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Lance Armstrong - Tour de Force, by Daniel Coyle

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If you like fairy-tales, you’ll love Daniel Coyle’s Lance Armstrong – Tour de Force (aka Lance Armstrong’s War), now revised and updated on the back of the Come Back. It’s like Walt Disney, only with more rounded characters. In Coyle’s hands, Prince Charming is still charming, but we also find that he sometimes swears and shouts at the servants, just like you and me would if we had servants. Who woulda thunk it?

Lance Armstrong guesting on NBC's 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' at the NBC Studios on September 1, 2004. Photo credit:
Lance Armstrong guesting on NBC's 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' at the NBC Studios on September 1, 2004. Photo credit:
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Laswar_medium Title: 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 (UK: Lance Armstrong – Tour de Force)
Author: Daniel Coyle
Publisher: HarperSport
Year: 2005 (updated 2006; updated 2009)
Pages: 376 (was 326, then 346)
Order: HarperCollins
What it is: Lance Armstrong’s 2004 season – which was more interesting for off-the-bike happenings than it was for what happened on the bike.
Strengths: Coyle has put a lot of effort into the book and whatever value it has comes from the extensive interviews he carried out.
Weaknesses: With each new update, Coyle’s bias becomes increasingly less bearable.

"With Armstrong there is no false modesty, no playing down of his qualities but neither is there conceit […] Yet to see only the straight-talker is to miss the wide-eyed boy in his first Tour. The smiling debutant who turned heads at the compulsory medical examination in le Puy de Fou two days before the start of the race."
David Walsh

Once upon a time, and a very long time ago it seems already, there lived a rich and powerful king. King Lance (the First). Manu forte read the motto on his shield and it was a fitting motto, for his arm was indeed strong. And the bond of fealty he had with his subjects was equally strong, they loving and adoring him. And King Lance (the First) loved and adored his loyal subjects.

Each summer rival kings and assorted pretenders to the throne would seek to unseat King Lance (the First) at the Grand Tourney. And each summer the loyal and adoring subjects of King Lance (the First) would throng the Grand Tourney, cheering for their hero and booing and hissing his challengers. And each summer King Lance (the First) would mount his trusty steed and, with his most loyal knights surrounding him, accept all challenges.

Five times now King Lance (the First) had reigned supreme at the Grand Tourney and been crowned King of Kings. Five times now he’d defeated all challengers. Everyone told him that a sixth success at the Grand Tourney was impossible. King Miguel had not been able to do it. Nor had King Jacques or King Bernard. Not even King Eddy had been able to reign supreme at the Grand Tourney six times. But King Lance (the First) dreamed dreams and believed in miracles and was not going to allow himself to be stopped just because some cynics and some sceptics didn’t believe he could reign a sixth time. He’d prove them wrong.

But the Grand Tourney was not the only thing on the mind of King Lance (the First), for his realm was besieged by fun-sucking trolls, daylight-deprived dwellers of the darkest corners of the dankest cellars, who had forgotten how to dream and who didn’t believe in miracles and who devoted their lives to trying to bring down King Lance (the First). Even the presence of the gorgeous Princess Sheryl could not distract King Lance (the First) from the thought of the trolls besieging his kingdom.

Chief among the trolls was the big bad Irish wolfhound, who was constantly huffing and puffing and trying to blow down the house that King Lance (the First) had built. But no matter how much he huffed and how much he puffed no damage could the big bad Irish wolfhound do. So the big bad Irish wolfhound decided to save his breath to cool his porridge and resolved to write a book which would show the world that King Lance (the First) was a false king. "I’ll get you yet, my pretty," thought the big bad Irish wolfhound, rubbing his hands together with glee when he thought of the impact his book would have on King Lance (the First).

"Goddam fucking troll, casting his spells on people." said King Lance (the First) when he received news of the book the big bad Irish wolfhound was writing. "If I could go back and kiss his ass maybe I should have," rued King Lance (the First) ruefully.

If only he could. For unbeknownst to King Lance (the First) – unbeknownst indeed to most people – the big bad Irish wolfhound was secretly in love with King Lance (the First) and only wanted to bring him down because he felt he had been rejected. At night the big bad Irish wolfhound would cry himself to sleep remembering the first time he had met King Lance (the First), when he was just a cub, reporting on the Grand Tourney, and King Lance (the First) was just a young princeling.

And the big bad Irish wolfhound would recall the afternoon he and the young princeling had spent together and recall the laughter and the smiles and the dreamy look in the eyes of the princeling who would become King Lance (the First). And the big bad Irish wolfhound would ask himself the same question: what had he done to cause the young princeling to abandon him as soon as he had become King Lance (the First)? And whenever the big bad Irish wolfhound remembered the way he had been abandoned his resolve to bring down King Lance (the First) grew and grew and grew.

It was into this world that a wandering scribe came wandering. The wandering scribe had wandered far and wide to get to the kingdom of King Lance (the First), wandering all the way from the frozen wastelands of Alaska. There he had read of how King Lance (the First) had fought and slain a fearsome dragon, a fight in which King Lance (the First) had nearly died. Impressed by this deed of death defiance the wandering scribe made a fateful decision: "I shall go to Eur’pe," decided the wandering scribe, "and I shall join that camp of King Lance (the First) and I shall carry his pennant for him. Yeah! And I shall refudiate any yucky claims that he is a false king! Verily I shall."

And travel to Eur’pe he did, finally fetching up in the town of Girona where, away from prying eyes, King Lance (the First) was preparing for the Grand Tourney. And quickly he did become a camp follower. And eventually he introduced himself to King Lance (the First) and he asked: "Please sir, can I carry your pennant for you?" And King Lance (the First) looked his look at the wandering scribe, staring deep into his eyes, deep into his very soul, and – liking what he saw there – answered: "Sure kid. Welcome to the team. Just remember to check your scribe’s integrity at the door. Don’t want none of that getting in the way of a good story, now do we?"

* * * * *

Lance Armstrong - Tour de Force is, essentially, Armstrong’s preparation for the 2004 Tour de France, as told by Outside magazine’s former editor, Daniel Coyle. All things considered, the 2004 Tour was pretty tedious, with Armstrong winning the race on the last climb of the first day in the mountains. Again. If the maillot jaune hadn’t protected the interests of the peloton by chasing down the whistle-blowing Filippo Simeoni then it would be hard to think of anything to remember the 2004 Tour for.

Thankfully, there was more happening off the bike in 2004 than there was on it. David Walsh published LA Confidentiel: Les secrets de Lance Armstrong. Tyler Hamilton got busted for blood-boosting at the Athens Olympics and the Vuelta a Espaňa. Michele Ferrari was convicted by an Italian court. L’Affaire Cofidis rumbled on for months before bringing down David Millar. Jesus Manzano set in train what would eventually become Operación Puerto. Marco Pantani died. And Nike introduced those little yellow wrist halos.

There is no denying the effort put into Tour de Force by Coyle. Not only did he uproot his family and move from Alaska to Girona for fifteen months just to get closer to his subject, but he also clocked up some seriously impressive mileage trailing Armstrong and his entourage as they prepared for the Tour. And then there’s the interviews. Tour de Force is built on interviews. Hours and hours of the things. Coyle has – admirably – put in a lot of leg-work and what value there is in Tour de Force is to be found in those interviews. Particularly the ones that contributed to Coyle’s portraits of the two other American riders Tour de Force is also about – Hamilton and Floyd Landis.

But no amount of leg-work can make up for Coyle’s setting aside of certain journalistic standards some consider sacrosanct. It’s bad enough that in order to get access to Armstrong’s camp you can’t be seen as being negative, but showing Armstrong and his people drafts of the book … you just don’t do that. And you don’t agree to not asking Michele Ferrari about doping as a condition to being allowed talk to the Italian doctor. Yet that’s exactly what Coyle did do.

Who does he think he is, Sally Jenkins?

With the Come Back happening last year, Tour de Force has been brought back, with the publishers claiming that it’s been revised and updated. But when they say revised and updated they don’t actually mean revised and updated. What they mean is that another twenty-nine pages have been added at the back and a couple of new piccies have been added in the middle. Apart from that all the old errors still seem to be there and hindsight hasn’t caused Coyle to go back and change even a word of the original text. And a lot has happened in the intervening years that requires the rewriting of some of the original text.

Is Tour de Force worth buying again just for the additional twenty-nine pages? Hardly. It would be unfair to expect Coyle to bring to those pages the same sort of effort he brought to the main body of the book – interviewing lots of people and using their voices to tell the story – but at least he returns to the same shtick that made the original book what it is, and we get page after page of the world against Armstrong.

This time round, in the absence of anything shocking from Walsh, we get stuff like this: "In the weeks after Armstrong’s comeback announcement, Tour officials had hastily remade the route, a process known as Lance-Proofing. Time trials, a traditional Armstrong strength, were reduced to a mere fifty-five kilometres." Coyle goes on to suggest that Mt Ventoux was added as the penultimate stage because "Armstrong had never won there." And, he reliably informs us, the Tour organisers "were assisted in their machinations by the French drug testers," who, on the eve of the Tour, singled Armstrong out for additional testing. Fortunately, this time out Coyle forgoes stories of Armstrong being "frog-marched" from the team hotel by drug testers and forced to supply blood and urine samples.

We learn also of Alberto Contador’s "aborted eleventh-hour attempt to jump ship, negotiating with several other teams," only without Coyle telling us that this incident was a consequence of Astana’s cash-flow problems and the possibility of the team’s imminent collapse. Or that Armstrong also had contingency plans for such an eventuality.

Even if you buy into Coyle’s bias, the cumulative effect of the errors in the new stuff – silly little things like saying that Paul Kimmage’s A Rough Ride was published in 2001, or misattributing Kimmage’s ‘cancer in this sport’ rant, or claiming that Carlos Sastre had been dismissed by CSC – suggests that Coyle’s heart, or at least his attention, wasn’t fully with writing the new content.

If he can’t work up enthusiasm for it, why should you?