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Tour de Lance, by Bill Strickland

Unhappy the land that has no heroes.
No, unhappy the land that needs heroes.

Brecht

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Bicycling Magazine’s editor-at-large, Bill Strickland, follows Lance Armstrong’s return to the pro peloton. Ostensibly an attempt to understand what drove the return, Strickland is really striving to understand why Armstrong means so much to so many, particularly to Strickland himself.

Title: Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong's Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France (UK Title: Tour de Lance: A Wild Ride Through Lance Armstrong’s Comeback.)
Author: Bill Strickland
Publisher: Harmony Books (UK: Mainstream Publishing)
Published: 2010
Pages: 300
Order: HERE (UK: HERE)
What is it?: Armstrong’s Comeback year, from that race in California through the one he crashed in, the one he sponsored, the Italian one, the crit he won and the Tour he didn’t.
Strengths: Strickland offers a revealing insight into life on Planet Armstrong and how the gravitational pull of the Great One warps reality.
Weaknesses: Strickland is an unapologetic fanboy and blind to whatever doesn’t fit the Disneyfied narrative he wishes the world would adhere to.
Rating: ★★★★(4 out of 5)

As well as being the editor-at-large of Bicycling Magazine, Bill Strickland is also the author of a number of cycling-related books. Most notably Johan Bruyneel’s autobiography, We Might As Well Win. In Tour de Lance, Strickland has a couple of interesting things to say about the writing of that book. He tells how, over the two years it took to put it together, Bruyneel opened up more than anticipated, leaving them with more material than could be used. Not just because of reasons of space. Peloton politics mean that many of the tales told by Bruyneel couldn’t appear in the book. Or anywhere else.

So much so normal. Cycling journalists sitting on stories is hardly much of a shock – you can bet that Pierre Giffard and Henri Desgrange knew a thing or three about the riders they championed that never made it into the pages of Le Vélo or L’Auto. Even so, the following confession should, I think, fire up some of the forum dwellers:

"I’ve sat on some serious revelations, things Bruyneel told me about the inner workings of the sport but also things I’d heard from team directors who assumed that because I was close to Bruyneel I must already know what they were talking about. I was surprised to find out that this information was even easier to keep to myself. I knew things to be true that I wished I’d never been told. I knew many more things that could never be proved true or false, and I wanted even more never to have been told those."

Me, I’m not really interested in speculating on the nature of the stories Strickland is sitting on. I’m more intrigued by what this confession tells us about how poorly the cycling world is reported. And in a sense, this is a theme Strickland returns to time and again throughout the book. During the Giro, while embedded with Astana and riding in the team’s support car (as he did during the Gila and parts of the Tour), he notes that "the more inside you are the more bound you were to tell the approved story." And here he is at the Vuelta Castilla y León, casting a cold eye on his fellow professionals:

"Some of the press tried as hard as possible to project the attitude of lifers in prison, hanging out bored in cars at the finish with the doors open and their feet propped on the dash; some walked around telling more interesting stories than they would ever file; some used their press passes to strut along the barricaded stretches as if on a fashion runway; and some were truly hardworking journalists who equalled what all the other types lacked in drive and ethic but were so blinkered by their sense of mission that they would never write about children sitting on bar tops or dogs scratching themselves in the road."

Strickland may well himself be economical with the actualité, withholding stories to protect his access. And he certainly wears blinkers when it comes to all things to do with Lance Armstrong. But there’s one thing you can’t accuse him of: he’s more than willing to write about children sitting on bar tops or dogs scratching themselves. And that’s what makes Tour de Lance both beautiful and annoying.

First the beauty. Anybody can string words together (look at me ma!) but Strickland can write. He can write about racing, which he shows time and again when he hits the main moments in the 2009 Tour. Even when describing racing which I could still recall from watching first time round, I found myself forgetting the outcome and getting sucked into Strickland’s novelistic narrative. But he can also look beyond the lycra-clad road-warriors and tell you what being at the Tour is like, as he does particularly well when the race reaches the Ventoux and he describes a celebration of excess.

But the colour side of Strickland’s writing is also where the book is at its worst. It’s not enough for him to merely describe the crowds who descended on the Astana team bus at the Tour of California as if it was carrying the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux. We’ve already had that in previous books about life on Planet Armstrong. So Strickland ups the ante and we get the Comeback as the Second Coming, with the story framed through one of the new disciples, Don.

Don knows diddley-squat about bike racing, but he’s heard of Armstrong. You see, Don’s got lymphoma. Don lives strong. He’s checked out of hospital early in order to see Armstrong blur past his family’s dairy farm in Hanford ("that was something, the top goddam riders in the world, right there in Hanford"). Skip forward five months and the Tour is cracking crossing the Camargue. Don’s at the hospital, doing dialysis ("the dialysis takes 8.8 pounds of shit out of him") and watching the race on the TV. Don’s inspired. Armstrong’s pain is his pain. His pain is Armstrong’s pain.

I could probably have lived with this sentimental detour – it is mercifully brief, spread over only six or seven pages – if it hadn’t read like some of the worst sub-Raymond Carver saccharine-laced crap I’ve yet come across, the sort of rubbish you’d expect to come out of one of Richard Ford’s creative writing classes. Oh Bill, why didn’t your editor just say no?

Strickland himself is a fan of Armstrong. Short of kitting him out in a ra-ra skirt and giving him a pair of pom-poms, I’m not sure how much more of a fan he could be. But do you know what? Strickland couldn’t give a toss. He’s happy to be a fanboy. And he doesn’t attempt to hide it.

At times he does try to find some sense of balance, telling us that – first time around – as the doping allegations against Armstrong mounted he became a "publicly silent apostate." And later he tells us how he became agnostic about whether Armstrong’s seven in a row owed anything to doping. But neither apostasy nor agnosticism are evident in Strickland’s take on the first retirement:

"I’d been happy to see Armstrong go, yes, but I’d been ecstatic that he’d gone out like the legend he was. His farewell fit the mythic truth of his life, one of those final rare acts that had made everything that came before it better and seemed to say that maybe we all had a chance, if not the obligation to exit with the same spirit with which we’d lived."

The mythic truth. Personally speaking, I’d prefer less Liberty Valance and more Roland Barthes when it comes to talking about myths and legends. But it’s the Liberty Valance view that Strickland holds to: when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Does it matter that saying Armstrong was the youngest winner of a stage in the Tour or that saying that Armstrong was the youngest ever World Champion was – as Strickland points out – factually inaccurate? Hardly: "There was already a sense of destiny about Armstrong, some indefinable quality that seemed to require that reality be improved to match the actual physical fact of him."

As much as the book is meant to be about Armstrong's Comeback, it's really about Strickland's own personal journey, from being less than ecstastic about the thought of the Comeback to becoming again the fanboy he used to be. And it’s with Alberto Contador that we get the full scope of Strickland’s journey. Back in September, he’d been wary of the Comeback, fearing it would spoil the exit and make Armstrong’s 2005 farewell words – his sorrow for the sceptics and the cynics who don’t believe in miracles – just another empty moment in modern sports. Back in September, he liked Contador and thought he deserved what Armstrong had in his prime, "the full support of a team built around him." In March he was against seeing the Armstrong/Contador tussle in black and white, as hero and villain: "I thought that cheated them both – and all of us – by reducing to a zero-sum game what was in reality a complex and passionate theatre of sport." But by July, on the Col du Colombiére and with Armstrong struggling past him however many seconds it was behind Contador, no longer fighting for victory but instead hanging on to a place on the podium, Strickland completed his journey, shouting out to Armstrong: "Ride that fucker down!" The fanboy had found his mojo again.

If Armstrong is Strickland’s hero, then – certainly by the time the Tour came around – Contador is definitely the villain of the piece. The villain for taking time back from Armstrong at Andorre Arcalis. The villain for arguing with Bruyneel over Astana’s plan to help ease Colombia’s George Hincapie into yellow. And the villain for scuppering an Astana podium lock-out by attacking on the Colombiére when teammate Andreas Klöden couldn’t hang on. But mostly Contador’s the villain for spoiling the Comeback by not letting Armstrong win. For not bending to Armstrong’s droit de seigneur.

But – for me anyway – the more Strickland saw everything from Armstrong’s point of view, praised or excused every little needling Twitter message or snub directed against the Spaniard, the bigger Contador’s victory became. When Stephen Roche beat Roberto Visentini in the 1987 Giro he had at least one Carrera teammate at his side. And when Bernard Hinault played with Greg LeMond’s head in the 1986 Tour it always seemed obvious that La Vie Claire head-honcho Bernard Tapie would eventually step in and tell the Badger to toe the line. But as Strickland tells it, Contador didn’t have a single Astana rider supporting him, nor was he getting support from the team personnel, especially not from Bruyneel. Compared with what Contador had to contend with in order to win this Tour, all seven of Armstrong’s victories seem like pretty easy affairs.

This, for me, was the really strange thing about Strickland’s book: despite his partisanship, despite his adoration of Armstrong, even despite the brief section when he writes about Don, despite all these things which should make me hate Tour de Lance, Strickland pulled off something special and kept me hooked, even when I vehemently disagreed with him. Nothing he said changed my view of Armstrong, made me think any more kindly of him (if anything, I think Armstrong comes off looking even more of an ass) – but I’m glad I listened to Strickland’s point of view. It was entertainingly voiced.

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