Saturday, December 3, 2016

"The World of Cycling According to G"

G is Welsh cyclist Geraint Thomas.  He was a key member of Team Sky on each of Chris Froome's three Tour de France wins and was a teammate of Bradley Wiggins on the four-man British pursuit squad that won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics. He rode his first Tour de France in 2007 as a 21-year old and has only missed three since, but one of those was Wiggins' Tour win in 2012, as he was preparing for the Olympics, where he won another team pursuit gold medal.

These career highlights could easily have been the focus of his book "The World of Cycling According to G," but they receive scant mention.  Instead, Thomas concentrates on the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes life of a professiomal cyclist. It is narrated in an anecdotal, conversational style broken into short chapters, some devoted to people (Froome, Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, David Brailsford), some to places (Tenerife), and others to miscellania (how it is to return home after weeks away) and sundry aspects of the sport (Pain).

In this refreshingly casual "memoir" most of his insightful minor detail is devoted to life off the bike rather than in the peloton.  He reveals that so much of a professional cyclist's life is spent on the road in strange hotel rooms, he has developed the skill of finding light switches.  On those rare visits home after prolonged spells of hanging out with the guys, one must be wary of inadvertently calling a girl friend "mate."  It may imply a measure of intimacy among his teammates, but not for a loved one,"and they will let you know it," Thomas warns.

Food is a common theme.  He's not allowed too much of it, so it is always on his mind. Shedding weight and then keeping it off is a key component of his job.  He complains that he is always hungry, that he must eat like a ballerina.  He calls Team Sky's legendary two-week training camp in the Canary Islands staying at a barebones hotel without internet on the top of a mountain "a fortnight of pain and starvation."

Three of the four mentions of tears in the book relate to food--all of pleasure over a treat when he's allowed to break his monkish diet.  One is a simple jam tart, another is piadina.  The non-food instance of tears is Cavenish sobbing in his hotel room atop the Stelvio Pass after losing the points jersey in the Giro. Thomas never admits to tears of exhilaration over a great result.  After one of Froome's Tour wins, he was thrilled to be able to gorge on pizza at the team bus on the Champs Elysees.  Another of his fond memories was his pre-race dinner as a junior when his mum would go to a Chinese takeaway to fuel him up on barbecue ribs and egg-fried rice.  "What I'd give to be able to eat like that now," he laments.  The weeks preceding Christmas before training becomes one's sole focus is a reprieve from "small portions."

Food is the one subject where he divulges some of the secrets of the Team Sky regime.  They prefer rice to pasta, as it has less gluten and clears the stomach more easily.  The team also favors cherry juice, because of its high levels of antioxidants, but not just any cherry juice.  It prefers juice from Montmorency cherries, as they are slightly superior to others.  When it comes to yoghurt, Greek is the team's choice, as it is more natural and less processed. The team's protein drink has a special ingredient to clean one out, but Thomas doesn't reveal what it is, just that it can lead to issues with smells.  Nor does he divulge when in the day it is best to eat protein for your body to most effectively absorb it, just that Sky believes there is such a time.

Avoiding airline food is among the tips Thomas offers, as it is too salty and doesn't have enough nutrients.  He also advises to cut back on coffee intake in the weeks before a stage race so one's body will get a bigger kick from it when used during the race.  And he warns not to take a caffeine gel closer than twenty-five kilometers from a stage finish, otherwise it won't take effect until one's back on the team bus.  

He gives a detailed description of the luxury of the team bus, with individualized seats for all the riders, a ready stock of fresh rice, WIFI, a shower and a pair of washing machines, one for dark clothes and one for whites, that run twenty-four hours a day during a stage race.

There's not much gossip in the book.  He doesn't take sides in the Froome-Wiggins rivalry, avoiding the controversy of Wiggins being left off Team Sky for the 2013 Tour that began in Yorkshire, despite being the defending champion.  Wiggins is only one of three Tour champions never to ride it after winning it. The book has no index, so I had to make one of my own.  Froome is mentioned on twenty-one pages plus the six-page chapter devoted to him.  Wiggins appears on four more pages, but his chapter is one page less than Froome's.  Froome comes out ahead in the number of photos--three to two.  Thomas has nothing negative to say about Wiggins, but he does take a jab at Froome, saying he's from South Africa, then admitting that he knows he's from Kenya, but it's his retaliation for Froome referring to him as being English in his autobiography.
Thomas is proudly Welsh.  He compares the loudness of the Italian fans to the Welsh fans at Millennium Stadium when the Welsh team runs out to face England.  That was one of many rugby, soccer and cricket metaphors that I, as an American not so well versed in those sports, had to guess at.  They may have slightly hindered my understanding of what he was getting at, but they lent the book a little extra charm allowing Thomas to remain true to his voice and not condescend to a wider audience.  

I wouldn't want an American version sanitized of such expressions as "Crashing is as unavoidable to a cyclist as losing your wicket is to a Test batsman."  Nor would I want footnotes to explain "tackles that Welsh centre Jamie Roberts routinely soaks up," or "wind gust as effective as a Sam Warburton tackle," or Wiggins comparing his move from Garmin to Team Sky as like "going from Wigon to Manchester United." It was nice to have the the book peppered with "bloke," "chap," "telly," "arse," "sod it," "punters," "bollockings," "properly chuffed," "faffing about," and "too poosh to push."  They all added a measure of authenticity to the book and made me feel like I was getting a straight story.  

At thirty, a year younger than Froome, Thomas still has a few years in him at the top of the sport.  After nearly finishing on the podium in the 2015 Tour, there is still a possibility for that to happen.  Thomas doesn't bemoan his bad luck of suffering a crash in that Tour on Stage Sixteen that knocked him out of contention.  He only mentions that the crash was caused by the French rider Warren Barguil, who got the line wrong in the corner on a descent and blindsiding him.  But rather than taking him to task, he expresses gratitude for the fans who helped pull him back up from the ravine he had fallen into.  He seems to be a man without grudges or guile.  Such is the positive tone throughout the book.  He doesn't deny how hard racing is and all the sacrifices he must make and the suffering he must endure, but in the end he feels lucky, as all should, any time he can ride his bike.  

"Even when cycling is your job," he writes, "that sense of release when you climb on your bike and pedal away from the mundane real world is still the same...It wipes the mental slate clean. Two wheels and a triangle of metal to some, an escape chute to all us riders."  Cheers to that!

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