Bill Strickland is editor-at-large at Bicycling Magazine and the author of the recently published Tour de Lance. Now I wasn't paying close attention when I read Dale Carnegie's How To Win Friends And Influence People but I'm pretty sure that calling someone a fanboy and suggesting they'd look cute in a cheerleader's uniform must rank on the list of things not to do. Especially if you want to interview them. And I did both of those things when reviewing Tour de Lance. But thankfully Strickland has a sense of humour and thinks I was joking.
As well as talking about books he likes and the books he's written - his memoir, Ten Points; Johan Bruyneel's cycling-as-a-management-self-help-manual, We Might As Well Win, which he co-authored; and, of course, Tour de Lance - we also talked about the state of cycling journalism, the stories he's said he's sat on, Lance Armstrong's Tour sans, how the sale of livestrong.com is likely to be seen within the cancer community and just what is the attraction of getting covered in mud and falling off of a cross bike.
Whether you agree with him our not, well that's what the big white box at the bottom of the page is for. But I think you'll be hard pressed to argue he doesn't make for an enjoyable read.
Podium Cafe: Let's begin with Ten Points, which tells how you became a cyclist and a cycling fan, how cycling was a way of overcoming family demons. What was it about cycling that seemed to hold out so much hope for you as a child?
Bill Strickland: Leaving aside the abuse for a few minutes: I was a white-trash kid, on food stamps at times, free government lunch at school, no presents for Christmas one year, one time my father blew up a car to collect the insurance because he needed the money - that sort of thing. We also experienced periods of abrupt and ridiculous prosperity - my father was extremely charismatic, so he would sometimes be wildly successful at his job (always selling something) before chaos once again enveloped us. But, in general, I think it's accurate to say that the world of cycling was seen by my family and our sort of people as effete, effeminate, weird, silly, not a real sport and in some vague way indicative of some mental weakness or moral failure in those who participated in it.
I was in high school, years after the most tumultuous parts of my childhood and, I thought wrongly, pretty much past dealing with it emotionally and mentally, when one of my friends, John Perez, got in trouble with his parents for drinking and got grounded from using the family car. He went out and bought a racing bike - a Univega, I think. I couldn't believe how light it was, and I started riding around with him on my shit Schwinn. We didn't know anyone else who rode, but somehow, and this was pre-Google, we learned about Eddy Merckx and Greg LeMond and some race held on rocky roads called ‘The Hell of the North.' My father - and his family - hated all this, which means I loved it - just another take on the standard rebellion, right?
That was most of it, I think, back then. I wasn't really riding against whatever demons had been put inside me, but against the enterprise of my family itself - our heritage as white trash. But there was more there, too. I was also taken by the idea of that rocky road, of the goofy American guy with the big smile fighting it out over in Europe. Because of my background, Europe might as well have been El Dorado. I dreamed of one day, just one time, getting there, knowing that for me it was fated to remain just a dream. It was so ... foreign, of course. But foreign not only geographically but also to what was expected to become of me. So that was part of why I rode. Also, Perez and I could get out to the beach on Lake Michigan whenever we wanted. There was a girl there named Mary Anne I was in love with without ever talking to.
This all came to a point when I worked all summer as a laborer for a bricklayer to help pay for my first year of university. I was the first in my family to go, as far as I can tell. It was a big deal. At the end of the summer, I took almost all of that money and bought a Schwinn Paramount. My parents were sure I'd blown it - that I'd never graduate from college. So that was cycling for me, as a kid: an escape, a fuck-you, a way to get onto a long road to Europe on my own terms.
Later, I sold that Paramount to pay for my last quarter of classes. So that bike really did take me somewhere ...
PdC: And then as an adult, cycling became a way of confronting the difficulties of your childhood?
BS: As an adult, I still loved cycling but I think I loved it like we all love it at its most simple: it was fun, it kept me fit, it found me friends. I wasn't using it, necessarily, to work out what had happened to me as a kid. I was messed up in my head, certainly, and because of that I messed up a lot, but I didn't mind too much ... it was who I was, was my really rough approximation of thinking about my life back then. And the worst of who I was, the crazy dangerous shit some of us (or many of us) have inside, I felt like I could contain through sheer willpower. And I was lucky: I could write the way my dad could sell. I had a way to make a living that didn't depend on my being a saint.
When my daughter was born, though, all of this changed. I became terrified of who I was. It was no longer just my life that I could destroy. I knew that somewhere inside me was something that could turn me from a father into my father. I had this idea that I think, oddly, a disproportionate number of cyclists do compared to other athletes, which is that I could use the bike to medicate myself - to tire out the demon in me and keep me from harming my daughter. (In an early draft of the book, I wrote about how I thought of what had happened to me as if I'd been bitten by a werewolf, and that there was this monster inside me trying to get out. I really did think of that, but once it was down on the page it just read wrong. It belittled the sensation in a way I hadn't anticipated. So that got dropped.) The tiring-out was working, barely.
We have a weekly training crit in the Lehigh Valley that, because of the proximity of the velodrome and the riders it draws, was at the time populated with several world- and national champions, some Olympic medallists, domestic pros, legends of the sport (like Jack Simes III). It's a points format. Somewhere in there I got fit enough that I scored a single point and, as I was telling my daughter about it, with the innocence and absolute belief of a four-year-old, she said, ‘Next year, you'll score ten points.' That was impossible - for me, at least, a lunchbox pack-fodder genetically mediocre middle-aged working guy. So I immediately promised her that I would do it. I thought that if I could achieve this one impossible thing - scoring the ten points - I could likewise achieve the impossible feat of being a normal dad.
In the course of trying to score those points, which is the season the book is set in, the suffering of cycling became something like a conduit to the emotions and memories of what I'd gone through as a kid. For the first time in my life, I was vividly reliving what had happened to me. It was like a water main had broken. I couldn't stop a flow that my whole life had been dedicated to keeping shut off. And in any kind of intense pack racing, of course, you're not just suffering: you have to learn to trust, to come back, to recover, to lose, and to lose very publicly. It was all of that, but especially, I think, the fact that everything I did on the bike was transparent and visible to my daughter - the complete opposite of the shrouded horror of my childhood - that changed everything.
In many ways, I think mine is a typical and unsurprising story for cyclists, at least all of us amateurs. Not typical in the facts and incidents of my life, but in the sense that cycling becomes our life - the pattern and rhythm of our life is found on a bike, and the way we understand life, how we approach it (and retreat). Cycling becomes outlandishly central to who we are.
PdC: Your own family background ... Lance Armstrong's family background ... different on specifics but at heart there's a link, in your fathers. Do you identify with Armstrong, on that level?
BS: That's a surprising question. It's a good one, and it makes sense, I just didn't ever see it coming. That might be because, as far as I can tell, I'm nothing like Armstrong. I think too much, lay it out there, am prone to looking for meaning in everything. I'm probably somewhat of a dweeb.
I don't mean to say Armstrong doesn't think. But, to generalize, his mental process is not introspection but very, very targeted thought - what do I need to do to win, what is everyone else doing to try to keep me from winning, and what are all the potential non-winning outcomes that I could turn into a win. I also, after all this time, never got a clear sense of how big of a factor Armstrong's father or stepfather or other father figures are in whatever it is that makes him this way. I've concluded that he derives nearly equal energy from the time that, say, his sixth-grade teacher teased him and the time L'Equipe accused him of doping. It's kind of binary for him: either you're in his way or you're not, you harmed him or you didn't, you believe him or you don't. He seems not to care much about the nuances, if the barrier in front of him is a single brick or a wall forty bricks high and forty bricks deep: he's going through it if he can. (I think of it as the kind of determination or drive that, existing in people with different sorts of skills and gifts, ends up giving us Steve Jobs, or maybe Winston Churchill, or Mother Teresa, or Bernie Madoff or Atilla the Hun.)
In my experience, which for obvious reasons might be biased by the type of people I attract, am attracted to and find myself hanging with, cycling does seem to me to have a higher percentage than usual of people trying to work something pretty significant out of their system. I don't know many tortured badminton players. (I'm sure there are some.) And someone like John Daly is a real bad boy of golf, but, you know, I feel like one day of VDB's life would have put him down. Maybe I'm romanticizing the sport. I am horribly prone to that as well.
PdC: Your two most recent books have been Armstrong related. The Johan Bruyneel book, We Might As Well Win, how did that come about?
BS: This is about eighth-hand, but it's my understanding of the origin: when Danny Coyle was writing his book (Lance Armstrong's War), Bruyneel mentioned that he thought he had his own book to write. Coyle put him touch with his literary agent, who also is mine and who reckoned I'd be good for the book. I wasn't interested in doing it at first. This is going to sound a little ridiculous, I realize, given my last two books, but I don't like writing about famous people. You don't get the kind of story I like telling, the kind of details, the kind of flaws and doubts that we everyday people can express more freely. Also, as a storyteller I'm more interested in failure than victory, and Bruyneel was, at the time, on his undefeated Tour de France streak as a team director. But my agent kept at me, and finally I called Johan and in that first phone call he told me the story about his father dying just a few weeks before the Tour, and how he won that stage while thinking of his father. I realized I'd been too quick to decide I knew who he was, what he was all about - a trait I don't like to see in myself as a writer. I like to hang back and hang back and hang back and try not even to figure someone out finally, but to capture them, to show them, let the details become the revelation. (Definitely a strength and a weakness as a writer.) So we did another phone call, and he told me some more interesting things, and we decided to do the book together.
PdC: Your role in that book was in shaping Bruyneel's story, yes? In places it reads like it's a management self-help book, somewhere between Sun Tzu and Who Moved My Cheese. Was it your idea to shape the book around lessons to be learnt from Bruyneel's career, rather than simply re-telling that career chronologically?
BS: Bruyneel had the idea all along that some of the things he'd learned about bike racing could apply to life in general, and he also knew he wanted at some point to make a business of some size out of speaking to business groups about success, and that a book would help that.
We talked a lot about how broad to make the book. At one point, there was a subtitle that was something like ‘How to Get a Victory Every Day,' or ‘How to Win at Life.' Over the course of shaping that idea, we realized that business leaders and his racing fans would be a roughly equal audience, so I helped him figure out how to tailor the structure to speak to both.
It was a good chance to open up the hood of a book and tinker with the engine. For instance, I thought the book wasn't going to have any kind of a narrative arc, any tension, if we did it chronologically. So that was out pretty much right away. I did think for a bit about starting with the last Tour victory and working backward to see how it was all engineered, how it grew. But then the book wouldn't have been able to end with that bit about the pedal strokes, that slowed-time analysis of his Tour stage win in Belgium, and I just felt that of all the material to work with, that episode was one of the richest.
The other big thing I did was to supply a lot of the detail. He'd sketch out the episodes and tell me how he felt, who was there, why he thought it was important, where it led, what he learned, then I would go and watch tapes of those races, read old reports, and do things like check the weather for a region of France on a specific day, or find a source that talked about quality of the road, or find a botanical source that would let me say how the junipers smelled in spring or whatever - that nuts-and-bolts storytelling reportage that ideally ends up invisible to the reader.
PdC: I couldn't help but think of Robert McNamara in Fog of War when I was reading the book. In the way that he offers lessons drawn from his experiences but also in that the really interesting stuff seems to have stayed on the cutting room floor. Characters like Michele Ferrari and Manolo Saiz don't even merit a name check. Your choice or Bruyneel's?
BS: Johan's choice - it's his book. I mean, that's rich material for sure but not even close to the point of what he wanted to accomplish with the book. He took some unfair hits for not addressing that, but the whole idea was to create a collection of the lessons he'd learned through racing and directing. If he'd set out to write a complete biography, or a reputed tell-all, and not even mentioned them, then I think the criticism would be warranted (and I don't think I'd have stayed on to help him). As a storyteller, looking at the structure, in that particular book those subjects were not omitted but simply didn't fit.
Anyway, in that kind of book, at least with the big, mainstream publishers, there's a lengthy contract between the author (which is Johan) and the co-writer or ghostwriter (which is me). One of the things our contract spelled out was that Johan had final approval over everything, from subject matter all the way down to, I guess, if he didn't like a comma or something. (He did end up leaving the grammar up to me.) I pushed him here and there, especially early on when I needed for some technical writing reason to make sure I had something that would keep the structure or the narrative stitched together. Those were things like, ‘If you want to relate this episode you really have to name the rider or we should leave it out,' or ‘No matter what, you have to deal with doping in some fashion in this chapter for this reason,' or ‘We have to talk about a situation in which you failed.' Then he'd make the decision about what to do.
PdC: In Tour de Lance, you mention sitting on things you learned while working on the Bruyneel book. Care to give us an exclusive?
BS: You know, it's been interesting how many people have read that passage as a not-so-veiled reference that I have the keys to pro cycling's secret palace of doping. I knew that some of the surmising about the secret stuff would focus on doping but how quickly and intensely the field of vision narrowed to wonder almost exclusively about doping surprised me - though I guess it shouldn't have. The contract I signed includes a confidentiality agreement ... I can tell you what Johan and I didn't talk about, though. We never talked specifically about doping. From time to time we had some exchanges about how the system worked, or how directors might deal with certain riders. Sometimes after a positive was announced, I would ask him if he thought other riders or other directors knew this guy or that guy had been doping, and he gave me what I considered authentic answers.
Most of the off-limits stuff he told me was, for instance, something that might embarrass someone who didn't deserve it on such a wide scale, or maybe harm someone's reputation for no really good reason, or be acceptable in one-on-one talk but if fixed in print would come across as gossipy or catty. One example of the sort of thing he told me were some hilarious, crude initiation rites that established riders put rookies through on some of his old teams, and how certain riders reacted the opposite of what the fans would expect, whether it was the tough, stoic guys wigging out or the seemingly mild-mannered ones standing up. Sometimes he might tell me about agreements on the road between teams or riders, and in some instances that was really dispiriting. We all know it happens, and I think it's a fascinating part of the sport and integral in its way, but some of the exchanges I wish I hadn't heard about. I enjoyed thinking of the races the way I'd seen them.
PdC: It was actually deals, agreements on the road, I thought of first when I read that comment, not doping. It's become like sex at the dinner table, something we just don't talk about, pretend isn't happening. I know I was surprised when Philip Deignan won a stage in the Vuelta last year and one of the first things he said on Irish radio was how Roman Kreuziger offered to buy the stage from him as they approached the finish. I wasn't so much surprised by the offer - as you say, we all know it happens - I was surprised by Deignan's frankness. Bruyneel will have to tell him not to be so forthright when he rides for Radioshack next year.
BS: I don't know - I mean, I appreciate this aspect of the sport. To me, it's part of the complexity, and certainly part of the heritage. One of the fascinating things about bike racing, which I love both as a spectator trying to guess what's happening and as a participant (albeit an amateur one who sucks) is the fluid nature of relationships. In the simplest combination, when you break away with one opponent you become conspirators against the rest of the pack. You desperately need each other - right up until the point when you will turn on each other in the most vicious way. I like the ambiguity and the uncertainty, the unknowable nature of rivals and allies. This is no moral position; it's simply what it takes to win a bike race. Then, from this, it's pretty easy to see how non-fiscal deals might be struck: something like, maybe, ‘Help me win this one and I'll help you win the one in your hometown, when the time comes.' Or even something more strategic: ‘Look, we know you're the better sprinter but I'm going to drop you on the climb before the finish. I'll stay with you if you give me the sprint, so at least you'll get second.' From there, it's not such a leap to include money in these sorts of negotiations. So I see the origin of it, the sense. It's doesn't necessarily become a criminally or ethically dodgy act - sometimes it might be, sure, but I think a seasoned fan, especially one who's given it a go in the saddle at some point, is able to absorb some of the nuance.
I love watching a race and trying to predict who's offering what. There was one point on the first Tourmalet stage in last year's Tour when I was saying that in the wildest imagining of what the victory might be worth to one of the racers, a rival rider was in a real-world position to make a million bucks to work hard and not win. I have to say, this sort of thing doesn't play well at all in the US. It's equated with bribes for point-shaving in basketball or American football, or like Pete Rose gambled on his baseball team while he was managing it. (I like to point out that he always bet on his team to win.)
When I'm racing, the thing I love most, I think, is the pack. Just being in there, the sounds and the bumping and the trust and the anticipation and the uncountable little dramas, and the interplay that happens even at my cheesy, low-level of amateur racing. I was in a break once in a little race here in Pennsylvania with two riders from one team and two from another, and I was friendly with all four - and knew they were all better than me. I said, ‘I know I can't win and I'm not going to work with any of you, so I'm just going to attack over and over until I blow up.' And, you know, that was pretty fun. It made the last laps exciting.
I don't think those sorts of textured experiences exist in zero-sum sports.
PdC: Being a fan and being a journalist, it calls for some compromises to be made. As a fan I'm obviously going to say that it seems it's usually the journalism that suffers the most. But has your love of the sport been damaged by learning first-hand about the inner-workings of the sport?
BS: I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Investigative journalism is not the same as cycling journalism - it's one part of all the different types of reporting and writing that center on cycling, which itself exists not only as a sport but also as a lifestyle and a health/fitness discipline.
It seems to make sense that investigative cycling journalism does suffer from the compromises when writers and riders become close. But I'm not so sure that intimacy affects us so much as the reality that our sport is like many other niche subjects: we just don't have that many high-level, investigative journalists native to our field. This isn't a knock against all the beat reporters out there trying to cover the news on a daily if not hourly basis, or against the amateur bloggers who are doing their best to cover the issues. And we certainly do have some investigative journalists who merit respect - the reporting team at L'Equipe has been digging away at doping for literally decades now, and have broken some big stories, as has David Walsh. Whether you agree with those guys or not, you have to admit they're doing serious, complex, openly sourced, long-term investigative work.
But the reality is that it's rare for any highly talented, professional investigative reporter to work for a publication targeted on narrow subject matter, whether that's cycling, or something like the fast-food industry, or a magazine about owning dogs or whatever. For the most part, the journalists with the ideal skill set and the necessary experience are on bigger beats (such as finance or politics) or are specialists in the investigative process itself rather than a specific subject. Those reporters are materially different than, say, the feature writers, or the opinion piece writers, or the humorists or the play-by-play writers or whatever.
I went to school with Don Yaeger, who went on to become a top investigative writer for Sports Illustrated and to write several best-selling sports books. Even back when we were underclassmen in the journalism program, I could tell he had predilections and skills as a reporter I didn't. He broke a huge story about conflict of interest involving our university board - as a college newspaper we were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize because of his reporting. In contrast, simply from a technical standpoint of looking at rhythm or paragraph structure or a few other things, I write in ways he can't, and even back then I did. I was also much more interested than he was in quirky little stories and the life of, say, the lonely barber in the basement of the campus center.
I think that if you're unhappy that say, John Wilcockson didn't write his Lance book the way David Walsh did, you're starting with an incorrect premise. They're different kinds of journalists, and they set out with different aims. I want to see what both of them have to say, what material each of them unearthed. I appreciate Paul Kimmage as well, who is less an investigative reporter than a fiery, issue-based advocate, which is another type of journalist. I like Philippe Brunel, who strikes me as one of our last epicists, in the mode of, say, Antoine Blondin, with all that ‘he wore his malediction like a coat of shining armor' type of writing. I like Joe Parkin's wonderfully artless storytelling. Bike Snob cracks me up. Matt Rendell is just great. So is Matt Seaton. William Fotheringham just knocks me out with his storytelling. Graeme Fife ... I read those guys and I find it hard to say that cycling journalism as a whole is in a compromised state or suffering as an art form. We have some amazing storytellers and reporters. We don't have the same level of investigative reporters, but I'm not convinced that lack occurs because David Millar is friendly to us.
As a fan - and I readily admit to being a ‘fanboy,' one of the accusations thrown at me by some critics - who is also a writer, I think of the experience of being so immersed in the sport as a little bit like hanging around the circus. At first it's all about what happens in the ring, and eating some peanuts and laughing at the clowns. It's great! It's a spectacle! Wow, look at all this! But then one day you get to go backstage and see the lions eat, and go in the trailer where the married bearded lady and Mr Electrico live together and you sit down at chipped Formica fold-out table have a drink with them and find out they are deeply in love, and you see the gypsy acrobats arguing violently, and you even spend some time talking to the laborer who sledgehammers in the stakes that hold the tent ropes taut. You can't ever really go back and sit in that seat in the bleachers the way you once did, but, man, you find out you love the whole circus more than ever.
PdC: You're quite critical of some of your fellow journalists in Tour de Lance. In one sequence you write of journalists who tell one another more interesting stories than they'll ever print, of others who are too blinkered by a sense of mission to see the real beauty of a bike race. Overall, how well do you think the cycling media serve the sport's fans?
BS: Well, to be fair there have been plenty of times when I'd put myself in that group I'm critical of. Being a beat reporter, having to produce cogent copy within hours after race ends, filling a news hole every day - that is tough, grinding, unending work that doesn't leave much time for an artsy-fartsy perspective. Those guys just have to hit the deadline. It's so much a matter of survival that in the press room you see guys sharing quotes, helping each other fill in this date or that time, correcting a fact for someone from a rival publication. I've had to do that kind of work, and I'm not great at it. I'm not good at, on the spot, being able to assemble a play-by-play account of a race; it takes me a lot of time to put the threads together. I think riders usually don't say much of lasting interest right after a race, so I end up kind of growing bored with those interviews and press conferences, and wander off and talk to a mechanic or something. I'd probably get fired if I worked for CyclingNews or a daily paper.
I don't think cycling journalism is very different from any other kind of subject-specific journalism. There are some of us who are better reporters than writers, and some who rely on their writing ability, fewer who put both skills together, and a good number who aren't very good at either but know how to hit deadlines - never to be underestimated in this business - and thus find steady employment, and a bunch of in-and-outers who just aren't suited for the whole thing. I find this ongoing resurgence of small, literary and artistic magazines heartening - the ones such as Rouleur, Embrocation, The Ride Journal. There seem to be a lot of people doing cool, crafted one-off zines and set pieces. And I love the whole array of cycling bloggers, not just the ones I personally like to read but also just the fact of the existence of all the strident viewpoints and the peeks into the subcultures and strange-to-me ways of expressing an identity as a cyclist. We talked about this in the last question, but overall I think the state of cycling journalism, commentary, writing and art is at a high for my lifetime. On any single day of my life right now I can read more about cycling than I could have in a year of my life when I got into the sport.
Maybe I find it all fulfilling because I am the type of reader who doesn't have to agree with something to enjoy reading it.
PdC: A big part of Tour de Lance was the fear you had that the comeback would change Armstrong's legacy, ruin the exit. Looking at 2009 alone, your fears seem to have been misplaced. How do you feel after the way he rode this year?
BS: I'm glad I wrote the book about 2009. I'm sure there's a story in 2010, and that someone could tell it but, now that I'm looking in on the events from the outside again, I don't know what that story would be. There's too much unresolved in 2010. The book is a kind of snapshot of what I thought about Armstrong in 2009, and the frames around that year were pretty clear to me. In a pure technical, storytelling sense, I got lucky, I think, in that the Landis allegations and subsequent investigation, and the disastrous 2010 Tour occurred just outside the borders of my book's plot. The timing allowed the narrator to maintain what ended up being a romanticized, refound appreciation of Armstrong and his successes and failings.
He was struggling physically that year, and I document that. There are some pretty harsh descriptions of him in there. But in the end he pulled off a beautiful ride, and I wanted to portray that. He's forceful and even magnetic, cunning, but not necessarily charismatic or what we'd call traditionally intelligent, and I detail those personality traits. He has without a doubt done a lot of good for a lot of people - more than I or most anyone I know will ever do - but he can also be cruel, and that's in there. And I talked about the even-then mountain of circumstantial evidence linking him to doping, and some of the conflicts in the legal testimony and legal documents and the test results, but I also pointed out, which was true at the time, that no one had ever come forward and said they'd actually witnessed him doping, nor had he ever failed a sanctioned test or had a legal judgment go against him. Despite seeing his faults, I felt myself becoming a fan again, and I didn't want to try to hide that in the book. I knew Contador was the better rider, and that he deserved to win, and that he was being treated unfairly, but like the rest of that Tour team, I found myself drawn to Armstrong's side of the dispute - so I put that in the book, too.
(As an aside, pointing out his flaws while admitting to being a fan put me in an interesting spot critically. A review here on Podium Cafe said of me, in a way I found enjoyably funny, ‘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.' In contrast, a reader review on Amazon said, ‘Where this book falls apart for many, and quickly, is that Strickland admits no love of Lance Armstrong, particularly not of his attempt at a comeback.')
Anyway, as a longtime fan of the sport, I experienced a sense something like gratitude or justice - this sounds a bit weird - that the Tour de France finally leveled Armstrong. I didn't realize this until it happened, but there is some, I don't know, almost karmic or metaphysical need for a great champion to be humbled by the race. I wrote about it a little for Bicycling as it happened, how I remembered Induráin cracking, and Hinault's clawing refusal to cede to Greg and so on with the race's greatest champions. In some way, it could be that the humbling is necessary for the final coronation, like the memento mori slave who would walk behind the Roman military commanders and whisper to them that they should remember they, too, would someday die. You don't just pay for your sins in the end; you pay for your glory, too. I could've written that, I think, and I would've liked to have been able to sneak a little more of all that cycling history and context into the minds of the mainstream readers who pick up books like Tour de Lance. But with the open nature of the doping investigation, and its momentum, I'm not sure I'd have been able to write a story with an ending. And also, the doping, if proven, will inevitably take over the other parts of the story and become the story in whole, and I know I'm not the best journalist to capture it.
BS: There's a paperback coming out in the spring of 2011. I generally don't like tacked-on, updated afterwords, but in this case so much is changing that I want to reframe the book. I don't want to change it, I don't want to go in there and re-engineer the book so I'm not a fan screaming for Armstrong to ride Contador down on Colombière, or make myself look sagely doubtful about doping. But I want to acknowledge it - and him and my fandom and that really miraculous podium spot - as the time capsule it was. It's not just Armstrong. It's Contador - in the book I never even come close to suspecting him of doping and portray him as perhaps the greatest stage racer the world has ever seen. (For what it's worth these days, I'd received very specific assurances from primary sources that the team was clean for the 2009 Tour, and I believed them.) It's the continuing revelations about the past from people like Kohl. It's the damnably off-the-record stories I've heard since then from people and about people outside that inner circle. But it's also, maybe, Taylor Phinney and Ben King and Tejay Van Garderen and Peter Stetina and, I hope, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Nicolas Roche. And it's also about how it feels to go out on a chilly sunny Sunday morning and climb your favorite hill - they can't take that away from us, you know?
I have no idea what I'm going to say.
PdC: This idea of updating cycling books, of breathing new life into them by getting the author to stick an extra chapter or three on at the end to bring the story up to date, what's your take on it? Some of the time it can work but a lot of the time it seems to change what the original book was about, the new stuff doesn't fit too well.
BS: I have both the original, 1855 Leaves of Grass and what's called the Deathbed edition, which is the one Whitman spent his life adding to, revising, tinkering with, and, man, I prefer the first one. It leaves out some of what would come to be considered his classic poems but I'd take missing those for having that final bloated book stand in my memory.
Somewhere in there between the two was the perfect revision, but I'm convinced any writer, any poet, has no idea when to stop. If Whitman jacked it up, what chance does someone like me have?
Even so, I'm going to try to put a grace note onto Tour de Lance when the paperback comes out. It's not so much to bring the reader up to date - I don't think a book's business is publishing news - but because what I and we all seem to generally be coming to agreement on is material that makes the original book more wistful, more long-gone-feeling. Hell, more hopeful. I think there's some intriguing tension between the 2009 story and the current world that I can take advantage of as a storyteller.
PdC: As well as his troubles on the bike this year, it's been - to say the least - a pretty turbulent year for Armstrong off the bike as well. Within the cancer community, which do you think is potentially more damaging to him, the Novitsky doping investigation or the story about him personally profiting from livestrong.com?
BS: Sticking to reaction within the cancer community, my expectation is that at the level of people affected by the disease, neither issue is going to end up mattering much. I had an aunt who died pretty horribly of cancer and my wife had thyroid cancer but otherwise I've been lucky to remain fairly untouched by it. But in researching the book I had a lot of contact with those in the community and, you know, for some number of them it's simply never going to be a matter of ‘Did he cheat?' or ‘Should he lend his image to LiveStrong for free?' It's ‘I'm trying to stay alive here, and this guy did it then won the Tour de France and I'm going to believe in that.' I think when it comes to life and death, we can get pretty good pretty fast at compartmentalizing: I mean, sometimes in horrible disasters people eat each other to stay alive, so drawing hope from someone who cheated in a bike race wouldn't be such a mad and incomprehensible stretch.
PdC: I know you're a fan of Tim Krabbé's The Rider and your own race reporting in both the Bruyneel book and in Tour de Lance is as good as almost any passage in Krabbé's book. What other writers do you draw inspiration from?
BS: I don't know ... I think Krabbé, in that story, has so much control over his writing that it accomplishes that marvelous thing where for stretches of varying length it stops being writing that you're aware of as a story and becomes something you're living inside. It doesn't just feel like racing feels, it is so much like racing that it can, here and there, if the moment is right for you, become racing.
I'm grateful and - I'll say just say it - proud if you think my stories approach that, but because I built them I can't really stop seeing the machinery. I see the old, clunky word that used to be there, and the sentence that I never got just the way I wanted, and the place where the long, run-on lead to the short, declarative sentence gets choppy. I'm aware that I have a better feel for rhythm than many writers, and that I can be surprising with language in interesting ways, but when I read something like The Rider I get the sense that Krabbé knew exactly what he was doing and could just go ahead and write like that his whole life if he wanted to. Every time I start a book I have no idea how I'm going to get through it. I don't know what I'm doing, so I just try to have some fun, keep myself amused with the play of the language and creation of the structure. When I get bored, I figure the reader will already long ago have been bored, so I roll the cursor back or rip up some pages and start over.
There's a woman who writes about swimming, Jenifer Levin, the way I try to write about riding. There's one particular short story by Frederick Busch, Ralph the Duck, that I try to model some of my physical passages after. William Trevor wrote this book called The Story of Lucy Gault that is unrelenting in its heartbreak and has a particular, quiet turn of the story that I sometimes try to achieve. Cormac McCarthy, I mean, if any of us could write about bikes the way he writes about horses ... Tobias Wolff wrote a short story I think about a lot, Say Yes, which sticks admirably to simple description and leaves its strongest part unwritten - just stunning technically. (He has another, I think it's called Hunters in the Snow, that has a brilliant turn of plot, surprising but inevitable.) I pick at an American western called, Shane, for a page or two at a time just to enjoy the sustained lyricism of the storytelling - sustained so much it often fails, but in a way I admire. Matt Seaton's The Escape Artist, is a model.
There's a novelist I edit at Bicycling, Mike Magnuson, whose writing helped me learn things about the mechanics of how to tell a story. Another writer I edit, Steve Friedman, has an amazing swirling writing technique I try sometimes. And his research and eye for detail inspires me. At a previous job, I got to edit Norman Mailer once, and his mix of ownership and nonchalance about his stories stuck with me. Harry Crews, Richard Bausch, and a lot of poetry - daily, probably, and too many to cite, though I guess it's easiest to just admit that I carried Charles Simic's The World Doesn't End around in my back pocket for about two years. I just finished a book called Legend of a Suicide that in the heart of the story pulls off a feat of plotting I not only couldn't conceive myself but still can't conceive how the author, David Vann, conceived it.
PdC: Some interesting names there, some I know and like. Your editing Norman Mailer - even once - impresses me. His Ali book ... I don't even like boxing but I love that book. It's a shame that he - and maybe George Plimpton and Hunter S Thompson too - never got bitten by the LeMond bug in the ‘80s. I'd have paid to read about Mailer on a bike trying to race LeMond up Alpe d'Huez.
BS: Yes. Yes. I tried a few times to get Mailer to write about the Tour DuPont for us at Bicycling. That size of ambition is one of the nice things about working at magazine with the scope of Bicycling. When you're trying to speak to 420,000 people about a niche sport there are some drawbacks, too, I know that. But one of the benefits is that we have the kind of money that lets us at least approach writers of that stature and get their interest. We're always going after top writers who have shown in some way an interest in cycling, trying to tempt them to take a piece for us. We've had some success, like Michael Paterniti, the guy who wrote that great nonfiction book, Driving Mr Albert, about driving across the US with Einstein's brain in the trunk of his car. And Mary Roach, who's written, Stiff, Bonk, and other books. Bill McKibben, who wrote Long Distance. Another editor here and I exchange messages with Susan Orlean occasionally. I'd like to get Gay Talese to write a profile for us, or cover a race or something. He's sort of the last, great nonfiction magazine storyteller from that Mailer era.
It's not so much that any of these writers are going to be ‘better' than someone like Fotheringham, but they would bring to the journalism of the sport a whole different sensibility and type of creative ambition. For instance, I'm sure tennis has its bards, you know, but think about what David Foster Wallace did with Roger Federer as Religious Experience.
PdC: You've been very generous with your time here and I really appreciate it. Let's wrap this up with a dirty question: you've written about the joys of off-road riding in Mountain Biking and I hope you'll be getting your cross bike out again for the off-season, but seriously, what the hell is the fascination with getting covered in mud and falling off all the time?
I wish I knew - then maybe I could figure out how to get that itch scratched in a less stupid manner.
I don't really mountain bike anymore. I got tired of taking care of the bikes, spending at least as much time working on the bike as riding it. And I guess I got less tolerant of the little, daily shin bruises and cuts and things. Hobbling around the office is a badge of courage in your twenties and maybe even thirties, but I just don't have that brand of gumption in me anymore. Also, the sport changed. I learned to mountain bike when the idea was to build speed through smoothness. To find flow. Now it's about big air, big rides, big obstacles. I think it's cool. I admire it. I just don't want to do it. I'll take a cross bike out on the local trails, on the singletrack, and you see groups of kids out there stopped at one spot doing what they call, I think, ‘stunting.' They'll try to ride a drop or a rock-garden over and over, then they'll pedal to the next one they want to stunt. It's just a whole different sport.
Cross, I love. One part of the appeal, I think, is purely social. With just a few exceptions, my friends and I aren't very serious about cross at all. We try to race hard when we're out there, but before and after racing, cross is just a good old get-together in a way that road racing isn't. Someone drives down a trailer or an RV, or pitches a big revival tent at a good spectator spot right on the tape, and we gather there and drink beer (yes, often before racing) and goof around. We heckle the riders in the most dumb ways: We yell ‘beardy' at the guys with beards, and ... I know this sounds inane, but I think that's the point for us. There was one guy this year, an elite, who looked like David Lee Roth, and every lap, for minutes as he climbed toward us, went around a turn and rode away, we kept yelling the Roth whoop and screaming, ‘Might as well jump,' and doing rock-star kicks. We were ridiculing him mercilessly, just crucifying him. But somehow the good-natured, dumb fun of the whole thing rose to the top, and instead of feeling picked on he felt - I don't know what he felt, but he came over afterward and drank some with us. I guess everyone knows that we race too, poorly, so there might be an understanding that we know what it takes to go fast at a high level, and that we respect what the racers are doing.
Racing cross - it's just a mess. A glorious mess. Compared to the tension of road racing, when you're in the pack and one stupid thing can end not just someone's race but someone's season, or ripple out and ruin a lot of people's seasons, cross is like being twelve years old again. It's a very childish kind of thrill: dirty, out-of-control, laughing with your friends, some senseless heated rivalry you'll forget about in thirty minutes, and that sort of slapped-together feeling like when you were so bored in the long summer months that you and your friends combine several sports to make a new one: ‘Hey, what if we ran with our bikes?' At the same time, cross can be as intense as you want to make it - when you're out there racing, you can be flat-out racing. The few times I've happened to get to the front of a cross race, I've been amazed at how like a road race it feels - swapping pulls, working together to bust off the guy you don't want around at the finish, modulating the gap back to the pack. When you're in the middle or back of a race, when you're just learning, cross kind of feels like you just go as hard as you can the whole time and there's no strategy. Up front, you're going as hard as you can while trying to employ some strategy.
Still, for me, cross is almost not all about results and almost entirely about my friends, about goofing around, about loving bicycles.
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Bill Strickland is the author of Mountain Biking (International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press); Ten Points (Hyperion); and Tour de Lance (Crown/Mainstream). He is the editor of The Quotable Cyclist (Breakaway Books). He also co-authored Johan Bruyneel's We Might As Well Win (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mainstream). You'll find him online at truebs.net and on Twitter @TrueBS.
Our thanks to Bill Strickland for taking the time to participate in this interview.