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Books of the year. Part 1: Cycling

January 8, 2012

Greg Lemond (left) and Bernard Hinault at the top of L'Alpe d'Huez, the final battle of an absorbing tour which became a defining milestone in modern cycling history. Photo by: CorVos Pro

(NOTE: These are books I read this year, not simply my favourite books released in 2011.)

FOUR of my favourite books this year have come from the world of cycling. They include Ned Boulting’s How I Won the Yellow Jumper, Laurent Fignon’s When We Were Young and Carefree and Robert Penn’s beautiful It’s All About the Bike.

However, my book of the year by the length of a long finishing straight, is Richard Moore’s explosive examination of the 1986 Tour de France, Slaying the Badger. It is a brilliantly researched investigation of  the fractious relationship between the race winner Greg Lemond and his team mate Bernard Hinault.

Hinault, a five time yellow jersey champion,had pledged to help Lemond win the race in return for helping him win the 1985 version.

Of course Hinault, perhaps the last grand patron of the peloton and hero of France, was a legendarily combative and proud Breton who couldn’t quite live up to his promise and attacked Lemond repeatedly, much to the frustration of the American. It caused major tensions in the pair’s La Vie Claire team, one which was financed by the millionaire Bernard Tapie, and which helped usher in a new era for cycling.

Moore gets brilliant interviews from both of the main protagonists, as well as from a host of other riders,  team managers and journalists. What really matters is the vivid recollection of a dramatic, combative and fiercely fought Tour which captured the hearts of cycling fans.

It was a tour with massive ramifications for professional cycling. The huge drama that surrounded Lemond becoming the first English speaking winner took cycling to a whole new audience in the English speaking world, while Tapie’s well financed super team ushered in a new era of cycling technology from their eye catching Mondrian-inspired multi-coloured jerseys to their clip-less pedals and low profile time trial machines.

Like all great sports books, it is about more than just the drama that unfolded in the present. It is about what a groundbreaking and extraordinarily dramatic race meant to the sport. As Moore rightly points out, it finished one era of cycling; one which French speakers dominated for perhaps four or five decades, while it ushered in a new era where technology and the Anglo Saxons would ultimately hold sway.

It is however notable for the best ever opening passage in any sports book, where Lemond, attacked by a massive dose of the runs thanks to a bad peach, has poo running down his legs in the last 60k of a stage and who is forced to defecate on publicity pictures of Hinault in the team motorhome at the stage finish.

It is, in many ways, an era defining book for sports journalism, thanks largely to Moore’s remarkable reporting and interviewing skills. It has a multi-point-of-view structure which flits between the early careers of both men and the ’86 race and which brilliantly illustrates the antagonism which festers still between them. The thoughts of their team manager Cyrille Guimard are as illuminating as anything said by anyone here.

It’s a forensically told tale of sporting heroism in the world’s toughest sport. It is an incredible book thanks in no small part to the extraordinary feats of all concerned, from era defining riders to their revolutionary team manager and team owner.

Laurent Fignon’s autobiography When We Were Young And Carefree is an incredible memoir of  a man of contradictions. He was a double Tour de France winner and perhaps the most gifted French cyclist of his generation thanks to two wins in which he dominated the peloton utterly. But, like many naturally gifted artists to whom excellence comes easily, he didn’t have the deeply competitive streak of Hinault. It also shows the effects that serious injuries can have on the body and soul of great athletes.

He never got the recognition he deserved because, unfortunately, he was the man who would forever be known as the one who lost the 1989 tour to Lemond by the smallest margin of all time – eight seconds on a final day, do-or-die time trial shoot out into Paris.

In the year before his death from cancer, he produced a remarkably thoughtful treatise into the world of cycling. It is one of the few superstar sports memoirs that is both high in salacious high jinks (him and Hinault downing five bottles of vintage before winning the Tour of Brittany, snorting cocaine on the Tour of Colombia) but which is also genuinely intellectual and philosophical.

For a man nicknamed The Professor because he had started university prior to turning pro, his analysis of the Tour is an illustration of his immense intellect:

The Tour de France is a landmark in twentieth-century history, a microcosm that creates and displays characters as over the top as the event itself.

His analysis of the recent era of radio-supported champions who calculate their efforts with information from team managers is scathing. For Fignon his was the last era of proper cycling, where men went hell for leather and didn’t rely on technology, either radios or wind tunnels designed  carbon fibre craft.

Cycling is a living, breathing art. Those cyclists who forget that are halfway to becoming sloths. Isn’t it better to gamble on victory than to secure a comfortable defeat?

and,

We knew no fear. Those four little words: blasphemous, outrageous, unreasonable? I chose this opening well in advance but when it came to putting those words on paper, I hesitated. I was not sure I wanted to let them out in public. Perhaps they will be seen as evidence for the prosecution rather than what they actually are: words that testify to how it was. How my time was. That’s the truth: we weren’t afraid of anything, but we didn’t do just any old thing.

Ned Boulting’s wonderful How I Won the Yellow Jumper is one of those most elusive of books: a self deprecating memoir from a front line sports journalist. Essentially it is a narrative of a complete novice who falls in love with professional cycling and its competitors while reporting on the Tour.

It is also the story of how British cycling went from being an also-ran in the pro peloton to producing Mark Cavendish, the best sprinter of his generation, and Bradley Wiggins, the country’s first genuine contender for the overall yellow jersey. It is also about Boulting’s enormous thankfulness for being there and reporting on these men and his relationship with them, however superficial it is. He doesn’t give it the ‘big I am’, he is frank in his low standing with the riders, quite unlike that of many football writers.

Boulting records his journey from out-of-his-depth hack with no knowledge of cycling at all, to becoming a man in love with the vivid, gaudy, multi-media circus that is Le Tour. He recognises it for what it is. Like the Olympic Games, Le Tour is a multi-billion euro marketing exercise that also happens to have supremely gifted athletes performing feats of endurance like no other.

For someone like me, a journalist  who has been glued to TV coverage of major tours from before the Lemond Hinault version, it is also a wonderful insight into covering such a huge event. From lugging gear at all hours into crap hotels to bags of smelly clothes to living on motorway service station sandwiches, it achieves a huge level of insight despite appearing to be a jokey memoir by a reporter keen to  paint himself as an eejit.

My final great cycling book of the year is Robert Penn’s It’s All About the Bike, a true love letter to the bicycle and cycling culture.

Penn, a Manx man who had cut his teeth in mountain biking and who had literally cycled around the world having given up a career in the law in his late 20s, sets out to build his perfect bike. The last bike he would ever buy. In the process he  reveals the history of the bike and bicycle technology.

From the late 19th Century bike boom, to the development of racing in the early part of the 20th Century, through to the invention of the mountain bike by renegade Californian hippies, Penn charts the history of  the bike with a deeply loving eye.

To build his ultimate bike he travels to the factories and workshops of saddle manufacturers and frame builders in Britain. He has his wheels built by Gravy, a hippy savant mountain biker in California, and buys his gears from Campagnolo in Italy – where the derailleur gear was developed – perhaps the most important place in cycling’s history.

It’s a tremendously rewarding book, long on love for the bike and mercifully free of the ego that a TV personality might have had to have included had they taken the same journey. It’s rich in historical analysis and will remain an important landmark in writing about cycling and the bicycle.

As Penn says, ‘We are at the beginning of a new golden age of the bicycle, long may you ride.’

Cycling produces great books for two reasons. One, because professional cycling is a feat of such human endurance and endeavour that its heroism always produces great copy. The first three books are testament to the elemental nature of competition and the thin line between failure and success that only cycling and endurance sports produce.

Secondly, Penn proves that, despite all the advances in technology, cycling is still about the deeply rewarding feeling of propelling two wheels, two pedals, some gears, some metal and rubber over roads. Cycling was the first accessible example of the modern transportation. While none of us will ever travel as fast as a Formula 1 car in our own jalopies, we can still climb L’Alpe d’Huez on a decent bike just as Lemond and Hinault did, hand-in-hand in 1986.

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