When Lance Armstrong began the Tour de France in July, it seemed a foregone conclusion for most Americans that he would be in contention for his eighth title.
Never mind that it had been four years since he competitively raced his bike.
Or that a contingent of strong, young riders was becoming a force on the Tour.
Or that there would even be a question if he was the strongest rider on his own team.
This was Lance Armstrong. Seven-time Tour de France winner. Cancer survivor. The very definition of strong and determined with some sort of superhuman powers that enable him to accomplish physical feats on the bike and mobilize an entire movement in the cancer community.
Was his success a question?
Turns out, Armstrong took third overall in the 2009 Tour de France, announced a new partnership with Radio Shack and took his cycling and Live-strong Foundation to another level of immortality.
But as John Wilcockson explores in his book, Lance has cultivated a certain mystique that awes spectators, intimidates some opponents and raises suspicions among adversaries.
Wilcockson, a cycling journalist who has edited VeloNews and covered the Tour de France for 40 years, offers a unique biography of Armstrong that intertwines the personal with the professional. His approach includes interviews with Armstrong and a wide range of individuals -- including his mom, Linda; stepfather Terry Armstrong, ex-wife Kristin Armstrong and a full contingent of his inner circle of friends and colleagues.
The story begins with Wilcockson getting a cryptic e-mail from Armstrong as the author was working on the book. It was at the time when Armstrong was pondering coming out of retirement.
His motivations ranged from his disdain for the current level of talent at the Tour to wanting to launch his Livestrong Foundation to a larger, international platform.
But the root of it, at least to Wilcockson, seemed to be the performance-enhancing accusations that continued to trail Armstrong and the effect he feared they would have on his children. "I'm doing this for my kids," Wilcockson quotes Armstrong as saying. "With news so accessible these days on the Web, they'll be able to read any story they want. And I don't want them growing up and reading all these things about me and doping."
"To be a good father and role model means everything to Lance," Wilcockson writes. "It's something he felt he never had. In a way that's where it all begins."
Wilcockson begins with the story of Linda, Lance's mother, her teenage pregnancy and her second marriage to Terry Armstrong. He interviews major players from Lance's childhood and paints a picture of someone whom grew up in a family situation that instilled grit, determination and an incredible amount of anger.
From his start in triathlon in Texas to his amateur cycling days, the story takes a chronological format. Readers are reminded that the powerful Armstrong was headstrong, too heavy and not much of a tactician at the start of his cycling career. Wilcockson explores the last-place finish of Lance's first professional race, his battle with cancer and his desire to quit the comeback before it even started in earnest.
The story inevitably involves the doping accusations from some in the European media countered by denials from Lance and all in his camp, including Wilcockson who, as a reporter covering Armstrong's Tours, believed he did so free of banned substances. The ins and outs of the accusations and denials aside, the setup of the book helps put some perspective on the animosity.
At times, the book's style can be off-putting as Wilcockson occasionally injects himself into the story and no one topic is approached in-depth. The work relies on the author's past cycling reporting and interviews with more than 60 people and has a distinct qualitative appeal.
As a whole, the book helps explain Armstrong as a complex man with success and failures, strengths and flaws who has captured the imagination of cancer survivors, cyclists and sports fans around the world.
Amy Moritz is a Buffalo News sports writer who writes about endurance sports on the blog, Journey to the Finish Line.
Lance: The Making of the World's Greatest Champion
By John Wilcockson
Da Capo Press
383 pages, $26