In 1959, Ernest Hemingway returned to Spain to cover the summer bullfighting season for Life magazine. The extend account of his trip was later published as the book The Dangerous Summer. For Hemingway, the 1950s were a period of nostalgia. After the acclaim for The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway was somewhat adrift with his writing and would return to old themes and haunts. There was time spent in Paris on research as well as an African safari, which resulted in A Moveable Feast and True At First Light, both published after his death in 1961.
This period started with Spain in 1953, Hemingway’s first visit to the country since the Civil War (perhaps a low point for his personal conduct but a high point for his writing as it was the genesis of For Whom the Bell Tolls). He introduced his wife Mary to everything to do with bullfighting and met the talented young matador, Antonio Ordoñez, the son of Niño de la Palma who was the inspiration for Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. Then it was on to Africa for their safari. The trip ended in disaster with two plane crashes and a fire that saw Hemingway badly injured with external and internal injuries. Rehabilitation would be long and slow and his physical and writing powers suffered as a result.
For the 1959 trip, Hemingway chronicled the rivalry between Ordoñez and the fresh-out-of-retirement Luis Miguel Dominguín, a famous matador in Spain looking to reclaim former glories and, to make things more interesting, Ordoñez’s brother-in-law. Hemingway had been a long time away from both Spain and bullfighting prior to this period and was reluctant is some ways to be back. He lamented the way the bulls’ horns were shaved, as well as other practices, that were not the same as ‘back in the day’ in the 20s and 30s when he fell in love with bullfighting (although at least the horses were now given some protection, rather than being routinely gored). As Hemingway noted: “So, for many reasons, especially the fact that I had grown away from spectator sports, I had lost much of my old feeling for the bullfight. But a new generation of fighters had grown up and I was anxious to see them.”
Hemingway soon got into the spirit of the adventure and become a trusted confident of the younger Ordoñez, the sort of role that he relished. He was in the thick of the action and was as well having a grand old time reliving old memories and being feted as a “local boy makes good”. He even returned in 1960 to follow Ordoñez again for the season. Still, in the end, he was reluctant to have the book published and worried that the additional material beyond the Life magazine serialized parts was tired and showed his own fatigue.
Perhaps, then, Hemingway should have written about the 1959 Tour de France instead. In Paris in the 1920s, as a young man on his overseas adventure, Hemingway was an ardent fan of cycling, not just of track racing but also road racing. “Hem[ingway] was mad about bicycle racing,” writes John Dos Passos in his memoir The Best Times and describes how Hemingway would don a striped jersey and do his best Tour de France impersonation on the boulevards. The six-day track races, particularly at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, were a favourite and, converted by Hemingway to “whatever mania he was encouraging at the time”, Dos Passos would join him in the gallery loaded with supplies. “Hem knew all the statistics and the names and lives of the riders.”
Hemingway warned Dos Passos off writing about cycle racing as he apparently intended to do it himself. Indeed, in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway notes, “I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the road.” Noting that all the terms were in French, making it hard to write about, and even though he was writing these words in the late 1950s long into his career, Hemingway still said that, “I must write the strange world of the six-day races and the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains.”
The 1959 Tour would have been the perfect occasion. There was the rivalry between Jacques Anquetil and Roger Rivière, the latter having bested Anquetil’s hour record on the track in 1957 (both had also ridden at the last six-day held at the Vélodrome d’Hiver on 7 November 1958 before it was demolished). Hemingway wrote in The Dangerous Summer that, “Bullfighting is worthless without rivalry. But with two great bullfighters it becomes a deadly rivalry. Because when one does something, and can do it regularly, that no one else can do and it is not trick but a deadly dangerous performance only made possible by nerves, judgement, courage and art and this one increases its deadliness steadily, then the other, if he has any temporary failure of nerves or of judgement, will be gravely wounded or killed if he tries to surpass it.” Anquetil and Rivière neutralized each other in the 1959 Tour. Anquetil stayed home in 1960 having just won the Giro (the first Frenchman to do so). It was Rivière’s chance for victory, but the Italian rider Gastone Nencini had learned to descend like no one else could do. Trying to follow him, and boosted by the painkiller Palfium, Rivière had such a failure of nerves or judgement and crashed into a ravine and broke his back. His Tour and career were over.
The Tours of 1959 and 1960 would have been perfect for Hemingway’s themes of rivalry and tragedy. The former even had a Spanish winner, Federico Bahamontes, about whom Pierry Chany in L’Equipe wrote: “On his good days he evokes the talented toreador. On his bad days a tramp crossing the bridge at Tage after a day’s labouring under the Castilian sun.” But despite his protestations in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway had long moved on from cycling. He could look back on the Paris years with nostalgia and his intentions in his 20s to write about the exotic new sports in his adopted locale, but he soon found other distractions that were to become his real passions: first bullfighting and then hunting and fishing. Cycling was long forgotten as youthful exuberance receded.
The Dangerous Summer contains some fine writing, but there was little life left in the subject matter and maybe Hemingway knew that as well. On the eve of the 1960s, who would want to read a tired account of a tired Old World ‘sport’ that was already looking increasingly contrived although enduringly gore-soaked. And we might have reason to believe that Hemingway was not as fond of road racing as he professed. In The Sun Always Rises, the road racers, all French and Belgian, are in San Sebastian for the Tour de Pays Basque. The main character, Jake Barnes, is skeptical of their motives: “They did not take the race seriously except among themselves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged.” Was Hemingway derogatory towards the corruption or just pointing it out? Did he think that it was all just a fix? Nonetheless, whatever his true views, the rivalries and the tragedies and the “marvels” of road racing were not enough to tempt Hemingway to finish any of those stories.
One of the themes in Hemingway’s stories is that the hero (or anti-hero, the flawed version of the typical hero) is one individual caught up in events beyond his control; larger forces are at play, which limits what the hero can do. We might see an analogy to cycling. In Argyle Armada, author Mark Johnson explores some of the current issues that riders face in the sport. The main challenge is protecting and advancing their interests (including safety and financial security) against the established fiefdoms of the UCI and the ASO. In most cases, because they do not have a unified voice, they are easy to divide and rule by the powers-that-be. In particular, over the issue of race radios, the UCI was particularly heavy handed, blaming the riders for a legacy of doping – ignoring all other contributing factors – and even directly warning team sponsors over the commercial implications of a possible boycott of the Tour of Beijing.
While conditions have improved dramatically since the post-war Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s (not so golden when you look back on it, though), the riders – who are the heroes of the sport – are still easily exploited by the sport’s governors. In many cases they only have their tenacity and courage to see them through. In the Vuelta in 2011, Johnson describes the horrific crash by Sep Vanmarcke that saw him end up 40 metres down the side of the road; it took him 10 minutes to crawl back up and get onto his bike to continue. “I had a lot of pain,” he tells Johnson, “and mentally I was totally broken.” He fights his way back to the stragglers in the peloton. “At this moment you just realize what you survived,” said the 23-year old. “I started crying for two hours. I couldn’t stop.” On stage 15, with the Angliru climb, Johan Vansummeren crashes into some road furniture. Covered in blood, ignoring pleas from the Vuelta doctor to get into an ambulance, and with an ice pack down his shorts to try to prevent further damage to his testicles, he continues and finishes the stage; stitches are later required to his elbow (the state of his testicles is not described). As Johnson writes, “he looked more like a soldier who stepped out of Spain’s horrifying Civil War than an elite athlete.” Hemingway would have surely approved of their courage and their predicament; tough men in a tough sport, always at the mercy of the greater powers that exploit their resolve for their own ends, but who stick with it for their own personal motives of glory and meaning.
But what does it all matter? As Dave Zabriskie is later quoted saying of the issues facing riders in cycling, “There are so many other big problems in the world that that’s a comical problem.” Those who are at the mercy of others in imbalanced power relationships continue on as best they can, finding opportunities to show their tenacity. The riders must take some solace that the fans are on their side, even if the fans have little opportunity to change the sport for the better.
First published April 18, 2012