Bikes, books, and…

Having just watched the highlights of Ivan Basso’s win on the Zoncolan at the Giro on Gazetta TV, eschewing the early start that full coverage of the stage would have required, it is hard to remember a time when pro cycling coverage was not immediately accessible in all its live action, full-colour glory. The expectations of fans are now that coverage will be immediate, continuously updated, and – of course – free. Race coverage will be live, results available within minutes, pictures posted, and breaking news (like a Floyd Landis doping confession, for example) will be instantaneously covered and analyzed.

It was not that long ago (well, maybe a while, actually), before high-speed internet and before vast teams of on-the-spot reporters and bloggers, and before obliging European media outlets posting live videos, that the humble printer word – on paper no less – was the primary means for many fans outside Europe to get their cycling coverage. No more pouring over backdated and hard-tog-get newspapers and magazines, or off-peak and truncated television coverage. How times have changed: for the better!

Print coverage of racing is now well and truly need. By the time a magazine hits the newsstand, the internet has had the event well and truly covered and fully documented. But there remains plenty of room for long and well-considered analytical articles, that are not under time pressure, that can be checked and double-checked, and that can offer insights as well as commentary.

And they can tell a story. Cycling journalism has a long and illustrious heritage, even in English, and reflecting back on that heritage is still a satisfying way to immerse oneself in the history of cycling.

Regular readers of this blog will know that one of this author’s favourite writers is Samuel Abt. A correspondent for the International Herald Tribune since 1977 (now semi-retired), Abt covered the Tour de France and European cycling for a substantial portion of his career and left us with a number of books from the 80s and 90s that provide a fascinating glimpse into cycling during that time.

Break 1
A great place to start with the history of the Tour.

As well, though, Abt strove to elevate cycling journalism to a literary form. A traditional style of reporter, Abt the writer never appears in the narrative – unlike the creative non-fiction that has become popular today (often to the detriment of the narrative). He his the narrator of the story, the chronicler of events and of dialogue. Abt moved to France in 1971 and, like Ernest Hemingway (whose quotes pepper his early writings), immersed himself in local culture; Abt the writer knows his way around the country, the language, and the food, and writes as an insider – part of the cycling scene – rather than the freshly-landed Anglophile struggling with driving directions and trying to find wi-fi.

Abt’s writing style is direct, but also evocative. His stories of the famous riders and the lesser-knowns alike transfix the reader and take them on a journey into the heart of European cycling, a sport that Abt clearly loves. His books are a treasure trove of stories, profiles, and action – inspiring stuff. His first published collection of columns from the Tribune is Breakaway: On the road with the Tour de France. It mostly covers the 1984 Tour, but opens with a flashback to the 1983 edition and Pascal Simon’s abandonment with a broken shoulder.

Far up the road, spectators had already jammed the switchback curves of L’Alpe-d’Huez. The police finally gave up trying to estimate the size of the crowd and could only say it was many more than the usual 300,000 to 400,000 who waited each year for the bicycle riders in the Tour de France to climb to the peak. This Sunday morning in July, while the sun burned off traces of fog in the valley and melted a bit of the glaciers permanently atop the French Alps, the crowd was waiting for one rider. “Allez Simon,” the banners said. By then it was over.

Far down the road, on the Chapelle-Blanche hill, precisely at kilometre 95 of the day’s 223-kilometre stage, Pascal Simon had ended his race. The television motorcycle that had been hovering for a week let millions of Frenchmen watch as Simon tried to climb the hill, grimacing with the pain of a left shoulder blade broken in a fall. He had strength in one arm only, and his unbalanced bicycle wobbled; the other riders stood on the pedals and put their weight forward on their shoulders as they thrust, but Simon had to remain seated… Simon’s pain was obvious as he laboured up the hill. Sweat illuminated his face and darkened the back of his yellow jersey, the symbol that Simon led the Tour de France.

In tribute to the place that books have in cycling’s history and its ongoing coverage, your author and Richard from CyclingArt have teamed up to start a series of podcasts. Titled ‘Bikes, Books & Beers’ the podcasts combine our interest in the written word of cycling, with some appropriate libations to encourage the conversation. Abt’s book Breakaway features on the first instalment and subsequent editions will (and have) cover other great books as well as some well-deserved beverages.

Bikes, Books & Beers. Enjoy!

Fig 83
Laurent Fignon took over the yellow jersey to win the ’83 Tour.