    Wow Brad, tell us how you really feel.

    Where did Mr. Cyclocosm say he could beat LA in any sport? Maybe you should practice what you preach and keep your thoughts to yourself.

  6. Psychlist 28 July 2010 at 4:17 am #

    Take a chill pill @Brad.

    The whole idea of an internet blog is to express one’s opinion and /or thoughts on various subjects. if every blogger was to write only ‘nice’ things, it would be a boring world.

    No-one is forcing you to read Cosmo’s blog.

    I feel it was a considered and objective review considering how ‘cynical’ Cosmo is meant to be about Pharmstrong, oops, I mean Armstrong.

  7. harlond 28 July 2010 at 9:31 am #

    “I see a hollow celebrity painfully and pointlessly trying to revive old glories.”

    Love your page, Cosmo, but I think you’re projecting here. I’m no great fan of Armstrong either, but maybe he just likes to race.

  8. skippi 28 July 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    Just back from riding the route of the TDF for the 13th time and enjoying riding with Lance, andy,alberto, silvain, jerome and the belgian dope king on rest days during this tour.

    Everyone writes about Lance because they are so greedy that they forget that the public who can find time to read, know that there are other equally interesting “Race Cyclists” but rarely find authors who will invest the time to entertain the public!

    Quick profit is what most are seeking when they write about high profile figures, had they the interests of their readers they would write about “Georgethecyclist” or “fatherandson” or even “RobbieMcEwen” & “STuartO’GRady”.

    Of course we all know that these authors would make no money writing about me and my failure to find volunteers and “Disabled racers” to ride relay stle through the Tour de France 2010 !

  9. Bill Strickland 28 July 2010 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanks for the fair, clear — and tough — review.

    Armstrong is so polarizing that a number of readers/critics become incensed at my attempts to air multiple views of him in the book. I don’t care that they’re incensed. (If you read the book you’re entitled to your opinion, is the way I’ve always seen it, much to many of my English professors’ dismays.) But I think, as Cosmos says, they’re missing a chance to reconsider or, at least, examine their stance on Armstrong, bike racing, dope, miracles, comebacks personal and celebrity.

    I’ve cringed at some of the mistakes that got through, too. (Not an excuse but an explanation: The time from unsold proposal to finished book was less than a year, and after traveling to follow Armstrong, I wrote the bulk of the book in just four months, and had about a month to revise and edit; I generally take about two years.) I’d appreciate input from Cosmo and anyone else on corrections, which I’ll incorporate when the book reprints, along with, of course, a fresh framing of how I feel about him.

    A note about that framing, for anyone who might be curious: I like the idea of the book as a (Cosmo’s suggestion) time capsule, so I don’t want to edit out what turned out to be the unfounded optimism I felt — in the same way I admit in the book that I felt myself losing objectivity when it came to him, I think it’s more important to be honest about what I really thought at the time than to look smart and knowing in hindsight. I’d like to bring the reader up to date on events without refashioning the narrative.

    Thanks again,

    Bill S.

  10. Whitey 28 July 2010 at 2:44 pm #

    Nice review. I’m a staunch Armstrong supporter but am always willing to listen to well-reasoned, thought provoking arguments. I was on the fence as to whether to buy this book now or to wait. I think I’ll wait until the second printing. I appreciate the honesty and the passion you have for cycling. And I enjoy your podcast “How the Race was Won”. I always learn something from them. Thanks.

  11. rainbow 28 July 2010 at 4:26 pm #

    Brad couldn’t agree with you more!
    The importance of being able to critique something is not to be critical but to judge evenly, cleaving the good from the bad the wheat form the chaff and placing it in context. Cosmos historical criticisms were only fair and huge oversights of the editorial staff that require correction before any future additions. Oh, the part I agree with you most on, was the last 11 words.

  12. skippi 29 July 2010 at 4:11 am #

    just lifted your interview item to “Tourdafarce” for others to read !

    Send me some of those compression shorts for wear at the Vuelta, with padding and bib top they will get a good workout on the “selle san marco carbon saddle” !

  13. ricky marbles 29 July 2010 at 8:22 am #

    @Brad Eddy -What does “he would whip your arse at any age in any sport and he just beat approx 150 of the best riders in the world ” have to do with this article? Your either really young or really old with a fantasy of kicking younger guys asses just to show your not old? Instead of lobbing lame LANCEHEAD comments you should take your own advice. And you really think LA will look back his ’10 Tour and think “man, I beat 150 other racers this year in the Tour. I went from only being beaten by two last year to a 152 this year.” Do you understand cycling at all?? Those 150 that he beat were all sprinters, domestiques (there to help their team with their objectives) and riders not quite the caliber as some of the Pro Tour guys.
    That’s not saying much.
    P.S. you won’t learn about bike racing on Lance’s twitter page.

  14. Joe 30 July 2010 at 4:59 am #

    I personally find the book a bit wishy washy and it has a naive, “lance fanboy” writer who has very different standards for lance and the rest of the pro cyclists. You listen to Phil and Paul saying if Lance did not crash he would of been right up there. I find that hard to believe especially that another rider crashed on that stage and rode into the yelloy jersey. It was also clear that Evans’ crash was far worse than lance’s as lance was going quite well on the madeleine. ON Bill Stricklands twitter he comments about how much of evans’ time lost on that stage was lost due to his crash but you don’t ask the same question of lance. It is these hypocrisies and double standards which separate journalists writing about the tour and plain old fanboys like Strickland.

  15. georgethecyclist 2 August 2010 at 7:59 pm #

    Anyone who read Strictland’s bio of Johan Bruyneel shouldn’t be surprised by his sloppy attention to facts. He mispells Christian Vande Velde throughout the entire book as “Vandevelde.” On page 67 he says Ullrich won the Tour de France in 1998, then on page 119 gets it right as 1997. He refers several times to the Tour de France as being a month-long race, when it is 23 days, including two rest days. He refers to Lance’s veteran Russian teammate Ekimov as an “up-and-comer” in the 2005 Tour de Georgia (page 44). Even though Stritland races himself, his racing acumen isn’t as sharp as one might think it would be. He refers to Lance “practicing” the Tour de France climbs.

  16. Joe 6 August 2010 at 8:01 pm #

    I wonder if Strickland will write a book about Lance and his doped up friends.

  17. S. 6 August 2010 at 10:04 pm #

    Has no one actually noticed that Strickland wrote a comment here? At least I hope it was him.

  18. GWR 27 November 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    It was nice of Strickland to reply to Cosmo’s post. I’m nearly finished the book and have enjoyed it so far. Strickland’s writing is superb (I look forward to subsequent works from him, perhaps not on Armstrong though); despite my generally low tolerance for the creative non-fiction style of writing where the author is so prominent in the story, Strickland can sure tell an engaging story.

    And, given the emotions that Armstrong evokes in fans, no one will be satisfied by Strickland’s conclusions, especially his agnosticism over doping allegations. Still, how interesting to look at Contador’s miraculous 2009 performance in light of allegations against him this year!

    I only noticed one further error: the Virenque v Armstrong duel on Mont Ventoux is listed as 2001, when it was of course in the 2002 Tour.

  19. Osteo 8 July 2011 at 11:47 pm #

    I think all Lance’s books will be re-written soon enough. Sad but true. He’s given millions of hope but at what cost. It’s sad that our heroes have to do things suspicious to achieve greatness in the hope of becoming leaders…

  20. bike clothing 7 September 2011 at 2:35 am #

    Nice review.
    ON Bill Stricklands twitter he comments about how much of evans’ time lost on that stage was lost due to his crash but you don’t ask the same question of lance.

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