BOSTON — While Lance Armstrong might well top a list of the most admired American athletes of the past decade, he probably wouldn’t fare quite as well on a list of the most liked.
Long before he attained his current elevated stature — the man who beat cancer to become cycling’s greatest champion — those who knew him described him as callow and more than a bit prickly.
Throughout his career and his record — seven successive Tour de France victories — his edge would become razor-sharp. Armstrong fought everything as if it was a life or death struggle, giving no quarter and, often, no courtesy either. He was compared unflatteringly to the amiable Greg LeMond, America’s groundbreaking Tour champion, even as he surpassed his riding feats.
When — at age 37 and after three full seasons in retirement — he began his comeback aimed at the 2009 Tour de France, he didn’t always show the grace befitting a legend. The public was happy to believe he just wanted to spread the news of his campaign against cancer and that he missed competing. He need not have let slip that the 2008 Tour victory of Carlos Sastre, a popular and proficient cyclist who was not regarded as a champion of the first rank, convinced him that he just might be capable of winning again.
As it turned out, he did finish the 2009 Tour 14 places ahead of Sastre. But he finished third, more than five minutes behind his Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the 26-year-old Spaniard who was winning his second Tour title. Still, that podium performance as well as his rivalry with Contador, which over the course of the long race escalated from uneasy to hostile, convinced Armstrong to go it again in 2010 — this time at the head of his own Radio Shack team.
Ironically it was in defeat, with Lance’s courageous performance coupled with his deft handling — at least in its public manifestations — of the tricky Contador dynamic, that Armstrong not only won the admiration of fans, but finally their hearts too. (During the race, he apologized both publicly and privately to Sastre for his earlier demeaning remarks.)
America loves its champions. But there can be something especially gallant in a comeback that can trump even victory. Armstrong seemed to smile more than he had in all the previous Tours combined and even the reluctant French finally embraced him too.
With Armstrong beginning his 2010 Tour campaign Saturday, it is a perfect time to engage a new book on his 2009 race, “Tour de Lance” by Bill Strickland, a veteran cycling journalist and Armstrong camp insider.
In his cover language, Strickland gets right at a core truth about the effort: that while Armstrong believed he could win again, his pursuit was one “to reclaim the Tour de France.” So while Contador eventually shook off Lance’s challenge and rode to a convincing victory, Armstrong still dominated the story lines and, in the end, stood tallest, even while on the lowest rung of the medal podium.
Strickland is a good writer and a knowledgeable observer of both Lance and the sport. But at times it seems he has known Lance far too long and the book carries a lot of the emotional baggage of his conflicted feelings about the man. He confesses to a hint of sycophancy in his early admiration for Armstrong — “embarrassingly ardent” is his term — but over the years the “arrogance and ambition and aggression” of Lance tempers his approval.
Though he is the first journalist to learn of the comeback — he had previously co-authored a book with Armstrong’s longtime team manager, Johan Bruyneel — he is decidedly unhappy over the news. He was ready — and believed the sport more than ready — for the post-Lance era, which he envisioned as a less contentious one no longer saddled with the constant refrain of questions about doping. Strickland dismisses all the motivations Lance cites for his comeback as peripheral. He shares a judgment expressed by an insider about Lance: “He’s a killer and he missed killing.”
How Lance tries to “kill” Contador while fulfilling his obligations as his teammate is as fascinating now as it was when I watched it unfold last summer. The book does suffer a bit from Strickland’s ties to Lance’s camp. He never gets to talk to Contador. And while the Spaniard seems thin-skinned, petulant, difficult to coach and not a team player, it is hard not to sympathize with his suspicions that Armstrong and other team members really couldn’t be trusted with his Tour ambitions. Bruyneel’s strategy for Contador to hold off his attacks appears sound, but Contador clearly worried that it was less of a strategy for victory than for keeping Lance in the chase.
As always, when writing about cycling, the Tour and Lance, doping is the elephant in the book. And the issue accounts for why Strickland initially had no heart or stomach for Armstrong redux. He shares all the now familiar anecdotes and accusations, including LeMond saying that Lance “has no conscience.”
The book was written before Floyd Landis, who was disqualified as 2006 Tour winner for doping, said he had witnessed Armstrong doping back when he was his teammate. But right now Landis is about the least credible witness in the sport. Before he emerged as a born-again whistle-blower, he lied relentlessly about his own cheating and slandered others for telling the truth.
Strickland repeats a familiar refrain — that Lance “was never legally convicted of or irrevocably implicated in the use of dope.” Yet he also writes, “I know things to be true that I wish I had never been told.” Whether that reflects on Armstrong’s drug use or simply his character, the mixed messages and conflicted feelings hover over the book. Strickland feels obliged to point out that of the eight men who shared the podium with Armstrong over the course of his seven Tour victories, five faced doping bans and two others were implicated in drug use. So at worst, he writes, that makes Armstrong the best of a bad era.
Still, Strickland ultimately succumbs to the allure of Armstrong’s bravura performance at the 2009 Tour. He insists that, in regards to doping, he believes Lance is totally clean in his comeback mode. And he becomes convinced too that he is actually going to pull off the miracle win. That Armstrong came up short, but close enough to threaten Contador, certainly makes this year’s Tour reunion all the more inviting.
Contador is back for 2010 as Astana’s undisputed leader — though with a different crew — and aiming to wear yellow in Paris for a third time. Armstrong heads a new team with Bruyneel but they poached the best riders off the 2009 Astana crew. Even Armstrong admits he isn’t the cyclist that Contador is today. But the Tour is a far more complex endeavor than a race where the fastest, most powerful rider automatically wins. And Strickland does a superb job of explaining how the impossible can become possible. It is a book that could entice casual fans into becoming regular followers of this year’s Tour.