Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Cycling Anthologies

There is such an interest in books on bicycle racing in the UK that a group of cycling journalists have put together six collections of their essays on the sport over the past four years and published them in book form as "Anthologies."   Ellis Bacon and Lionel Birnie, two veterans of the trade, have overseen the project, recruiting a handful of their fellow journalists, mostly British, along with a couple of Americans and an Australian, to contribute longer and more personal commentaries than the magazine articles they generally write.

So far I've been able to get my hands on the first two volumes. Scanning their table of contents I recognized the names of all fourteen writers of each book. I knew solid, informed reporting awaited me, that would be entertaining and enlightening.  The majority of the writers, nine of whom contributed to both, had written books that were among my favorites on the sport--Richard Moore, Daniel Friebe, Jeremy Whittle, Edward Pickering, Alasdair and William Fotheringham, Samuel Abt, Rubert Guinness and Ned Boulting.  I knew them well enough to recognize they had chosen subjects that were meaningful to them, rather than something an editor assigned them--Pickering on Thomas Voeckler and Tour de France winners, Guinness on Australian cyclists, William Fotheringham on Cyrille Guimond.

Moore wrote a piece on the first of his several books about his Scottish childhood hero, the elusive and enigmatic Robert Millar.  The other Scottish Millar, David, was enlisted to write an essay reflecting on his career as it neared its end.  It made a fine companion piece to his first book, "Racing Through the Dark," commenting on the pervasiveness of drugs in the peloton and his friendship with Michael Barry.  Both these first two volumes included a piece by a member of the peloton.  Millar appeared in Volume One and Daniel Lloyd Volume Two.

The second Volume celebrated the one hundredth edition of The Tour de France.  Lloyd recounted his domestique duties riding the 2010 Tour for Cervelo and Carlos Sartre. The thirteen journalists who comprised the rest of the volume had notched more than two hundred Tours in their collective belts--the retired "New York Times" writer Samuel Abt the most with 32.  Three of them write about their first Tour--Guinness in 1987, Whittle in 1994 and Birnie in 1998.  Both Whittle and Lloyd comment that there are often more interesting stories at the back of the peloton than the front with racers battling to survive.

Whittle sagely elevates The Tour experience to taking holy orders.  It is no mere job. He's allowed to go on for 34 pages in "Bin Bag of My Dreams," the longest piece of either book, in Volume One.  His stream of conscious memories includes coming upon a touring cyclist late in the evening riding The Tour route who might have been me. Whoever it was, Whittle wishes it was him.

Brendan Gallagher's "Its All About the Car" likewise abounds with personal detail as he describes following The Tour with one's colleagues in the cramped quarters of a car.  As did Whittle, he recognizes that The Tour is no mere sporting event.  One of the daily rites, that I also try to observe, during The Tour is to "religiously" read "L'Equipe" each morning. 

Klaus Bellon Gaitan describes the great fervor that Colombians have for The Tour dating to the 1983 edition when a team of Colombians participated in it for the first time.  The country was so thrilled that every single stage was broadcast in its entirety in Colombia, a first for anywhere in the world, even France, where the coverage is generally restricted to the final two hours of a stage, except in the mountains.  It's announcers were often driven to tears of ecstasy at the heroics of the Colombians. When Luis Herrera became the first Colombian to win a stage in 1984, "The Colombia masses, transistor radios in hand, wept."  In 1992, it was a Colombian team director who was driven to tears, when only two of the team's nine riders, one of whom wasn't even Colombian, finished the race.  It was the beginning of the EPO era and the Colombians lost their natural edge in the mountains. Everyone could now climb much faster than they could before and could ride harder on the flats, where the diminutive Colombians were at a disadvantage and wore down.

Volume Two abounds with references to tears, in contrast to only one mention in the first edition--Aussie Anna Meares after losing to Brit Victoria Pendleton at the 2012 World Championships in Melbourne before the Olympics, where she avenged herself.  Besides the flow of tears from Colombians, the Tour de France edition recounts the tears of a host of others--winners and losers.  Tears welled in the eyes of Nicholas Roche as the Irish national anthem was played while he proudly stood at the top of the podium in Paris after winning the 1987 Race.  His fellow Irish cyclist Sean Kelly gave way to tears earlier in The Race when he was forced to abandon after a crash.  

Guimard was brought to tears when he was forced to quit the 1972 Tour from tendinitis in his knees with just three stages remaining while he held the Green Jersey and was in second place overall.   Whittle admits to waking up in tears over a bad dream.  David Millar was near tears when the daughter of Tom Simpson gave him a stone from near his monument on Mont Ventoux.  The tears from the Festina doping scandal in 1998 are mentioned as well as those of Alexander Vinokourov in 2007 when he finished a mountain stage well back due to injuries from a crash that had "blood weeping from both of his knees" knocking him out of contention.  The weeping from his eyes and knees further endeared him to the public before he tested positive for doping later in The Race.

With the years of experience and great passion of all these authoritative writers and the in depth knowledge of its two editors, I knew these books, unlike "P is for Peloton" and many other books written by neophytes, could be trusted to be error free.  But I was taken aback that Bacon in his piece on luck in the sport in Volume One wrote that Eugene Christophe was disqualified for accepting help from a seven-year old boy who operated a bellows as he repaired a broken fork in the 1913 Tour.  This is one of the most legendary events in Tour history and Bacon got it wrong and his fellow editor Birnie failed to correct it.

There is a plaque on the house where the event took place at the foot of the Tourmalet.  It was actually reenacted fifty years later with Christophe and the boy who operated the bellows.  But Christophe was not kicked out of The Race for accepting help, but rather given a token ten-minute penalty, later reduced to three minutes. He lost over four hours anyway, having to hike down the mountain carrying his bike and then performing the repair in a blacksmith's shop, so the penalty hardly mattered.  Every history of The Tour writes of this incident.  Some get the time penalty wrong, but few get it as wrong as Bacon did.

Otherwise I am happy to report I detected no other gaffes, not even from Abt, the American who came late to the sport and whose many books are notoriously marred with mistakes, from getting the number of Monuments wrong to misplacing Herni Desgrange's Monument. These Anthologies belong on the bookshelf of any devotee of the sport.  It is heartening to know that many others feel the same and that they are being compiled at a rate of more than one per year.  I am eager to get on to the next four and all those that come after.

No comments: