Its Not About The Bike, Lance Armstrong (2000)

A massively successful account of Armstrong’s life up to his first Tour victory that is as skilfully tailored to the cancer community and general market, as it is unsatisfying to a cycle enthusiast

Yellow Jersey Press 0 224 06086 4 Octo 275pp £17

It is hard to like Lance Armstrong. Admire or be awestruck by, yes. But there is something unappealing at the heart of his super-competitive jockishness and the blunt certainty that he brings to bear on situations that deserve more nuanced consideration.

His story is clearly remarkable. He was a dazzlingly impressive one-day rider, whose body was overtaken by such ferocious cancer that his survival seemed unlikely. He recovered to become the most successful stage-race cyclist in history. Even now, with seven straight Tour de France victories under his belt, he plans to return to the great race in July.

This book traces his story from childhood with a chip on his shoulder, through his early cycling career, to diagnosis and recovery and cancer, to his first Tour win and his marriage to Kirsten Richards and the birth of their first child.

The writing is slick; and is beautifully crafted for its target audience – a US public who know nothing of cycle racing. So, Lance laboriously explains to readers that the yellow jersey is worn by the leader of the Tour to distinguish them from other riders, but mentions the forth of July without feeling the need to explain its significance. The book is co-credited to Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post columnist, and it is a fair bet that is was she who ghosted pretty much all of the text. She’s very good – even managing to emulate some of the prose style that you might imagine a super jock would have if he actually put fingers to keyboard.

Like all ghosted works, it does, though leave a nagging question in reader’s minds. Is this really how Lance interprets his life – or has the professional writer crafted the conceptual framework here outlined?

So what’s not to like? Metronomic winners always fall victim to the charge that they make a sport dull. Miguel Indurain, Michael Shumaker and Manchester United are all, in part, victims of their own success. No one wants to know the outcome of a sporting event before it starts and they grow irritated by competitors whose dominance robs them of their drama.

But there is more to it than that. On the evidence of this book, Armstrong holds his mother on a pedestal. But much as it good to revere your parents, there is also sense in being able to accept that they have made mistakes. Better still to try and learn from them. Armstrong lists those of this mother’s partners who he knew as a child, and generally paints them as pantomime baddies who come upon a blissful scene and shit in the family honey pot. To date, Linda Armstrong has been married four times.

Yet despite what you might consider a rich education in the in the challenges of the marital route to the happy-ever-after, Lance paints his own trajectory up the aisle and beyond in terms so saccharine that even cupid might retch. As the book closes, the Tour winner and his wife are blessed with a son. The only thing that will distract our hero from his family now is his on-going commitment to the cancer community.

Perhaps it is as well that for most Americans consider European cycle racing rather less important than mildew. It would explain why, since its publication, Its Not About The Bike has remained the best selling book about cycling week in, week out (according to Amazon). By 2009, the publishers were boasting that it had sold more than three quarter of a million copies. No doubt it is a favourite gift for a friend or relative who has cancer.

Only a complete lack of interest in the sport and its participants can have kept from readers the many hairpin bends through which Lance’s lovelife has descended. Indeed, his prowess in a three-week bicycle race seems to be in inverse proportion to his ability to survive the mountain stages and time trials of a serious relationship. Since publication, he and Kristen have divorced, he has been engaged to Sheryl Crow, enjoyed public relationships with Tory Burch and Kate Hudson, and has recently impregnated his new girlfriend Anna Hansen.

If I did not know better, I would suggest that Lance and Sally title their next collaboration ‘Its Not About The Wife”. In that, Lance could candidly reveal how his unquenchable quest for sporting victory was the result of a pathologically unbalanced need to exert control over life – one by-product of which is that long-term relationships are all but impossible. It would be a fascinating and daring book – but is not, alas, one that is likely to roll off the presses any time soon.

Millions of people know Armstrong’s story – he is the most famous cyclist ever by a massive margin. And the sensational nature of his narrative has brought cycling to audiences who would not have given the sport a second’s consideration without such a tale to hook them in.

That his aggressive certainty and determination makes me recoil despite that, however, goes to the heart of the contradiction at the centre of spectator sports. It is rational for competitors to try and win, and win as often as they can. To properly enter the public’s hearts, however, the unequivocal demonstration of human frailties is necessary.

At winning Lance is the best. Beating everyone else, again and again is, however, not what it takes to make you loved.

PS May 09

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