Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"P Is for Peloton, The A-Z of Cycling"

There is reason to celebrate any book on cycling, even if its riddled with misinformation and is a clone of other books on the sport, such as is the case with the well-meaning, 160-page compendium of cycling lore and lingo, "P is for Peloton," by Suze Clemitson, an English fan of the sport.  It is always heartening when a publisher deems a book on cycling worthy of putting out there, but disappointing when it disseminates all too much false information.

If nothing else, this book merits attention for its bounty of some seventy keenly insightful illustrations, the best of which may be a field of free wheels masquerading as sunflowers.  Though Clemitson may not venture much beyond the basics in the165 items she defines, including French and Italian terms and many of the legendary climbs in the sport and its foremost figures, being reminded of their significance reinforced my fondness for them and made the book a rewarding read in spite of its inadequacies. 

She manages to find at least one cycling-related item for every letter in the alphabet, from nineteen for the letter P to three for the letters Q and Z to one for the letters X and J.  "Jersey" was an easy one for J, but she had to test her imagination for X, choosing the X in "53 X 11," the most common high gear.  She declined to choose the X that is very often found in the names of the many Basque riders, as there is no noteworthy rider whose name begins with X, unlike other letters.  Her Zs were the riders Zabel and Zoetmelk along with the climb in the Italian Alps--Zoncolan.  One of her Qs was the Colombian Quintana along with Queen Stage and Quick Release.  

A good many of her entries are people, including Didi Senft (The Devil) and Henri Desgrange, the founder of The Tour de France.  Her strong English bias gives Robert Millar one-and-half pages  compared to just half a page for Greg LeMond. Her bias extends to giving credit to Team Sky for popularizing skin suits in time trials, though elsewhere in the book she gives credit to the Ti Raleigh team for being the first team to wear skin suits at the 1980 Tour.  If she were American she would have granted Garmin that distinction.  The book is clearly meant for an English audience as she compares Milan-San Remo to riding from London to Sheffield without offering an American equivalent.

Like many without a doctorate in the sport, whether earned from a fanaticism of growing up with it or from devouring every book and magazine she could get her hands on after developing an interest in it, Clemitson is often wrong or at least not quite right on many an item.  The book is frustratingly rife with misinformation and misunderstanding.  That is not so much an indictment of Clemitson, but rather of her publisher failing to enlist an authority on the sport to edit, or at least scan, the book.

One could go on and on pointing out its many niggling inconsistencies and falsehoods beginning with referring to Bradley Wiggins as Sir, but not Chris Hoy, who was knighted before Wiggins. She also slights The Devil and Desgrange.  She wrote that The Devil was retired.  He did miss the 2014 Tour, but he was back for 2015, allowing me to update my photo with him.

Of Desgrange she wrote that he served in WWII, despite having died in 1940.  That one was no doubt a typo, but that can't be said about several things she got wrong about Bernard Hinault.  She wrote that he was a gentleman farmer.  According to William Fotheringham's recent biography of Hinault he gave up his farm in 2005 when he realized none of his children cared to continue with it. She claims he cried when he gave up the Yellow Jersey to LeMond in the 1986 Tour.  Hinault was a notorious tough man who never gave in to his emotions.  William Fotheringham's recent biography "The Badger," doesn't cite a single incident of him and tears, whether of exaltation or despair.

Clemitson has an affinity for tears and mentions many--riders being scooped up by the Broom Wagon, riders on the snowy stage of the 1988 Giro, Paolo Bettini winning the 2006 Tour of Lombardy days after the death of his brother in a car crash, Felice Gimondi's directeur sportif the year he won the 1965 Tour, Fausto Coppi's domestique taking the Yellow Jersey in the 1952 Tour, Richard Virenque being ejected from the 1998 Tour. These are celebrated incidents and worthy of mention.  She was being fanciful, as she is prone to, to suggest tears from Hinault.

She is inconsistent on Virenque, writing in one place that he is reviled, but then later that he is a popular television commentator.  Like many not fully steeped in the sport she confuses races known as Classics and Monuments.  There are five Monuments and they are all Classics, but not all Classics are Monuments.  On page 72 she lists the riders with the most Classic wins--Eddie Merckx 50, Hinault and Jacques Anquetil 29, Sean Kelly 22.  Seven pages later she writes that Merckx holds the record with 19 Classics, meaning Monuments.  Earlier she wrote that Merckx was one of three, along with his fellow Belgians Roger De Vlaeminck and Rik Van Looy to win all five Monuments in one year.  No one ever achieved that in a single season.  It took a career.  

Many of the entries in the book are accompanied by extra tidbits of information called "bluff facts" or "bluff its," that one drop into a conversation to be taken as more of an expert on the sport than one actually is, much like Clemitson.  Some are absurd such as, "If you were to cycle 3,500 kilometers, which is what the peloton cover during a Grand Tour, you'd produce enough sweat to flush 39 toilets."

She describes being along the road during The Tour and watching the Caravan of Sponsors pass.  She claims, "You could feed yourself for the day on little sausages" that are tossed out.  I've been following The Tour for twelve years and very rarely have I managed to grab even one of the small packs with three bite-sized sausages.  Their sponsor is very parsimonious with them.  Not even an army of fans could collect enough to feed a single person for a day.  She's also wrong stating that Coca-Cola is among the sponsors in the Caravan.  It's been years, well before my time, that Coca-Cola has been a sponsor.  

She must have read somewhere that an early wearer of the Yellow Jersey, before it became an emblem of the sport and its holiest garment, protested having to wear it, complaining that the others riders mockingly called him a canary.  She said it was Philipe Thys, when it was actually Eugene Christophe.  She is also not quite right when she says Americans mispronounce Maillot Jaune as Mellow Johnny.  That was a Lance Armstrong bastardization, not a symptom of Americans.

If this book were a car it would have to be recalled, as it presents a great danger of establishing myths rather than realities. It would be a great tragedy if in its present form it were discovered a thousand years from now after our current civilization has gone the way of the Greeks and Romans, as it would give a less than accurate portrayal of the world of cycling. One can enjoy the book's fanciful illustrations, but to give full credence to its fanciful prose puts one in a state of peril.

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