One must confess, dear reader, to being confused as to the motivation behind Mark Cavendish’s book ‘At Speed: My Life in the Fast Lane’ (a big thanks to VeloPress for the review copy). It is a compelling read – as far as cycling autobiographies go – that moves along as swiftly as its author, but still with an engaging narrative (perhaps helped in this department by the ghost writer, the excellent Daniel Friebe). It is not Cavendish’s flouting of tradition where the autobiography comes after retirement, to shine a light behind the scenes of the author’s career (see Charlie Wegelius, for example), or to offer a counter narrative for someone returning to the sport (see David Millar, for example), or to build an epic mythology for blatant self-aggrandizement (see Lance Armstrong, for example). No, there’s nothing wrong with writing the story as it unfolds; and Cavendish is a man in a hurry. What gives rise to confusion is the level of intimacy he’s prepared to share, his own emotional ups-and-downs for starters, but also his unvarnished views of everyone else in the sport. Perhaps it is testament to his talent that he does not need to ‘make nice’ with everyone in cycling while he is still active in the sport. It is hard not to read the book accompanied by the smoke from bridges being burned. We fans are not deserving of such intimate revelations, so why make them? It is possible that Cavendish wishes to control the narrative of his career right here and now, while he has the opportunity. But whether he actually needs to do so, or to do so in this way (even if we as readers get to enjoy all the details), is another question indeed.
It is difficult not to be sympathetic with the view of the writer Adam Gopnick, who has said: “Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.” Success in sports is not heroic, but the dedicated application and refinement of talent (with a dose of luck thrown in). Sportsmen and women compete in environments that we create for them, primarily to give them an arena for their success. There is tragedy and triumph, and dramatic tales of overcoming the odds or crippling setbacks. But heroic? No. Still, we have a need for heroes (a point made by Juliet Macur in her excellent Armstrong bio ‘Cycle of Lies’, which prompted your author’s thinking about this) and sports achievers are often the recipients of our need. But times have changed in the presentation of sporting heroes. It used to be the case that they were cloaked in mythology – their exploits and talents at a far remove, their true natures hidden in mystery. What they achieved seemed larger and grander because we did not know them; they could be the embodiment of whatever hopes and dreams (and fears) we wanted them to be. And the sporting media sold them as such. Now, with social media and autobiographies like Cavendish’s, there are few mysteries. The breakdown at Team Sky during the 2012 Tour? Forget Machiavellian plots, it was because ‘some people’ would not take the empty pods out of the Nespresso machine, Cavendish informs us. Primadonnas squabbling over coffee is not the stuff of heroic tales.
Cyclists may not be good heroes, but many are interesting in and of themselves (Cavendish is, for a number of reasons). For your author, one such rider is Robert Millar. The Scottish climber was one of the best grimpeurs of his era, winning a number of Tour stages and taking the climbing competition in all three grand tours, among other victories. He was the consummate cycling insider, toughing it out in France as a neo-pro before big team glory, but also something of the outsider, revelling in being different. (As such, he is a popular rider to identify with as we all like the idea of belonging to something larger but also expressing our individuality.) Clearly enormously talented, with a ferocious work ethic, in his accounts of his riding days he always sounds surprised to be in the company of the ‘greats’, even though he was one himself. Perhaps he did not see himself as a natural, like Hinault, Fignon or LeMond. Indeed, watching the (very, very dated and mostly terrible) documentary ‘The High Life’ about him, one is struck by Millar’s climbing style – the twitching left knee, for example – which is brutally effective but not entirely elegant.* Unlike Contador, who climbs like he does belong in some Homeric cycling myth, Millar looks like what we think ourselves to look like. In short, he does not seem that far away from us on the bike – even though he really (really!) is. Cycling ‘heroes’ today are not the ethereal Coppis and Merckxs of a bygone area, the cycling gods; they are just like us, only better, and with our pro replica bikes and kit and Strava accounts and personal coaches and diet plans we can be just like them and follow their every move via social media. Riders like Millar fit the in between perfectly: unknowable enough that they can reflect our own perceptions of the heroic back at us; yet real enough that their achievements do not seem to be entirely of another world.
* Riders in the mid-80s generally pushed bigger gears. Millar would have had a 42 inner chain ring, although he apparently experimented with a special 41t ring from Campagnolo. With a 24 as (likely) his largest in the back for pure mountain stages (a 23 was popular during this era, too) his easiest climbing gear would have been equivalent to a 39×22. A 41t would have made it equivalent to a 39×23, a pretty common gear for racers nowadays (although you would expect to see a 25 or bigger used in Tour mountain stages). A 42×23 combination is just slightly ‘easier’ than a 39×21. With a 24 top sprocket, a 22 was probably the next one down, a little ‘harder’ than a 39×21. You can see in video footage that there was more mashing than spinning in that era and on average they were probably pushing ratios about 10% harder than today.