Friday, 12 December 2008

It's Not About The Bike


Sooner or later everyone with cancer gets this book recommended to them. My daughter Bridget gave me a copy and last week I read it. It's an easy read, and for this sort of thing (ghost written sportsman type book) it's surprisingly well written. Take a bow Sally Jenkins. Lance Armstrong is a remarkable human being. In 1996, while he was world cycling champion he was diagnosed with a particularly nasty cancer. He had testicular cancer -a complaint usually found only in young men - which had metastasized to his lungs and brain. Men with this diagnosis seldom live. He went through a most horrific regime of chemotherapy which laid his body to waste and devastated him emotionally and spiritually. He recovered. In 1999 he won the Tour De France, generally regarded as the world's most grueling sporting event. He won it again every year until 2005 marking him as one of the world's greatest sportsmen in any discipline, ever.

The book is an inspiring read all right. If he can recover from that, what the blazes am I worrying about? It's also an interesting insight into Armstrong's character and growth as a person. Here is this year's prize winning understatement: Lance Armstrong is a driven man. In this quite candid autobiography it's not hard to see why, as much for the things he doesn't say as for the things he does. Poor boy in a rich town. Absent father. Mother who seems pretty driven in her own right and to whom Lance is utterly devoted. Freakishly able anatomy and a need to prove himself. Formidable ability to absorb pain. A need to win, win, win - at anything and everything and at any cost. An addiction to going very fast - in anything and everything.

I have in the past dabbled in cycling myself, and found chapter 9 on Le Tour de France one of the most interesting, but I recognise that others might skip through this chapter and concentrate on others. Lance Armstrong is, at times very insightful; for example in analysing how his youthful compulsion to just get on his bike and rush past others by sheer brute force was tempered into the tense, intelligent strategic game needed to win at an international level.

His title is intriguing, as much for the fact that he doesn't really dwell on why he chose it. It's not about the bike. Winning races is not about the equipment, it's about the person. It's about attitude and desire and motivation. For someone as famously particular as Lance Armstrong about his gear and its set-up, he spends almost no time discussing cycling equipment. It's not about the bike. He himself draws the parallel between his cycling and the cancer. It is as though whatever demons he is struggling against by way of the metaphor of cycle racing have taken form in his body and he fights exactly the same war - on a different battlefield but using the same tactics. And he wins, he wins, he wins.

Late in the book he makes a statement that has had me thinking ever since I read it. At the start of chapter 10 he says, The truth is, if you asked me to choose between winning the Tour de France and cancer, I would choose cancer. Odd as it sounds, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour, because of what it has done for me as a human being, a man, a husband, a son, and a father.

Wow!

Of course Armstrong's life subsequent to making this statement puts it into the context of the great path of growth that is his lifelong task, but he has recognised one of the great truths of existence. Life is not about the great prizes we pursue so passionately and squander our lives upon; it's not about the baubles and toys; not about the career or the reputation or the achievements. It's not about the bike.

2 comments:

Katherine said...

Kelvin, I actually find myself envying your present fight and the places it is taking/will take you. How odd. X

Alden said...

This story about Lance Armstrong made me think of something I was told about the great war time leader Winston Churchill. It was as you know his retoric and 'bulldog' personality that became a symbol of Britains struggle during WW2 and it was he who lead them in what he called 'their finest hour'

When he was old he was asked to speak at his old school (Rugby) at the end of year prize giving. He was wheeled in a wheel chair to the microphone and he delivered this speech. He said:

"Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, Never, give up"

That was his speech and he was wheeled away - Lances spirit in the face of such odds and adversity reminded me of those words.