Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"The Yellow Jersey Club," by Edward Pickering


When Edward Pickering, former editor of the defunct "Cyclesport," and present editor of "Procycling," was at a rare gathering of all the living winners of The Tour de France before the centennial 2003 Tour the idea came to him to write a book about this exclusive club. He recognized an aura of uniqueness among these men and wished to find what it was that made them so exemplary.  At last, nearly fifteen years later he has written that book.

His initial plan was to profile each of them, delving into their psyches, seeking that magic ingredient that made them the winners they were.  When he finally got around to writing the book, he narrowed his focus to the twenty-one winners dead and alive, (including Lance Armstrong), since the Merckx era, beginning with Bernard Thevenet in 1975.  Twenty-one was a handy number, as it is the number of stages in the modern Tour.  It allowed him to eliminate Eddie Merckx, who could have taken up half his book, and such elders as Roger Walkowiak and Fredy Kubler, whose memories were fading, and have since died since the book's publication.

His stated goal, as indicated by his subtitle, of getting "inside the minds of the Tour de France winners," suggests that he would seek each of them out, preferably in their homes, and have a relaxed, wide-ranging conversation truly getting to know them, such as Richard Moore has done in his exceptional books, "Slaying the Badger" and "√Čtape."  Instead, he relies mostly on books and magazine articles and his personal memories. He only interviewed eight of his subjects specifically for this book (Thevenet, Van Impe, Zoetemelk, LeMond, Roche, Delgado, Riis and Schleck), though he had interviewed most of them over the years,

One explanation for not relying on new interviews is that two of the twenty-one are deceased--Marco Pantani and Laurent Fignon.  He includes off-handed mentions of his encounters with some of them, such as playing a round of golf with Fignon, even though it was under the stipulation that cycling would not be discussed.   He revealed that his interview with Andy Schleck was over the phone.  He doesn't say where he interviewed Greg LeMond, just that it was very lengthy and that he went on for thirty-nine minutes to his seventh question, though he doesn't say what it was. He gave him so much material, his chapter was by far the longest in the book, the only one over twenty pages and more than twice as long as several of the chapters.  

In his quest to determine what was special about the riders, he fails to discern any common trait, other than perhaps good fortune, as can be especially applied to Schleck and Oscar Pereiro, who both gained admittance to The Yellow Jersey Club when the actual winner of The Race they won was disqualified (Alberto Contador in Schleck's case and  Floyd Landis for Pereiro).  He hypothesizes that if Joop Zoetemelk had had better fortune he would have won more than one Tour, as he finished second six times, more than anyone.  

He speculates LeMond might have won six Tours if he hadn't been shot by his brother-in-law or been held back in 1985 in deference to his teammate Bernard Hinault. He suggests, too, that he might not have won any, as his three wins were all highly contested and much in doubt.  In his 1989 eight-second win over Fignon, one of the rare Tours decided on the last stage, he and Fignon battled so hard there were nine stages where one or the other finished in a different group, gaining or losing time, unlike present times where those battling for the GC generally stick to one another.  But the 1987 Tour was even more hotly contested with the first and second placed riders, Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado, putting time into the other fifteen times.

The book is laced with such revealing insights that only someone with Pickering's fanaticism would be attuned to. He observes that during Indurain's string of five Tour wins, there was a different runner-up each time in contrast to the era of Lance with Jan Ullrich his chief rival finishing second three times.  Ullrich had two other second places, behind Riis and Pantani.  He also points out that Delgado had more top ten finishes in Grand Tours than anyone with eighteen, ahead of Merckx and Sastre, who had fifteen.  Delgado was on the 1989 Tour podium with LeMond and Fignon,  the only one in history that included the winners of the three Grand Tours that year--The Tour winner (LeMond), Giro winner (Fignon) and Vuelta winner (Delgado).

Pickering doesn't much play psychologist to understand what makes The Tour winners tick, but rather concentrates on recounting their Tour victories, something he could do in his sleep.  It's always enjoyable to relive these yearly seminal events, but Pickering doesn't cover much new ground.  He just packages it in a different manner.  The book has no index or even a bibliography, though he references over thirty books, mostly sugar-coated autobiographies including Armstrong's second, but also a Julian Barnes collection of essays and a Hinault book on racing technique and training.

He also studies YouTube footage and various photos to gain an understanding of the riders.  He comments that Van Impe was one of the few riders to look good in the polka-dot jersey and that  Indurain at 22 in a "Winning" magazine photo was indistinguishable from photos of him years later when he began winning The Tour.  Indurain was such a stoic he could easily camouflage his suffering in a race.  Suffering is a common thread in his profiles.  According to George Hincapie, Cadel Evans could suffer more than any other rider.  Schleck's teammate Karsten Kroon said much the same of him, that "He could hurt himself so bad that you cannot imagine."  "L'Equipe" appraised Pantani as a man "forged in suffering."

Pickering summed up Pantani as a man who made others happy, though he wasn't.  LeMond was such a happy winner, as personified in the 1989 podium photo,  Pickering wished he had won more often.  LeMond was as exultant as one could be, while Fignon was wet-eyed and in the depths of despair.  That was one of seven cases of tears or near tears that Pickering cites.  He observed that Evans, in contrast to the typical laid-back Australia, often seemed on the verge of tears.  When he finally won The Tour he avoided the distinction of being the only rider in history to twice finish within a minute of winning it without ever having accomplished it.

Two of the cases of tears go back to when Riis and Delgado were youths.  Riis' father coached him and was so demanding he'd reduce him to tears.  Delgado's sister says that her brother was so small and timid as a boy he was teased and driven to tears.  Tyler Hamilton wrote in his book that Armstrong beat up some driver who had shouted at them on a training ride, hurting him so bad that he cried. Pickering also mentions Virenque's sobs of denial of drug taking after his Festina team was evicted from the 1998 Tour.  

Hinault was known as the toughest of the tough, not one prone to tears, but Pickering suggests that he may have been in tears in the 1979 Tour when, as defending champion, he suffered a puncture with ten kilometers to go on the ninth stage through the cobbles of northern France and entered the Roubaix velodrome 3:45 behind the stage winner and 3:26 behind Zoetemelk, putting him two minutes behind Zoetemelk in the overall.   But he overcame his bad luck and went on to win his second of five Tours.

Besides the questionable impugning of Hinault with tears, Pickering also offers an alternate version of Merckx being punched in the kidneys on the Puy de Dome in the 1975 Tour he lost to Thevenet.  It is generally regarded as an intentional act.  Pickering says it might have been accidental, though Merckx was incensed enough to turn around from the finish and find the perpetrator, who was arrested and fined for the act.

There are occasional reports in recent years of racers being spat upon and having urine tossed on them, but not being hit.  Another difference is the penalty for drug taking.  Zoetemelk was merely penalized ten minutes in the 1979 Tour for testing positive on the last stage.  He still finished second in the overall, but by thirteen rather than three minutes, behind Hinault.  Now he would be suspended for a year or two.

Riders had a greater reverence for those who came before them.  Thevenet said that when he met Louisson Bobet, his childhood hero and three-time winner of The Tour, before the Bastille Day stage in the 1975 Tour, "It was like meeting God."  Bradley Wiggins idolized Indurain when he was growing up, but he would never call him God. The godliness of the greats hadn't totally worn off a generation after Thevenet, as Paul Kimmage described Hinault as having "a sort of godlike aura."

Pickering manages to insert many meaningful insights that make this book well worth reading.  He doesn't plumb the psyches of the riders he is profiling, as Philippe Brunel does in his classic "An Intimate Portrait of the Tour de France (Masters and Slaves of the Road)," as it is more reportorial than analytical, but he does manage to find the crux of each rider. 

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