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A riveting look at bicycle racing, Tour de France winners, the teams, the athletes, the scandals, and winning.

Book Review: Lance Armstrong’s War: One Man’s Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love by Daniel Coyle

Lance Armstrong's War is likely the most complete biography of Lance Armstrong in print, since Coyle covered the 2004 tour over a period of 15 months with full access to Lance, team members, rivals, doctors, and European press. Much of the book covers Armstrong’s chief rivals as well as his teammates and race directors.

Coyle packs a great deal of action into each chapter, with generous background and opinions from a wide variety of racing professionals. His narrative style draws the reader in at every level, covering the sport as well as the personalities.

“Armstrong is fascinating for many reasons, but mostly because he’s our purest embodiment of the fundamental human act – to impose the will on the uncaring world – an act that compels our attention because it seems so simple and yet is secretly magical. Because at it’s core, will is about belief, and with Armstrong we can see the belief happening. … It’s etched on his face.”

The graphic storytelling makes you read faster than you wish, racing along with the peloton. You realize their motivation takes them past fear and past pain. There is something far worse than crashing: being left behind. This is vividly portrayed when Tyler Hamilton had to drop out of the 2004 race, after a crash left him with no feeling in his legs.

If you’re a fan of cycling, the tour, or sports and the power of will, you’ll enjoy the way Coyle gets inside the Armstrong’s head as the author learns of Lance’s uncanny ability to remain optimistic, even when it makes no sense. Armstrong is so skilled at remembering his detractors, he repeats their names to himself during training rides. Yet he can block out his own vulnerabilities, including severe pain.

I hadn’t expected Lance Armstrong's War  to share so much information about bicycle designs including the suspenseful debut of Armstrong’s “narrow bike” which was a short-lived dream of shaving 36 seconds off his time. The complexity of bike engineering and design shows both the extreme nature of sports, and the allure of a big win, where millions of dollars are at stake for every second’s lead time.

We don’t all ride with physiotherapists, trainers and coaches, but serious riders know how to stay fit, yet conserve energy for the toughest climbs. They even use a technique called “sleep high, ride low,” to let the altitude work to the riders’ advantage in boosting red blood cell counts.

Lance Armstrong's War is so rich with detail, you’ll fly through 200 pages before even getting to the Prologue of the 2004 Tour, and the later chapters, where Armstrong’s weaknesses begin to show, after a failed marriage, a public romance, and a growing awareness of the inevitable vulnerability to younger riders.

This is a riveting 2010 reissue of Dan Coyle’s 2005 Lance Armstrong's War, and a couple chapters were originally published in Outside Magazine, but the updated story covers 2009. Coyle covers all the tour wins, and writes in the style of Jon Krakauer, whose blurb for Lance Armstrong's War says: “… An intimate, insightful, unflinching look at the greatest athlete of our time.”

Armstrong finished third in the 2009 Tour de France, after seven consecutive wins, and is scheduled to ride in the July 2010 Tour. Reading Lance Armstrong's War first will sharpen your awareness on every level.

(Review based on 2010 paperback edition, provided by publisher.)

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