We have a number of family birthdays that are celebrated in August, including mine. We also have a certain tradition in our family, that of a Tour De France party to celebrate the conclusion of another running of the world’s greatest bike race, and perhaps its greatest single sporting event. The party happens shortly after the Tour’s conclusion, maybe late July; maybe early August. Often the Tour party and the birthday parties are somewhat conflated, but in any event, the family knows that cycling-related gifts are always welcomed by me.
This year one of my birthday gifts was Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Lance Armstrong’s Fight to Reclaim the Tour de France (by Bill Strickland. New York: Harmony, 2010). I picked it up a couple of days ago, at last, and found myself immediately engrossed. Some of the best cycling books are written by former cyclists, others by life-long cycling journalists. Few writers are both. But Strickland has a powerful pen, a great imagination, and plenty of experience, both on the bike and within circles of cycling’s leading lights.
Strickland is chronicling the story of Lance’s 2009 “comeback,” when he returned to top-flight professional cycling and ended up finishing third, on the podium, in the Tour de France at the ripe old age of 37. Strickland, writing from the point of view of an ex-racer, a bike racing insider, a friend of most of the friends of Lance, a journalist, a fan, and a cyclist, creates a commentary that fuses episodes of Lances’s 2009 races, an analysis of Lance’s character, a fan’s complex reactions to the riders and the racing, and the insider commentaries that only a journalist can get and only an ex-racer can interpret through both personal experience and professional contacts.
What is so good about this book–which I am halfway through and yet must already recommend fervently because of its style and substance–is Stickland’s ability to capture the complex, emotionally strong and strange, amalgam of fans’ responses to Lance’s comeback: hero worship, skepticism, hope, exasperation, idealism, cynicism, excitement, exhaustion. he takes you through Lance’s year, and through the wringer of emotions too. And he does so in a style that is so right on, so perceptive and objective, personal but not self-indulgent, articulate and imaginative, that it makes me, a blogger on my own cycling and fandom, wonder if it’s worth it to go on writing when someone this good is already out there. Only a small handful of writers even come close to Strickland. I give you a paragraph, from p. 98 of the text. I cite it as a source, but I have not obtained copyright. I will remove the text if the publisher wishes. this paragraph describes a crash in the stage race called the Vuelta Castilla Y León in March of 2009. Note the vivid imagery, the restrained yet intense style:
It was a crash.
Red and blue and yellow and orange jerseys disappeared over the fronts of the bikes that had an instant ago been carrying them, and the colors strobed as the riders somersaulted, or slid along the pavement until they ran into someone else who had just finished sliding along the pavement and were, in turn, slid into or run over. The left was a clot, and what remained of the race streamed to the right and passed around it. Some of the cyclists were off their bikes and running all crooked on their cleats, one hand on the saddle or handlebar. The team cars were coming up on the scene now, and also the motorcycles with their engines searing hot and loud as they were hot and exposed out where they could peel the skin right off a rider if the drivers weren’t careful. Riders were walking stiff-legged in circles, or holding their wrists, or already back on their bikes without full realizing they had risen from the ground, and mechanics were jumping out of the backseats of the team cars and unlocking new bikes from the roof racks and pushing them under the riders. It was absolute chaos, and it was pretty ordinary for a bike race.
A reader who can’t feel present at that scene just isn’t trying. I stand in awe. My first impulse is to wonder why I bother writing, when there is someone out there that good. Buy the book; read it. You will feel part of the Lance experience of 2009, but from the viewpoint of neither an apologist nor a cynic, but just a cycling fan full of mixed feelings about both his/her hero and his/her sport.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2010.
PS: Lance fractured his collarbone into four pieces in this crash. It was mended by fastening a five-inch steel plate onto his clavicle using twelve screws. Two days after the surgery Lance did a thirty-minute spin on his indoor trainer.