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Winning the Toughest Race of All
A Review of the Book,
It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life
By Lance Armstrong (With Sally Jenkins)
Reviewed by Rick Price, PhD.
Note: Rick, a long time cyclist, is the owner and founder of Experience Plus bicycle tour company.
Anyone who makes the long and difficult journey to the winner's podium at the Tour de France has a story to tell. A good writer can probably make it an interesting story, too. But to win the Tour de France after traveling to the brink of death, undergoing debilitating cancer treatments, and having your physique (and your psyche) reduced to a shadow of its former self is nothing less than astounding. Then to write a book about your ordeal and come back to win the Tour de France three more times pushes the definition of Herculean! Who is this guy anyway?
The story is very simple. A seventeen-year-old high school girl almost single-handedly raises her infant son who grows up with an ability to win triathlons and, in the process, develops a craving for the solitary life on his bike. At age sixteen a sports lab measures his VO2 max (a measure of the ability of the heart and lungs to deliver oxygen to the body) and records the highest reading they've ever seen. Finally, a cycling coach sees him and he gets invited to Colorado Springs to train with the junior US National team his senior year in high school. This took him to Moscow to ride in the Junior World Championships in 1990 and his cycling career was underway.
Thank goodness for head-strong moms. Lance was from Texas, where football is king. But he wasn't a team player, he was a cyclist (indeed, it took him a while to discipline himself and to become a team player even on cycling teams), and he had missed six weeks of school while participating in the Junior Worlds. They wouldn't let him graduate since his absence was unexcused. Lance's mother, Linda Mooneyham, called every private school in Dallas to find a school that wouldn't let "school" interfere with her son's education. She found one and Lance graduated from high school that spring.
Lance's first big, really big, season was 1993 when he won a million-dollar prize by sweeping first place in the triple crown of US cycling. That same year he went on to win his first stage in the Tour de France and to become the youngest ever World Cycling Champion at age 21. He was on his way.
He was also brash, aggressive, temperamental, impatient and immature. He writes about the process of becoming a mature racer, of testing and refining his style, and of incrementally improving it on his way to becoming a Tour de France winner. Then he got up one day, at age 25, and learned that he had testicular cancer with a forty-percent chance of surviving. And that forty-percent was probably optimistic.
You'll have to read the story of how he beat this cancer and came back to win the 1999 Tour de France yourself. No summary can do justice to the moving tale this young man has to tell. It's a story of pain and perseverance, of self-doubt and depression, and a story of extraordinary determination.
One of the things that Lance learned as he matured as a racer was that "there was a science to winning," as he writes. After he was diagnosed and got over the initial shock, he turned this lesson to his advantage in beating his cancer.
I'm reminded of my dentist who disappeared from his practice for several weeks one spring. "Where'd you go?" I asked when he came back, at least fifteen pounds lighter. "Oh, didn't you know", he replied "I was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in December and went down to a clinic in Houston for treatment. And I'm in remission," he said, proudly. He went on to say that he had talked to the hospital here in Fort Collins and to the University of Colorado medical center but found that neither of them had given him better than a fifty/fifty chance. "This place in Houston gave me a 70% chance of beating it, so I packed up my laptop, my VCR and some videos and I went for treatment. And here I am." He ended with some serious advice: "If you ever get cancer, shop your treatment around!"
That's just what Lance did. He ended up at the medical center at Indiana University in the care of oncologists who had pioneered the treatment for testicular cancer. It paid off.
It is amazing to me that Lance Armstrong faced resentment and hostility when he came back to win the Tour de France four times in a row beginning in 1999. As he himself writes, having an American win the Tour de France is like having a French baseball team in the world series. But still, a champion is a champion and there has never been a shred of evidence that he has used performance-enhancing drugs, despite the accusations.
There's more to this story than I can recount here. So if you want to know the rest of the story, you'll have to read the book. I have always been astounded at the resiliency of the human body and the human spirit. Our capacity to heal, regenerate, forgive and forget is extraordinary. Holocaust survivors, cancer survivors, and the survivors of oppression of all kinds who emerge without rancor or bitterness are examples for us all. This young athlete joins the ranks of some extraordinary human beings.
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