Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Another Cycling Biography by a Fotheringham

With "Eagle of Toledo," a biography of Federico Bahamontes, the first Spaniard to win the Tour de France, Alasdair Fotheringham joins his brother William in the ranks of English cycling journalists who have written a book on a conqueror of The Tour de France.

This is Alasdair's first book, while William has written quite a few--books on Tour winners Fausto Coppi and Eddie Merckx, Tour fatality Tom Simpson, a history of the English in The Tour de France and a cycling encyclopedia called "Cyclopedia." Alasdair expresses some fraternal solidarity when he cites the latter as his source of information for the quite famous Albert Londres interview in 1924 with the Pelissier brothers on doping in the sport.  There was no need whatsoever to "footnote" this seminal interview other than to give his brother a nod.

Many books have been written on Merckx, Coppi and Simpson, but surprisingly only one other on the very colorful and still living Bahamontes, who will turn 85 this year. That lone book was published in 1969, ten years after his Tour victory, and has long been out of print.  Alasdair has been on the cycling beat since 199l, covering his first Tour the year after.  He first interviewed Bahamontes in 1993.  He knows his subject quite well, though that did not prevent him from portraying Bahamontes in a most objective, and not always flattering, light.

Despite his Tour victory and six wins of the King of the Mountains competition, Bahamontes may be best known for stopping to eat an ice cream cone at the summit of the Col de la Romeyere during the 1954 Tour de France.  It is an incident that nearly every book on The Tour mentions, though rarely with the actual story.  When Alasdair asked him about it in that 1993 interview, Bahamontes exclaimed, "I'm never going to hear the end of that ruddy ice cream."

Bahamontes was known as a cautious, if not poor, descender.  The myth of the ice cream cone incident is rooted in his so-called fear of descending.  As the story goes, he reached the summit of the Col de la Romeyere in the Alps way ahead of everyone else and feared making the descent on his own, so he grabbed an ice cream and waited for the peloton to catch up.

That makes for a nice fairy tale, but it is far from the truth. Bahamontes was not alone when he reached the summit.  Rather he was the lead rider in a four-person breakaway, fourteen minutes ahead of the peloton. On the climb he broke two spokes.  He couldn't risk descending on such a wheel, so after claiming the King of the Mountain points, waited for his team car and a replacement wheel.  During his wait he grabbed an ice cream cone from a cart.

Bahamontes was indeed an eccentric, playful character, known as "the unpredictable genius," who might well have pulled a crazy stunt such as he was accused of.  What he did do that complies with his reputation was to fill his water bottle after grabbing the ice cream  and then spray the peloton as it passed before his team car arrived, just as the fans sometimes do, to cool off the riders.  For that he was fined.

Appropriately, "bizarre" is Fotheringham's favorite adjective.  He uses it nine times, once to describe the ice cream incident and twice in reference to occasions when Bahamontes inexplicably abandoned a race.  He also applies it to substances racers were known to take and to describe erratic behaviour and also for some events in the 1959 Tour Bahamontes won.

Fotheringham sets straight another storied event in the lore of The Tour that involves Bahamontes.  It occurred in the 1963 Tour when Bahamontes finished second to Jacques Anquetil.  Part of the credit for Anquetil's win goes to an illegal bike change Anquetil made with the complicity of his team director Rafael Geminiani at the foot of the climb over the Col de la Forclaz.

Riders were not allowed to swap bikes unless they had a mechanical difficulty.  Gieminiani confirmed in an interview with Fotheringham that he did indeed cut a cable on Anquetil's bike, so he could claim that it had broken, allowing him to exchange his bike for a lighter one to make the climb faster.  After he finished the climb, Geminiani noticed there were no officials around, so he changed bikes again giving Anquetil a bike better for the flats.

Just last week Lance Armstrong discussed cheating with Oprah Winfrey.  He did not consider doping cheating since it did not give him an advantage over his opponents, as they were all doing the same.  This however might qualify as cheating, though Geminiani proudly calls it outwitting the system.

Regarding drugs, Bahamontes said, "I never took anything, never."  He fully observes the omerta, claiming he was totally oblivious to whatever drug-taking might have been going on, acknowledging only, "I saw a soigneur put something in a bidon, once, and that was it."

When Bahamontes began his career, Spain was still recovering from World War II and was extremely impoverished.  Food was in short supply.  He and his family would scrounge for anything to eat--orange peels, stale bread and even cats.  He raced not for glory, but to put food on the table.  Financial gain was his prime motivator throughout his career.

Unlike most cycling biographies there was hardly a mention of tears of triumph. After he won The Tour in 1959 there was no such emotional release other than from his wife Fermina.   His stoicism is so significant, Fotheringham actually writes, "There were no tears."  All he's concerned about is the financial benefit, asking his agent how much more appearance money he will be able to command at the post-Tour criteriums.

Fotheringham mentions tears on only one other occasion--in the l958 Tour on the stage to Aix-les-Baines when Bahamontes lost nearly thirty minutes.  He was struggling so badly his domestique Luis Otano, who was trying to help him, told Fotheringham that Bahamontes was crying and grabbing whatever food he could get.

Otana was one of several of Bahamontes former teammates that Fotheringham interviewed.  None are particularly fond of him, accusing him of being selfish and not a man of his word, in contrast to his fun-loving, happy-go-lucky public image.  Fotheringham cites instances of his not being honest with him and of how much of an attention-seeker he can be, even crashing an Albert Contador victory celebration.

He is still a very prominent and popular figure in Spanish cycling and devotes considerable energy to running the four-stage Vuelta a Toledo in his home town, a race that has been going on for nearly fifty years without interruption, unlike the country's premier race, the three-week long Vuelta a Espana, which did not run between 1950 and 1955 due to financial problems.  The final chapter of the book is a close-up of how hands-on Bahamontes is staging the race.  "The legend lives on," Fotheringham concludes, "albeit increasingly distorted."


Stuart said...

World War II? I didn't think Spain participated in WW II. Maybe you meant the Spanish Civil War?

george christensen said...

Stuart: All of Europe was left in a depressed state after WWII. Spain was no different, in fact even worse. Bahamontes said he loved racing in France because the food was much more plentiful than in Spain.

Thanks as always for commenting, George