Armstrong 3.0 – part 1

Comeback 2.0 is a curious addition to one’s cycling book collection. Gorgeously presented, in the spirit of Rouleur, the book is “Lance Armstrong’s first-person photo journal of his 2009 comeback season with the goal of taking the Livestrong message around the world.” With sumptuous cycling photography, as well as intimate portraits of Armstrong and his family, the book – probably more intended for a general rather than a hardcore cycling audience – is a seemingly rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of the whole endeavour. RadioShack, Armstrong’s team sponsor for 2010, was also involved, and $10 from each book sale was donated to Livestrong “to inspire and empower those affected by cancer.” The Special Collector’s Edition (only $5 secondhand – they don’t hold much value these days) features a removable dust jacket with “keepsake poster” and 16 additional pages of photos.

The book is at once about establishing and controlling the narrative. Accordingly, the comeback is not just about winning the Tour de France again, and the goal is also to “raise awareness about cancer” and “ignite a grass-roots movement around the world.” Thus, the book begins in 2005: “The view from the top of the final podium in the Tour de France is pretty sweet.” Armstrong wants to spend more time with his Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF). With the twin goals of the comeback, the book spends 2009 with Armstrong: training and racing, visiting cancer patients, and talking with global leaders. There’s even the birth of a new son, “miracles happen”, in June 2009. Overall, this was intended to be the narrative of his legacy – racer, ‘war on cancer’ advocate, and father.

Cycling purists will find much that is grating about the carefully packaged narrative. Despite all the old allegations, Armstrong unites with his old cronies – Bruyneel et al – to tackle the Tour. The goal is clearly to win, not just to raise awareness about cancer. Despite Livestrong emblazoned kit whenever possible, Armstrong’s team is Astana, about as far from a vehicle for a grass-roots campaign as one could find in cycling. As well, his team leadership is far from guaranteed and he has to battle Alberto Contador on the road and in the bus. At a training camp, the doping inspectors come calling and there is a picture from behind of Armstrong filling his bottle, pants down: “It’s humiliating and embarrassing, but it goes with the territory.” The inspector wanted to give Armstrong tips for how to put the bottle into the plastic bag for sealing. “I reminded him that nobody has put the bottle in a plastic bag… more often than I have.” The message: the comeback is clean. Doctors Don Catlin and Michele Ferrari do not get a mention.

Throughout the book, Armstrong is surrounded by friends and supporters. This continues at the Tour, with numerous business and celebrity contacts dropping in to lend their support. Contador wins the race (“he deserved to win”) but it is mission accomplished for Armstrong as he makes the podium, patches up his relations with French fans (although the pictures suggest some ambiguity) and with L’Equipe, then moves on from the race to his awareness raising work. Which is where it should have ended, a legacy ensured, Comeback 2.0.

But of course it did not end there. 2010 continued with the same template but his racing luck at the Tour ran out and, plagued by crashes, he finished 23rd – the goal of a stage win also proving elusive. Still, there were tributes, with winner Bradley Wiggins saying: “I think he’s great. He’s transformed the sport in so many ways. Every person in cycling has benefited from Lance Armstrong, perhaps not financially but in some sense. Even his strongest critics have benefited from him. I don’t think this sport will ever realize what he’s brought it or how big he’s made it.”

Despite the controversies, the allegations, then, Armstrong retired still in control of the narrative – mostly – with Comeback 2.0 nicely contributing, at least for those who wanted to read it. But that was not how it ended, and the story of Armstrong losing control of the narrative is well known: the confession, the collapse. And the current rebuilding of sorts. Comeback 2.0 now crumples under scrutiny – or does it? It remains difficult for an outsider, someone not part of the inner circle, to discern what really lies at the heart of the book – is it blatant propaganda and myth-making? Perhaps. Or maybe it epitomizes good intentions – the goals of the LAF – that were derailed by controversy and contradiction, and the difficulty of stuffing so many ideas into one vehicle that simply lacked the momentum to surmount all the obstacles.

Comeback 2.0 epitomizes one narrative stream about Armstrong, the other stream being the output of his critics. It is an interesting experiment to read the book as it is, pretending that one has no knowledge of the other stream. As such, it is hard not to be captivated. But that was always part of the Armstrong narrative, as it was eventually written – emotion trumping reason. But the emotion of that narrative has been entirely trumped by the reason of the other. We now know almost entirely the true story; no more speculation. Which, like many other books about Armstrong, consigns Comeback 2.0 to the bargain bin. But is it entirely discredited? There are crucial unanswered questions, despite what we now know. And what else remains – something or nothing? To be continued…

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One thought on “Armstrong 3.0 – part 1

  1. Good review of ‘difficult’ material.. I’m also reading an old Armstrong book “23 Days in July” at the moment, trying to look at it simultaneously with both eyes wide open and , a much harder task, with hindsight set to one side. I, like many others of my age, believed in Lance throughout the 7 ‘victories’ but had heard enough of the sceptics’ arguments by the time of his return to view him in much more guarded terms.

    Separating the cheating rider from the charity phenomenon (which has not properly been done to date) will be key to securing Lance’s future and also, more obliquely, to resolving his past.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

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