A Note from Fatty: I’m going to review this book in two parts. Today, I’ll be looking at what the book promises vs. what it delivers. In my next post (which I’ll put up this Monday), I’ll talk about the style and storytelling in the book.
And for what it’s worth, I contacted Craig Hummer prior to posting this, letting him know that I would welcome a reply post from him, or even a Spreecast video chat. That offer stands — I’ll post whatever reply he likes, with the promise that I will only edit for my style of “blog legibility” — more paragraph breaks than what most people think is normal, and, if it’s long, the right to break it up into multiple parts.
Everyone gets to tell the story they want to. That is fine. Furthermore, everyone has the right to not tell a story at all. That too is fine.
The biggest problem with The Loyal Lieutenant: Leading Out Lance and Pushing Through the Pain on the Rocky Road to Paris, by George Hincapie (co-authored by Craig Hummer) is that the title promises one kind of story, and then doesn’t tell it, instead telling you another.
And that is not fine.
Bait and Switch
Practically every single thing about the cover and opening pages of this book screams “I am/was best friends with Lance Armstrong.”
- The title of the book, The Loyal Lieutenant, tells you, with both of its words, that this is a book about his relationship with Lance. First, he’s loyal to Lance. Second, he was Lance’s lieutenant: meaning he took orders from Lance, and by inference, made his own professional ambitions secondary to Lance’s.
- The subheading of the book: “Leading out Lance and pushing through pain on the Rocky Road to Paris” is a mouthful (I know, I’m not exactly one to talk), but it tells you three things (and order is important on book covers): 1. This is first and foremost about his experience with being Lance’s chief domestique. 2. It’s about pushing through pain. 3. It’s about the Tour de France.
- The photo on the book cover: This photo has been carefully edited to dim out all the riders except Hincapie and Armstrong.
- The Foreword: The first actual content (right after Hummer’s explanation of why he wrote a book lionizing Hincapie) is a Foreword…by Lance Armstrong.
OK, we get it. This is a book that should have been titled Lance and George.
Except that’s not what the book is.
Legolas and Gimli
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien has Legolas (the elf) and Gimli (the dwarf) start out as natural enemies: dwarves and elves don’t like each other. Then they go into some enchanted wood (Lorien), stay for a while, and come out of the forest pretty much inseparable. Ta da. It’s a profoundly unsatisfying transition, because apart from a few sentences, we don’t see how they got from rivals to BFFs.
And that’s pretty much what The Loyal Lieutenant does as far as describing the relationship between Hincapie and Armstrong.
We actually get a reasonable expectation that there’s going to be a friendship there, courtesy of a promising quote from Armstrong:
“A lot of our initial bonding was we were both just kids having fun, being teenage boys. Stupid stuff. We were both extremely cheesy, but we hit it off at that first camp and were friends from that point on.”
OK, awesome. The next thing the book should have is a description of some of that bonding. Some of that cheesy, stupid stuff.
But it’s not there. In fact, the closest Hincapie comes to describing this relationship is with this dry little snippet:
“Lance Armstrong, whom I had met and befriended at a USA Cycling training camp years before[….]“
How did they become friends? What were their conversations like? What did they do together? None of our business. We just need to take it for granted that it happened, because pretty much the next time Armstrong enters the picture, we’re told:
“Lance and I had long since established an impenetrable level of trust[….]“
I’m sorry, but you don’t get to do that. You can either promise this is a book about your relationship or you can have your privacy about how that relationship started and developed, but you can’t have both.
Andreu and Hincapie
But while Hincapie doesn’t say much about how he developed a relationship with Armstrong, he has quite a bit to say about developing a relationship with Frankie Andreu.
Specifically, Hincapie essentially lays his knowledge of doping and his decision to dope at Andreu’s doorstep. Here’s the exchange where Hincapie asks Andreu about the facts of (doping) life:
At first it hadn’t been easy to get Frankie to open up. His answers to my questions were direct, and his tone implied I should stop asking. (In fairness to Frankie, he remembers this next exchange differently.)
“It’s none of your business. You shouldn’t be looking at this.”
“Frankie, what is that stuff? I have a feeling I know what it is. But I need you to tell me.”
“Well, if you know what it is, what is it?”
“I think it’s EPO. How long have you been taking it?”
Again, he replied, “None of your business.”
Andreu then explains to Hincapie how to get EPO, and tells Hincapie it’s not a big deal to take, because “everyone did it.”
Hincapie then goes on to villainize Andreu for his own decision to dope, referring to Andreu’s mentorship as a “dark” thing, calling him “Cranky Frankie,” and saying that Frankie looked at Hincapie with “mild disdain.”
Meanwhile, Hincapie is assuring us that he needed to start doping, in order to keep up. And it’s not written like, “Young and foolish, with neither wisdom nor perspective, I saw no option but to cheat.”
It reads like he still feels like it was an OK decision to have made.
Here’s Where You Lost Me
And this is where I started feeling uneasy with Hincapie — where I started, honestly, disliking him. He describes his sense of self right after doping the first time:
“I exited the bathroom a changed man. I felt completely at peace. […] This was a new me, one without limitations, and one without the deck stacked against him.”
I don’t even know where to start with that. It doesn’t make any sense; I can’t identify with it at all. It’s like an alien spoke it. You’re completely at peace after making a decision to live a secretive life based on perpetual cheating? Incomprehensible.
You feel like this is a new you, without limitations? Yes, sure, you’re new. But don’t you see the giant new limitation you’ve just established?
You see yourself as no longer having the deck stacked against you? And didn’t see yourself as now one of the people stacking the deck?
You didn’t consider that you had just become one of the guys you had used as a source of righteous indignation a few pages earlier? (“The fuel I drew on now was derived and distilled from my take on justice and retribution.”)
Nope, you seem perfectly at ease, defending the ongoing doping program as “conservative.”
Oh, well in that case, by all means carry on.
So. That’s the grievance I have with the premise and characterizations in this book.
But what if you set all that aside? If you say, “OK, enough with the complaining about the doping and the unfulfilled promise of character development; how was the storytelling? Was the book interesting and fun to read?
Which is where I’ll pick up in part 2 of this review.