November 2005 Archives

Book Review: "Chasing Lance"
November 25, 2005 5:42 PM | Posted in: ,

How significant is the Tour de France to its namesake country? On Bastille Day, that most French of all holidays, the only financial institution permitted to conduct business is the mobile bank that accompanies the bicycle race as it moves across Europe.

That's one of the many behind-the-scenes tidbits served by Martin Dugard in his chronicle of Lance Armstrong's quest for a record seventh Tour de France victory. Of course, there's little suspense, as we all know that Armstrong was successful, but Chasing Lance is about the journey, not the destination.

Dugard has authored a number of books about human achievement and adventure, and has written articles for magazines like Outside and Sports Illustrated. In Chasing Lance, he capitalizes on his securing of a coveted press pass to bring us an insider's look at the 2005 Tour de France, the race in which Lance Armstrong not only secured his place in the permanent lore of cycling but which was ostensibly his last competition as a profession racer.

Dugard has covered the Tour before, has followed Lance's career for years, and has a love for the sport and a deep appreciation for the challenges of riding in what is billed as the world's toughest competition. He also loves the country of France and has taken the time to study its history. (Don't be fooled by his name; while "Martin du Gard" is a French author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1937, this Martin has not a drop of Gallic blood in his veins.)

He uses the descriptions of the historical significance of the towns through which the Tour traveled as context for the athletic drama being played out in the race itself. Each chapter is devoted to a stage of the race, with Dugard providing insight as to the individual and team strategies for attempting to master the difficult course. The Tour de France is replete with obscure traditions; it's also a masterpiece of modern logistical achievement as a veritable army travels more than 2,000 miles over the three week course of the race. Chasing Lance provides an entertaining education about the details of both aspects.

The pacing of the book mirrors that of the 2005 version of the race. The early and middle stages are where the heart of the battle for the yellow jersey (the symbol of the overall race leader) are played out, and that's where Dugard concentrates his attention. The strategy for the latter stages is generally centered around not making any mistakes, and there's rarely much drama in terms of the placement of the top riders. But there are still as many subplots playing out as riders in the race, and Dugard provides a look at some of those that might otherwise be overlooked, including some attention to the lantern rouge (the reference to "red lantern" coming from the light that hung from the caboose of a train), the term applied to the rider in last place. In 2005, that distinction belonged to Spaniard Iker Flores, who found no humiliation in his placement. After all, 34 other riders had either dropped out or fallen so far behind as to be disqualified from continung the race.

Dugard is well enough connected to have gotten an interview or two with The Man himself, as well as getting to spend time with other personalities well known to those who follow the Tour de France. The strength of the book comes from his access to those stories and insights, and to the fact that he covered the race from beginning to end, giving him the ability to put into overall context the daily drama (and, yes, even boredom) that played out on the road (and after the day's stage).

In the end, his attempt to equate cosmic significance to Armstrong's achivements borders on hero worship, but that's not to take away from those achievements or the effect they've had on people around the world...and especially other cancer survivors. And I don't fault Dugard for his enthusiasm for Lance, someone who, if not exactly a close friend, does at least have his cell phone number and has called him for a chat. I suspect that for any cycling fan - or for a fan of human endurance and achievement - that's pretty heady stuff.

If you're a TdF fan, this is a must-have book. Even if you're new to the sport or the race, Dugard's clear non-technical descriptions of the action and his human-oriented anecdotes make for an interesting and fast read.

Oh, and in case you're wondering...according to Dugard, Lance told him that he will not be racing again. Lance's explanation of why that's so provides the perfect epilogue for the book.

As always, I want to thank the good folks at the Online Marketing department of the Time Warner Book Group for providing a review copy of this book.

In May, 2001 25 men and one boy set out across the Sonoran Desert, determined to cross into southern Arizona, between Yuma and Nogales, from their native Mexico. Crossing into the US was easy; finding their way to civilization was deadly. Fourteen of them perished in the attempt. Luis Alberto Urrea reconstructs the details of this tragedy and presents them in an absolutely compelling account entitled The Devil's Highway

The Devil's Highway is a geographic area that corresponds roughly to the Cabeza Prieta ("dark head") National Wildlife Refuge, an area the size of Rhode Island with a permanent human population density of zero. A hundred consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures is not unheard of, and parts of the area average only 3" of rain each year. It also happens to be a popular conduit for those entering the country illegally from Mexico.

Urrea is a gifted author - this book was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction - and a tireless investigator. The breadth and depth of research that went into this quick-reading work is a reminder that being an author is difficult labor and there are no shortcuts.

Having recently read Urrea's wonderful novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter, I knew that while he loves Mexico, the country of his birth, he doesn't view it or its history through rose-colored glasses. Nevertheless, I wondered how he would tell this story within the context of the ongoing controversies surrounding illegal immigration. In a recent poll, 85% of Americans agree that illegal immigration is "a problem," and 55% say that it is "very serious." Illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, is a hot button issue to many; emotions run strong on all sides of the debate, and it's rare to hear or read an even-handed discussion of the issues. But that's exactly what Urrea gives us.

He gives us a matter-of-fact overview of the economic and political realities that cause so many Mexicans to view migration to America as their only hope for a life above the subsistence level. He shows us the frustrations and dangers of being a member of the US Border Patrol, La Migra; he also reveals the tolerance and even compassion that many of the BP agents have for those they capture and turn back. It's telling that most illegals will tell you that they'd much rather be caught by La Migra than by their own immigration police. La Migra carry life-saving bottles of water; los federales attach battery leads to body parts.

Urrea also provides some analysis of the costs and benefits that accompany illegal immigration, leaving it to readers to decide whether the math works for or against their perceptions.

But the most important thing he does with The Devil's Highway is put faces and lives and families and aspirations onto those otherwise anonymous masses about which we see only reports on the 10:00 p.m. news. The result is uncomfortable, because it injects humanity into the situation and that turns our nice black-and-white, well-focused picture of How Things Should Be into a muddy gray swirl that, for me anyway, will defy re-separation.

Urrea accomplishes something else, probably unintentionally but still important to those of us who live in or near the desert. He describes in great clarity the unforgiving nature of the desert, the way it can turn the unprepared into corpses almost before they understand what's happening.

The Devil's Highway is a thought-provoking look at an issue that has perhaps more immediate relevance than any other now facing our nation. It should be required reading for everyone who wants to debate illegal immigration... regardless of the side they take.

As always, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that this book was provided to me at no cost and for review purposes by Time Warner Book Group as a part of its Online Marketing program. And, once again, I'd like to thank my personal Book Angel, Miriam Parker, for recommending an excellent work.

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This page is an archive of entries from November 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

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