Friday, March 16, 2007

War by Other Means

Lance Armstrong was on The Colbert Report a while ago. I remember the impression of barely suppressed ferocity I thought I saw in his eyes. As he underwent the ritual humiliation of a Colbert interview, it occurred to me that he might at any time leap out of his chair and rip Stephen's head off with a flick of his lion paw. Instead he submitted more or less gamely to the ritual, even getting into the spirit for a momemt when Colbert unfavorably contrasted his belly with some movie star pal's at the NYC marathon - "I think he's doped," said Lance.

He put up with all this because he was there to make a pitch for better quality care for cancer victims. His point was, and is, that for a few, very good care indeed is available, care that could be made available to all, if the country committed to it.

My impression of Armstrong that night was no doubt shaped at least partly by the fact that I was reading Daniel Coyle's Lance Armstrong's War. It's mostly about the 2004 Tour de France which culminated in Lance Armstrongs record breaking sixth victory. I am not a reader of sports books, but I had read and liked a previous Lance Armstrong book, the autobiographical It's Not About the Bike, so I got this one as a present.

Casual observers probably have very little idea of the ferocity of professional road bike racing, but it's hard to think of any sport that so tests its competitors physically, mentally, and morally. The supreme test is the Tour de France - three weeks of racing through some of the nastier terrain in France and neighboring countries.

It's a dangerous sport. Serious injuries are common and fatalities are not rare. At full strength, the TDF peleton (that mass of bikers crowded together) has 171 riders jammed onto often narrow roads, pushing and jostling for position at high speeds. The laws of fluid dynamics encourage bike tires to be only inches apart, but touching is usually catastrophic. A fraction of a second's inattention, or a mistake by someone ahead of you can doom your race. Many of the million or so screaming spectators try to get involved by throwing or spitting water or beer at the riders or by even more violent acts.

Mostly though, the race is a matter of watts per kilogram of body weight, that is, the specific power output at lactate threshold - the amount of power/weight that the body can sustainably generate. It turns out that 6.7 is more or less a magic number - the power/weight ratio required to win the TDF. Chances are that you, reader, are at some small fraction of that, but if you should just happen to be at 6.8, racing glory awaits you.

There is much, much more, of course. Since the average Tour competitor is burning 8000 kcal/day or so, he has to replace that amount or lose weight - and every tour competitor does lose weight, but since they are mostly muscle and bone to start with, losing much weight (muscle) decreases your power to weight ratio. Thus, the ability to digest a huge amount of food is also crucial. Similarly, all the other repair systems of the body need to function at a prodigious rate for those three weeks of torture.

It is torture, of course. A racer will usually be in some degree of pain for much of the Tour and almost all of the time on the bike. The race goes on in rain, sleet, hail, lightning and fierce wind. Heat can be even worse. Motivation in the face of that pain can be decisive - but first all those other factors must line up.

TDF racing is a team sport, but one less like soccer and more like sled dog racing, with the domestiques, or support riders, playing the role of the dogs, while the leader plays the driver. Thus, the leader must not only motivate himself, but also those whose only glory is likely to be the reflection of his. He must use them strategically, letting them do the hard work of leading into the wind up the hard mountains, casting them aside one by one as they are exhausted, saving his strength for the final push.

By the 2004 Tour, Lance had long mastered all these techniques and more. Formidable talent plus ferocious attention to detail plus a monomanical intensity that bent the World to his view had made him Champion five times before, and would twice more.

Of course, if that was all that was in Coyle's book, it would be both short and dull. He takes a long look at Lance, but Lance's personality is pretty impenetrable, apparently even to insiders. His life is a fascinating tale - a difficult kid, heroically raised by an adoring, fiercely protective, and often single mother.

This story has been told before, notably by Armstrong in It's Not About the Bike, but Coyle uses it as an entry to the bike culture. Pro-bikers, it seems, were often shortchanged in their fathers. A gritty childhood seems all but required to forge the "hard boys" of the professional racing circuit.

A constant theme throughout the book is the charge of doping, never substantiated in Armstrong's case, but ever present in Europe's swirling hostility to Armstrong. Coyle makes no attempt to judge that case, but he does report a lot of the accusations.

Armstrong has often and fervently made the case that he is not a doper, but it's hard for even a fan like myself to be completely without doubt. For one thing, Armstrong has often been the guy who seems to believe that rules were made for the other people. For another, there is the evidence that has accumulated against other unlikely cheaters like Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis (who, like Jan Ullrich and Iban Mayo, also get a lot of ink in Coyle's book.) Finally, there is his long association with convicted cheat Doctor Michele Ferrari.

In any case, the jury finds him not guilty. In the larger world, I suspect that the war against doping is essentially lost. Ever more sophisticated methods of detection will lose to yet more sophisticated cheats. The better the human body is understood, the more subtly, and apparently naturally, it can be manipulated.

The portrait of Armstrong in this book is flatter, more intense, and less nuanced than that of Armstrong's own book, but recognizably the same man. The Armstrong Coyle saw was more guarded, less vulnerable, and ultimately less human than the man in the Autobiography. I recomend both books for anyone with an interest in this remarkable man and his remarkable sport.