September 11, 2005
Lance Armstrong's War by Daniel Coyle
Posted by Gordon Smith

My wife and I started reading this book together during the Tour de France in July. As she took her turn driving our Suburban across the U.S. -- my children in the back, immersed in DVDs -- I would read to her. Each night, we would check out the 2005 Tour's highlights on the hotel television and on the internet, then return to Coyle's account of last year's Tour while on the road. When we returned to Wisconsin in early August, we had completed about two-thirds of the book, and it rested unopenend in my nightstand until this week, when we decided to finish the task. I am happy we did.

Lance Armstrong has suddenly become current again, as rumors swirl regarding his possible return to competitive cycling. He is often compared to Michael Jordan because of they way both dominated their respective sports, and he can add another point of similarity by coming out of retirement. Of course, the purported impetus for these latest rumblings is Lance's frustration with recent doping allegations by the World Anti-Doping Agency reported in L'Equipe. The latest twist is that Union Cycliste Internationale is investigating and is not happy with the public release of test results.

No matter whether this latest tempest peters out or gathers force, doping will never be far from discussions about Lance Armstrong. Indeed, doping is the dominant subtext of Coyle's account. Coyle covers Lance's close association with the notorious Italian sports doctor Michele Ferrari; Irish reporter David Walsh and his book, LA Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong; Lance's bizarre confrontation in Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour with Filippo Simeoni, who had admitted doping and testified against Ferrari; and Tyler Hamilton's two-year suspension from cycling after positives tests as the Olympics and the Tour of Spain. By almost all accounts, cycling is rife with doping, and although he does not draw any conclusions about Lance, Coyle offers an even-handed and straightforward account of the evidence, allegations, and refutations.

Still, you don't need to read the book to get a primer on doping in cycling. Stories like that are everywhere. But I can think of two other reasons to read the book. First, Coyle offers a fairly intimate portrait of Lance, at least as much as we might expect from someone who followed Lance around for a year and spoke with Lance's friends, enemies, and competitors. Lance is a very complex person, and even though you won't be able to claim that you know Lance after reading this book, you will have a much better sense for the conflicts and contradictions that lie behind the public persona.

Second, Coyle offers nice details about Lance's preparations and the day-to-day workings of the Tour de France. For newcomers to the sport of cycling, he provides accessible accounts of the need for a strong team and reveals some of the basic strategies. He also offers some fun details, like the riders at the beginning of the cycling season checking out their competitors with a "belly pinch" or an "ass check." I also enjoyed the transcript of the radio transmission from Johann Bruyneel during one of last year's time trials. Although much of the transcript consisted of Bruyneel repeating "Come on, Lance. Come on." it offered a nice insider's view of the ride chatter.

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