Saturday, September 20, 2014

23 Days in July: Book Review

23 Days in July, John Wilcockson, Da Capo Press, 2004.

The 2004 Tour de France was advertised as a defining moment in the history of cycling.  Never before had a rider passed the mythical five Tour de France win threshold, not Eddy Merckx, not Jacques Anquetil, not Miguel Indurain, not Bernard Hinault.  There existed with the sport of cycling, a fatalistic superstition that some destiny would intervene to prevent the riders from reaching the magic number six.

Lance Armstrong entered the five time Tour de France champion club after barely surviving the epic 2003 Tour de France, which was in question until Jan Ullrich plunged out of control on a rain and oil soaked turn in the final individual time trial.  In the 2003 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong almost ended his chances when Joseba Beloki crashed on a Pyrenees descent; and Lance Armstrong had to detour across a plowed field expecting every moment to blow one of his tubeless Hutchinson tires.  Then there was the child with the souvenir musette bag who hooked Lance Armstrong's bullhorns and dumped him and Iban Mayo on the ground, breaking one of Lance Armstrong's chain stays in the process.  Then a few seconds later one of Lance Armstrong's toe clips slipped out of the pedals, nearly doing severe damage to his groin area.  Then, of course, there was the mediation by Tyler Hamilton who enforced the rule that when the maillot jaune has an accident you don't attack; a lesson Alberto Contador should have learned before he tested positive for clenbuterol.  Nevertheless, if Jan Ullrich had continued to ride he would have won the race, and the 2004 Tour de France would have been nothing but a footnote.

As it was the 2004 Tour de France turned out to be one the least suspenseful in history.  Lance Armstrong won four mountain stages in a row; including the L'AlpeD'Huez time trial; a feat that had never been accomplished in Tour de France history.  Several race favorites foundered; Tyler Hamilton after a crash that injured his back, bonked on a climb; his favorite dog Tugboat died during the race and Tyler Hamilton was despondent over the death of his best friend.  Later during the race iron man Tyler Hamilton; the man who rode through an entire 2002 Giro d' Italia and 2003 Tour de France with broken bones; a man who placed high in the classification in both grand tours; could not continue in 2004.  Why?  I suspect that he received a tainted blood sample that was intended for another rider.  Iban Mayo, a great Basque climber, who was caught behind a crash on the cobblestone course, who in spite of his heroic Euskai-Euskatel teammates, who tried to pace him back to the peloton lost time, while a smiling Lance Armstrong lead the pack hammering away.  Later in the race,  during a mountain stage in the Pyrenees, fifty thousand rabid Basque fanatics lined the course while waiting for their hero Iban Mayo, greeted Lance Armstrong with catcalls and upraised fingers for his cobblestone antics.  Iban Mayo hopelessly behind and exhausted quit the race shortly thereafter.  Roberto Heras, (Liberty Seguros) who had a string of successes in the Vuelta a Espana also quit saying that there was "no point in continuing."  Gilberto Simoni, (Saeco), a great climber and two time winner of the Giro d' Italia, did not abandon, but he did complain that Lance Armstrong was hogging all of the mountain stage wins; stages where Gilberto Simoni lead long breakaways.  Gilberto Simoni when asked if Lance Armstrong was the new "cannibal" responded Armstrong is not a "cannibal" he is a piranha!  Jan Ullrich, (Telekom) lost time in the Pyrenees, he was at a loss to understand his performance, promising to do better in the Alps.  Andreas Kloden, (Telekom) was better placed in the general classification that his team leader Jan Ullrich.  Ivan Basso, (CSC) in spite of the "gift" mountain stage win could not keep pace with Lance Armstrong losing time on every stage.  Floyd Landis surprised everyone by setting an inhuman pace, and he would have won the stage if not for the obstinacy of Jan Ullrich.  After Jan Ullrich chased down Floyd Landis he even tried to barter a deal for help to drop Ivan Basso; an offer which the Posties refused point blank.  Of course, in a superhuman sprint Lance Armstrong won the stage, nipping Andreas Kloden at the line because Lance Armstrong was angry because T-Mobile would not let Floyd Landis go. 

But John Wilcockson does his best to keep us entertained, even if the 2004 Tour de France put us to sleep.  John Wilcockson does mix up some old historical tales of roadside fanatics who were around when Le Tour went by eons ago.  My favorite story was of Charly Gaul who slid to a stop at the city fountain to cool down by plunging his head into the water and filling up his water bottles.  The proprietor of the local sports bar claims that he pushed Charly Gaul back onto the course, to the admiration of his patrons.  This proprietor produced photographs to prove, not that he pushed Charly Gaul back onto the course, but that Charly Gaul had actually stopped at the fountain.  John Wilcockson says that after this unscheduled pit stop Charly Gaul rode with Louison Bobet, conceding twenty minutes and a probable Tour de France win to legendary Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes.  Charly Gaul was known as the "Angel of the Mountains" and in cold weather he was unbeatable.  In the 1956 Giro d' Italia, there was a snowstorm on the Monte Bondone stage that was so severe that the Italian Army was mobilized, armed with snow shovels to clear a path for the riders.  Charly Gaul arrived almost an hour ahead of the pack, and begged the Italian soldiers in French to push him up the pass.  The soldiers refused to help Charly Gaul, but they did help push the Italian riders up the pass; nevertheless: Charly Gaul won the stage by eight minutes over his Italian rival Alessandro Fantini, and the entire 1956 Giro d' Italia in the process.  Charly Gaul's Achilles heel seemed to be the heat, where his performance declined to average among the great climbers of his day, thus would probably explain the unexpected visit to the fountain.

There is some mention of dope, too, in 23 Days in July.  David Walsh, L.A. Confidential, Michele Ferrari, EPO, the horse that has been beaten into submission.  There is one gem gleaned out of the muck, however, a statement made by Shelley Verses.  John Wilcockson asked Shelley Verses, former soigneur of La Vie Claire to respond to statements made by Emma O' Reilly in L. A. Confidential that she purchased drugs for Lance Armstrong and the United States Postal Service Professional Cycling Team, disposed of syringes, applied cosmetics to hide bruises, etc.  Shelley Verses stated:

 "It's a part of a soigneur's job to dispose of syringes.  And I used to drive all over the Continent getting drugs, legal drugs.  And I often lent guys makeup to hide bruises.  Riders are so vascular because they have no body fat, and they bruise easily." P. 143.

This is the first statement I have ever heard of that could possibly implicate Bernard Hinault, Greg LeMond, and La Vie Claire of using supplements, or possibly performance enhancing drugs, during the 1985 and 1986 Tours de France.  First, Shelley Verses is not a doctor so her assurance that the drugs she did purchase were legal is mere conjecture.  Second, drugs that were legal in 1986, may have been added to the prohibited list, so we may assert that legal does not preclude the fact that the legal drugs that she purchased in 1986, did not have performance enhancing qualities.  Nevertheless, this admission by Shelley Verses directly contradicts the Greg LeMond myth that professional cycling was not in search of a magic pill that would aid in their performance in 1985 or 1986.  Shelley Verses could be considered the first La Vie Claire "whistle blower" if she would come forward and offer testimony of malfeasance; perhaps she should contact USADA!

There was one other piece of rubbish.  Lance Armstrong mentioned his debacle during the 2003 Time Trial where he was beaten soundly by Jan Ullirch as being caused by "chronic dehydration."  Lance Armstrong tries to tell us that he had been suffering from "chronic dehydration" since he received platinum therapy in fighting cancer in 1996.  Lance Armstrong then assures us that drinking water filled his bladder without saturating his cells.  This is complete and utter nonsense and I can't believe that John Wilcockson published such nonsense.  Even stranger is the explanation by Chris Carmichael who claims that the dehydration originated in the 2003 Dauphine Libere, where Lance Armstrong pushed himself to the limit trying to outpace Iban Mayo.  I remember Lance Armstrong hanging on to the medical car, having his elbow patched up by the race doctor during the Dauphine Libere, not because of dehydration, but because he hit a sewer lid, because he had some break malfunction in his new Trek Madone bicycle!  Never was there a word about the "chronically dehydrated" Lance Armstrong during the Dauphine Libere or even the 2003 Tour de France until the mysterious partial bonk during the time trial where Lance Armstrong assures us that he was "riding in squares."  I mean, like, whatever dude!

Anyway, if you are a hardcore Lance Armstrong fanatic this book certainly would not be amiss in your library as a curiosity, since the impact of the mythical six never existed in reality; and has yet to be attained by anyone.  We have the old five timer club, and Lance Armstrong is not among them.  John Wilcockson has written a very good account of a very boring Tour de France, that occurred during a very drug saturated era where the best drugs win, not the best athletes.  23 Days in July would have been regarded as a first class work of reporting in 2004, when the Lance Armstrong mania was still in full force.  It still could be considered a first class reference book; not the parts that examine the personality of the riders; except in a study of abnormal personality traits; or in a study of dissimulation; but the technical discussions of the race tactics still have pertinence.  The book would also be a good companion to the old 2004 Tour de France films.  23 Days in July is a good book even if the contents are dated and without much relevance, or of much interest anymore.  A museum piece fit for mothballs.  But these facts do not detract from John Wilcockson's writing ability or his competence in cycling reporting which is first rate.