It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back To Life, by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins
If one knows the scandalous last few years of Lance Armstrong’s life, with the breakdown of his marriage due to his adultery and the collapse of his legacy due to the exposure of his sophisticated doping operation, it is impossible to read this book without a feeling of ironic distance from the feel-good sentiments that Lance and his co-writer are trying to convey. That does not mean that this book is not worthwhile or even interesting, but merely that one goes into this book, or at least I did, with a strong sense of cynicism about its contents and approach, and a determination to read between the lines. That this book still stands up as being noteworthy under such circumstances is credit to its authors, even if it is not quite the reading experience that it was originally intended to be or that it likely was in the period where Lance Armstrong was seemingly miraculously winning all those Tour de France titles after having recovered from a near-fatal battle with metastatic testicular cancer. Even now, Lance Armstrong is right that it’s not about the bike, it’s about a man so driven to win and so consumed with himself that he pushed through cancer and showed a total disregard for the feelings of others as well as the rules and traditions of his chosen sport of cycling , and one can see that here clearly enough to see what Armstrong was eliding in these pages.
Like a good Aristotelian drama, this particular book begins in media res with an apparent contrast between the pre-cancer Lance Armstrong and the post-cancer Lance Armstrong, although, as we have seen in subsequent revelations, the contrast is not as great as we may hope, and in both periods Lance Armstrong comes off even in his own account as more than a little bit of an aloof jerk. The book then goes to his childhood where he shows an almost emotionally incestuous relationship with his mother and is extremely critical about his birth father and his first stepfather and then shows his early athletic success in triathlons and as a competitive cyclist. The rise of the young cyclist is interrupted by his battle with cancer, which is described in vivid and sometimes brutal detail, as Armstrong first tries to soldier through early symptoms, then fights cancer and has to deal with chemo even as he faces concerns over not having insurance and dealing with a cycling team that is trying to renegotiate or cancel a deal under duress. The book then moves to the whirlwind courtship between Lance and his wife Kik, surviving, and then returning to form and winning his first two Tour de France titles, told from his perspective as part of a growth and success narrative.
Even though this is clearly a whitewash and clearly not the full story, there is a lot of worth in this book anyway, even after the truth of Armstrong’s victories and the fact that they were owed to a sophisticated doping regime and a sport willing to look the other way at least for a time. For one, Lance Armstrong tries to promote himself as belonging to a tight-knit cancer community that he mines for sympathy . For another, Lance Armstrong shows himself throughout as being hostile towards protocols and established traditions, whether that is regarding his senior year of high school in Plano, Texas or his insistence that his mother come along with him on a meeting with the King of Norway after his victory in the cycling world championships or his refusal to go by the arcane rules of the road in European road cycling. Over and over again Lance seems tone deaf to the demands of the social world he finds himself in, a lone wolf demanding loyalty from others but not being sensitive to the needs and concerns of others, and relying on ruthlessness, predatory aggression, and his own God-given natural gifts and talents. The result is a fascinating look at a man that even at his peak was someone who was quite willing to let the darker side of his personality show, or perhaps had such a dark side that it was impossible for it to be completely hidden however he may have wanted to portray himself.
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