David Millar: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar (review)

Reading Jørgen Leth’s book about professional cycling Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge and Lance Armstrong’s book about the beginning of his career, his battle with cancer and his way back to the sport, made me even more appreciative of cycling and the Tour de France. However, Millar’s book is exactly the opposite. It makes me even more aware of the dark side of cycling.

Coincidentally, I began reading this book on July 13th, 2012. I had timed my reading of books about Tour de France and cycling to coincide with this year’s Tour de France – but I hadn’t expected that I would start reading this book on the same day as David Millar won yet another stage in the Tour.

Source: The Telegraph

Millar is racing again. As everyone who follows cycling knows, he’s back in the peloton after his fall from grace – he is one of the contenders. But how did this young Scott fall so deep?

What Millar describes, is a sport where doping is the rule more than anything else. From describing his childhood and how he got started with professional cycling, doping is something he’s quickly aware of – but staying away from. He doesn’t want anything to do with it but eventually he succumbs to the pressure and starts injecting, first just with various supplements, later with the real stuff.

Millar’s story is a typical example of how ‘what’s normal’ changes. When you’re constantly living in a world where it is normal to dope and to have various tactics to avoid the doping controls, you are gradually changing your perception of normality. Slowly, Millar’s aversion towards doping lessens until his defenses against it, is completely gone.

Still, throughout it all he claims that he never viewed the victories won when doped, as real. ‘If I won doped then it meant nothing, I was very clear on that.’ (p. 174). But his changed perception of normality as well as his curiosity get the better of him: ‘I’d proved what I could do clean – how much more could I do if I was doped?’ (p. 177). With all his struggle against it, you would have thought his first time doing EPO would have been a huge deal – instead it turned out to be something of an anticlimax. He describes it as the easiest injection he ever had and the whole procedure as very tiny process, over in a couple of minutes. Of course, he had been slowly conditioned to this through a long period and was completely used to self-injections of various supplements.

Millar comes out of it all as a crusader against doping. He wants to save his sports, he wants to make it clean and show that you are actually able to win even if you’re racing clean. And this is how he comes across in his book. As a very honest Scot who loves to race and ride his bike clean and who wants everyone else to do the same. However, I did check out a few things online while reading this book and apparently Millar has changed his story from he testified till he wrote this book. So he might be a bit of an unreliable author, there are names he doesn’t share and there might be things he doesn’t tell us. It’s hard do tell. But he does come across as very honest and the book is very interesting to read.

One of the dominating riders in this period, has of course been Lance Armstrong. Millar does say that the riders winning the big races like the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta, were the ones using doping. However, he doesn’t say Lance doped: ‘I can’t say definitively if Lance doped or not. Yes, there are all the stories and rumours, but I never saw him dope with my own eyes. If he did dope, then, after all that he has said and done, it would be unforgivable. Certainly, his performances in the Tour were extraordinary, unprecedented, but then he’s unlike anybody I have ever met, a force of nature. /…/ He is a phenomenal human being – I would never argue against that. He lives life on a different level, controlling his world in omnipotent manner, leading by example but also be fear. His ability to motivate, based on his absolute self-belief and complete fearlessness of failure, is legendary. His own lack of fear brainwashes those around him to believe in everything he does.’ (p. 297-298). He also says that the riders riding alongside Lance, were for the most part taken for doping when no longer riding with Lance – and several of these are the ones now accusing Lance of doping. I guess we’ll know eventually if he did dope or not what with the current investigation going on – although I rather doubt that anti-doping will ever get this period of professional cycling completely under control.

Still, this is not a book about Lance. It’s a book about one man’s love of the sport of cycling, and luckily, this shines through throughout the book – except for these instances where doping has cast such a dark shadow over the sport that Millar plans on never riding again.

For a lover of professional cycling and the Tour de France, there’s plenty of good stuff in this book. In fact, it’s a really interesting book and definitely worth reading to get an inside look on the doped years of professional cycling as well as David Millar’s career and the portraits he gives of other riders. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote about wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France: ‘I wasn’t wearing the yellow jersey; the yellow jersey was gracing me.’ (p. 127).

  • Title: Racing Through The Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar
  • Author: David Millar
  • Publisher: Orion Books
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 354 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike (review)

Lance Armstrong. Probably one of the most well-known athletes in the world. A 7 times Tour de France champion. Founder of Livestrong. A dedicated fighter against cancer and for cancer treatment. This is his story – from childhood to cancer survivor.

First of, I have to say that I am a fan of Lance Armstrong. I enjoyed watching him win his many Tour de France victories and these days, I follow him on Twitter. Still, while reading this book I definitely didn’t like the young Lance. There’s no doubt that he had a troubled childhood in some ways but still, boys setting balls on fire and then playing catch are just not my cup of tea. Anyway, this is not what this is about.

Lance details how he started biking and shows how he was very focused, even as a young boy and how huge an influence his mother has been on both his life but also 0n the way he views his career, teaching him to never give up and always fight. Two abilities, that was hugely important to him when he was diagnosed with cancer.

There’s no doubt that he was lucky to survive. As a professional cyclist, Lance was used to dealing with pain and ignoring it and so he did too with the fact that his testicles changed both color and size. This meant that his cancer was discovered very late, it meant that it had spread to both his lungs and his brain and it meant that he had to endure some very tough treatments to be able to beat it.

I really like how candid he was about the toughness of the disease, how hard he had to fight to just endure the treatment and how far out he was before it turned and he started getting better. This is definitely a book that shows how tough cancer is. I also liked how he seemed to have changed as a human being, becoming much more sensitive and having more empathy after the disease and being able to see clearly, that he had not always behaved very nice before he was ill. I know that some will say that he still don’t behave very well and that he’s arrogant – I don’t know if I would like him if I actually met him but I think that to win Tour de France and to do well in (almost) all professional sports, you have to be arrogant.

I also liked how he is very open and candid about his and his wife’s trouble with having children. Of course, he had to freeze his sperm before being treated for cancer and this means, that his wife have to go through a lot to get pregnant – as all women/couples have to if having trouble getting pregnant. I know several couples who have had these issues and I know that it is a struggle for all, and therefore, I am glad that Lance addresses this and shares his and his wife’s story.

Of course, it’s a bit bittersweet to read about his relationship with his wife and how perfect she is, when you know that they are no longer together and that Lance has been having a bit of trouble finding the right partner since.

There are a few things I don’t want to discuss – or even talk about. It’s kind of a joke, but still – just don’t go there. One is that Sir Cliff Richard has never had any plastic surgeries – the other is that Miquel Indurain and Lance Armstrong never used doping. My boyfriend challenges all these three – but I don’t care. I just don’t want to discuss them. Being that as it may, you can’t really mention Lance Armstrong without talking doping – even though that’s really not what this book is about.

Lance mentions doping a couple of times. As with other professional cyclists writing biographies and talking about doping, you really have to hope he is telling the truth – with the claims he makes, he will loose all credibility otherwise and with the current doping investigation against him, doping is once again rearing it’s ugly head in Lance’s life (for what it’s worth, in my opinion, they should just stop investigating the doping in professional cycling in the 90s and early 00s. If Lance is found guilty, well, then they can start investigating the rider who finished second – and so on and so on. Just stop and focus on keeping cycling clean now!).

Anyway, back to what Lance himself says: ‘Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or in any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it’s like nuclear weapons – that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive.’ (p. 205) This of course sounds like Lance could never even dream of doping – the only thing is that this argument is not the best one since a lot of the drugs riders are using to enhance their performance, are the same drugs being used by doctors to battle cancer – which means that these drugs are not foreign to Lance.

Still, he has never been tested positive. The newest tests that have been made public, does not necessarily mean that he was doped – according to doping experts. I hope he will never be found guilty in doping because I cling to my belief that Lance won because he could fuel his body with anger – and Lance was a very angry man!

This is not a book about cycling per se – as the title also says. This is about one man’s battle with cancer and it is a very fascinating account. The writing is rather plain as it is in all sports biographies but the book is worth reading if you’re interested in Lance, cancer or – to a lesser extent – professional cycling and Tour de France.

  • Title: It’s Not About the Bike. My Journey Back to Life
  • Author: Lance Armstrong
  • Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press – Random House
  • Year: 2001
  • Pages: 294 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars:  4 stars out of 5

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Jørgen Leth: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge (English title: The Yellow Jersey in the High Mountains) (review)

Do you love the Tour de France?  If not, this book is not for you.

With that said, let’s talk about it anyway. In this book, he covers specifically the Tour de France but also other events in professional cycling. The book is originally published in 1995 so the amazing year (1996) where the Dane Bjarne Riis won the Tour is not covered, neither is the victories of Marco Pantani, Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich, Alberto Contador – or Lance Armstrong. Well, except in a brief foreword to the 2009 edition for some of them. And this is my main problem with the book – I started following the Tour in the early 90s so I don’t know that much about the years before and while it is interesting and Leth writes it well, I would have loved to have read more about the riders I knew and know and the races I’ve watched. This is flashbacks to Leth’s personal highlights of the Tour, his thoughts on professional cycling, doping, food in France, working as a film director and a commentator and more. And it’s fascinating.

As I’ve written earlier, Jørgen Leth has a way with words. And even though this is a non-fiction book about a bike race, it’s wonderfully written. And I don’t think the beauty of it’s writing is only because Leth is a poet and has a way with words. It’s also because he writes about what he loves.

Jørgen Leth loves bike racing and he writes about this love, specifically about his love for the Tour de France. He writes about his heroes, how he in particular love the tormented riders, the ones who has a bit more to fight against than just the stages and the mountains. He is drawn to the underdog, the rider who has weak knees, who doesn’t believe in himself, who struggles against inner demons. He loves the riders who can attack and shake everything up. And maybe that is because of his poetic eyes which see the beauty in the struggle, the beauty in the lone rider struggling across the highest mountains pursued by a chasing peloton, the beauty in an attacker cheating the sprinters of their finish.

As he puts it: ‘Bike riders ride bicycles. They ride from one place to another. They ride up, and they ride down. The first to arrive at the finish, has won. Along the way, things happen. It’s as simple as that.’ (p. 303 – my translation). And it is as simple as that. But what he then goes on to point out, is, that out of this, people emerge, looking directly out of the pictures, trying to create something extraordinary. And when that happens, Leth is ready to see it and frame it. To spot the moment which steps out of itself to become something durable. Something to remember and look back on.

And that’s exactly what he does – both as a commentator and as a writer. He spots the extraordinary in the ordinary. He sees the beauty in the struggle, he praises the courageous and cheers the fighters. His sharp eyes separates the contenders from the pretenders – but praises the pretenders when they dare, even if they fail. As long as they fail in an epic way. And he frames it all in beautiful words for the rest of us – along with commentating on the landscape, the weather, the geography, all of which add that extra dimension to both the race and extraordinariness of it all.

Such a pity that this book hasn’t been translated.

  • Title: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge
  • Author: Jørgen Leth
  • Publisher: Gyldendal
  • Year: 2009 (1995)
  • Pages: 330 pages
  • Source: Own Collection
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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June 2012 – Monthly Wrap Up post

So with June gone, we’re halfway through the year and it’s time to do not only a monthly wrap-up post but take a look at the first 6 months and see how far I’ve come in my goals for the year. In total, I’ve read 26 books which is one every week and exactly half of my goal of 52 books – so right on target with that one. Of the 25 books I’ve decided to read this list, I’ve read 12 which is pretty much on target too. So I just need to basically repeat this in the second half of the year.

I also want to talk about Armchair BEA, an online book blogger award that took place early June. For four days, bloggers socialized, talked about books and visited each others blog and discussed the many facets of book blogging. I met some fascinating new people, found great new blogs and had a great time. Although I haven’t changed anything on the blog after BEA, I certainly got a lot to think about as well as some new inspiration – and got more certain about some of the things I do. Maybe I will add some new features or change things up a bit at a later point, for now I’m pretty much satisfied with things as they are. I highly recommend anyone to join Armchair BEA if it is held again next year.

I’ve read 1794 pages this month which is a bit of an improvement on the last couple of months but still not quite where I want it to be. I made it through 4 books which is okay but again, I really would like to read 2000+ pages and at least 5 books.

  1. Haruki Murakami: Underground. Murakami’s take on the 1995 terror attack in the Tokyo subway. Interviews with victims and with members of the cult who did it. All together, they give an interesting view into terrorist attacks in general and the Japanese psyche in specific. 4 stars.
  2. Mark Helprin: Winter’s Tale. The fourth book added to my favorites shelf this year! (The other three were We Need to Talk about Kevin, Drood and The Woman in White.) Such an amazing book – Peter Lake, Beverly Penn, Athansor and all the other fantastic characters that you can’t help fall in love with. Bigger than life characters, beautiful language, great story – all set in a mythical New York. It’s a great, great book. 5 stars.
  3. Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders. I’m sorry to admit that these novels about ‘fallen women’ from the 18th century isn’t really working for me. Still, it’s an interesting read this story of Moll Flander’s life, several marriages and children, criminal career and prison time. 3 stars.
  4. Salman Rushdie: Shalimar the Clown. Amazing story about Shalimar, his wife Boonyi, Max Ophuls the American ambassador to India, and Max and Boonyi’s daughter India … It’s also about Kashmir, the relationship between muslims and hindus – and it’s such a great read! 4 stars.
Even though I feel like I worked hard with Clarissa this month, I haven’t finished the June letters yet. I have read more than half of them though, and at the moment, I’m enjoying them very much. Expect my Clarissa read-along post in a few days.

I finished the Haruki Murakami challenge – since I had only signed up to read one book by Murakami this year, this challenge was finished the moment I closed Underground. I do hope that I will have time to read more Murakami this year, time to read some of his fiction. All in all, I’m feeling on target with all my challenges.

So in July, I’m going to spend time watching Tour de France and reading about it, as I’ve already mentioned. I think I can read through the three books rather quickly and after that, I’m not quite sure what I want to continue with but I probably need to focus a bit on books for my challenge, maybe the two last volumes in the Earth Children’s series by Jean M. Auel, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley or The Message to the Planet by Iris Murdoch. I hope to get a lot of reading done in June to stay on track!

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New Theme: Tour de France

So one thing you probably don’t know about me is, that I love Tour de France. I follow it – almost religiously – every year. Now, this is a book blog, so maybe you’re not all familiar with what Tour de France is. It’s an (amazing) annual bicycle race held in France with riders from around the world participating. They cover more than 3000 kilometers in 3 weeks – riding up and down mountains, through the rain and the sun, past beautiful castles and small villages. It always end in Paris where the winner is crowned – after an amazing race round Champs-Élysées.

In Denmark, we have a wonderful commentator called Jørgen Leth. Leth is a movie director, a poet, a writer and formerly, Denmark’s consul in Haiti. On top of that, he’s a bicycle enthusiast and knows everything about France, professional cycling and Tour de France. Leth is part of the reason why I love watching Tour de France. He has a poet’s eye for the landscape and the cities, the race goes through and he’s just able to talk for hours about anything and nothing at all – and he knows everything worth knowing about the Tour.

So in order to celebrate that the race is starting today, I wanted to post about the Tour de France themed reading I plan to do while the race is going on.

    

Three different books about professional cycling and the Tour. Two professional riders – and one fan.

David Millar: Racing Through the Dark. The Fall and Rise of David Millar.

This is the story of what was – and maybe still is – the true face of professional cycling. The highs and the lows – the amazing wins and the time spent in jail, being investigated for doping. This is Millar’s personal history of his life as a professional bike rider.

Jørgen Leth: Den gule trøje i de høje bjerge (English title: The Yellow Jersey in the Tall Mountains).

A poet’s introduction to a bicycle race. Leth celebrate the daring and the ones who have the ability to go all out and writes about the history of the Tour with his all personal highlights.

Lance Armstrong: It’s Not About the Bike. My Journey Back to Life.

Lance Armstrong. The man who has won the Tour de France more times than anyone else. 7 times! But also a man constantly being investigated for illegal doping. This is a book about his battle with cancer and how he triumphed over the disease and went on to win the Tour. Armstrong, Indurain – and of course Bjarne Riis – are my favorite Tour winners (although I also really liked how ‘the angry Australian’ Cadel Evans won it last year).

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