by Daniel Coyle
Lance Armstrong, the man, has been almost completely obscured by the legendary (make that mythical) aspects of his life: trailer park childhood, cancer survivor, 7-time Tour de France winner, fundraiser for cancer victims, magnet
for doping allegations. He’s even engaged to a rock star.
As a result, books about Armstrong have either been admiring hagiographies (It’s Not About the Bike; Every Second Counts) or unsubstantiated accounts of performance enhancing drug use (the French-language L.A. Confidentiel: Les Secrets de Lance Armstrong by David Walsh).
This book is different. Author Daniel Coyle moved his family to Armstrong’s European base in Girona, Spain, for 15 months and finagled access to Armstrong and his team. Coyle sat in on meetings, talked with Armstrong and his teammates, and had a ringside
seat as Lance prepared for and rode the 2004 Tour, his record-breaking sixth victory. Coyle even got to watch as Michele Ferrari, aka Doctor Evil, Armstrong’s Italian coaching advisor at the time, fussed and worried over Lance’s
wattage results and body weight.
The subtitle sums it up: “One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France.”
So who is Lance Armstrong? Coyle provides anecdote after anecdote but somehow I never quite got a clear view of Armstrong the man. I met him once, briefly, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in his pre-cancer days and was left with a fleeting impression
of his fabled arrogance.
Because of his longterm access, I hoped Coyle could flesh out Armstrong’s personality for me in much more detail. However, at the end of the book I felt like I knew him even less than before. This isn’t Coyle’s fault but rather the result of trying to
sketch a complex personality who carefully shields himself from legions of fans (and prying journalists) as a matter of survival.
Coyle succeeds far better in explaining cycling. By his own admission, he isn’t much of a rider but he quickly learned about the sport. it’s fascinating to read about what we do on our bikes every day from the perspective of a smart outsider. Coyle soaked
up cycling’s nuances but he also has a clear eye for the paradoxes, inconsistencies and downright silliness, although a few mistakes creep into the narrative. For instance Coyle lists Ed Burke among the “brass from Trek.” I assume he’s talking about
Trek’s president, John Burke, rather than the late exercise physiologist and cycling writer Ed Burke.
One of the joys of this book is Coyle’s writing ability. The pages are laced with humor and biting incisiveness. Some samples:
“Armstrong is fascinating for many reasons, but mostly because he’s our purest embodiment of the fundamental human act — to impose the will on the uncaring world — an act that compels our attention because it seems so simple and yet is secretly magical.
Because at its core, will is about belief, and with Armstrong we can see the belief happening. It’s etched on his face, in that narrow-eyed expression Armstrong’s friends warily refer to as The Look.”
On Jan Ullrich’s legs:
“They were slabbed, majestic columns entwined by a Gothic rigging of hawsers and cords, topped by quads the size of Christmas hams. In size, shape and definition, they did not resemble cyclist’s legs so much as the sort of legs comic book artists gave
On racers” wives:
“Being married to a pro racer sounds a lot cooler than it actually is. You’re dealing with a guy who’s gone all the time, who trains obsessively, who has idiosyncratic dietary requirements, who never wants to walk anywhere and who requires a post-workout
nap every afternoon. Being partners with a pro bike racer, on the whole, wasn’t that different from taking care of a toddler.”
On a crash:
“A rolling crunch, the harsh rip of tearing carbon and bending aluminum, the firecrackers of exploding tires, the soft percussion of bodies. Viewed from the front, it was as if a cannonball passed through the peloton, sending up a spume of atomized fabric,
metal and flesh.”
Coyle is a master at sketching character (aside from Armstrong) with a few words and a vignette or two. For instance, his portrait of Armstrong’s then-teammate, Floyd Landis, is pitch-perfect, revealing a mixture of boyish innocence and
skeptical intelligence that could come only from a sheltered Mennonite boyhood segueing directly to the life of a cycling star hobnobbing with Sheryl Crow.
Coyle is good with Tyler Hamilton, too, showing us the paradoxical mix of the nice guy and the tough-as-nails bike rider. Hamilton has choirboy looks, signed his online diaries with “Thanks for reading,” but rode the 2003 Tour with a
broken collarbone. After an earlier race accident he reportedly gritted his teeth in pain so much he ground them down to the nerves. Hamilton hadn’t tested positive for blood doping when Coyle followed the “04 Tour (the verdict in Hamilton’s final appeal
has yet to be rendered) but there’s a shadow over Coyle’s nice-guy description of Tyler that in retrospect is almost clairvoyant. In fact, one chapter is titled “Hamilton’s Secret.”
A Sport Rife with Cheating
This brings us finally to the drug accusations swirling around Armstrong at the time of Coyle’s writing (charges now augmented by lab tests that reportedly found EPO in Armstrong’s system at the 1999 Tour). Do the allegations have merit? Coyle doesn’t
take sides. But he shows us a sport rife with cheating by 2004 despite attempts to clean it up after the 1998 Festina scandal erupted at that year’s Tour. Shortly after the “04 Tour, Armstrong’s advisor, Ferrari, was convicted of unlawful distribution
of medicines and sporting fraud by an Italian court, Hamilton was busted for blood doping, Armstrong’s friend David Millar admitted EPO use and was banned from racing for two years — and the list goes on.
For his part, Coyle displays professional but fair-minded skepticism. He avoids the guilt-by-association that would tempt lesser writers. I get the impression that Coyle wants to believe Armstrong but is constrained by his intelligence and reporter’s
Time may reveal whether Armstrong achieved his victories with only talent and hard work. But this book goes a long way toward giving bike fans the information to make their own judgments about Lance’s legacy. And it’s a penetrating, entertaining glimpse
into cycling at the highest level.
By the way, Coyle quotes Armstrong, team director Johann Bruyneel and many others directly. Strong language isn’t tempered, so beware if profanity offends you. You probably won’t want to read sections of this book to your young cycling-fan
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.