It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back To Life is the autobiography of Lance Armstrong and is co-authored by him and sports writer Sally Jenkins. I had been meaning to read this book since I started running last year. It follows his life from his childhood with his divorced mother, his belligerent early successes at cycling, his diagnosis of testicular cancer, his cancer treatment, the fight back to life and finally his methodical training and success at Tour de France. Lance makes no bones about the fact that since he was born he only had a mom and she was solely responsible for his early success. In his early 20s he was a very good cyclist, but only at short races. Due to his short temper he had no chance at winning a multi-day multi-stage race like Tour de France. Then he is diagnosed with testicular cancer which quickly metastasizes to his brain and lungs. He undergoes brain surgery to remove the cancerous tumours in his brain, surgery similarly for lungs and loses one of his testicles. After that comes months of chemotherapy which pushes him to the edge of his life. His doctors give him a 3% chance of survival, but he wins those odds. Back clean from cancer, he skips the other races and trains methodically for the Tour de France, the most gruelling endurance event on this planet. Though dogged by rumours of doping, he wins the 1999 Tour de France in spectacular fashion. This was the first ever win by an American on an all-American team in this European dominated event. The book ends with the birth of his son Luke and his followup 2000 win. He would later go on to win every Tour de France† from 1999 to 2005, making him the event’s most successful cyclist ever. His Lance Armstrong Foundation has also become very popular in raising awareness about cancer and funds for cancer research through its yellow wristband.
The book is a Tour de Force of a read (forgive the pun)! It is very light and quick. Lance goes into detail on his fight over cancer and the 1999 race. He insists that it was his win over cancer that gave him a new perspective on life and that was more important than the wins that came after. The book is (as you can assume) very inspirational. Having taken a bit to running recently, I could understand and empathize with Lance, especially when he described how patience and temper is necessary in an endurance event. In that aspect, endurance events are a metaphor for life (and that is what most people including me feel when running). I cannot think of a single reason why anyone shouldn’t read this book, please do.
† I got fascinated about long distance endurance events like cycling and especially about Tour de France sometime during 2000. I do not exactly remember which year (since Lance won all of them) but I watched one of the Tours between 2000-2002 in much detail, following it every night and watching it all day during weekends. This particular tour was a brutal battle between Lance and Ullrich all the way. The book goes into much detail about the Tour, its culture, jargon and language, structure and strategy to win it. I guess I can now watch the next Tour without being a complete illiterate. Also, Lance has come out of retirement to participate in the 2009 race. I think he will not win any of the stages, but might scrape through to win the overall title again.
My favorite excerpts from the book:
The night Lance is diagnosed with cancer …
I had left the house an indestructible 25-year-old, bulletproof. Cancer would change everything for me, I realized; it wouldn’t just derail my career, it would deprive me of my entire definition of who I was. I had started with nothing. My mother was a secretary in Piano, Texas, but on my bike, I had become something. When other kids were swimming at the country club, I was biking for miles after school, because it was my chance. There were gallons of sweat all over every trophy and dollar I had ever earned, and now what would I do? Who would I be if I wasn’t Lance Armstrong, world-class cyclist?
A sick person.
Lance’s first European pro race and remembering his mom’s words …
The day of my debut, it rained so hard it hurt. As we started off into the stinging, icy downpour, I quickly faded to the back, and as the day wore on, I slipped farther and farther behind, shivering and struggling to pedal. Soon, I was in last place. Ahead of me, the field was growing thinner as riders began to give up. Every so often one would pull over to the side of the road and abandon the race. I was tempted to do the same, to squeeze the brakes, rise up from the bars, and coast to the side of the road. It would be so easy. But I couldn’t, not in my first pro start. It would be too humiliating. What would my teammates think? I wasn’t a quitter.
Why don’t you just quit?
Son, you never quit.
Fifty riders dropped out, but I kept pedaling. I came in dead last in the field of 111 riders. I crossed the finish line almost half an hour behind the winner […]
Realizing the true meaning of the Tour de France …
My reputation was as a single-day racer: show me the start line and I would win on adrenaline and anger, chopping off my competitors one by one. I could push myself to a threshold of pain no one else was willing to match, and I would bite somebody’s head off to win a race.
But the Tour was another thing entirely. If you raced that way in the Tour, you would have to drop out after two days. It required a longer view. The Tour was a matter of mustering the right resources at the right times, of patiently feeding out your strength at the necessary level, with no wasted motion or energy. It was a matter of continuing to ride and ride, no matter how uninspired you felt, when there was no rush of adrenaline left to push you.
If there is a defining characteristic of a man as opposed to a boy, maybe it’s patience. In 1995, I finally gained an understanding of the demanding nature of the Tour and all of its extraordinary tests and dangers. I finished it, and I finished strong, winning a stage in the closing days. But the knowledge came at too high a price, and I would just as soon not have learned it the way I did.
I had learned what it means to ride the Tour de France. It’s not about the bike. It’s a metaphor for life, not only the longest race in the world but also the most exalting and heartbreaking and potentially tragic. It poses every conceivable element to the rider, and more: cold, heat, mountains, plains, ruts, flat tires, high winds, unspeakably bad luck, unthinkable beauty, yawning senselessness, and above all a great, deep self-questioning. During our lives we’re faced with so many different elements as well, we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and to have a little hope. The Tour is not just a bike race, not at all. It is a test. It tests you physically, it tests you mentally, and it even tests you morally.
I understood that now. There were no shortcuts, I realized. It took years of racing to build up the mind and body and character, until a rider had logged hundreds of races and thousands of miles of road. I wouldn’t be able to win a Tour de France until I had enough iron in my legs, and lungs, and brain, and heart. Until I was a man.
Methodical training for the Tour de France …
I rode when no one else would ride, sometimes not even my teammates. I remember one day in particular, May 3, a raw European spring day, biting cold. I steered my bike into the Alps, with Johan following in a car. By now it was sleeting and 32 degrees. I didn’t care. We stood at the roadside and looked at the view and the weather, and Johan suggested that we skip it. I said, “No. Let’s do it.” I rode for seven straight hours, alone. To win the Tour I had to be willing to ride when no one else would ride.
After winning the 1999 TdF …
“I’m in shock. I’m in shock. I’m in shock,” I said. “I would just like to say one thing. If you ever get a second chance in life for something, you’ve got to go all the way.”
From the last chapter Encore, which was added in a later edition of the book:
By now you’ve figured out I’m into pain. Why? Because it’s self-revelatory, that’s why. There is a point in every race when a rider encounters his real opponent and understands that it’s himself. In my most painful moments on the bike, I’m at my most curious, and I wonder each and every time how I will respond. Will I discover my innermost weakness, or will I seek out my innermost strength?