As expected in the run-up to Armstrong’s attempt to win a record-breaking six consecutive Tours de France this July, there are numerous Tour and Lance titles hitting the shelves. ‘Lance Armstrong: Images of a Champion’ is one that caught our eye.
As the title suggests, this isn’t a text-heavy, in-depth account of Lance’s claw back from cancer and subsequent Tour de France domination: the slightly bigger than A-4 format, hardback cover and large, glossy photos all scream coffee-table. That’s not to say that this book is entirely pictorial; Graham Watson’s photographs are interspersed with commentary and explanations from Lance himself, as well as tributes from the likes of fellow five-times TDF winners Miguel Indurain and Eddy Merckx, former rider and USPS team director Johan Bruyneel, and Armstrong’s coach, agent and even his mum.
The format is chronological: chapter one starts off in 1992 with Armstrong’s debut into the world of European pro-cycling – last place in Spain’s Clasica San Sebastian and second place in the World Cup in Zurich two weeks later – and we then wend our way through the ups, downs and higher ups until the hard-won pinnacle of the record-equalling fifth tour victory of 2003. As British photographer Graham Watson has followed Armstrong for most of his career, there are photos at all stages, varying from informal off-bike pics through training and race action shots.
Watson’s photos are the raison d’être of this contribution to the Armstrong litany and they do a fantastic job of giving a visual tracing of Armstrong’s career: often they provide small and intimate details that help tell the story of graft and determination, at other times they are simply stunning. It’s as though Watson, who’s first published cycling photo was of Eddy Merckx’s last Tour appearance, knew that one day Lance would equal that legend’s five tour wins.
You won’t find details of Armstong’s training routines or long descriptions of how he pulled himself back from life-threatening illness, nor will you find revolution by revolution accounts of race rivalries – there are other books you can go to for that. As Watson himself says, ‘this isn’t a book about cancer, nor is it a book about a talented bike rider. It is quite simply a book that contains images of a champion”.
Yet if the photographs are the meat of this book then the short commentaries and individual photo explanations by Lance are the vital condiments. Each of the eleven chapters kicks off with a commentary from Lance, setting the images in context and picking out the highlights that trace his physical and mental development as a professional cyclist.
For instance, writing of his early experiences in the Spring Classics, Lance comments “The Classics were real eye-openers… You can train hard, plan hard, and even race hard. But nothing prepares you for the cut-and-thrust nature of racing events like the Het Volk, Ronde Van Vlaanderen, and Ghent-Wevelgem and the the brutal, bone-shaking experiences”.
Later, alongside a series of shots of himself faltering in the Alps in 2002’s Tour, Lance explains:
“It was a nightmare situation for me. I’d hit the wall less than half-way up the Joux-Plane, drained of any energy and strength after my obsessive reaction to Pantani’s attack. It looks like a horrible image – the Yellow Jersey suffering so much – but, in fact, I remember very little about it at the time. Only later did I realize how close I’d come to blowing the whole race on that one climb. As it was, I kept my deficit to Ullrich within 2 minutes on the stage. The tour was still well within reach.”
The cumulative effect is absorbing, illuminating and even inspiring. But the beauty of this book is also that you can dip in and out of it as we’ve done (that’s what happens when its sitting on your desk, nicely within reach) picking up single threads at a time or just looking at the pictures. If there’s a weakness it’s that some of the tributes seem a tad token, or just don’t seem to contribute much more than a bid to glory by association.
If you’re looking for detailed accounts of Armstrong’s development, survival and fight for Tour supremacy then you’d better look elsewhere, if however, you’re interested in great racing photos and the story that pictures can tell – the subtle messages and emotions captured in unposed shots – then this one’s for you.
In our experience coffee-table books either take their place in a dusty pile that becomes a large mug mat or become one of the precious few that are always on the move, being picked up, flicked through and admired. We reckon Images of a Champion is one of the latter – it won’t be collecting ring marks on our table.
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