“Like most people, I knew something about Armstrong, and what I knew I liked… At the same time, I was curious… I admired the spectacle, but found myself wanting to move down from the grandstand into the box seats, to step out onto the infield grass. I wanted to get closer…”
So begins the Preface to “Lance Armstrong’s War” by Daniel Coyle, former editor at Outside and the author of “Hardball: A Season in the Projects.” With that curiosity and a sportswriting pedigree, what could be more natural than closing up your house in Homer, Alaska, and going into deep immersion and chasing Armstrong and the rest of the pro cycling circuit for a year as Armstrong aimed for a record sixth Tour?
The result is one of the most insightful and gripping books ever written about professional cycling. Armstrong’s story is mythic and he transcends the sport as an icon, such that much of the mountains of articles written about him mainly touches the surface of the basic myth rather than probing deeper, further aided by Armstrong’s famous distaste for introspection. “War” aims neither to vilify nor beatify Armstrong, and is the first book, or indeed article, I have read that lays bare Armstrong as a person, especially his all-consuming passion for perfection and victory.
Don’t let the title fool you though. While Lance is the central character, the really fascinating aspect of the book is the “fly-on-the wall” look into all of the characters that make up the world of pro cycling and the sport itself. In addition to detailed profiles on rivals (Hamilton, Ullrich, Vinokourov, Mayo) and teammates (Landis), the “notorious” Dr. Michele Ferrari and his relationship with Lance is profiled in two fascinating chapters. Also, “War” features writing on riding on cobbles and crashing that was so vivid that my hands started subconsciously gripping the book tighter like I was gripping the handlebars.
Pez First of, congratulations on the book and its success! When you started pitching the idea of the book to me way back in 2003, it was going to be a book about Americans in Europe. How did it evolve into a book with Lance as the central character?
Daniel Coyle Thanks! Realistically, Lance and the Tour is currently the core of American interest in the sport. However, I still had to hedge my bets a bit in case things didn’t work out. It’s important to note that, while Lance is the centre of the book, his story is really only about half the book. The other half is about the rivals, which is just as important and fascinating. Ali wouldn’t be Ali without Frazier, and the rest of the peloton serves as a collective Frazier to Armstrong’s Ali.
Pez What was the single most surprising thing you learned in the course of researching and writing this book?
DC Where these guys come from in terms of their upbringing and background is so bloody interesting, and that context really deepens their athletic accomplishments. They all seem to be mirror images of Lance in coming from a hard life and small towns with little opportunities. I remember asking Chechu Rubiera if he knew anyone in the peloton that came from a big city and he couldn’t. Lots of small town kids with a chip on their shoulders, and I got the feeling that their ability to tolerate such incredible amounts of pain stems not just from their physiology, but also from their psychological background and makeup.
Pez What did you find really surprising about Armstrong as a person?
DC What was interesting for me is how psychologically dominant Armstrong is over the peloton and over his own team. Tony Cruz told me that he would often imagine that Lance is riding right next to him. Considering that Cruz is Lance’s teammate and also lives in Girona, this says two things – 1) Most people, even teammates, don’t get to ride with Lance, and 2) Mentally, Lance is in people’s heads all the time, and that’s such a huge edge – and one of which he takes full advantage.
The Pro’s Life and Chasing It
Pez You have some of the most detailed portraits of many aspects of cycling, from the anatomy of a crash and how it feels, to what it’s like when you’re absolutely shattered from fatigue. How did you get from being an armchair fan and weekend mountain biker to that level of intimacy and knowledge with the sport?
DC It just took time and attention to detail. I’m incredibly indebted to the entire cycling community, from the riders to the support staff to scientists. On the whole, I found cycling people to be really passionate about the sport, love talking and love talking about the sport.
Pez Pro cycling can sound like a dream job to many fans. How did you find it?
DC There’s a lot of romance built up around cycling, but day to day it can be like any pro sport or indeed any job, in that there’s lots of everyday mundane stuff. Day to day, it’s also not nearly as glamorous as it may seem. Look at Tom Danielson in 2004. New kid from America thrown into the deep end in an Italian team. His first Euro race was in a middle of nowhere town in Spain, the weather’s brutal and he’s on the edge of hypothermia with little team support.
Lots of guys I’ve talked to look back nostalgically at their amateur days. They may have been serious but it was also fun at the same time. Now it becomes a business and job, and everything tends to be filtered through that perspective. So a sniffle is no longer a sniffle but can be so much more, which in turn can really get into your head.
Pez How about yourself? A lot of readers would probably kill for the opportunity you had to follow cycling for a year. How did you find your experience?
DC For me personally, it was a lot of fun and an unforgettable experience. But at the same time, in addition to the logistics and stress of moving my family to Europe for a year, there’s also a lot of mundane everyday stuff too in the research and writing itself. It’s like mining for gold. To get the gold, there’s a lot of days or even weeks of sifting and getting nothing at all. With “immersion” reporting, you just have to dive in, keep your eyes open, and take the good and the bad.
Of course, the sifting and grunt work itself can be pretty enjoyable too, such as chasing Paris-Roubaix with Scott Coady and “borrowing” a cobblestone from Arenberg in the process. None of it ended up in the book, but it was a blast anyway!
Reliving the Book and Le Tour
Pez What is the one story you wish you didn’t have to leave on the cutting room floor?
DC Tom Danielson for sure. It’s such an interesting story in that he’s a first year pro with such huge potential but getting tossed into the deep end. I did a fair amount of research on him and he was very generous with his time and feelings, but at the end, it just didn’t work within the story. There’s also a nice bit of symmetry with his coach Rick Crawford being a former friend of Lance’s, and how Tom’s now on Discovery. The good thing is that his story is really only just beginning.
Pez For you, what was the single most memorable day of Le Tour 2004 and why?
DC Ending and the final day in Paris was really fun. I rode into Paris with Jeff Spencer (team chiropractor), a fascinating guy and terrific road trip partner. We were trying to get into the backstage VIP area, but the gendarmes wouldn’t have it. When the riders went by on the ceremony laps, all the gendarmes looked the other way, so I flipped my press pass over and dashed. I ended up getting into the posh pits with the Discovery and USPS bigwigs, sharing champagne with an old college pal who was also there as a VIP.
But really, the victory laps were truly special, as it was a chance to see the riders take off their “tough” face and see their humanity and how the experiences of the past three weeks wash over them.
The Legacy Question
Pez With Lance’s retirement, the inevitable question arises concerning his legacy. What’s the future of cycling in North America post-Lance?
DC The Lance bubble will be there for sure and interest in cycling will wane a little bit, but I think it come too far in the public consciousness to go back to dark ages. Authenticity is a really addictive thing, and ball games just don’t have that same feeling of authenticity. Going to a major league ball park these days isn’t much different now from going to the mall. However, there’s something primal about seeing who gets up a mountain fastest, and by implication who can make the others hurt the most.
You also have to look at how many young cyclists look up to Armstrong and cite him as the reason they got into the sport. While Joe and Jane Public may not have the same long-term attachment to cycling (look at the Chicago Bulls post-Michael Jordan), the new generation of riders is a legacy that cannot be denied.
Pez What about his legacy beyond cycling?
DC Lance is the first cyclist that really transcended the sport and became an international superstar. With his comeback post-cancer, he has become the face of human willpower for both cancer survivors and society in general, hence his mythic quality. He didn’t just “survive” cancer, but he kicked its ass with aggression and style. As a result, he’s changed how we look at cancer and how we feel about cancer. Before him, the whole concept of cancer survivorship and even “winning” against cancer was not really a focus at all in the medical community.
Pez Have you and your family members become lifelong cycling fans?
DCYes, I definitely think so. Like I said earlier, the authenticity of the sport, and also the way it connects with the culture of Europe, is a huge drawing card. My kids have certainly enjoyed it. However, Homer is at the end of the road here in Alaska, with water on three sides and only one road out of town, so they probably won’t make it a career. But it’s a pretty steep climb out of town, so you never know!
Pez Thanks for your time Dan, and best of luck with the book! It’s funny how things have come full circle, as you interviewed me at the start of the project to get a crash course in exercise physiology and cycling science, and now we’ve swapped chairs!
DC Glad to hear you liked the book, and thanks too for your help!
Get yourself a copy of Lance Armstrong’s War at www.booknoise.net.