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What makes Lance Armstrong tick

Daniel Coyle chronicles 'Lance Armstrong's War'

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Lance Armstrong
Sports

(CNN) -- Winston Churchill, who once referred to Russia as "a riddle wrapped up in a mystery inside an enigma," would appreciate Lance Armstrong.

The cyclist, who is pursuing an unprecedented seventh straight Tour de France title this month, is that most public of figures: a world-famous athlete. He has co-written two autobiographies, inspired millions to wear yellow "Livestrong" bands on their wrists and become a popular advertising spokesman for companies including Subaru and Nike.

And yet he remains opaque, a man of intense will and action but apparently little introspection, single-mindedly devoted to winning, or pushing himself to his physical limits, or standing up for his causes -- which often happen to be the same thing.

"Here is this guy that you know but don't really know," says author Daniel Coyle. "He's such an amazing story, and you start to think, what else is going on in there?"

Coyle was determined to find out. The Outside magazine contributing editor moved his family from southern Alaska to Europe to follow Armstrong and other cyclists as they pursued the 2004 Tour de France title. Coyle chronicles the story in "Lance Armstrong's War" (HarperCollins).

It wasn't easy. Cancer patients, attracted by Armstrong's triumph over the disease in the late '90s, seek a minute with the man as if his blessing could heal their wounds. Journalists, skeptical of his success, are determined to find proof of doping. (Armstrong, who has always tested clean, calls antagonists "trolls.") And fans pursue him because ... well, because he's famous.

Armstrong is wary at the best of times, keeping tabs on everyone who keeps tabs on him. "I soon came to find out that reporting on Armstrong meant that he was also reporting on you," writes Coyle in the book.

It's that will that makes him distinctive, Coyle says. Armstrong devotes his time to maintaining Lance Armstrong, whatever that means at a particular moment -- his cancer foundation, his workout, his family. It's a decision that extends to downtime. He doesn't read books (apparently, Coyle says, not even his own), and if a movie is longer than two hours, he won't watch it.

"He's focused on the goal," the author says in a phone interview from his Alaskan home.

'They're beyond our concept of tough'

But then, the best cyclists are equally focused -- if not strapped with the kind of adulation and suspicion that surrounds Armstrong.

Coyle
Author Daniel Coyle moved his family from Alaska to Europe to get Armstrong's story.

Indeed, some of the most striking portraits in "Lance Armstrong's War" aren't about Armstrong at all, but his competitors and the requirements of cycling.

Cyclists are streamlined human machines aboard the most streamlined of human-powered machines. As Coyle notes, all cyclists' energy goes into cycling; racers don't run if they can walk and they don't walk if they can sit. (Armstrong, who lived in a second-floor apartment while training, always took the elevator to his residence.) They train to absurd lengths, routinely cycling hundreds of miles a day and creating bodies with enormous leg muscles, incredible lung capacity and ropy trunks.

"These guys are astonishing. They push their bodies to the limit," says Coyle. "They're beyond our concept of tough."

And then they race, placing themselves on lightweight contraptions of metal and rubber and going 30, 40, 50 miles per hour with other cyclists hot on their wheels. When they crash -- which is often -- it's not pretty. At their worst, crashes produce broken bones and the smell of burning flesh.

"[Cyclist] Floyd Landis said it's like going 40 miles per hour in a car, stripping [off your clothes], opening the door and then throwing yourself in a pile of metal," Coyle says.

And yet cyclists maintain a forced nonchalance about their sport's pitfalls. If they're not seriously injured, they pick themselves up and keep going. Sometimes they keep going even if they are seriously injured; Coyle tells the story of former Armstrong colleague Tyler Hamilton, who broke his collarbone in the first stage of the 2003 Tour and stayed in, coping with extreme pain and thousands of miles through Tylenol, massage and sheer will. Hamilton finished fourth.

Even Armstrong isn't immune. Just two weeks ago, while in training, he suffered a crash while "going slow" (Armstrong's words) that broke his handlebars, split his helmet and gave him road rash and a black eye. Armstrong's response? "I'm just as fluid as I was," he told reporters in a June 26 conference call.

"If [NFL quarterback] Tom Brady was in a car wreck before the Super Bowl," says Coyle, amazed, "and said, 'I think the wreck has made me better,' people would say, 'Really?' "

'These kids are from nowhere'

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But that's cycling, Coyle adds. A great number of cyclists have come from difficult backgrounds and see the sport as their road to success, so a spill is nothing compared to their backgrounds.

Armstrong, famously, was a wild kid who grew up in a broken home; East German-born Jan Ullrich, a past Tour winner who remains one of Armstrong's strongest competitors, was the offspring of a poor, alcoholic father; Alexandre Vinokourov grew up in the former Soviet state of Kazahkstan, which Coyle describes as "a land the Soviets found ideal for growing wheat and testing nuclear bombs."

"They're not there by accident," Coyle says.

Indeed, he's surprised that the sport doesn't have the fan base in America -- a country that often embraces the underdog -- it does in Europe, where cyclists are national heroes.

"All of these kids are from nowhere," he says. "Americans just don't know how cool it is."

Perhaps it's because Americans also, paradoxically, rally around winners, and cycling is a sport famed for "cracking" -- that moment when a cyclist suddenly falters and can't recover. Armstrong hasn't cracked -- though his competitors are lying in wait.

If Armstrong has anything to say about it, it won't happen. He surrounds himself with the best support money can buy -- deep-pocketed sponsors, high-tech bikes, top-notch medical professionals (including the recently suspended Dr. Michele Ferrari, whose presence has raised eyebrows in the past) and, above all, teammates whose primary loyalty is to Team Lance.

Coyle has heard from a few of them since the book came out, and they say the portrait in "Lance Armstrong's War" is accurate. Which is to say, it captures Armstrong about as well as this "very, very complicated guy" (in Landis' words) can be captured.

"As [Armstrong chiropractor] Jeff Spencer said, 'He's just like smoke,' " Coyle says. "There's a lot of onion to unpeel there."

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