tour de france, july 5th 2009. monaco to brignoles. 187km. stage winner, mark cavendish: 4:30:02. general classification: 1.cancellara; 2.contador; 3.wiggins. bald facts, accurate numbers. if you didn't watch the stage on television, those words and numbers will present the bare details. that's not the tour de france, not really, because results don't tell you what the weather was like, they don't tell you who was riding well, and who looked like death warmed up. to be fair, even the television pictures can't accomplish all of that, though they do inform more so than a results sheet. television producers work in the entertainment industry; their job relies more on keeping things moving, not dwelling on one scene or one rider for too long, and maximising exposure of the environs through which the tour circus travels. to understand what goes on all around, and to gain the insights that turn a bike race into daily life or death takes detailed observation.
'all of this i saw, because i did not have to write about the fight for first'.
the words are those of bill strickland, author of tour de lance; 300 pages following lance's comeback from retirement after becoming the first man to win seven tours de france. a comeback that coincided with the apparent rise of the next big thing to hit professional cycling: alberto contador. the script seems like that of a concocted movie or television programme. you place the old and the new in the same team, tell them to race, then sit back and see what happens. one has made a miraculous comeback from cancer, the other from a brain tumour. you couldn't make it up.
to most of you, bill strickland will need no introduction, but for those who have just dropped by, he is the erudite editor at large for america's bicycling magazine, co-wrote 'we might as well win' with armstrong's directeur sportif, johan bruyneel, as well as the autobiographical 'ten points', a book which ranks alongside matt seaton's 'the escape artist'. and he's not convinced that lance's comeback is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
having worked with bruyneel, bill had a far easier time gaining access to the astana camp during 2009 than any of the rest of us would have achieved. however, it's one thing being presented with the kernel of the comeback story on a plate (so to speak), it's an entirely nuther thing to know what to do with it. that's the point where we all take a large step backwards.
lance is a very complex man, a complexity that seems to have resulted from being regarded as one of the finest cyclists in history. having stood on the top step of the paris podium seven times, it's an accolade that is hard to deny, though that doesn't mean to say the guy is likeable. but then trying your utmost to win anything does not necessarily confer a sociable disposition; single-mindedness is possibly number one on the list of requirements to get to the very top in any walk (or pedal) of life. celebrity is a mere by-product and one that is either luxury or hurdle depending on state of mind. lance seems to find both meanings at random intervals.
'barriers are nothing. at any time i can flash the plasticised credential hanging around my neck - after all these years i get the highest-level pass obtainable - and i walk by the police and marshals on to the race course itself.
that's what it takes to be in a position to witness the intricacies of modern cycle racing, that and the wherewithal to know what to do with the information gained. this is not just a book about lance armstrong, it's just as revealing a book about bill strickland, and it's also a book that reveals a great deal about you and me. irrespective of our opinions of lance armstrong, it would be a strange bird that wouldn't want to get as close as mr strickland has to lance's professional entourage (as opposed to the celebrity version that has little or nothing to do with cycling), to sit in the back seat of the team car, to chat with ekimov, and to be handed lance's bike over the heads of an adoring crowd by a team mechanic.
i stand on the mountain roads, and i know nothing of who is winning or what the strategies are or what facts i will later have to track down and assemble into a news account and dispatch later that day, and as the racers pass i look into their eyes. i am looking for something of myself.
however, lest you become impressed that bill has an ego that approaches that of lance's, let me disavow that misapprehension immediately. when asked to assist the astana soigneur at the top of the ventoux by watching out for kloden crossing the line to hand over towel and jacket...
"way to go", i say to kloden, but he is already riding off... "way to go" i say to all the riders descending the road before me, but like klodi, none of them will hear me.
does that remind you of anyone? i remember bumping into kristian house several years ago in glasgow, and all i could mumble was something about having had a great result at the weekend. he'd won the race; of course it was a great result; he didn't need a prat like me to tell him so. but in bill strickland's case, would you not have kept quiet about saying "way to go" to anyone in a cycle jersey at the top of the ventoux? i know i would. well maybe. bill strickland is you and me.
and yet still, after accompanying lance throughout the entire 2009 season, and with only a few words exchanged apart from the telephone conversation in the epilogue, bill strickland is still not sure that lance's comeback is a good idea. and that is a refreshing lack of a conclusion, a conclusion forced by lance's complexity and the situation he has apparently entered into voluntarily. even after the current tour in radioshack colours, his avowed last, it's likely the real reason for the comeback will still verge on the vague side.
there is a hidden logic to this book, that only reveals itself as the chapters are uncovered, for chronology has been dispensed with in the arranging of chapters; or at least it sort of has. those relating to the 2009 tour are interspersed with the tour of california, the vuelta castilla y leon, the tour of the gila... you get the general notion. what bill has done is place lance's comeback against the all-defining tour de france, continuing the suspense through off piste, almost abstract distractions. it's a device that works oh so well.
despite his considerable knowledge of cycle racing, or perhaps because of it, bill strickland has not ignored the needs of those who may be lance fans, but unschooled in the ways of the peloton. references to aspects of racing life not consistent with daily existence, are patiently explained in comprehensible terms. for how will we understand the machinations of the sport's highest profile practitioner, if the inner workings of his trade remain a mystery?
the tour de lance invites us to consider what armstrong's worth might become hundreds of years from now, spurred by the blind passion exhibited by many of his fans; not directly, mind, but the idea is implicit if you don't mind reading between the lines now and again. the book is subtitled a wild ride through lance armstrong's comeback, a fact worth bearing in mind, because tour de lance is not, as i have already implied, solely about lance armstrong, making it all the more valuable amongst others that are.
"butterflies," he says... it is such a simple and direct response, it has to be an unfiltered truth'.
now for the tour 2010 where the comeback continues.
tour de lance is published in the usa by harmony publishing, and in the uk by mainstream. the only mystery is why the latter felt the need to dispense with the excellent american cover for something far more anodyne.
mainstream have kindly provided two copies of tour de lance by bill strickland to give away as prizes to the first to supply the correct answer to this question:
what is the name of lance armstrong's cancer charity?
e-mail your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org, and please include your full postal address, as evidence that you're bound to win.
posted thursday 1 july 2010..........................................................................................................................................................................................................