On writing

In an interview for the Paris Review on the art of fiction, Ernest Hemingway noted: “Trying to write something of permanent value is a full-time job even though only a few hours a day are spent on the actual writing. A writer can be compared to a well. There are as many kinds of wells as there are writers. The important thing is to have good water in the well, and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill.”

Regular readers of this blog will know that its author is a fan of the old school cycling writers – Samuel Abt, Geoffrey Nicholson, Robin Magowan, and David Walsh. All were pioneers in the English language coverage of professional cycling in Europe. Their writing betrayed their deep passion for the sport and was symptomatic of its time – newspaper columns and book-length features allowed for studied deliberation, even literary pretensions. As print journalists, they also had a monopoly on the written word and were not competing with news websites, blogs and twitter feeds.

As journalists, the style of the time was strictly along the lines of classic reporting, notably the third-person perspective. Consider this excerpt from Samuel Abt, covering the 18th stage of the Tour de France in 1984 from Alpe d’Huez to La Plagne: “Hinault was in trouble, reaching the top in fortieth place, 3 minutes 50 seconds behind the leaders, including Fignon, who was having another splendid day… In a car following the riders, all the cliches were uttered: The Pyrenees are lovely mountains, human in their scale, but the Alps are truly majestic, dominating, forcing man to feel insignificant.”

It is clear that the passengers in that are are the journalists themselves, Abt included, but they are background characters, their views and utterances adding colour to the story but not acting as pronouncements. Later, as the Tour continues through the Alps, the culinary experiences of the journalists are recounted, but again short on specifics and long on setting the scene: “When the Tour passes through, everybody turns out, eagerly awaiting the publicity caravan… Teenage girls wave at each car beseechingly, like some Cinderella hoping to flag down her prince… At a café a whole family has moved chairs to the side of the road, except for the children who are too excited to sit. The bar is deserted; the owner says, ‘Help yourself, pay later.’ …The local brasserie runs out of hot food as waves of visitors in press cars descend for lunch.”

In his biography of Sean Kelly, David Walsh follows the same template. During the 1984 season, he accompanies Kelly on a round of criterium races following the Tour, the important money-making races for the big stars. Walsh dutifully introduces his presence in the car – Kelly is also accompanied by his wife, Linda, and teammate Ronny Onghena, but does most of the driving himself – but quickly fades into the background. It is the dialogue of his companions, not his own, and the action that fills out the story: “[The] Kortenhoef [criterium] ended before five o’clock, Kelly was back in Brussels before nine and dropping his journalistic companion at the Gare du Nord for the nine-fifteen train back to Paris. The Gare du Nord in Brussels is located in one of the city’s most sleazy quarters with ladies of the night glaring indiscreetly from giant windows. Helping to remove his passenger’s luggage from the boot, Kelly took a sideways glance and said, ‘At least if you miss that Paris train you’ll not be short of something to do around here.’ He smiled but not with the warmth of one at ease. It was the vague expression of a man not naturally inclined to sentimental farewells.” Walsh’s own reply is not recorded.

The new wave

We might see this old style of writing as ‘creative non-fiction’ in that it uses literary devices in a non-fiction setting, but this genre has only recently been defined and seems more applicable to the new wave of writing on cycling, which often has more in common with the memoir, a sub-genre of creative non-fiction. The fundamental change has been the introduction of the author as a key player in the narrative – a full-blown character in the story. For example, in Bill Strickland’s book, Tour de Lance, Strickland has met up with Chris Carmichael: “I looked at him there in the lobby and said, ‘I understand you’re about to get fat again.’ Carmichael shook his head no, puzzled. I didn’t say anything else. I just watched his face and waited for him to unlock the coded meaning of what any bystander would have heard as nothing more than a lame bit of joking. Finally he squinted at me, harder and took a step back, and gave a tentative smile. ‘Where’d you hear that?’ he asked… I shrugged, which was no answer, and, in a way, more telling than any answer I could have given him. He knew that I knew. I knew what just might have been one of the biggest secrets in sports at the time.”

The secret was, of course, Lance Armstrong’s comeback. Strickland had heard it from Johan Bruyneel, when co-authoring their book together. (And as Strickland delights in telling the reader, he also learned a lot of other secrets about the pro peloton that he is unable or unwilling to share.)

Strickland’s book is worth mentioning as an example because in it he is as much of a character as Armstrong is; it is as much about Strickland writing the story – a memoir of his journey, physically and intellectually – as it is about Armstrong’s comeback. This is both interesting and problematic. Firstly, we are privy to Strickland’s insights and musings, a notable addition to the text. Secondly, though, these can become a distraction and a focal point; it is not the action that is always driving the story, but the author’s own inner monologue.

The balance between interesting and problematic is a tricky one. Mike Magnuson, a regular contributor to Bicycling magazine, had his story on Greg LeMond selected for The Best American Sports Writing 2010 anthology, (a collection that also features a story about Jock Boyer by Steve Friedman; that’s quite a coup for cycling writing; whatever one might think about Bicycling’s general editorial policies, it is still a repository for great writing). A casual cycling fan might find the inclusion of the following in a story ostensibly about Greg LeMond to be perplexing: “For years I had more or less done nothing with my life but ride my bicycles or work on my bicycles or read books about riding or books about working on bicycles, and I certainly had gotten much out of the lifestyle, the kind of benefits any cyclist knows so well. Then for reasons that I can only begin to approach by saying I had lost my mind, I had betrayed my wife and taken up with a mistress who was overweight, smoked heavily, was in her mid-20s, considerably younger than me, and had been a student in a class I’d taught the previous spring.”

And that is not Greg LeMond that Magnuson is talking about, of course, but himself. His story is his life filtered through his relationship – as a fan and a working journalist – with LeMond. This makes for some compelling writing, particularly for those who have read Magnuson’s previous articles, or his (great) book, Heft on Wheels. But it is not going to work for every reader, particularly one who wants to know what actually happened to Greg LeMond, not what happened to the author and LeMond.

In a Samuel Abt book, one’s enjoyment of it will depend on two factors: the subject (the events and the characters), and the description of the subject – the style of the writing. The first is probably a given, for cycling fans interested in the races and the riders; the second is the variable. To return to the example of Tour de Lance, this means that one’s enjoyment of the book will also depend on a third factor: whether one enjoys the addition of another character – the author.

In this case, dear reader, I was initially skeptical of this book. As a regular consumer of the memoir-style creative non-fiction story, cycling and otherwise (there are many such titles available at present, it would seem), one finds one’s tolerance of many authors’ musings to be somewhat low. Add in the subject (Armstrong – did we really need another book; was there anything about his comeback that hadn’t been editorialized, serialized, blogged or tweeted about?), and the initial prognosis was not looking good. But Strickland is a superb writer. He descriptions of the race action, such as Armstrong in Monaco for the Tour that opens the book (“Here he is. Lance Armstrong. And there he goes: a blue-and-yellow-and-white figure on a black-and-yellow bike streaking over the gray surface of the road in Monaco late on a summer morning, the sun’s yellow pale in comparison to the shoulder of his jersey, the sky’s blue like nothing more than the original idea for the magnificent tones that wrap around his back and legs.”), or at the Giro are as good as anything put into print about the sport. For this reason, the book itself is excellent – the writing trumps any reservations about the subject or the take-it-or-leave-it author’s narrative of his own journey.

The critic

These days, there are plenty of critics. At their best they add to the coverage and the debate; at their worst, they are what Jonathan Vaughters recently lamented as the “the chattering, anonymous fans hurling comments and critiques.” The purpose of this post is twofold. Firstly, to outline how writing about cycling has evolved; indeed, it has followed the styles of the times. This evolution has not necessarily been negative: it all depends on the reader. There are many writers and many wells, but the water they draw from them will not be to everyone’s taste. (Although, as noted, a good writing style can trump all.)  We are now saturated with coverage from all manner of sources, and one cannot help but think that the well can get pumped pretty dry on the particular aspect of cycling that is being covered at the time. We expect a more engaged and opinionated author – with strong views to provide a counterpoint to our own. If it is a certain romanticism that has been lost, perhaps that is indeed symptomatic of our times. We may not wish to lament it, but to simply note that it has passed.

Secondly, this blog has always endeavoured to provide a detached and objective view of the various topics it has covered, as much in the style of the old-school journalists as a decided amateur can accomplish. As time permits, this blog hopes to continue to do the same, but to also branch out a little and provide some slightly different coverage to what regular readers will be familiar with. A little freshening up for spring, perhaps. One hopes, therefore, faithful reader, that you will humour this branching out and find some small satisfaction in the change of style and pace. Watch this space.

In the interim, in the humble view of your scribe, it is hard not to think that Samuel Abt followed Hemingway’s advice on writing to the letter: good water in his well and taken out in regular amounts. Abt was always on the lookout for the human side of cycling, the forgotten and struggling lesser riders, labouring in the shadows of the stars. He also clearly relished being among the locals, and many of his columns feature vignettes involving spectators along the route, such as in this excerpt from Off to the Races in 1986.

The cynical Monsieur Dupont locked his country post office, slipped into his government-issued blue overcoat with gold buttons and drove to the highest hill overlooking the village of Vaudebarrier.

“It’s a fraud and a cheat – no question about that,” he announced to somebody already atop the hill, peering down the valley to catch sight of the pack in Paris-Nice. “I know, we all know, that races are being bought and sold,” Monsieur Dupont continued. “You see it now even in the Tour de France. Money talks and everybody listens.” He rubbed his thumb over his first two fingers in the universal gesture.

Then why was he standing on the edge of a stubbled cornfield on a cold day in March, waiting for Paris-Nice to stream by? “It’s a cheat and fraud,” Monsieur Dupont explained, “but it’s spring.” Yes it was.

Reading Abt’s writing is like a restorative tonic. It is a reminder that professional cycling will endure yet another scandal because we fans will continue to line the roads whenever we can. Your author can only hope that we readers will continue to be well served by cycling writers – current writing fads aside, perhaps – who will continue to nourish our enjoyment of the sport in ways that a regular diet of websites, blogs and twitter feeds cannot.

Even the most enthusiastic can get jaded from time-to-time. But as Abt writes in the following excerpt from his book Up the Road,  the Tour can still move even an ill-at-ease old writer (who is never identified, although his identity is hardly in doubt, as Abt still stays close to his journalistic style even when allowing his own views to creep into his narrative).

An American who began living in France more than two decades ago as a Francophile (don’t they all?), and over the years believed he had become a Francophobe (don’t they all?) was having dinner in Rouen and, as he ate his was through the cheese course, was thinking about what those years had taught him.

For one thing, he had learned how to eat cheese. Since this was Normandy, he selected Pont l’Eveque, Livarot, and Camembert, three regional cheeses made within a few miles of each other, all soft and covered with crust. With Pont l’Eveque and Livarot, those many years had taught him, the crust is cut away; with Camembert, the crust is eaten. Get that wrong, the French snicker at you. They snicker at you anyway, he told himself.

Abt goes on to describe how this American is lamenting the weather, the poor state of his hotel, and the sudden intrusion of a bus load of elderly customers into the restaurant. But then he recognizes a familiar voice, a former official from the Tour that had “ordered people in cars – the press (this very fellow, for one) – the clear the road for the riders”. An announcement is then made that the group is the former teammates of Jacques Anquetil, celebrating the great champion’s victory in the Tour forty years before.

The grouchy American lifted his glass and saluted the old men, who were too busy talking about the old days to notice. For them, the 1957 Tour was still rolling around the country in that summer’s heavy heat and Anquetil was preparing to don the first of his many yellow jerseys in Charleroi. They were rolling through the Alps, the old men, and then the Pyrenees, where their leader had faltered on the final 1,500 metres of the Aubisque and had to be helped up and over. And then, do you remember, two days later, Anquetil, looking fresh as a daisy, won the final time trial.

Listening to their stories, the fellow so down on things French only an hour before felt the old affection stir. It was hard, he decided, to dislike a country where the Tour de France in all its glory and colour could sweep right through a restaurant.


7 thoughts on “On writing

  1. This interests me. Currently reading David Foster Wallace who wrote about tennis as well as writing complex fictions – I was wondering if any fiction author had tackled competitive cycling? Abt sounds worth a read certainly.

  2. Chris,
    You should definitely read some Abt!
    Julian Barnes has a nice chapter on the Tour in his collection ‘Something to Declare’ as well as a Sean Kelly inspired short story in ‘Cross Channel’.
    Interestingly, Gabriel Garcia Marquez did some early writing on racing in Colombia, but I imagine that work would be near impossible to find nowadays.

  3. The timing of running across your blog (and this excellent post) couldn’t have been better. The off-season has hit with a thud and I’m compiling a list of books I need to read through the fall / winter. Thanks.

  4. Gerry,
    I’d also recommend Richard Moore’s latest book, Slaying the Badger. I’m sure you’ve seen it advertised. Well worth adding to the collection.

  5. Thanks, I just saw it as I was compiling my wish list on Amazon yesterday. Consider it added. On a side note, I just saw your Ventoux Triple page and am quite impressed. I live nearby and have climbed it 4 times this year (one at a time..), so I know a little of what I speak – it’s quite a feat.

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