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There is a minor telling moment in Daniel Coyle's lively and insightful new book, Lance Armstrong's War, that gives us an idea of what the author was up against. After moving with his wife and their four kids from Alaska to Girona, Spain, and after shadowing Armstrong for six months, befriending and debriefing the Texan's teammates and opponents, friends and enemies, the author is granted his first prolonged audience with his subject.
"Before I could start my questions," Coyle writes, Armstrong interjected, "Well, how do you like me now?"
How will his legions of fans like the Armstrong that emerges from this book? The Lance here is rather more complex than, say, the star of the Outdoor Life Network's The Lance Chronicles, and he has considerably more edge than the protagonist of his autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. It turns out that the American hero and cancer survivor who has given hope to millions and raised vast sums for charity also happens to be a demanding CEO disinclined to suffer fools and quick to turn on those he suspects of disloyalty. In the fourth paragraph of the first chapter we see Armstrong on a private jet above Europe, peering into his BlackBerry, tracking the activities of his enemies, to whom he refers, collectively, as "f---ing trolls!"
This PG-13 patron may come as a bit of a shock to supporters accustomed to seeing him air-kissed by podium girls or chumming it up with Oprah. But anyone who's worked with Arm- strong knows well the edge that can enter his voice, the arctic look that comes into his eyes, when the subject turns to, say, one of the trolls. To see that look, or, God forbid, be its target, is to know why Armstrong enjoys more than just the respect of his teammates. As one of them tells Coyle, "I think everybody's afraid of Lance. If you're not, you haven't been paying attention."
While it may be tempting to put Armstrong in the category of such icy, aloof winners as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio--sometimes surly champions willing to jettison civility, politesse and friendships in pursuit of their art--Lance's case is more complicated. Stern taskmaster though he may be, he is also charming, witty and kindhearted. No athlete in history has used his celebrity to do more good: The Lance Armstrong Foundation has raised a stunning $85 million to date. He is more Albert Schweitzer than Albert Belle.
Word from Armstrong's camp is that he's O.K. with the book. As one member of his inner circle put it: If he comes across as a tough guy who can be tough to work for, well, that's all right. Because it's true. Those who know Armstrong know that the single-mindedness that got him through chemotherapy and made him one of the greatest athletes of his generation doesn't always serve him well in his interpersonal relations. "People get close to Armstrong," says Jonathan Vaughters, a former teammate, "and then something inevitably goes haywire."
The latest incarnation of this pattern unfolded in April at the Tour de Georgia, where Armstrong had a public falling-out with ex-teammate Floyd Landis. In exploring Armstrong's psyche, Coyle posits that these "on-off friendships" might be a manifestation of "a wounded, approval-seeking kid." How do you like me now?
I tend to agree with Landis, who mulls over that proposition before giving Coyle one of the best lines of the book: "Lance doesn't want a hug. He just wants to kick everyone's ass."