Two New York Times reporters have written very good and radically different new books about cycling. In “Life is a Wheel: Love, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America” Bruce Weber, an older recreational cyclist, recounts his solo ride from Oregon to Manhattan. Along the way, he reflects on everything from his sore behind to the death of his best friend. In “Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong,” Juliet Macur investigates Armstrong’s pro racing career from young hopeful to cancer surviving hero to disgraced drug cheat. Although she reported parts of the story in the Times, the book offers the most complete and in some ways most damning portrait of the man.
"Life Is A Wheel: Live, Death, Etc., and a Bike Ride Across America" by Bruce Weber
Let’s start with Weber. His most recent bicycle journey from coast to coast was his second; he wrote along the way about both for the Times. But the second time, he was 57 years old, not 39. He takes a different route – beautiful and difficult. He’s also a different, less cocky, more thoughtful Bruce.
His honesty compels us to keep figuratively pedaling along with him. I did a ride similar to Bruce’s and wrote about it for the Times in 1992, but I was part of a group of 35 riding for various charities, with a route mapped and scouted in advance. Only now do I understand how completely vulnerable, lonely, sometime dangerous, and potholed with problems such a journey is when you do it all by yourself, choosing your roads on the fly.
OK, Weber was on a custom-built bike, a fact some readers felt made his ride self-indulgent. He stayed in motels rather than camp out as he did the first time. He had only one flat tire. On a few occasions he accepted a lift from a truck when there was really no alternative.
Overall, Weber had a satisfying time that was enhanced by Twitter exchanges, the decency and aid of citizens along the way and the love of a woman who was in Paris most of the time he was in the saddle. I could have done without an insert about his bike trip through Vietnam years early, but Weber absolutely nails the exhilarating highs (the Going-to-the-Sun road through Glacier National Park) and numbing lows (much of the rest of Montana) that such a journey entails. Safe travels on your next adventure, Bruce.
"Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong" by Juliet Macur
What’s Armstrong’s next adventure? Penury, perhaps, if everyone suing him were to prevail. The lifetime ban imposed by authorities on his participation in any meaningful competition might force him to take up a new career.
Will we care? As much as we care about all the yellow Livestrong wristbands we have dumped into the trash. Macur portrays him as a narcissistic bully who discarded teammates, friends, a wife, girlfriends, his enabling mother and his adoptive father in his relentless pursuit of victories, riches and fame.
“Cycle of Lies” is like other Armstrong books in outlying the immensity of the doping system his teams (and many others) employed. It’s the best of these books because it illustrates how organized this was on Armstrong teams compared with others. Also, it probes the character of the man himself most deeply. Macur interviewed family members from his childhood and later. What's more, she alone listened to an audiotaped “diary” kept by J.T. Neal, a wealthy investor and massage therapist who died from cancer in 2002. He was Armstrong’s best friend and support staff until the cyclist cast him aside, too.
The question remains: Why would anyone, even as ferocious a competitor as Armstrong, ingest ever more powerful, scary substances, putting his health at escalating levels of risk, after barely surviving cancer possibly caused by ingesting risky and illegal drugs in the first place? The answer implied in this book is that he’s not just a sociopath. He’s stupid.