Many people, especially in the USA, with no interest in cycling will have been impressed by Lance Armstrong's astonishing feat in winning the Tour de France in two successive years in 1999 and 2000 after recovering from near-fatal cancer. In this book Armstrong, assisted by Sally Jenkins, tells his own story. As the title indicates, the emphasis is on the cancer and what Armstrong learned from his experience rather than on cycling, and it will therefore attract non-cycling readers since it can be read simply as a human document about the overcoming of adversity. There is, however, enough about cycling itself to give cyclists a feeling for what it's like to compete in the Tour.
Before his illness Armstrong was a very talented young athlete of whom great things were expected, but he was also, to judge from his own description, brash, cocky, and at times pretty objectionable. He ignored the symptoms of his testicular cancer at first, even when he began to cough up blood, so by the time the diagnosis was made the disease was far advanced; there were secondary deposits of cancer in his lungs and two further deposits were later detected in his brain. Fortunately the brain secondaries were found to be inactive when removed at surgery, but even so, his doctor later admitted that he didn't give Armstrong more than a 3 per cent chance of recovery. However, recover he did, though only after a number of courses of chemotherapy that reduced the former champion cyclist to a shadow of his former self. The experience of undergoing chemotherapy is described in full with no details spared; this part of the book is not for the squeamish. Armstrong's willingness to endure extreme suffering in his cycling evidently served him in good stead when he was undergoing the chemotherapy.
Throughout the illness Armstrong was sustained by his close relationship with his mother. He also was supported by close friends from the cycling world. After his recovery he met Kik, his wife-to-be, and soon they were married. He now took the difficult decision to try to return to professional cycling. His former team cancelled his contract and he had to start from the beginning. Initially this proved almost too much even for him, and he thought seriously of retiring, but eventually he came back more strongly than before, with a new maturity. His success in the 1999 Tour surprised some people so much that there were rumours of drugs, an imputation that he understandably felt bitter about. Some reporters even suggested, absurdly, that his chemotherapy might actually have had a beneficial effect on his cycling. It was also hinted that his win in the 1999 Tour was a fluke, or was due to the absence from the field of some of the strongest contenders, but his second success in 2000 scotched that suggestion.
That Armstrong is a man of almost preternatural determination is evident, not just from his survival of cancer against the odds, but from the way he bounces back from accidents. He describes several spectacular crashes; in one he was knocked unconscious and in another he broke his neck, but in both cases he was back in the saddle within a few days. His will to win on the bike is of a piece with his will to overcome cancer, but it's clear that the illness has been a transforming experience for him, so that he can accept failure with more equanimity than previously. Mentally, he tells us, he feels more like 40 than 28, and, having read his book, I can understand why.