Thursday, August 06, 2009


Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion

A Book Review

When Da Capo Press first contacted the Service Course about reviewing John Wilcockson’s new Lance Armstrong biography, Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion, I was both flattered and hesitant. I’ve been fortunate to have encountered John personally through my work with VeloNews and have been a longtime consumer of his work, so I already knew at least two relevant things about the author. The first is that he possesses an absolutely incredible knowledge of cycling and has more experience writing about it than most anyone in North America. The second thing I know is that he has a great deal of admiration for Lance Armstrong. The first bit of knowledge was what made me feel flattered by the offer to review the work; the second was what made me hesitant.

In the lead-up to the 2009 Tour de France and during the Tour itself, Wilcockson’s personal fondness for Armstrong was becoming apparent in his VeloNews coverage to an extent that made me uncomfortable. And if I found that reporting to be less objective than I would have hoped, what would I find in a biography whose title made it abundantly clear that its very intent was to glorify Armstrong? I have an extraordinary tolerance for excruciatingly detailed examination of cycling and its stars; I have far less for hero worship and media complicity in it.

What I found in Lance was a bit of both. As an athlete biography, the book succeeds stunningly. Through extensive firsthand interviews with a wide-net sampling of characters, Wilcockson adds a degree of granular detail and outside perspective to Armstrong’s life that has been sorely lacking in previous, more stage-managed efforts to chronicle it. As an objective view into the life of one of the sport’s most controversial figures, however, Lance has considerable failings.

The source of those failings becomes apparent in the opening paragraphs of the preface, which recount Armstrong’s reliance on Wilcockson as a media sounding board prior to his 2009 comeback. The long-term symbiotic relationship between author and subject emerges repeatedly in the narrative – from Armstrong summoning Wilcockson to the U.S. Postal camper to release his own version of his conflict with Christophe Bassons to Wilcockson defending Armstrong’s honor to other journalists in the Tour pressroom, the book seems to trumpet the very personal closeness that, at times, undermines its credibility.

From the outset, Wilcockson seems intent on building a case for the legitimacy of Armstrong, not so much as the “world’s greatest champion,” but rather as a credible champion in the face of a decade of doping allegations. It may be a worthy cause with truth at its root, but at times, the defenses presented to those years of accusations seem somewhat faithful and starry eyed; at other times, they seem intentionally skewed. For instance, presenting a win in the pro-am Settimana Bergamasca and a ninth place in his first Paris-Nice as evidence that even a pre-cancer Armstrong seemed to be cut out to excel in grand tours seems an innocent if overambitious rebuttal to those who argue that Armstrong’s 1999 transformation was chemically enhanced. But more troubling is the distortion of the facts surrounding the famed 2005 retesting of Armstrong’s 1999 Tour samples for EPO. Wilcockson dismissively refers to those samples as “the B versions of samples that had already tested negative.” While it is true that those samples had already tested negative for various banned substances, they had not previously been tested, and thus never tested negative, for EPO (as no test existed for EPO in 1999). But EPO was the matter at hand in 2005, not the other substances the sample had been previously tested for, so the statement, while not technically false, strikes me as at least intellectually dishonest.

That willful parsing of the facts extends to this year’s comeback as well in the treatment of the intensive drug testing regime Armstrong was to pursue with Don Catlin, mentioned prominently in both the preface and the closing chapters. That plan was scrapped by February of 2009, well before the April 2009 date printed on the book’s Acknowledgements page, yet no mention is made of its abandonment. In both of these instances, there exist legitimate rebuttals and reasons that could have been used to defend Armstrong if one so desired. The 2005 retesting and subsequent exposure by L’Equipe were fraught with a number of legitimate scientific and ethical problems. The Catlin testing program, in the end, proved so overambitious as to be nearly impossible to execute. But these arguments are never used – instead, the simple obfuscation that is used breeds distrust.

Though it is unwaveringly supportive of Armstrong, there are some notable departures from the approved Armstrong media playbook. The preface wastes no time in meeting one aspect of the prevailing Armstrong media position head on, flatly stating that Armstrong’s motivations for returning to competition this year were far more personal than the “raising cancer awareness” reasoning that was ultimately developed for public consumption. (This preface, by the way, is also where Armstrong’s famously scathing appraisal of the 2008 Tour de France first appeared.) This and several other observances – among them a pointed correction to the account of the Championship of Zurich given in Armstrong's autobio It’s Not About the Bike and a frank rebuke of the popular myth that Armstrong was the youngest world champion in cycling – while worthwhile, feel like token defiances undertaken to feign objectivity rather than substantive efforts to achieve it.

While I believe all of the aforementioned to be important flaws in the book that warrant discussion, I also recognize fully that such criticisms may be somewhat unfair. Lance is, after all, sports biography, clearly targeted by its title and content to die-hard Armstrong fans. It is not journalism, and maybe it’s unfair to test it according to those standards of evidence and objectivity. So how does it hold up in the sports bio genre? Wonderfully.

Through fresh interviews, Wilcockson fleshes out Armstrong’s early family, social, and sporting life, expanding it well beyond the trite “no father, scrappy single mother, talent fueled by anger” bullet-point summary it has become over the last decade. While those elements are certainly present throughout, the book digs deeper to create a less black-and-white telling of the story. For instance, various sources reveal that Armstrong’s adoptive father, Terry Armstrong, was, if not an ideal father figure, at least a very-much present and engaged one for a significant portion of Armstrong’s adolescence. Indeed, from step fathers, to coaches, to bike shop owners, to confidants, Lance highlights the contributions of many of those who helped Armstrong along his road to stardom, including several who have previously remained out of the spotlight.

Beyond those expanded views of Armstrong’s early life, the book can be clearly divided into two obvious and almost unavoidable sections: pre-cancer diagnosis and post-cancer diagnosis. It is in the pre-cancer segment where the book truly excels and potentially broadens its audience beyond dedicated Armstrong fans, if anyone else can make it past the title.

In those pre-cancer years, Wilcockson uses Armstrong’s experiences as a conduit to explore the terrain of late 1980's and early 1990's American cycling. Though Armstrong’s journey, we meet many of the driving personalities of the day, including Connie Carpenter, Len Pettyjohn, Jim Ochowicz, Eddy Borysewicz, and a veritable who’s-who of American cyclists. We also get to relive some of the iconic yet extinct American events that defined the era – the K-Mart Classic, the Thrift Drug Classic, the Tour DuPont, and the Philadelphia USPRO Championships. Just as they did for Armstrong, these bits of cycling Americana serve as segues into the larger world of international cycling. We first meet Viatcheslav Ekimov, now a mainstay of the Armstrong circle, as a Tour DuPont and classics rival, while Armstrong’s years at the American Motorola squad pave the way for some insight into his early Anglophone mentors – Canadian Steve Bauer, Englishman Sean Yates, and Australian Phil Anderson. For anyone who missed that era of cycling and needs to catch up, or who was there to enjoy it and wants to play it back, this hefty section of the book alone makes Lance worthwhile.

The post-cancer diagnosis material will be well-traveled terrain to anyone versed in the complete Armstrong library, including It’s Not About the Bike, the Every Second Counts sequel, Daniel Coyle’s Lance Armstrong’s War, and a slew of other works recounting each Tour de France victory. Like most of those tomes, Lance acknowledges the various doping accusations leveled against Armstrong since his 1999 Tour de France win, but has little patience for them. In this section of the book, the defensive posture we alluded to above hits its full stride. To do the heavy lifting, the book relies on a somewhat repetitive mixture of the “uncommon physical gifts and hard work” argument, supportive quotes from Armstrong insiders, opinions stated as fact, the arguably exculpatory verdict of the UCI-commissioned Vrijman report, and the eventual overturn of Armstrong trainer Michele Ferrari’s sporting fraud conviction. For those who keep up with cycling year round, and have for some years, the familiarity of the information in this section can make it drag somewhat, though the detail and alternate angles provided by Wilcockson’s interviews helps to liven up even the most well-trodden portions of the story.

In the end, Lance is hardly the no-holds-barred tell-all that many dream of, but again, the title itself should repel anyone expecting that sort of book. However, with Lance, Wilcockson has arguably created something of broad interest. Hardcore Armstrong fans will appreciate the no-way-he-doped stance and the added detail and perspective on Armstrong’s life that Wilcockson’s legwork provides. Broader students of cycling can enjoy the lens on 1990s professional cycling found in the telling of Armstrong’s pre-cancer career. And grumpy, picky reviewers can complain that, like most biographies that aren’t about war criminals or serial killers, this one interprets the facts in a manner that is decidedly favorable to its subject.

Lance: The Making of the World’s Greatest Champion
John Wilcockson
Da Capo Press, 2009.


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as usual, well done. The thing that I was recently ponder about "The Lance" is his current performance as a human being and father. I've said many times that to be a Lance/Tiger/POTUS you need to be a seriously self-centered, single-minded person that is probably not a pleasant person to live with. But if we accept the mythology of Lance as driven by anger over his missing father, do we now need to look at him and wonder if he isn't just becoming that missing father himself? I'm sure his kids want for nothing, but from what I've read, he is clearly not around. He can't be doing weeks long camps in Colorado etc and jetting around being a statesman etc while spending much time with his kids (and I'm really wondering about the new little "bastard"). Anyway, just a thought. Probably isn't possible to be a "good" father and an international superstar bike racer at the same time. I get grief because I don't get home until 7 or later.
Thanks Ryan!
Thanks for wading through this book for me, something I would never have done, although I am a longtime fan of the author. The subject matter (Armstrong) is controversial, and you handled it in an even-handed manner. I believe history is a spoil of war, written by the winners, in bike racing as well as in war. My experience in following the 2009 Tour was illuminating for me, in that Armstrong and the anglophone press in my opinion distorted reality to favor Lance. In particular, the article in El Pais about Contador's suffering at the hands of Bruyneel and Armstrong was never reported by the anglophone media...coincidence or not? I question all Lance's past victories! His use of subterfuge and propaganda to win (as opposed to athletic prowess) is the hallmark of a cheater!
So for me this book belongs in the trash bin.
Hey Ryan, excellently written review - I think we share a common stance re Armstrong. John is technically a very good writer, but he's hopelessly biased towards a journalist, it's quite embarassing to read some of the things he writes, as well as his Twitter feeds.

I haven't read the book, not sure if I would. Okay - clarification: I would interested in seeing what he says, but I'm pretty certain I'd be hugely frustrated with the it. As you mention, he's smudged the truth to strengthen the case for Lance's hero status..that's plain wrong.

When a writer takes known facts and distorts them, he's really failing in what he's set out to do. Essentially it seems that John has chosen dollars over details, fawning over Lance because it will further his earnings.

He talks about how long he is in the journalism game, how many Tours he has covered - that simply serves to illustrate how wilfully naive he is being. Any journo around cycling for any length of time knows the extent of the doping problem and to pretend otherwise is a deliberate decision to favour myth over truth.

Thanks for your review - very well done.
Anon, re: Wilcockson's twitter feeds. I spotted this tweet: - "Just finshed reading Fignon's autobiography in French. Lots of inside takes and, contrary to media reports, says he was never a drug cheat."

Which is a really odd claim to make given that Fignon admits in the book that his GP Liberation amphetamine positive was legitimate. I questioned him publicly on twitter on this and rather than reply publicly he sent me a private message explaining that he was referring to Fignon not doing EPO.

I'm pretty sure amphetamines count as doping and were banned when Fignon got caught.
This book has been written with a very very frank attitude.
The name says it all - MY JOURNEY BACK TO LIFE !!!

1)I got a Huge, Extraordinary, Inspiration from this LITTLE book.

2)The book has lucid language, nothing to worry about that.

3)Life is a game, you either PLAY or QUIT.but SON, YOU NEVER QUIT!


4)It's always GOOD to get back to LIFE;but it's always BETTER to be back at LIVING!

mind you, this sentence will BE DRILLED into your mind FOREVER.

5) this is for those-

who UNDER-ESTIMATE themselves and always RELY on other people's OPINIONS. It's your life make it large !

What i personally felt after reading this is

We all have the required PHYSICAL strength BUT what matters most is the MENTAL strength...and LANCE ARMSTRONG is A LEGEND in this!


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