Thursday, March 24, 2016

"The Monuments" by Peter Cossins

With Milan-Sanremo this past weekend, the first of the five races, all established over one hundred years ago, known as Monuments, it was appropriate that I discovered the book "The Monuments" by Peter Cossins at the local Barnes and Noble.  If this were Europe, it would have been on prominent display with all cycling fans excited about the coming month of the four spring-time Momuments, but here it was buried on the shelf of cycling books, not even turned out, as was a biography on Mark Cavendish, to attract extra attention.  

I dove right in, but with some trepidation after noticing the back cover said only two riders had won all five Momuments, when it was actually three--Eddie Merckx, of course, and his fellow Belgians Rik Van Looy and Roger De Vlaeminck.  Cossins couldn't possibly have gotten that wrong.  He's been covering cycling since 1993 and served as editor of "Procycling" for three years and written books on The Tour de France and L'Alpe d'Huez.  His French is fluent enough to have translated Christopher Basson's "Clean Break" into English.  

Fortunately, that error was a false alarm and his vast and intimate knowledge of cycling history only had a handful of minor lapses--such as referring to Raymond Poulidor as "Jacques," calling The Tour de France a "22-day soap opera," (it is generally 21 stages over 23 days), saying Les Woodland was a long-time Belgian resident, (this English journalist has long resided in France near Toulouse), Lapize yelled "Assassins" at Tour officials as he crossed the summit of the Tourmalet in the 1910 Tour (it was the Aubisque).

Entire books have been written on each of these five races (Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia), so his biggest challenge was to make his coverage concise.  That didn't prevent him however from filling the book with repeated asides regarding the protagonists of these races, such as Rik Van Steenbergen starring in a porn film two years after he retired, failing to save much of his vast earnings.  He can't help but mention incidents from The Tour de France and The Giro d'Italia as well, all enriching the book though not necessarily relating to its central topic.

He writes about the races not in the order of their placement on the calendar, but rather in the order of which they were established, beginning with Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1896 and finishing up with the Tour of Flanders in 1913.  After the history of one race up to its 2013 edition, he starts all over with the next race.  Each race had its era of Merckx, who won nineteen of them, far more than any other racer.  He doles out ancillary Merckx biography in each of the five chapters. It flows well enough, that rarely was I wondering why did he choose to include this here and not elsewhere, such as his crash at the Blois velodrome.  Any connoisseur of the sport will appreciate all the lore he manages to weave into his narrative.  It's understandable that his intense research would uncover tidbits that he couldn't help sharing.

Rather than cluttering the book with footnotes, he just mentions in his text the book or newspaper or magazine article that was his source for some fact. As one would expect, "L'Equipe" led all with over twenty-five references.  He also quotes various journalists, such as Woodland.  One could well imagine the fun he had researching these races going back reading the coverage of them.

He comments on how ardently fans supported their favorites in the early days of these races, especially the Italians at their end of the season Monument in Lombardy.  They were known to hinder and even assault rival riders. Spreading nails and tacks on the roads wasn't uncommon.  The Italians too were notorious for giving pushes.  

They so flagrantly pushed Fiorenzo Magni, three-time winner of Flanders, in the 1948 Giro that Fausto Coppi quit the race in disgust, infuriating all his fans.  Magni went on to win that Giro along with two others, but he was booed  mercilessly at the awards ceremony in Milan.  He was brought to tears and needed a police escort from the Vigorelli velodrome.  The velodrome was the site of mass tears in 1971 when police fired tear gas to bring calm to a Led Zepplin concert, another example of Cossins expanding the scope of his book beyond the Monuments.

He cites more than a dozen cases of tears.  Some are well-documented, such as Paolo Bettini crossing the finish line in tears ahead of everyone else at Lombardy in 2006 just days after the death of his brother in a car accident.  It is one of the photos included in the book.  Equally renowned are the tears of Johan Museew after winning the 2000 Paris-Roubaix two years after nearly losing his leg from an infection he picked up after crashing and breaking his leg in that year's Roubaix.

Stephen Roche confessed that the only time he cried after a race was being nipped by Moreno Argentine in the 1987 Liege-Bastogne-Liege when he thought he was going to win it. Coppi sobbed after losing the 1956 Lombardy to Magni. Louison Bobet gave a tearful interview in his hotel room after a close loss in the 1952 Flanders due to a puncture.

Cossins cites a case of suspected tears from Van Looy after winning the 1962 Paris-Roubaix, his second.  It meant a lot to him, and it appeared as if he was in tears as he finished.  He was an arch-stoic, and refused to admit to the tears.  Many thought otherwise,  as he was unusually talkative with the press afterwards, "underlining the height of his emotions."

Cossins fully recognizes the significance of tears, not only as an indicator of grief and exaltation, but also the depth of one's emotional investment.  He recounted the tears of Frank Vandenbrouke as a five-year old.  He didn't cry when a rally car crashed into him and broke his leg.  But when a doctor took a pair of scissors to his cycling shorts, he burst into tears, distraught that he was about to lose the treasured emblem that identified him as a cyclist.  The anecdote didn't have much to do with the Monuments, but it had everything to do with the stature of cycling on the other side of the pond, and that shines brightly from start to finish as the underlying thrust of the book.

No comments: