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.