Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 2, 2011

Lance Armstrong's Shadow

When the seven-time Tour de France champ came out of retirement to go for No. 8, cycling writer Bill Strickland was there for every pedal to chronicle the bumpy ride.

Andrew Golding

To produce his most recent book, Bill Strickland spent much time in a van. He spent that time in the van at his own choosing. And he spent it watching men ride bicycles in the heat of summer.

Strickland was covering the Tour de France and doing it from inside a team van, the daily headquarters for a certain team with a certain well-known member. The result of the experience was Tour de Lance: The Extraordinary Story of Cycling's Most Controversial Champion, Strickland's coverage of Lance Armstrong's return to cycling as well as Armstrong's effort to win the 2009 Tour de France.

Bill Strickland. Photo by Chris Milliman.
"I think I got the Tour right in some ways—the madness of the fans, the physical toll on the riders, the chaos, and the beauty."

Bill Strickland. Photo by Chris Milliman.

An editor at large at Bicycling magazine, Bill Strickland is 46 years old, a husband, a father, and an avid cyclist, among other things. In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Strickland tells Gelf about his own race to finish the book, the joys of covering the Tour, and his thoughts on Lance Armstrong and doping.

Gelf Magazine: You've written about cycling for much of your career. Can you describe what makes cycling your passion?

Bill Strickland: Oh, boy. I don't know if it's a passion quite so much as an indivisible part of my life. I've written about this in various ways, including the book Ten Points, but I was a white-trash kid living a pretty tough life in the Midwest when I discovered cycling as a sport. Part of the appeal for me, in retrospect, was that to my family, cycling was not just odd or exotic, but disturbing, with its tight funny shorts and shaved legs and accepted syntax of foreign terms. So, no surprise for a kid: rebellion. But not just rebellion: I grew up going to Wrigley Field and also hanging out at Arlington with an alcoholic uncle who was, I guess, a tout, so in the horses and the ballplayers and the ivy and the long trip from Gary, Indiana, into Chicago, I absorbed the poetry of sport and in whatever primitive way I was able to appreciate it as a young punk, in cycling I saw beauty taken to an extreme I would have considered unimaginable.
This might have been the way I found it: there was no coverage on TV, really, or internet reports, so news of the races would trickle to us weeks or months after the finish, in black-and-white pictures with florid prose written in French or Italian and translated, on newsprint mostly, smudged with grease from the fingers of bike-shop mechanics. It was like finding out the Holy Crusades were going on in your lifetime or something.
The sport got into me, and helped me escape who I was and didn't want to be anymore. My riding friend was going to college, so I figured I might as well, too. Then, once I was there, the guys who rode were all from better circumstances than I was and showed me how actual people lived actual lives. The bike got me a job at Bicycling Magazine, where I've been able not only to write and report on cycling but also to work with some of the best magazine and book writers out there, such as Steve Friedman and Bill McKibben. And, in ways I get into in Ten Points, racing as an amateur saved—or maybe preserved is a more correct word—my life. It's a passion, yes. But not just a passion.

Gelf Magazine: Access is key to Tour De Lance—the access you had to the Astana team including Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador, Johan Bruyneel, and many team personnel providing the details that add to the book. Did the entire crew trust you? What was their reaction to the book?

Bill Strickland: This turns out to be a trickier question than it was at the time I was reporting the book. I had previously co-written a book with Johan, We Might As Well Win, that told some stories from his life and what those episodes taught him about life and winning. Based on our interaction while putting that book together, he trusted my judgment in terms of how I balance what is valuable or even necessary when telling a story against how a public revelation of something might make a source less likely to talk to me. When I explain this now, it sounds like I knew everything there was to know about doping in cycling and chose not to reveal it. What I'm really talking about there, though, are choices I made about whether to put in, say, stories about whose sister had slept with the most Grand Tour winners, or mean nicknames or running jokes the team members gave to other riders—decent material but not revelatory and which, if written in a public way, would cause friction between riders and make them less likely to be open with me next time I wanted to interview them. It's OK to blow a reporter-subject relationship apart, but you better make sure the story you do it for is worth it.
So I had Johan's trust going in, and to get the trust of the rest of the team I just sort of hung around and hung around and hung around. I was there basically the whole year, 2009, at all of the major races and a lot of the smaller ones. For the first few months I didn't even take out my notebook. I just hung around and listened and said something funny every once in a while and, when I wanted to get something down, I would step around the corner or go to the bathroom and write down as much as I could. After a while, I took my notebook out and would leave it lying around but not use it. And, eventually, I started writing in it in sight of everyone. By the time the Tour of Italy and Tour de France came around, they were used to seeing my scribble in my notebook all the time and didn't think anything about it.
Once one of the staff came over—this was during the Tour of Italy, the Giro—and asked what I was writing down. "I write down everything," I said, and I showed him the page. He'd just knocked over a cooler of ice and one of the mechanics was picking up the ice and that happened to be what I was writing down. "That'll probably never make it in the book," I said, "but I want to get it all just in case." He shook his head and walked away, and I think that helped break down the final barrier. When I was in the team car once, Eki—Viatcheslav Ekimov—got on the team radio and said, "He's the hardest working of us all: He's writing everything down again!"
Predictably, they didn't like parts of the book. You always reveal more than a subject hopes, and they disagreed about some of my characterizations about the ruthlessness of the team or the strategies, or how I portrayed Armstrong or some of his rivals.
The team and the riders, in general, were also unhappy about the position I staked out on doping. This was just before the Floyd Landis allegations of widespread and systematic doping, which led to the federal investigation into Armstrong and the subsequent allegations made by other riders. At the time I was reporting the book, there were plenty of people who would tell you off-the-record stories, but no one would who go public with a first-person eyewitness account of seeing Armstrong dope. I pointed this out in the book, and also summarized what I called a "mountain of circumstantial evidence," and was the first, as far as I can tell, to survey the podiums during Armstrong's winning streak and point out the preponderance of convicted or confessed dopers. But I also said that none of this proved he doped and, that though at times I suspected he might have, the most I could claim was to be agnostic. I believed that we would never know for sure. So the team didn't like this; they expected fealty. From the other side, Armstrong's critics didn't like my refusal to say that I knew for sure he doped. I'd staked out the most unpopular position: Neither side of the argument liked what I had to say about doping.


Gelf Magazine: Due to information that was provided to you recently, you wrote in a Bicycling magazine article that you believe Lance Armstrong was doping. Numerous former associates of Armstrong have said the same. How is there such a gulf of opinion on what seems to be a simple issue? Does Armstrong genuinely believe he did not dope? Could there be some difference of opinion on what is considered doping?

Bill Strickland: I'll try to keep this one to just a few simple lines, because if you start to go into it with any depth or perspective at all, no matter how much you write it will feel as if you're leaving out something important. And the details of this thing will just drown you. Here are the factors that make this complex and so contentious:
• The guy is not just a sporting hero. Because he survived cancer to return to the highest level of the sport and from there made his work for cancer survivors a key part of his identity, he is an inspiration to those literally fighting for their lives.
• He is unquestionably a sporting marvel, possessing physical and mental abilities of a true champion. It's not as simple as taking a few injections and riding away from everyone for seven years. The night before my Bicycling article came out, I told Floyd I was going to say that I believed Armstrong doped but that he was still a great cyclist, and Floyd said, "Good. Give him his due. He was a bad-ass bike racer."
• I can't say that everyone was doping, but I can say that, as with any professional sport, it would be no surprise to me (anymore) to find out that any one of them relied on dope in some way to perform. Doped, he beat dopers.
• He brings the same intensity he brought to the Tour de France to his fight against his accusers. The guy knows how to win.
• His accusers have too often told conflicting stories or in other ways opened themselves, inadvertently or not, to questions about their credibility or legality. And the details are so complex, numerous, confused, and difficult to parse that the public tends to make a headline vote.
• A lot of people just don't care if he doped. In fact, I think most of the public doesn't care.

Gelf Magazine: What parts of the book are your favorite and why? Is it riding in the team van? Watching Armstrong and Contador up close? Speaking with fans watching the action take place?

Bill Strickland: I liked being able to take a long time and a lot of words to capture the rhythm of what goes on during a race—the chatter on the race radios, for instance, during which no moment really stands out but, rather, the flow of the entire day is interesting.
Or just little quiet moments, like during the Tour when we passed Denis Menchov, who had won the Tour of Italy and was in the process of falling apart on a mountain climb, and Bruyneel looked out the window and said, in a quiet voice, "Menchov. That's Menchov there." I wrote: "There's both awe and regret in his voice, as if we're driving by a dying lion our safari party shot."
There was a passage I wrote called "The Easy Week," that showed the sheer inhumane price the Tour takes on the riders even when it's supposed to be easy. I wove in the story of Kenny van Hummel, a Dutch rider who was barely surviving every day and, by finishing last each day, had become a sensation—what is called the "Lanterne Rouge," or last-place rider, which is actually a term of respect: It's a hard man who hangs in there at that point.
I got to write about a cyclist named Fausto Coppi, who I consider to be the greatest cyclist, and maybe introduce him to all the mainstream Lance-only fans who don't know much about the sport.
One episode that sticks with me is a just a father and his daughter who found the team bus during a rest day and asked if they could simply look at Lance's bike.
And I think I got the Tour right in some ways—the madness of the fans, the physical toll on the riders, the chaos, and the beauty.

Gelf Magazine: I'm wondering about your process for writing the book. Did you write each day as things happened? Did you collect your notes when the Tour was over and then write? What was the timeline from conception of the book to completion?

Bill Strickland: I tried to write my notes into a computer file every night. For the Tour alone I think I had somewhere around 25,000 words of notes. And I had notes from January through August, which is when I started writing the book. It felt pretty hopeless, and I couldn't write anything through September. I was destroyed—I'd been away from home and the office and covering a Tour is a 6-am-to-11-pm job. I was pretty sure I'd have to give the advance back. I wrote a couple thousand words in October, then took November off and did a lot of outlining and dummying in of text. I missed my original deadline and, at one point, got into a situation that required me to write around 2,000 words a day every day—I needed around 14,000 words a week. I'd never done anything like that, but, you know, you just sit down and do it. The book is more or less a one-off, a first draft, and given that, I'm OK with the writing. I wish I'd had more time.

Gelf Magazine: In an interview with the website Bikezilla, you mention the value of reader feedback. What is the most valuable reader feedback you have received that has influenced your writing?

Bill Strickland: I have a few close readers whose opinions I trust even more than my own—I don't always do what they suggest or amplify or alter something they like or don't like, but I consider their input pretty damn hard. And sometimes I do go with their ideas over mine. In terms of just general readers, I tend to learn more from those who don't like what I wrote. For some reason, I'm fascinated with someone who dislikes something I wrote; I want to find out what it is. I just think that if you're going to listen to praise, you ought to listen equally hard to criticism.

Gelf Magazine: When your daughter asks you about Armstrong and Contador, about why they are important to you and why they stand out, what is your answer?

Bill Strickland: It's funny with the kid. Because I race at the amateur level yet also know Armstrong and some other pros, she doesn't really differentiate between a seven-time Tour de France winner and The Animal, the guy who kicks my ass in the local races. She knows I talk to both of them and that both are better than me and have my respect. She's upset with Lance, now that I believe he doped, but I think she's willing to accept my take that he blew it but isn't evil. I respect the sport more than I respect any rider, and I'm trying to teach her that in every racer (person) you find the things they do right and the things they do wrong and you learn from those and use those to shape yourself. You don't model yourself after any single person, or expect anyone to be a complete model for your life. It's not the sportsmen, but the sport—sports, all sports—that can make us better people.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding







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Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding

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