LANCE ARMSTRONG'S WAR

One Man's Battle Against Fate, Fame, Love, Death, Scandal, and a Few Other Rivals on the Road to the Tour de France

By Daniel Coyle

HarperCollins. 326 pp. $25.95

"Mullet-headed, bouquet-toting German teens chased podium girls; mink-swaddled doyennes skidded on spike heels; heavy-breathing bike geeks photographed framesets as if they were Playboy models." That's how Daniel Coyle describes the circus that surrounds the world's toughest bike race in his fine new book, "Lance Armstrong's War."

Coyle promptly follows up that sizzle with a helping of steak. "He felt good. He felt . . . normal," Coyle writes of Armstrong as he calmly warmed up on a stationary bike. "Here, then, was one advantage Armstrong held over his rivals. He was the only one for whom the Tour, in all its frantic, fantastic craziness, bore resemblance to everyday life." This combination of effervescent observation and hard-won insight makes "Lance Armstrong's War" a must-read. Although the six-time Tour de France winner has become one of the most compelling figures of his time -- he joined Lincoln, Einstein and Jonas Salk on the top 100 of the recent Greatest American list -- he is better known than he is understood. "There are not many people whose mailbox regularly receives both death threats and calls for his beatification," Coyle observes.

Coyle, the author of "Hardball: A Season in the Projects," gained unprecedented access to the rider, following Armstrong across Europe as he prepared for the 2004 Tour, and made the most of it. Coyle catches Armstrong canoodling with Sheryl Crow. He sits in with F-One, Armstrong's team of bike designers, as they debate the tiniest technical details. ("We had long conversations over who would be the number pinner-onner. . . . It was like being at NASA," said one team member.) Coyle stands on the roadside in Girona, Spain, as Michele Ferrari, the shadowy fitness guru also known as Dr. Evil, pricks Armstrong's finger and waits breathlessly for the "magic number" -- the lactate threshold that measures Armstrong's ability to produce sustained power -- to come up on a hand-held computer. ("In their mouths certain numbers were spoken with importance, as if they were the titles of great novels: Six point seven. Four point zero. Five hundred ten.")

While the world of cycling is foreign to most Americans, Coyle quickly draws the reader inside. He uses language that is wonderfully descriptive, from "the Dead Elvis grin" that Armstrong adopts at moments of peak effort to the "whoof shrug" that the Belgian mechanics use as a universal greeting. And the story's supporting cast is just as intriguing as Armstrong himself. We meet Lance's teammate Floyd Landis, a former mountain biker raised on a Mennonite farm, who rages like an Old Testament prophet; his key rival, Tyler Hamilton, the "nicest guy" in cycling; and David Walsh, the crusading British journalist who wrote a book claiming that Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.

Of course, Armstrong is more than a rider, more than a mere celebrity. He has become a symbol, a kind of secular saint, with cancer survivors traveling thousands of miles to touch the hem of his jersey. "His story is dark and unflinching and revelatory. It is replete with angels (his mother, Linda, his nurse LaTrice Haney) and devils (Cofidis, the French team that refused to honor his contract) and visitations. Armstrong continually sneaks in time to help out someone with cancer, take them on a bike ride . . . 'The obligation of the cured' Armstrong calls it -- and there was no doubt that he'd fulfilled that commitment a hundred times over." The problem of course, is that there are many pilgrims, and only one Lance. "I sure hope you didn't drive all that way for this," said Armstrong aide-de-camp John Korioth to a cancer survivor named David, who had traveled cross-country hoping for an audience. "Because in front of you there's a guy whose wife and kids both have cancer and in front of that guy are ten more people who've got something worse."

But what truly defines Armstrong is what he does on the bike, and Coyle depicts Armstrong as a guy who simply cannot bear to lose. While the 2004 Tour itself was relatively anticlimactic -- one by one, Armstrong's rivals fell by the wayside -- Armstrong saw the need to inject his own brand of drama into the proceedings. On the last mountain stage, with his overall victory already secure, he mounted a superhuman burst to nip a stunned Andreas Kloden at the line.

"Nothing personal," Armstrong whispered to the stunned German. "Lance Armstrong's War" is a fascinating book about a complex guy who sees the world in a simple way. In the world of Team Armstrong, people are quickly divided into friends and foes -- the latter being "trolls" in Lance-speak. Every experience counts as a win or a loss. And the only time that matters is right now. (And now Armstrong is the heavy favorite for his seventh win in a row, holding a substantial lead midway through the race's final week.) The philosophy is a little bit Dalai Lama, a little bit Dr. Phil and a little bit Vince Lombardi, but the six final-day yellow jerseys hanging in Lance Armstrong's closet are undeniable proof that it works.