Sunday 24 July 2011

It's Not About the Bike

This audiobook practically leapt off the library shelf and into my hands. Perfectly timed to match with my current frenzy of nightly Tour de France viewing. I didn't realise then that Armstrong was from Texas, which is another little bit of synchronicity, as I will be travelling to Texas quite soon! Knowing that I was a bit worried when he said he was called brash in his early days, and that he did some things when he was young and inexperienced that he probably shouldn't have done. "I wasn't trying to be a jerk, I was just Texan." Oh dear.

I know that Armstrong is controversial recently. There's suspicions and accusations and he remains under a cloud. I'm not sure that I like Armstrong's voice at all. And I certainly don't like the reader's. He somehow makes Armstrong seem whiny. And I suspect that he's probably not. Or not that much. And if you're going to read an audiobook about a guy who wins the Tour de France seven times, then please at least try to learn how to say maillot jaune. And please audio book makers, put track markers in the disc so that when people play it on the old crappy CD player in the car and they try to rewind it it won't go back to the beginning. Argggh.

Still it is a fascinating tale of a young man, an elite athlete falling prey to a malady that can strike at anyone. Cancer. It's unthinkable to him that he could actually be sick despite what with hindsight are clearly symptoms- haemoptysis, a grossly enlarged testicle and severe headaches. His diagnosis of metastatic testicular cancer comes like a bolt out of the blue. He is 25, riding at an elite level, and suddenly sick, very sick.

We hear about his treatment in rather minute detail at times. He has widespread disease. 12 nodules in his chest, and two metastases in his brain. He threw himself into the study of his disease. His celebrity status did help too. Oncology professors wrote to him to suggest treatment centres and other options. He was able to travel to three different centres, and eventually found the centre he was most comfortable with, where the doctors were confident they could design a treatment regime that would help to preserve his lung capacity. One of the chemotherapy agents commonly used in testicular cancer, bleomycin, has quite predictable lung toxicity- not exactly what you want as a world class cyclist. Lance really gives it to Cofidis, the team he was newly signed with at the time of the onset of his illness, who he believes gave up on him, and "left him to die".

It's much more than a tutorial on testicular cancer, although it certainly is that too. There are great insights into the world of elite cycling and the Tour de France in particular. International road cycling is an intricate and highly politicised sport, full of terms from the major European languages. I learnt more about the roles of domestiques ("servants", the slower cyclists in a team whose job it is to pull up the hills, blocking the wind and preserving energy for the other riders) and team leaders- the principal riders, who can still sprint to the finish after 150 miles on the road. "You don't win a road race all on your own, you need your teammates, and you need the goodwill and cooperation of your competitors too. People had to want to ride for you, and with you."

Trying to spot my friend on the nearby bridge, but the television gods only gave me a view from a helicopter

Lance describes some of the rules of riding in the peloton ("a high speed chess match"), the "flicking", the tactics, the dangers. The peloton is "rife with contact, the clashing of handlebars, elbows and knees, full of international intrigues and deals". Riders would lose 10-12 litres of fluid per day, and need 6,000 calories. Lance also gives us a very moving section on the death of his Motorola team mate Fabio Casartelli during a high speed descent on the 1995 Tour de France. The next day the peloton does not race, riding in formation, and giving the team a ceremonial stage victory.

It is after Fabio's death that Lance learns what it means to ride the Tour de France, "it's not about the bike, it's a metaphor for life, not only the longest race in the world, but also the most exalting and heartbreaking and potentially tragic. It poses every conceivable element to the rider and more- cold, heat, mountains, plains, ruts, flat tyres, high winds, unspeakably bad luck, unthinkable beauty, yawning senselessness and above all a great, deep self-questioning." He learns that he must give up his young boy racer style- riding aggressively on adrenaline, anger and raw power. That he must learn patience, take the longer view, become a man.

"It would be easy to see the Tour de France as a monumentally inconsequential undertaking, 200 riders cycling the entire circumference of France, mountains included, over 3 weeks in the heat of summer. There is no reason to attempt such a feat of idiocy, other then the fact that some people, which is to say some people like me have a need to search the depths of their stamina for self definition. "I'm the guy who can take it." It's a contest in purposeless suffering. But for reasons of my own the essential test of the race is who can best survive the hardships and find the strength to keep going."

The book ends after his 1999 Tour, the euphoria of his first Tour win, and the birth of his first child several months later. Lance was to go on and win the Tour seven times. No other rider has won that many times. It is quite astonishing to realise that several of the riders in Lance's team in 1999 are still cycling the Tour this year. George Hincapie is riding his 16th Tour in 2011, and he has ridden on the same team as the winner for 9 of those years. Amazing. But then it's not about the bike.

Of course the Tour finishes each year, in Paris in July.


Anonymous said...

I probably won't find time to read/hear this but it sounds fascinating. I really enjoy books that provide that sort of behind-the-scenes insight into the activity.

Sometimes when I'm at a concert, for example, I find myself wondering how people make it work - the relationships, the cooperation, the competition, the kudos for some and not others etc. Seabiscuit was a great book about horse racing.

Louise said...

It's certainly not a book for everyone Sue. It was interesting, and it's nice when you get that synchronicity of timing (the tour and the upcoming trip to Texas). Sporting memoirs aren't my thing at all, and I suspect that this was my first one- again it was perfectly suited to me- the patient story of a major illness, as well as his riding in a race I find increasingly fascinating. I had actually been wanting to read this for years, and even considered buying it when it came out. I'm really glad I finally got to it.

Anonymous said...

Oops I meant to ask you about the trip to Texas ... tell me more. Will you see Susan? I'll be very envious if you do. It's a great state ...