Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Lance Armstrong: cancer, a yellow jersey and life

I recently accused someone of being too competitive. I’m not competitive, he countered, I’m interested in competition. It’s a subtle distinction that you could not imagine the cyclist, Lance Armstrong, making. He is fiercely competitive, swaggeringly self-confident and driven. Putting on his socks in the morning could easily become a time trial for someone like him. But, I suspect, he is not very different to many top class sportsmen and women. Yet, it is the young Armstrong’s braggadocio and intolerance of any form of weakness that make him so difficult to like. He’s an invincible superman on a bike, playing to all the worst American stereotypes: brash, loud, in your face. He doesn’t seem to be one of us or, at any rate, he doesn’t want to be one of those who are known as the mortals.

The compelling quality about Armstrong’s autobiography (ghost written by Sally Jenkins), It’s not About the Bike, is that he exposes these personal defects and makes no attempt to rationalise them away. But this courageous self-knowledge was only achieved after he was diagnosed with advanced, stage 4 testicular cancer in 1996. This gut-winding news made Armstrong realise that he was, in fact, a mortal, one of us:

My illness was humbly and starkly revealing, and it forced me to survey my life with an unforgiving eye. There are some shameful episodes in it: instances of meanness, unfinished tasks, weakness, and regrets. I had to ask myself, “If I live who is it that I intend to be?” I found that I had a lot of growing to do as a man.

I won’t kid you. There are two Lance Armstrong, pre-cancer , and post. Everybody’s favourite question is “How did cancer change you?” The real question is how didn’t change me? I left my house on October 2, 1996, as one person and came back home another. I was a world-class athlete with a mansion on a riverbank, keys to a Porsche, and a self-made fortune in the bank...I returned a different person, literally. In a way, the old me did die, and I was given a second life.

However, there are no purple passages in this book where Armstrong romanticises his cancer or makes it a cheap vehicle for self-improvement tips. Any moments of self-understanding are weighed against the terror of seeing one’s mortality up close and personal, the debilitating horrors of chemotherapy, the sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach as you wait for the next scan result, the sadness in the eyes of family and close friends. Illumination is not easily achieved. It is not a superficial process. For Armstrong, the dying to one’s old self in order to rise to a new life, was as gruelling, dangerous and lonely an experience as any Tour de France uphill climb. Yet, it also proved an opportunity to escape from the factory of alibis that maintained the personal inauthenticity he had grown accustomed to. It was a chance to win back his life. He writes:

There is an unthinking simplicity in something so hard [as cycling], which is why there ‘s probably some truth to the idea that all world-class athletes are actually running away from something. Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. “Pleasure” I said. “I don’t understand the question.” I didn’t do it for pleasure. I did it for pain.

Before the cancer, I had never examined the psychology of jumping on a bicycle and riding for six hours. The reasons weren’t especially tangible to me; a lot of what we do doesn’t make sense to us while we’re doing it. I didn’t want to dissect it, because that might let the genie out of the bottle.

But now I knew exactly why I was riding: if I could continue to pedal a bike, somehow I wouldn’t be so sick.

It’s Not About the Bike may focus on Armstrong’s cancer, but it also provides a fascinating glimpse behind the coloured blur of the peloton. I know nothing about cycling. But, after reading Armstrong’s book, I have gained some appreciation of how finely calibrated this sport is, where every fraction of acceleration is analysed and measured. It is a sport of personal rivalry and bodies pushed to the very extremes of what they are physically capable of. And along with the endless manoeuvring for best position on the road, there is the chasing of agents, sponsors and the best support team. This is a game of chess played out on feather light bicycles and at high-speed. The chapters describing Armstrong’s training for the punishing 2,500 km Tour de France in 1999 and his eventual victory are as exciting as any piece of sports writing I have come across. It is a riveting read.

Slipping on the maillot jeune, the yellow jersey worn by the winner of each stage of the Tour de France, took on a symbolic significance for Armstrong. He recognised that he could not be defined by his achievements – however, impressive they were – but that his significance was to be found elsewhere. It was who he was that mattered. “Sometimes I think the biggest thing cancer did was knock down a wall in me. Before cancer I defined myself in terms of winner or loser, but I don’t have that kind of rigid vanity anymore.”

In the final analysis, this autobiography is what it says on the cover. It is not a book about the bike. It is a book about Lance Armstrong and some of those tangible and intangible things that make us want to both embrace and reach beyond our mortality. A book, then, about life.

It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins, Yellow Jersey Press, 2001

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