Lance Armstrong has won his seventh consecutive Tour de France, and so here's a plug for his autobiographies, which I reviewed for Biblio magazine around a year ago. They’re highly recommended, especially the first, It’s Not About the Bike, which I enjoyed more than I’d ever thought possible (given that I’m not into the sport, plus I’d feared the book would be painfully maudlin).
This is a joint review (it’s a long one btw, longer than I’m usually comfortable with):
In the real world of sport, it’s rare to find that perfect match, that perfect score or comeback that plays itself out so routinely in schoolboy dreams. In Lance Armstrong’s case, however, schoolboy dreams couldn’t possibly have held a candle to real life. Here’s Armstrong’s life, abridged: he was raised in a one-bedroom apartment in a Dallas suburb by a single mother – and later, for a few years, by her second husband who fitted every cruel stepfather stereotype (he would whip young Lance, or beat him with a paddle, for the most minor trespasses). Biking was an escape from the drudgery of his life - "all endurance athletes are running away from something", he believes – and he grew in stature over the years, his professional life coming to a culmination of sorts when he won the World Championships in 1995.
Then, a year later, he was diagnosed with an advanced stage of testicular cancer. Given a less than 40 per cent chance of survival (and that was only the softened version, as he later learned), he fought the disease; conquered it; returned to life and to biking, a better man and athlete; and won the grueling Tour de France – one of the greatest endurance challenges in world sport. In the face of taunts that his win had been a (possibly drug-aided) fluke, he came back and won the Tour again the following year. And again the year after that. And the next. Along the way, he met and married Kristin Richard; they had their first child in between his first two Tour de France wins.
It’s a story that might have been lifted from the script of one of those inspirational Disease of the Week TV movies so popular on American television - except that even the most brain-dead TV executive would have demanded a rewrite to make the story less clichéd. Which is why the great wonder of It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life and, to a marginally lesser extent, its sequel Every Second Counts is that they are enthralling reads, with none of the chest-thumping overstatement that could so easily have marred a story as dramatic as this. And yes, they are wittier and more informative than most of what you’ll find on the “Self Help” shelves of bookstores.
It’s Not About the Bike was published in 2001 when Armstrong’s struggles were very fresh in his mind - and when the possibility of a relapse still haunted him. The book begins with the nightmarish build-up to his cancer diagnosis and the realisation that he was in such an advanced stage that he could easily lose not just his sport but his life. ("In an X-ray, black is good, white is bad. My chest looked like a snowstorm.") It then backtracks to tell the story of his conflicted childhood, his relationship with his redoubtable mother Linda and progress in his sport of choice.
The fight against cancer - complete with financial problems, debilitating chemotherapy and doctors’ conflicting opinions - occupies the bulk of the story. Armstrong describes with unnerving stoicism the horrors he lived through in those days: having to visit a sperm bank at the peak of his illness, because he would be sterile later; an operation to remove cancerous lesions from his brain; a catheter that made a horrible tearing sound when it was ripped from his chest. This section makes for understandably intense reading, but it’s the winning of the 1999 Tour de France - just 16 months after his discharge from hospital - that is the book’s emotional core. The Tour win would have been the soul-stirring epiphany in that aforementioned TV movie script. But it doesn’t quite work out that way here, because the Tour is a complex race. Spread over three weeks, with different stages across varying terrain and physically drained men wheezing their way towards the close, it rarely provides the climactic humdinger seen in racing movies. In 1999, Armstrong established an early lead, held on to it and was the obvious winner long before the race ended. At the finish line, therefore, there was no drama, just an enormous sense of relief. Which is just as well: it would have felt wrong if this story had suddenly metamorphosed into a high-suspense racing thriller.
While this isn’t a conventional sports book – it’s a compelling read even if you’re not in the least interested in cycling, or in the details of Armstrong’s career – it does supply interesting nuggets on what many of us believe to be a simple sport. Armstrong discusses the complexities of cycling with the passion one would expect from him. He speaks about the criticality of working in a team, especially on lengthy races when the champion cyclist is often shielded from strong winds by his teammates, who ride in front of him. With obvious pride he tells of an old-world courtliness in cycling that is lost to most other sports in this competitive age: of how, when a rider has established a significant overall lead in the Tour, it is the done thing to allow other competitors to win individual stages in the event ("There is an unwritten code against individual greed…you helped other riders if you could, and you didn’t take stages you didn’t need…that probably sounds like tanking but there is a strange honour in it").
By comparison, and only by comparison, Every Second Counts is less exhilarating; it lacks some of its predecessor’s intensity. Also, its first 60-odd pages are mainly a retreading of ground already covered in the first book – the 1999 and 2000 Tour wins and the bronze medal at the Sydney Olympics (which made his wife prouder than his Tour victories - because of the way he dealt with not being a winner.)
A more relaxed Armstrong now speaks at length about a few other topics, including his scepticism of organised religion: "Too many people look to religion as an excuse, or a crutch … heaven and hell are both here on earth every day, and we make our lives around them." He discusses his encounters with other cancer patients/survivors, the intrusive random drug tests he was subjected to, the birth of his twin daughters and the painfully difficult task of balancing family and profession. (“One of the ways I was determined to be a good father was to make the best living I could for them, out of this brief opportunity I had as a world-champion athlete. But professional success could become a personal failure.”) And there are, of course, the details of his subsequent Tour de France triumphs. (Incidentally, Armstrong won a record sixth Tour earlier this year, though that falls outside the ambit of these books.)
Apart from an occasional sense of repetition, there’s nothing in these autobiographies that deserves serious criticism. Yes, the text is scattered with homilies in places: "I’ll never ride again, who will I be if not Lance Armstrong?" (gentle violins in the background). "I’m determined to fight this disease and conquer it" (beat of drums). "If you get a second chance, make sure to go all the way” (orchestral crescendo). But these are par for the course, so to speak. The voice that really sticks with you throughout is that of a man who might, in other circumstances, have become a conceited, precocious champion but whose experiences in cancer’s hell instead made him a more complete person – humble, sensitive and grateful for small mercies.
That voice first makes itself heard very early on, and it goes: "I’ve read that I flew up the hills and mountains of France. But you don’t fly up a hill. You struggle slowly and painfully up a hill and maybe, if you work very hard, you get to the top ahead of everybody else. Cancer is like that too. Good, strong people get cancer and they do all the right things to beat it, and they still die…I still don’t completely understand why I’m still alive. All I can do is tell you what happened."
Crucially, the candour and humility are leavened by humour; there’s a lightness of touch here that, dare I say it, puts many of our homegrown autobiographies to shame. Stylewise, these books read like prose written by one of the more erudite hip-hop artistes - by turns angry, puzzled and scared, often savage and tender in the same sentence. And it helps enormously that Armstrong’s ghostwriter Sally Jenkins is given co-authorial credit - it brings the project a verisimilitude that would have been missing if he had hogged the limelight. At any rate, the collaboration appears to have been a seamless one; the writing is lucid even as it conveys the nervous energy of a man desperate to share his lessons with the world.
More than once, Armstrong says that if it hadn’t been for the cancer, he would probably never have won a Tour de France. That’s open to debate, a question best left for the overcrowded pantheon of sporting "what ifs". What you can be sure of though is that these books would then never have been so exuberant, so full of the joy of living - and so universally appealing. You don’t have to be a race buff or a fan of “inspirational” non-fiction (I’m neither) to enjoy them.