Ed note: This review was originally written for a now long dead livejournal.
This is without a doubt the best book written about Lance Armstrong before his fall from grace. If you have an interest in professional cycling, you’ve probably already read it (and the Tyler Hamilton memoir co-written by Coyle). If not, you should.
If you don’t have an interest in pro cycling, you should get in on it. No sport mixes cutting edge science, the limits of human endurance, complex tactics, and horrific physical pain into a more engaging final product. I ask you, where else can you learn about hemocrit levels while watching little men in tights turn themselves inside out, day after day, to hold a little toy tiger in the air? Nowhere.
Lance Armstrong’s War is first and foremost a report of Armstrong’s attempt to gain a sixth Tour de France victory. Even though this was written before the doping revelations, you still get a real sense of what a driven psychopath he is. To say the least, he is not a very nice guy to work for. He holds grudges; he hates his enemies with an unhealthy passion, and he drives himself, and his team, incredibly hard. Its clear from very early on that he’s a pretty terrible person. But he is also a really compelling person to follow. Even in this sanitized version, he is will to go farther, push harder, and do more than anyone else. And, as we all know, it pays off and he wins.
But this book is more than a book about Lance. It is also great primer (maybe the best primer?) on pro cycling. It gives you a real sense of who these mostly working class kids are and how they and their teams go about trying to win the Tour. There is just enough explanation of the tactics involved in winning to be interesting without so much that it would bore the general reader. If I have a criticism, it’s that doping isn’t covered in enough detail. But to be fair to Coyle, when he wrote this the most serious doping allegations about riders of this generation (i.e. Armstrong, Landis, Hamilton, Ulrich) hadn’t been revealed.
Still, the stories were there and Coyle could have done more to tell that part of the story. I wish he had. Despite those reservations I’d read this one again.