1. Taking part in local races is a satisfying experience. There is pleasure to be gained in the rituals of preparation – cleaning and maintenance of the bike, preparing drinks and snacks, checking the route and planning (usually imaginary) strategies. There is catching up with old acquaintances, making new ones, and seeing others’ new bikes and equipment and team kit. There is atmosphere to soak up and the small satisfaction of supporting the volunteers from the clubs who put on the races and who do so out of a love of the sport – whose only reward seems to be praise (tempered by inevitable criticism) from us racers.
Racing is also a humbling experience. You can have been carving it up on Strava, but riding in and against a larger group inevitably results in a realization that one’s condition is just not quite good enough. Even if you podium in your category, you know that the next ability level is much, much harder. It is a truism in cycling that you get out of it what you put in. That is, the most difficult ‘talent’ to develop for racing is endurance, simply because it takes time – a commodity we do not always have. Turning up for a 70+ kilometre race at tempo and threshold speed having ridden only shorter rides at such intensities will simply not be good enough.
That said, endurance is a simple talent to develop in theory. You just need to ride. Lots. So, keeping your expectations realistic when sitting on the start line is important. In some way, it is probably less frustrating to be dropped two laps from the finish, having not really been prepared for the race distance, than to have rocked up with a couple of thousand kilometres in your legs from the start of the year only to see things fall apart in the final half lap (for whatever reason).
2. Getting dropped is statistically the overwhelmingly likely outcome from any racing experience. It might happen early, late, or even at the end in the final sprint. But it will happen. One had better get used to it, although there will always be the post-race reflection on the moment of its occurrence (we take our racing seriously after all) and whether one could have just made a final dig to delay it happening.
Getting dropped in the sprint happens quickly, so it is difficult to reflect on it fully. But when it happens at a slower speed, there are those agonizing moments when the wheel you are following starts to slip away, the elastic stretches – as they say – before snapping. And even though just a few metres seems an easy gap to close, it inexorably becomes a chasm that is impossible to bridge. And you’re done.
Those with less experience tend to find getting dropped a frustrating experience, as if all the effort (and financial cost) of turning up and taking part has somehow been invalidated by being left behind. But getting dropped is the norm and investing it with too much emotional energy just leads to unwarranted disappointment. We are racing not for glory (okay, perhaps those upgrade points are important) but because we can and because racing in the bunch and following wheels and making attacks and pulling on the front and passing others on the climbs is, simply, all good fun.
Having been dropped, there is always the option of heading back to the car park and packing up to go home. But better to finish the race and clock your time to see how far down you were. ‘Race to train’ means that next time those extra endurance miles might push the moment of the elastic snapping until later in the race, perhaps even in the final sprint. Then one’s moment of self-reflection will not be on the quiet back straight as the bunch slips away but on the finishing sprint and those agonizing choices of when to go, which wheel to follow, the gear to choose, and whether just a bit more effort might have given one a spot on the podium.
3. Success on the bike cannot be bought or borrowed. It comes from talent and luck, from hard work, time and effort. We delude ourselves if we think our racing is anything more than it actually is. But it feels good to push oneself. And if there is a small slice of modest glory, it feels like a triumph over life’s normal routine.
There is also camaraderie and being part of a larger community gathering. And when, in future years, you see a former young local rider at the Tour de France racing as a professional, you can have some small satisfaction of thinking back to the local scene where they got their start, and how by participating in it and supporting it you played a tiny role in giving that rider the opportunity to progress. And if you are really, really lucky, maybe you will have a cool story to tell your friends about how you once followed their wheel.
Draw a horizontal line, for the sake of argument, and put ‘science’ at one end and ‘art’ at the other. Is pro cycle racing an art or a science? If you think it is more towards the former, then you might be Dave Brailsford of Team Sky, interested in numbers and percentages and VO2 maxes and watts at threshold. You are interested in form peaks and grand tour strategies. You respect riders who are clinical and measured, careful in their tactics and disciplined in the application of their talents. Racing is the serious application of physical talent and mental acumen. And it is all about the racing.
If you veer towards the latter, you might be writer Johnny Green. You see pro cycle racing as more of an art. You like flamboyant riders who put on a show, who are not interested in 450 watts of tempo climbing but want to attack and ignite a race. They are larger-than-life characters, on and off the bike, who are dynamic and engaging. They are not athletes but rock ‘n’ rollers.
Next, draw a vertical axis through the horizontal line and label one end ‘sport’ and the other end ‘business’. On this spectrum, if you favour the former you see pro cycling, and sport in general, as having redemptive moral qualities. It epitomizes dedication, hard work, sacrifice, teamwork, suffering and other character-building qualities. You watch it, and perhaps encourage young acquaintances to do the same, because it contains good life lessons, with ‘heroes’ worth emulating. This is the amateur ideal.
If you see pro cycling more as a business, then you regard pro sports as cut through with money. You understand that for pro riders that cycling is their job and that they need to earn money to support themselves. As such, you are more agnostic about the redemptive value of sport and see its practitioners more as well-paid entertainers than moral figures to be held in high esteem. You do not see suffering on a bike as a form of character enhancement, simply a job condition. You agree with writer Adam Gopnik, who penned: “Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.”
Finally, imagine a third axis (a 3-dimensional model) with ‘winning’ at one end and ‘spectacle’ at the other. If you are interested in the results of pro cycling then you favour strategies and tactics that result in winning. You think that winning should be justly rewarded as the ultimate incentive. You are dismayed when cheating – like dodgy deals or doping – skews the results and prevents the ‘real’ winner, the most talented rider, from claiming the race.
If you are more interested in the spectacle, then you are less interested in the race outcome. You want to be entertained. The results matter less than what unfolded on the road, how you were captivated or engrossed by the action, the spirit of the riders. You wonder why winning (see more below) is given such a high priority in terms of money and reward when all the riders are playing their part to put on the entertainment. You wonder what is distorted if someone does a deal on the road for a victory or pops some drugs to gain an advantage.
Where you position yourself in this model of different spectrums of cycling will say much about your views on a number of questions. Take doping, for example. If you are more towards the science-sport-winning quadrant then you see doping as distorting of talent and training, cheating and morally wrong, and a distortion of the fair play outcome of a race. If you are more towards art-business-spectacle then you might see doping as the fuel of creativity, an inevitable by-product of excess money, and the fuel of the spectacle: cheating, sure, but when were rules meant to be followed; hazardous, maybe, but less so than a 100 kph mountain decent on skinny tyres; morally damaging, but everyone is an adult making a free choice.
Or take the racing calendar, for example. If you are more in the science-sport-winning quadrant you might be more of a fan of traditional, old school races (or this may also apply to those on the ‘art’ side). Two-hundred kilometres Belgian classics and brutal grand tours are your fare, where the racing sorts out the ‘hard men’, those of superior strength and character who can win against the odds, building their own characters and enriching our lives by their example.
If you are more art-business-spectacle then you can be sympathetic to new races and new ideas to build the sport. You might be open to the idea of shorter stages, shorter events, or inner-city circuit races that are more audience (and TV and sponsor friendly). You are supportive of the idea of a breakaway league, so long as there’s racing, and have no particular attachment to small Belgian races with names you can’t pronounce. You also wonder why it is necessary for grand tour riders to spend four hours on some stages just riding when it is the last two hours where the racing happens. From a business and spectacle perspective it makes little sense.
Ultimately, though, you are probably not wedded to the hard end of these axis, liking a little bit of a mix. A little bit to the left here, a little to the right there, depending on the issue at hand. In political terms, you are in the centre, where most people tend to cluster. That said, when push comes to shove, you will take a strong position on a specific issue.
Pro cycling is slightly anomalous in pro sports because even though it is a team sport it is more akin to individual sports in that there is less fan identity attached to a team and ultimately to winning. Other team sports – hockey or football, say – have teams with a geographical identity (even if the team’s players are international) and their fans place a high value on their team winning (as opposed to just putting on a good show). It probably helped by there being at least a 50:50 chance of winning purely by chance in a face-off match, rather than the much longer odds of winning a race in cycling, either for a team or individual.
One might argue, therefore, that for many or even most cycling fans, the spectacle of a race is more important than the outcome, even if there are differences of opinion on science v art, or sport v business. As a fan, your allegiance does not necessarily reside with winners. The sport, though, is structured so that – for teams and individuals – winning is of very high importance. Sponsors want wins, team managers want wins, and winning is rewarded by points (necessary for ascendancy in the UCI system) and monetary returns. Officials, organizers and managers are concerned that without the incentive to win then there won’t be sufficient spectacle to entice the punters.
It is curious the attention and respect and reward we lavish on winners in sports. This is particularly curious given the single-mindedness required to excel at the highest level of sports. Not only do you have to be talented and lucky (purely random attributes, hardly worthy of adoration) to be successful, but you probably have to be driven to the point of selfishness, and ruthless and focused to the exclusion of everything else. This is not something we typically strive for in our own personal lives, where we try to strike more of a balance in our time and interests. For most of us, unless we are in competitive positions, our work goals are not winning and beating others but collaboration and cooperation. Our other priorities might more likely be family and community rather than competition and rivalry.
It is worth asking whether the emphasis on winning creates distorting incentives for athletes, particularly when it is attached to monetary reward and fan adulation. Is ‘winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ a completely anachronistic and damaging value set to foist on athletes (young ones in particular)? Does this inevitably lead to a reprehensible single-mindedness ‘win at all costs’ mentality and also an incentive to cheat – and to lie and deceive along the way that ultimately does no one any good when it is uncovered (as it always is)?
Whether the emphasis on winning is morally corrosive in the long term is difficult to prove empirically. One might cite examples of ranting parents and miserable children at hyper-charged weekend sporting events in support, and how the early linkage of winning and success in children does not make them well-rounded adults. (For some interesting related comments on young athlete development, see this Science of Sport posting.) Still, one should be nervous about making the argument without some better evidence. Still, if the linkage between remuneration and winning makes you uncomfortable, and you would like to see more emphasis given to participation than placings, and you think that breaking the linkage between winning and money would reduce cheating, you might well ask: how might it done differently?
Your author is currently reading a light-hearted but nonetheless interesting book, the latest from Alain de Botton called ‘Religion for Atheists’. As the blurb says, the books suggests “that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies.” A subsequent post to this one will explore this theme further and, somewhat tentatively, argue that cycling has already stolen ideas from religion and may indeed be a ‘religion’ itself. Whether this argument can be encapsulated in the spectrum model outlined above remains to be seen.
There were mixed emotions being back in my hometown after only brief visits over the last 10 years. So much had changed but then so much was the same. Local people who I’ve known all my life juxtaposed with newer arrivals who pegged me for an out-of-towner, which I am – I guess. I feel both at home and out of place. The roads I know well. I could draw them from memory for you now, every corner and every bend, every uphill and every downhill. There’s a local scene and some good riders, some of whom I know from year’s past; it’s a small community in a small country.
Strava is changing the way we ride and this new trend of ‘e-fitness’ requires new etiquette on the bike. What were the rules here, I wasn’t sure. Prudence would have suggested a judicious approach, but I went ahead and set a KOM on the most well-known and used short, scenic climb on the old coast rode. I make excuses: it’s southern hemisphere December summer hot and humid; I’m tired from jet lag and sleeping in a strange bed; it’s not my bike. Still…
The ride: 1.7 kilometres, 87-metre gain at 5.2%, 20 kph for a time of 5:05 at 264 watts. This record lasts nearly two months until a visitor (like me) rips it to shreds: 23.9 kph, 4:15, 389 watts. Fifty seconds faster! 389 watts! These numbers make no sense to me, they are beyond my scope of contemplation. In my world, these numbers don’t exist. I am humbled, but not surprised.
Mount Seymour is the 4th toughest bike climb in Canada, according to climbbybike.com: 13.1 kilometres, 6.9% average (maximum 16%), and 904 metres of gain. My best time is 45:44. Four years ago. The Cycleops power page tells me this is 270 watts (at my current weight, maybe more back then). I’m obsessed with breaking 45:00. I need 5 more watts. Why 45:00? I don’t know. It’s a round number, a quartile of an hour. It wouldn’t even get me on the first page of the Strava KOM table. But I want to beat that time. Last year I rode 46:30 (265 watts) and 47:26 (260 watts). One day the 36×23 felt fine, the next day it didn’t. 34×23 is good. 36×23 is too hard and 36×25 not quite right. Maybe my new 36×24 will be the magic gear for the gradient. There must be a perfect combination of gearing, weight, cadence, power, heart rate, jersey colour. I need to find it. I need more tools, more devices, more data.
The Cypress mountain climb holds no mystery. There are three timed distances that have been used in races over the years. I’ve lost track of all the numbers. Last year I was faster than ever before. I chose the number I wanted and I bested it. Cypress is beaten and broken. I dictate the terms now. Mount Seymour won’t be dictated to. It decides my time. In my best climbing shape I still can’t beat my old record. The mountain decides.
We becoming obsessed with our own numbers – times, watts, heart rates, miles. Is this the age of narcissism? As Stephen Marche wrote in a column on the subject in Esquire: “In 2011, Americans spent an estimated $10 billion on plastic surgery… and about $5 billion on NASA space operations. By this logic, having perfect tits is worth twice as much as exploring the universe.” At the same time, recreational drug use is plummeting, Marche says: “Vapid self-indulgence has been replaced by scrupulous self-management.” Care to join me for another set of intervals?
Strava is (mostly) free. Power meters, GPS, smart phones, HR monitors are not. Is there a cost to our obsession; is it just all about ‘me’? Maybe there could be a levy on every device sold that goes towards funding junior cycling, giving back something to others. Do we need to stop gazing at our flickering screens and look up more to see the scenery and to ponder the bigger picture?
Maybe. It’s a feckless pursuit of mediocrity. I can ‘follow’ pro riders on Strava, dare to compare myself to them side-by-side, even though my numbers are pitiful in comparison. Am I part of their world, on line, posting my PR times? Or is this a delusion? Do we need to become an ‘unracers’, as Grant Petersen suggests we should? Too many questions. The only thing I know is that I need 5 more watts.
I revel in my mediocrity. I embrace it. I ride with my buddies for the sake of riding and to drink good coffee and to see the sights and to feel the road beneath my tyres as it unfolds to reveal new vistas. This is my purpose.
But I also like to crunch the numbers. I like to feel faster, lighter, and stronger, if these things are possible. I like to feel that with advancing age I don’t have to give these things away. The results I get from cycling are the satisfaction of having ridden my bike. In itself this is a good thing. But the numbers draw me in, without explanation. This will be the year that I put them aside, forget about KOMs and PRs and segments and climbs and watts and gradients. But I need to do one thing first. I need to go under 45:00 on Mount Seymour. There can be no more excuses. There must be a way…
In the deep and distant past, the standard calculator for high school mathematics, at least in your author’s experience, was the Casio fx-82. It calculated pi to 7 decimal places – 3.1415927. My calculator, another Casio that I still have today, the fx-961, calculated it to 9 – 3.141592654. This seemed to open up a whole new range of possibilities, if not infinite then at least beyond the norm.
Pro cycling is in the process of destroying itself. Although we cannot be entirely sure of the minute details of the politics and power struggles behind the scenes, the leadership at the top of the sport – at least by what we see in the media – seems more interested in protecting their individual reputations and fighting petty, tit-for-tat PR battles than engaging in genuine reform. It’s the UCI v WADA v USADA v ASO v IOC et al. Combine this with the steady stream of sordid doping revelations of past transgressions and it is no wonder that sponsors are showing their lack of interest in the sport. You have to be really, really into cycling to put money into it at the global level right now. Some sponsors are, but others are understandably tired of every other cycling headline being about doping and Machiavellian manoeuvrings in the political arena.
What can be done? Does the UCI need a Kickstarter project for anti-doping (or a new levy on race licences), to crowd source its decision making, or at least hire a decent PR agency to manage its external relations? Does the MPCC need to reassess its high-and-mighty principles and actually suggest some realistic policies? Does the bio-passport need to be fundamentally reconstructed and run by an independent organization? Should the ASO just run everything? Do the teams need to organize and drive change themselves? Would any of this actually fix the sport for good?
Unfortunately, no matter what we as fans might want, the decisions made at the top end of pro cycling can only to a limited extent be influenced by what we think (even if we could all agree on a coherent plan). The decisions will be made in pro cycling by those with money, power and influence as they always have (as they are made in other domains, too).
In some ways we should be grateful to Lance Armstrong and the Tour de France and the Giro and all the other riders and races who have grabbed headlines at the pro level over the last 15 years. Without them, road cycling would not have become ‘cool’ again. All the bikes and gear and events and rides that we now enjoy can be, at least in some small part, attributed to the burgeoning global popularity of pro racing. If that popularity has now reached a plateau or is even declining due to its own dirty past and the ineptitude of its leadership, then what – as fans – can we do about it?
Road cycling now speaks for itself. While we might lament a contraction at the global level, and a loss of opportunity for up-and-coming racers to perform on the world stage, and the fun of learning about obscure races in far away lands, we no longer need the WorldTour to drive our local cycling scene. We can build it ourselves. We can have the road racing and the road cycling that we want in our own communities on our own terms and without the intrusion of global cycling politics (well, at least except for those pesky UCI rules).
Here, then, a manifesto of sorts:
Support your local bike shop as best you can. Give them your time and your money and they will support you in your riding endeavours and (hopefully) organize events to connect with other riders and build community relations in support of road cycling.
Join a club and support local races and events. Help to create a climate in your community that supports amateur racing, that encourages junior riders into the sport, and which can make regular race events a feature of local roads instead of an anomaly.
Be part of the crowd at big race events. If you’re fortunate to have top-class local races in your area, go along and support them – and that includes women’s events. Send a message to sponsors that these events are popular and worth investing in; make the road closures worthwhile and a boon to local businesses rather than a disruption.
Support initiatives in your community for bike lanes and pro-cycling policies. The more cyclists on the road the better for improving local riding conditions and getting more people interested in local racing and other events.
Build community and camaraderie. Get out there in a group and ride socially. Make groups of cyclists a regular fixture of your local roads. Support and promote local businesses. Show others the positive social aspects of road cycling. Help to create more ‘weekend warriors’ who will support this manifesto.
Pro cycling at the global level will struggle for another five years at least, if not longer, burdened down by negative headlines and its own sordid history. Enormous progress has been made already, but it will take time. As we know, it’s light years ahead of other sports, but that doesn’t make it any easier as there are still fundamental structural problems. And the possibility exists that these might not ever be fixed. Races and teams will continue to struggle and sponsors will look elsewhere.
But this need not be the end of racing and of the sport itself. When power structures are so entrenched and resistant to change by any other route than their own processes, we have to bypass them and build something else. Starting with our own cycling community and by thinking locally we can still grow and promote the sport that we love.
(For an interesting discussion on the history of pro cycling, which informs some of the problems today, see the Issue 36 Rouleur podcast.)
For their 1982 album, The Number of the Beast, the British heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song called The Prisoner, inspired by the 1960s TV show of the same name. The song is introduced by dialogue from the actual series (“Who are you? The new number 2. Who is number 1. You are number 6. I am not a number, I am a free man…”). The band’s manager had to call the show’s creator and lead actor, Patrick McGoohan, for permission to use the dialogue. Despite managing such a devilish band, the manager was hesitant to ask the suave and sophisticated McGoohan. According to the story, after a stumbled request, McGoohan replied simply, “Do it!” and hung up.
The Prisoner was a surreal and psychedelic show befitting its time, and its cryptic and confusing premise and story foreshadowed more recent shows like Twin Peaks and Lost. McGoohan was in some ways reprising his secret agent character from Danger Man. But we know little of his character except that he has been kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a seaside village (the show was filmed in Wales in Portmeirion, famous for its Italian-inspired architecture). The show flirts with ideas of totalitarianism, mind control, and indoctrination. McGoohan had complete creative freedom over the show and ran loose. Unfortunately, the show’s producer pulled the plug on the series, forcing a rushed and surreal final episode that left viewers agog.
The Prisoner was a hit in France, released there just before the May 1968 riots. As commentators have pointed out, despite its anti-communitarian message of personal liberation – the antithesis of the spirit of ’68 – it was wildly popular. McGoohan himself suggested that its popularity might have been due to the spirit of revolution in the show, his character’s attempts to throw off the yoke of oppression of the order under which he is held captive.
Prisonniers and forçats
The title of the show in France was, of course, Le Prisonnier, the direct translation. In the history of the Tour de France, we are familiar with the phrase, les forçats de la route. This is often translated as ‘the convicts of the road’ or ‘the prisoners of the road’ and – of which more below – was coined in the 1920s to describe the situation of Tour participants at a time when labour issues were coming to the fore (and would indeed come to a head in France under the Popular Front in the 1930s).
But ‘prisoner’ or even ‘convict’ is not a perfect translation of forçat. In Le Petit Larousse, forçat is defined as a man condemned to the galleys or the prison work force (a prisonnier is simply someone in prison). So it is much more specific in its meaning than even convict (Matt Rendell uses this term in his translation in Blazing Saddles, for example), unless your impression of a convict is someone in a chain gang rather than a common thief being shipped to Australia. As well, the word convict is also translated in some dictionaries as détenu, or detainee, which is clearly not illustrative enough. In his cultural history of the Tour, which discusses les forçats de la route at some length, Christopher Thompson translates it as ‘convict labourers of the road’. Interestingly, Le Petit Larousse also gives another definition of forçat: a man whose living conditions are particularly distressing.
The issue of working (and living) conditions for Tour riders was under scrutiny in the 1924 edition of the race as part of the ongoing battle between Henri Pélissier – the great French rider and winner of the 1923 edition, the first French winner since 1912 – and Tour boss Henri Desgrange. Pélissier was an outspoken character of mercurial disposition. He had come close to winning the Tour before, but by 1923, late in his career, was considered only an outside chance. His battles over the rules and regulations of the Tour had been ongoing for years.
Desgrange was a despot. He enacted a tyranny over the Tour (and the other races L’Auto organized) that would have made the overlords in The Prisoner proud. (Indeed, Pélissier was like McGoohan’s character, raging against the system.) Desgrange was determined that there would be no advantage gained that would somehow prevent the Tour being a competition of individuals evenly matched to secure a true champion. Hence, derailleurs were banned for years, as were metal rims in favour of wooden ones, and drafting was prohibited for a time. For a period, the Tour supplied the riders with identical bikes.
Desgrange was also convinced that sport – specifically cycling – would be a ‘civilizing’ force for the predominantly working class racers. The rules and regulations for conduct would transform them into presentable bourgeoisie. Just like in The Prisoner, any individual flair would be allowed – good for publicity after all – only if the individual eventually conformed to Desgrange’s vision for the Tour and his civilizing mission. There are echoes of both these ideals today in the myriad of rules that the UCI has for bike specifications and the presentation of the riders.
The outcome of the brouhaha in 1924 was actually a union for the riders. But under Pélissier’s leadership it was short lived. It successfully protested against uniform food amounts for all the riders, apparently, but collapsed soon after. Pélissier himself was simply too confrontational; his politics might have been in the right place (on the left), but his temper was too fiery for reasoned negotiations.
Pélissier’s main confrontation with Desgrange in 1924 was over the issue of jerseys. The Tour supplied all the equipment for the riders, including their jerseys, and everything (bizarrely) had to be returned at the end of the race. Pélissier wanted to begin stage 3 – 405 kilometres from Cherbourg to Brest – wearing two jerseys as it was cold at the early morning start. He planned to abandon one along the way, and after being warned by a commissar, duly tried to do so in Coutances. After falling afoul of Desgrange, Henri Pélissier withdrew, along with his brother Francis and another rider, Maurice Ville.
Albert Londres, and a small clarification
Enter Albert Londres, an investigative journalist who was following the Tour for the newspaper Le Petit Parisien. No lightweight (like Oprah, perhaps), he had established his reputation writing about France’s penal colonies off French Guiana on the Iles de Salut (where we get the term Devil’s Island, the setting for the book and later the movie Papillon) and in Cayenne. He had also reported on Russia just after the October Revolution and went on to report on other social issues like mental asylums.
Talking to the Pélissier brothers in a café in Coutances he had his scoop. The brothers launched into a detailed litany of their complaints and the hardships they were suffering in the Tour. Perhaps overstating their predicament, they even showed Londres their boxes of ‘dope’. As Francis said, even using the English word, “…nous marchons à la dynamite” – we run on dynamite. Londres had an explosive story and it was duly published on the next day, 27 June, on the front page. According to many sources, including Les Woodland, Matt Rendell, and even Wikipedia, he did so under the headline: Les forçats de la route.
Except that he didn’t. Thanks to the digital archive at the BnF, the national library of France, we can view that very edition of Le Petit Parisien online. The actual headline is much less dramatic: ‘The Pélissier brothers and their comrade Ville abandon’. No mention of forçats at all. So why the confusion? Graeme Fife seems to come the closest to the true story, correctly noting that Londres later published a book, in 1925, titled Avec Les Forçats de la Route. This was later published as Tour de France, Tour de Souffrance, which was actually one the headlines Londres used in his column, again on the front page of Le Petit Parisien on 19 July.
The confusion down the years is understandable, some 90 years ago. As well, it seems like the phrase les forçats de la route was already in usage. Some attribute it to Henri Pélissier some years before, others to Desgrange himself, and one online source even suggests it was coined by Henri Decoin, who wrote for L’Auto and first used it to describe the touristes-routiers, the self-supporting amateur riders who were allowed to enter the Tour alongside the professionals and were not supported by the race organization at all.
Londres’ column and his book sparked interest in the conditions of the Tour riders and provided for a lively debate at a time when workers’ rights were at the forefront of politics in France (as elsewhere). Londres also had a flair for the dramatic, writing, for example: “For a month they have fought with the road. The battles have taken place in the middle of the night, the early hours of the morning, through midday, groping through fog so thick it makes you retch, into headwinds which laid them flat, under the sun which, as in the Crau [the far south of France], spit-roasted them on the handlebars.” Great stuff!
The Pélissier brothers Francis and Charles continued to feature in the history of French cycling for some time after the 1920s. Henri, however, was shot to death in 1935 by his mistress using the same gun that his wife had used to commit suicide. Ironically, the Popular Front would introduce the long summer holidays in France the following year in 1936, holidays that would prove to be a boon for the popularity of the Tour up to even today. Henri would surely have approved.
One of Henri’s other issues was with the length of the stages in the Tour. By his rationale, doping was the only way to survive. The Tour in 1924 was 5,425 kilometres over 15 stages; the shortest stage was 275 kms, the longest 482 kms! This debate resonated for decades afterwards, with commentators even arguing in recent times that long, arduous stages have encouraged doping.
Ultimately, the Tour riders were not prisoners, or convict labourers. They were not forced to race and subject themselves to the conditions of the Tour. They were free men. Still, as in the second meaning of forçat, their living – or working – conditions were particularly distressing. Just because they were volunteers didn’t make them exempt from reasonable employment. This discussion in some ways gets to the heart of professional sport. With all the armchair talk of ‘harden the f–k up’ and so on, is it just more and more suffering that makes for a better spectacle?
And so we return to The Prisoner. McGoohan’s character is imprisoned in a seaside resort known only as the Village. His individuality his stifled and he is forced to conform to the rules, regulations and rhythms of his sheltered life. All aspects of his existence are codified and monitored. Transgressions are severely punished. There is of course a danger in taking the analogy too far, and one does so here only tongue in cheek, but surely it is not too much of a coincidence that the start of each Tour stage takes place at the Village Départ.
Winter can often be a time of contemplation. If, like your author, you’re having an ‘Italian winter’ (waiting for the rain to stop before getting on your bike), you’ll be finding other ways to get your cycling fix. Recently, for example, your author has become somewhat fixated on interrogating his current choice of gear ratios in the quest for the perfect combination of climbing gears. It has also been a time of thinking about pro cycling – basically the question: given that pro cycling is so sordid and tawdry, why bother following it? A short rumination on the virtues of the sport henceforth follows.
Pro cycling is somewhat unique as a sport in that its history is less driven by teams and individuals as it is by events. Races and racers are always on the move, not to separate pitches and fields in fixed locations but to new courses actually in cities and the countryside. And there is no season-long trophy competition of any note, but each race itself has its own history and stories. An analogy might be if professional hockey was played (like it used to be at the dawn of the sport) on frozen ponds around the wintry parts of North America and there was no Stanley Cup, just the trophy for each tournament. The teams came together to play the Minnesota Classic or the Tour de Laurentians, with each of those events having a unique and continuous history. Cycling’s structure means that it has a rich history and detailed traditions that can be tapped into; it means that there is a deep well of fascinating stories for fans to draw on to sustain their interest. And, with its European roots, it also has the touch of the exotic.
Pro cycling’s history is also a sordid one. It can be read as a series of magnificent and uplifting physical exploits, or it can be read more like an ongoing crime family saga, more like The Sopranos and The Wire. Like an onion, the more you peel back the layers the more it seems to make your eyes water. The cast of dubious characters is a large one, and the stories of double-dealing, backroom fixes, and racketeering are endless. Teams – and indeed the whole sport – have been run like old boys’ clubs of Mafia dons as opposed professional sporting organizations. And it has only been in recent years that this seems to be changing. Again, from the perspective of the inquisitive fan, this makes for a fascinating spectacle.
We are now entering into an unprecedented new era where doping will not be part of le metier of pro cycling. This will be a first in the hundred plus years of its history. Which is why, for some, the Armstrong story has not provoked universal outrage – he was doing what many great champions before him did. Doping, bullying, intimidation, absolute team control, crushing victories? All been done before. And there are always new revelations that suggest, even in the pre-EPO era, that doping played a larger role in tilting the balance than many have previously argued (Joop Zoetemelk using blood transfusions in the 1975(!) Tour de France, for example). We thus have more intrigue to keep us titillated, as well as much fodder for ongoing debates about the role of doping in determining race results. We have all become ‘group ride experts’ on the intricacies of pharmacological enhancements and relish the discussions over the controversies surrounding them.
The literary tradition
It is perhaps for the above reasons that cycling has proved such a rich subject for journalistic treatment, a large sub-set of which has transcended simple reportage and had its own literary aspirations. Cycling is not unique as a sport in this sense and many other sports have such a tradition. But cycling has not disappointed. Geoffrey Nicholson, Samuel Abt and Graeme Fife can all be read for the pleasure of the text, as can more recent arrivals Matt Rendell, William Fotheringham, Daniel Friebe, and Richard Moore (to name just four). If you are a reader for the sake of reading, then cycling books will not disappoint. The passion for research and writing that many such authors have brought to their work has produced a treasure trove of writing for fans to enjoy – particularly during their Italian winters.
Perhaps much of this work benefits from the fascinating cast of characters in cycling’s history. Given the rather cut-throat nature of the pro cycling business, those who have excelled have had to have been robust physically and psychologically to survive. Which is perhaps why cycling seems to have a surfeit of larger-than-life personalities in its history – their exploits off the bike as interesting as those on it. Now, one wonders about a new generation. With more support from teams, coaches and managers, and the sport being run more like a legitimate business than a criminal syndicate, and with structures in place so that packing your bike bag and heading to the Continent to try your luck has been replaced by a more forgiving feeder programme, and with better media management to placate sponsor images, will this change the personalities involved? Will cycling continue to have out-sized characters to provide the fodder for fascinating forays into the machinations of the peloton? Will a slick and professional, ready-for-the-big-time global sport hold as much interest as a series of small town European intrigues? One can only hope so.
On the road
Ultimately, there is something about cycle racing itself that grabs one’s attention and interest. The spectacular backdrops, the battle against nature as well as other riders, the speed and the flashes of colour, its simplicity of principle juxtaposed against the complexity of its tactics, the intersection of the individual and the team, the poetic stirring of seeing a racer in full flight. Watching and enjoying bike racing is about surrendering to one’s passions, letting the mask of reason slip for the sake of spectacle.
Pro cycling doesn’t need a complicated back story to be entertaining. New races can be just as thrilling as old, women’s cycling is just as dramatic as men’s racing on the road. We don’t need to be in Belgium or France or Italy to experience the thrill of watching exciting and compelling racing. And with the increasing popularity of bike racing around the world, many top-class races are now coming to those of us not easily able to see the traditional events. We can immerse ourselves in the history of European pro cycling, the myths and their making, the legends and the half-lies, the triumphant and the tawdry, the spectacular and the sordid, the mystical and the Machiavellian, the politics and the personalities. There is a rich vein to be tapped (pardon the pun) and will be – with luck – for many seasons to come.
But it is the action on the road that will continue to thrill us, as we throw aside all reason and seek escapism amidst the whir of the wheels, as we throw ourselves into the spectacle as deeply as those participating in it, as we throw aside all questions as to its purpose and meaning – becoming simply fans of a sport we love (although we know not the reasons why, despite our attempts to provide rational explanations). Perhaps, when we ourselves are out on our bikes, we feel – despite our own mediocrity – some connection to those whose talent and hard work allows them to ride as professionals. In some small way, we are more than just spectators.
This year, 2012, the whistle-blowing former Tour de France cyclist Stephen Swart was given the award for New Zealander of the Year. The award, started in 1991, has included cultural icons from the arts (Dame Malvina Major, Jane Campion, Peter Jackson), sporting stars from yachting, rugby and the Olympics, as well as authors, scientists, politicians and outstanding contributors to the social fabric of the country. In 1994, the title was given collectively to the residents of Auckland – some 1 million in the country’s largest city – for enduring that year’s water crisis (your author was one of the residents at that time so, if you’ll pardon the pun, a diluted recipient of the award).
Swart’s selection is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, cycling is a second or third tier sport in New Zealand, behind such niche sports as rugby, yachting, cricket and netball or even more well-known sports such as basketball and soccer. Secondly, Swart’s contribution to the dethroning of Lance Armstrong and the cleaning up of cycling was far away from New Zealand. As the editorial in the NZ Herald noted, the accolade normally “recognizes a particularly notable contribution to national life.” In this case Swart “created shockwaves far beyond the confines of this small nation.”
Yet Swart’s courage in talking about his own – and Armstrong’s – drug taking as long ago as 1997 was lauded. “It took courage to expose the much-celebrated Armstrong’s drug-taking when no one else wanted to know he was a cheat,” the editorial said. “Swart’s particular bravery lay in being the first cyclist to break that code of silence that had enveloped the sport.” Strong praise, indeed.
But why would New Zealanders care about a predominantly European sport? The antipodeans like their overseas sporting adventures. Cycling may not be a top-tier sport but it does have solid (and growing) popularity. With cycling finally getting cleaner, the NZ Herald noted that there is now “hope that the increasing number of talented and determined New Zealanders now working their way to the top of cycling will not have to face the choice of doping or accept a lesser career. Kiwis are strong people, they excel so long as the playing field is level.”
Which is what it is all about – the level playing field. Swart receiving the award is testimony to the interests of this small country in acknowledging his contribution to levelling that playing field and giving Kiwis the opportunity to shine on the world stage, no matter what the sport. Fair play and fair chances for all. An award reflecting the idealism of the amateur ethic that has driven so much of New Zealand’s sporting identity.
The rain rolling against the window like the sound of a tom-tom drum. The phone ringing early, way too early. “Smiley, it’s Eighter,” the voice saying through the fog of the early morning. “I’m sick today. Can you cover for me?”
Then, the hurried breakfast, university classes forgotten for the day, pulling on a long-sleeve thermal, a light rain jacket that would do little to protect against the deluge by the end of the day, and plastic shopping bags for makeshift and temporary booties. A long day ahead, of treacherous yellow lines, the spray of car tyres, brake blocks wearing to their quick. The inevitability of cold feet. Everything wet and sodden. Fumbling with envelopes and parcels and papers and notebooks and receipts, unable to keep it all dry. Praying for the end of the rain and a brief respite of sunshine. The worst job in the world.
In the mid-1980s, a forward looking courier company in Auckland (population approx. 1 million), New Zealand expanded its car, van and motorcycle fleet to include the city’s (and the country’s) first bicycle courier (the antipodean name for the cycle messenger). The city’s business community was expanding, Wall Street-like, and the demand for fast inner city deliveries was increasing. It was thus that Andy, an English import, became a familiar – if unusual – sight on local streets.
Andy’s success saw the addition of new riders to the company. Other companies soon followed suit. The riders were all young, early to mid-20s, part-time students or those drifting and dreaming and wanting to reap the rewards of riding fast and outdoors in the city. By the time the new guys were on the road, Andy was already several years ahead in the game – he knew all the routes, the shortcuts, which floor of which tower a company left or received its packages, and which offices had the prettiest secretaries. But he didn’t need these advantages, for Andy was a very, very good bike rider. In typical English style, he didn’t talk much about himself, although some said that he’d ridden in the Milk Race in Britain. He was garrulous off the bike, and liked to spin a yarn or two, and liked a beer with the rest of the boys on a Friday night. But he was older (how much, no one really knew) and had a family to take care of. Weekends were strictly family time.
In some ways he was like Paul Sherwen in his professional years, in both his appearance on the bike and his conduct off it. And Andy could sure ride. He had the easy cadence of someone who has put the miles in, and then some. He never appeared to be really working hard, no matter how tough the day. A true gentleman, he would offer his wheel on a climb if you were going his way, and there was never any ego. But the elastic was always kept taught and one knew that if he stood up in the saddle, he would drop you without much effort.
Which was no mean feat. The rest of the crew were pretty handy on the bike themselves – ex roadies and track racers and part-time mountain bikers. Young, testosterone fuelled and prepared to bury themselves for the work. The distances each day were not massive – less than 100 kilometres over 8 hours. But there was always intensity, fast deliveries that were like interval training. And sometimes these intervals lasted all day. After a summer of riding, all those short and sharp climbs, one’s fitness was like a simmering pot of hot sauce, ready to be ladled out in copious servings.
The incentive to ride fast was twofold. Firstly, there was the pressure to prove oneself. There was no competition among the riders in the company, no poaching of jobs or deliveries, but there was a need to perform, to do your share and to do it well. It didn’t matter if you were a shy, bookish university type who listened to the wrong music, you would still fit in if you could ride. Secondly, there was the money.
The business was simple. A customer would pay $3 for a delivery by bicycle courier in the designated CBD zone. That delivery would be guaranteed to be there within the hour. A ‘double’, for $6, would be delivered in 30 minutes. A ‘triple’, for $9, would be there in 15 minutes. The courier company took 50% of the rate, the rider the other 50%. Not much per job, but it stacked up. On a good day, before lunch or late in the afternoon, the triples might pile up in one’s bag. Six triples on, radio call from the dispatcher (no pagers or cellphones in those days, just RT radios), time for one more. Ride fast!
It added up. $200+ days were unusual but did happen. Sometimes $1,200+ a fortnight was possible. A gross of $40,000 per year was realistic. Not bad for guys without university degrees. Jobs were given by the dispatcher based on the location of each rider – those best placed to take the job – some measure of seniority, and the ability of the rider to handle the load. Andy also had a set of regular deliveries, at a fixed rate. They say he took home $60,000 or more annually – and more than some pro racers would have been making at the time.
The work was not the hardest physically, but it was tough enough. It didn’t require the most brain power, but one still had to think strategically and cope under pressure. In the summer, under blue skies with the warmth of the sun, riding hard and then relaxing to watch the girls go by, thinking of cold beer at the end of the day, it was the best job in the world. Taking the early morning call to fill in, or on a regular shift, in the middle of winter, with the rain pouring down and the wind blowing frigid off the ocean, it was downright miserable.
Tools of the trade
Unlike the casual North American bike messengers, this crew had a uniform of matching company kit. It was a team vibe and everyone pitched in to help out – directions, tips and tricks, pick ups and hand offs when needed. Tools of the trade were usually mountain bikes, with narrow bars and slick tyres, sometimes roadie cassettes or other modifications. Acceleration and manoeuvrability were preferred to straight line speed.
Andy was the exception. His bike was a Cannondale road model, all thick tubes and super-rigid aluminum. There were few concessions to style. Bar tape was grey, dirty and worn; for a time it even disappeared entirely. There was a rear rack for parcels. He may have had a hand-built steed from his racing days in the shed at home, but that seemed unlikely. The weekends were not for riding – unlike the rest of the crew, unable to fully relax after a week of adrenaline highs – but for relaxing with his family. His legs likely switched off entirely on a Friday night and started fresh on Monday morning. Recovery was probably his secret to longevity.
But you could tell Andy was a professional when on his bike. He had an easy style, a hard man’s souplesse that the rest could only envy, superb handling skills, and the confidence of a patron. Deliveries were always on time, always to the right place; no stack of triples too difficult to pick up and deliver. No stress. Not so much a passion for the bike, but élan – taking pride in doing the job right and doing it well. Andy was a reminder that how one is judged on a bike is not about appearances but about how one conducts oneself. Not being, but doing.
Ossification and the ‘rules’
It is not hard to find ‘rules’ on the internet about being a cyclist. These range from style advice on how to look ‘PRO’ (sock colour, bike colour coordination, how to wear one’s sunglasses and so on) to rules of conduct. The site that takes this to the extreme is Velominati, which – at last count – had 91 rules(!). Most of the ‘how to be PRO’ sites are a little tongue-in-cheek. After all, we all like a bit of style advice, even if we choose to ignore it later. Velominati appears to be much more serious, but has obviously been allowed to morph into a rather enjoyable parody of itself, otherwise it can only be read as farcical (some of the rules are sensible, others so ridiculous that critique is unnecessary).
The desire to have rules to govern cycling as a hobby is like Identity Politics 101. We all like the social aspect of being in a group. We worry, however, that the group will get too large and not contain enough like-minded members. So we construct rules and rituals to make it exclusive, to filter out those that don’t ‘fit’. Safety in numbers, but not too many and no non-conformists that might be a threat. There’s usually nothing sinister about it in the cycling context, but there is a risk that rules become not just fun talking points but enforceable rules that lead to the exclusion of those that don’t follow them. This leads to ossification, a fixing in place of a conception of what cycling should be, impervious to change. (In the case of the Velominati, it’s a kind of retro Euro machismo, mixed with what writer Martin Ryle calls “technophiliac consumption” or a fixation on the machine.)
Such an ossification would be lamentable, particularly as cycling is growing in popularity. We all stand to benefit from more people taking up cycling – the industry is sustained, we can enjoy a cycling camaraderie with more people, events become more financially secure, and there is more support for bike lanes and greater tolerance for cyclists on the roads. Trying to ‘protect’ cycling is a backward-looking attitude that betrays a kind of existential fragility. Enforcing some imagined set of rules on your group ride is bizarre, frankly; there’s really only one rule that has any real relevance – be friendly and ride safely.
Andy’s heyday seems like a lifetime ago. What became of his job after the emergence of email and other electronic communication is not known, at least by your author. One is reminded of him, though, with his unshaven legs, his tired grey helmet, his ancient Carnac shoes, his Oakley glasses on a cord, and his road-worn Cannondale, when one reads another iteration of the ‘rules’ of cycling. Would there be tittering from a group of slavish rule followers as they passed him out on the road? Some advice as to how to look more PRO?
Andy’s response might have been to give them a lesson in humility, riding them off his wheel. But that would be unlikely. He would probably shrug and let them go by. For Andy, his rules of conduct, his professionalism, his being a gentleman were not a means of obtaining external validation. They were values in and of themselves. They were how he defined himself. Not as part of a group but as an individual. Ultimately, riding his bike was just a job – not who he was. He did it well, better than many of us could hope for, but that didn’t matter. We can see him through the prism of his riding, but that is not who he was.
We all like to be part of the group, just as we all have our own cycling rules that we follow individually. We often take our bike riding seriously, which is just fine. But as soon as we become fixated on misguided notions of applying so-called rules to others, we make cycling an exclusionary pursuit – when it should be exactly the opposite. The qualities that we should be interested in are those we have as people, not just as cyclists. To put it crudely, you could be a follower of all the rules and still be a dick that no one wants to ride with (particularly if you are prone to lecturing others on the supposed rules). Or, you could be a flagrant transgressor and still be an admirable rider. It’s all about being individuals, not myopic followers of some invented traditions. Ultimately, a more inclusive and less self-righteous world of cycling – that welcomes more and more riders to its membership – will benefit us all. Most of us accept this as obvious.
There was a moment on the 2002 Tour de France, some ten years ago, when Armstrong’s game was almost up. A brief moment where two commentators could have done something unprecedented and simply called it all off, much as some others wanted to do during the Sestrières stage in 1999. But they did not and – one might argue – nor should they have, and the bar for proof of Armstrong’s doping was set that much higher. Extraordinary performances result in extraordinary charges, which then require extraordinary standards of proof. Or something like that.
It was not the doping allegations already circulating around Armstrong that nearly brought him down, not the cortisone positive from 1999 or the Actovegin scandal at the 2000 Tour that almost led him to refuse to race in 2001, but his own performances. On a sweltering hot day, on stage 14, 221 kilomtres and finishing at the summit of Mont Ventoux, Armstrong’s ride was almost beyond belief. Almost.
Some 6.5 kilometres from the top, Joseba Beloki attacked out of a group of riders containing Armstrong and others. Beloki was struggling and the attack was far from convincing. But Armstrong answered emphatically, veering across to the right-hand side of the road, standing up in the pedals and immediately opening a gap. He then settled down into his high-cadence tempo, accelerating up towards the last of the breakaway group, including Richard Virenque (see the feature here). In 3 kilometres he opened up a 3-minute gap on his chasers; Virenque managed to hold on for the stage victory but Armstrong pulled back 2 minutes by the summit.
You can choose any of Armstrong’s rides in the mountains of the Tour, but this one stands out. “We’ve been on the moon today,” Beloki said. “And we’ve seen what the astronaut is capable off.” Armstrong recorded a time of 58 minutes for the ascent, nearly a minute faster than Marco Pantani in 2000. Only in time trials would riders go faster. On a bike with un-badged carbon wheels he tapped out his imperious tempo; with his Oakleys for a time perched on his head like the horns of the devil, molten lava in his veins, dead-eyed with inner rage, he breathed fire across the already scorched mountainside, tearing the road asunder. “Le Mont Ventoux ne tolère pas le surrégime,” wrote Marcel Bidot. The Ventoux takes orders from no one. But Armstrong made the Ventoux submit to his will; the mountain that humbled Merckx, put Thévenet on oxygen, and killed Simpson was at his mercy. He destroyed it.
There is a moment, as Armstrong distances his pursuers and chases Virenque, that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen hesitate. Suddenly, doubt starts to tinge their commentary. Two long-time observers of the sport can see that they’re witnessing something unprecedented, something that not even Armstrong was able to achieve from 1999-2001: true transcendence. “Unbelieveable,” is about the most Sherwen can manage. It was a pivotal moment. Subsequently, no longer would an actual performance on the road elicit scrutiny. Other methods would be required to confirm suspicions of Armstrong. On the Ventoux road, something changed. He was untouchable.
It was not up to Liggett and Sherwen to expose Armstrong. Like all other journalists, they called it how they saw it. They set their own standards of proof, perhaps too high, and now are dealing with the consequences. Would we have acted any different? In an environment where the governing body was more interested in simply the health of the riders, not the wider implications of doping for the future of the sport, and keen to push the onus of responsibility onto individual riders themselves while they reveled in the wider glory, Armstrong exploited any loophole he could. Money talked and it was the currency of his discourse.
As John Wilcockson has argued, he might have won anyway, but that is impossible to know without some sort of baseline to make comparisons. “When everyone can dope, it becomes a contest of who has the best information, who has the best access, who has the best doctor, and who has the most money. That’s what this contest is, it’s a chess game of information, connections and money,” Daniel Coyle told VeloNews. The doping of the era, as we understand it, boosted a rider’s total power and made the efforts at this high level repeatable. The Tour route was insignificant – any course could be bested by being at the top of one’s game all the time. This is what is different today: the type of rider matters; Tours become ‘climbers Tours’ or ‘time triallists Tours’; small differences between riders become magnified. Mont Ventoux cannot be made to submit. These factors would have applied back then.
When the Tour visits Mont Ventoux in 2013, it is unlikely that we will hear much about Armstrong and the 2002 Tour. His name is being removed from the record books, the winner’s name to be left blank. But those years still exist, those victories on the road still stand. No one who has watched the coverage, who still covets those interminable DVDs of the Tours in those years, can doubt it. However he did it, however ruthlessly, however much the doping improved his performance, nothing can erase what unfolded on the roads of France during those years.
We look back, now, with different eyes. We don’t feel the same thrill that we did at the time because we know that victories were achieved falsely. But we can still see them. Awesome, other-worldly, mad, mystical, and terrifying. A pinnacle of performance that will never be reached again. Never. This is what remains. It may be a stretch to far, but let your author offer this quote, modified from an entirely unrelated source, as a kind of coda to l’affaire Armstrong before moving on. “Armstrong will retain an audience because he made himself master not of what the Tour once purported to convey – realistic stories leading to moments of individual revelation – but of what he has given us in retrospect: the least deniable and the least escapable characteristics of modern life – uncertainty, dissociation, absurdity, and horror.”
Italy, it would seem, attracts more than its fair share of platitudes in the cycling world, and justifiably so. We might contrast this, though, with the approbation in receives from elsewhere, particularly over the state of its economy and politics. It also causes many a commentator to fall into what Karl Popper calls the “myth” of induction – inference based on many observations. Take this statement from a recent column by the travel writer from the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail: “Italians live for pleasure, not for work.” Having spent a bucolic vacation in the countryside, the author now becomes an expert on the Italian national character – all its subtleties and complexities reduced to a pithy aphorism.
In keeping with such a tradition, dear reader, your author is going to make some similar pronouncements, on Italian cycling and on the state of pro racing in general. This will be the last post to comment on ‘recent events’ before moving onto other topics – and a fulfillment of the promise made earlier (when the colour of this blog was Giro pink) to offer some analysis of Italian cycling. As way of preface, it is worth noting that your author – although having been to at least a half-dozen European countries – has not been to Italy. Having read numerous books on Italian cycling, however, and at least two books by Ernest Hemingway set in Italy, one should not be disqualified from the game (although perhaps some yellow cards should be raised).
Completely ignoring the myth of induction, one can pronounce with full certitude that the case of Filippo Pozzato best sums up the current state of Italian cycling. You will recall that Pozzato was banned from competition for working with Michele Ferrari, himself banned for his dodgy practices. This case has been covered in some detail elsewhere. Ignoring the ridiculous aspects of the case – such as why did Pozzato not call CONI to check on Ferrari’s status, or why did Ferrari himself not warn Pozzato, or why did his team management not check – it throws up a fundamental problem that will have to change.
The first reaction, it seems, of an Italian rider not able to perform at the level they want is to consult with an external ‘expert’, and inevitably a dodgy one. If all that Pozzato wanted was training plans, as he claimed, was there no local expertise that could be provided, no coaches or trainers or experts to give him training guidance? Apparently not, which points to an alarming absence of expertise in Italian cycling.
Team Sky showed this year that their ‘marginal gains’ strategy – small improvements in multiple areas that add up to a noticeable performance boost – is highly effective. But this strategy costs money, which seems to be absent from anywhere in cycling – not just in Italy – except for where there is state support or funding from generous benefactors. One might conclude, therefore, and perhaps fallaciously, that for Italian cycling to improve it will need to do two things: one, change its mentality that the solution is always to consult externally with dodgy doctors; two, get more money. The first is entirely realistic; the second is more problematic.
A problematic future
Amid all the doping revelations in the last week or so, two things of interest happened. Firstly, the Canada-based pro continental team, Team SpiderTech announced that it was ceasing racing for the 2013 season. Manager Steve Bauer was at some pains to point out that this was not a ‘bankruptcy’ situation but one can certainly infer that the financial situation is not a good one. Continental teams have it tough, caught between the glamour and big money of the WorldTour and prestige events and the races that attract less sponsor interest. The situation is not that much better at the WorldTour level, either, with sponsorship worries a recurring issue for many teams. Securing long-term sponsor support is a big problem in cycling.
Secondly, Michael Barry called for fundamental changes to pro cycling in an article in The New York Times. As erudite as ever, Barry argues that, “The sport cannot continue to risk crushing our children’s dreams and damaging lives.” (Although not everyone has been sympathetic to the positions of the doping confessors.) Barry calls for change and says that national governments need to get involved. He is correct, of course. Numerous changes are needed – the way teams are funded, the way rankings and results are treated, the way the calendar is organized, and the way doping is being handled.
Change will only come from those that have the power in pro cycling. At the present time, that is the ASO – with the suite of races that it runs and the support it has from other big race owner/organizers – and the UCI as the governor of the sport. Both have limited incentive to change. The current structure, despite the scandals, suits them well in terms of control and revenue. If the riders or the teams want changes they will need to get more power.
A union for the riders, as some have argued, could be one solution. Without an increase in bargaining power, the labour of pro cyclists will continue to be exploited – by governing bodies, race organizers, and even their own teams – as Barry complains about. The sport will continue to be driven by what might be called ‘short termism’, a damaging focus on results and money in the here-and-now rather than looking to the future. This is ironic, given the long and storied history that the sport draws upon. The races themselves are the iconography of the sport, while the racers are expendable in the nurturing of these myths.
Steve Bauer argues that the latest doping revelations have nothing to do with the reluctance of sponsors to be involved in cycling. This is probably true. Everyone knows that the sport is improving for the better. But the headlines persist. What sponsor wants to be involved in a sport where past revelations of dodgy doping are driving the popular media coverage? What sponsor wants to be involved given the short termism that is driving the sport?
It is hard not to think that pro cycling is f**ked. This may be too harsh of a conclusion. But there needs to be leadership for change shown at the top and this has been, it would seem, woefully absent to date. Perhaps a riders’ union will be the catalyst (there may be other possibilities). Riders have gone on strike before and they may have to do so again. But the stakes will be high. The ASO has said that if there is a boycott of the Tour by pro teams, for example, it would just run the race with French amateurs. Maybe their bluff needs to be called?
It was cold coming down off the mountain. A low mist had settled across all of the city, and the air was cold and biting. I was falling like the barometer, the last vestiges of our late summer dropping away, my legs prickly in the wind, recalling – for some reason – high school years of uniforms and shorts in winter like some English Victorian throwback to building fortitude and character.
It was ironic in some way that the glory days of sunshine were coming to an end. There was not much enthusiasm in my climbing, some of the energy sucked away. We all knew that the bombshell was coming, most of us had already made up our minds, had our suspicions, but to see it laid out so explicitly and so clearly with so many collaborating details was jarring. The commentary will be endless, but Bonnie D. Ford laid it out in perhaps the most literary way: “…there will always be people who loved those three-week travelogues every July and don’t want to give up on their longtime protagonist, either. Sunflowers and lavender and Alpine switchbacks are far more appealing images than syringes and blood bags and a cult of personality channeled into coercion. Armstrong’s legacy lies now not only in the eye of the beholder but in the willingness of that beholder to take off the blinders and see.”
It is very easy in any analysis, to focus on the system – ‘cycling’ – and to provide explanations along the lines of the system being corrupt and venal and self-serving and only interested in its own preservation and glory. But the system is ultimately made up of individuals, and the report from USADA sets out an alarming record of – to use Ford’s term – coercion. If one wants a case study of organized workplace exploitation then look no further. Pro cycling as sick and depraved, it’s all right there. One cannot but read with sadness, for example, David Zabriskie’s account of the pressure he was under to dope, with no consideration of his objections or his view on drugs having lost his father to substance abuse. Struggling to perform in 2002, his salary was just $15,000(!) for his sacrifices. It was pretty clear what he needed to do to stay in the sport. It was either that or give up and go home.
These are not the glorious accounts we have read in the latest publications, and one can only look forward to the announcements by John Wilcockson and Bill Strickland, for example, that the royalties from their hagiographies will be donated to support anti-doping messages for youth cycling. Churlish? Perhaps. In fairness, We Might As Well Win pretty much sums up the ethos of the time, all other considerations pushed aside.
Spirit in black
Ironic, too, perhaps, that your author has just finished reading Le Métier. I had been stretching it out, not wanting it to end, reading each chapter – as it is divided into the seasons – as the weather changed here. Autumn, or fall if you prefer, is the final chapter. “Autumn is arriving on the mountain slopes,” Michael Barry writes. “And the sun that burned the plains has lost its strength in the late afternoon. My shadow is long and lone.”
The book achieves two things. Firstly, it reminds us that what we do on the bike is far, far away from what professionals do. For us, the bike is leisure, an escape. For them it is work. Tough, unrelenting, soaked with suffering. Rewards are few while disappointments are many. It is a world that is difficult to understand. Secondly, though, Barry answers the question, ‘why?’ Why do they do it; why does anyone want to be a professional cyclist? Why does it become an obsession? Barry writes: “Cycling has become spiritual, as it is a passion that I can pursue in the natural environment. I can pedal away angst, find calm and clarity with rhythmic motion and freedom. The commitment gives me focus; the love gives me panache. Whether it is pedaling to a victory or training in the mountains, I find peace.”
Bewilderment, or some other emotion, therefore, when we read his affidavit to USADA: “I used EPO and testosterone off and on from 2003 until 2006.” Yet there is much more to Barry’s story. His childhood dream of riding the Tour de France, which he only achieved late in his career. Of terrible crashes with poor medical support, frustration in the late 90s with the pervasive doping culture, but then the gradual slide into that very culture as a requirement to be competitive. Of pre-doping crushing realities at the 2002 Vuelta, before another terrible crash: “The speed of the peloton was incredible. David [Zabriskie] and I were struggling to hold on to the back of the peloton. It got so bad that David was literally in tears on the team bus because it was so difficult.” Then yet another terrible crash in 2006 at the Tour of Flanders when no one from his team, Discovery, came to see him in the hospital. “That is when I realized that I was competing and taking risks for people who did not care about my health or value my well being.” He then stopped doping and campaigned for change.
The skill of Barry’s prose in Le Métier is that he takes what we do on the bike, which has no wider meaning, and shares his experience on the bike in a way that does, and feeds it back to us so that in some small way we can be part of that meaning. Accounts of life inside the peloton rarely capture our imagination in the way that Le Métier does; it draws us in. But there is a temptation to feel that in some way we understand exactly what the meaning is. We grasp at it, and take away what we need for our own inspiration, but we cannot fully understand the milieu without experiencing it and knowing of the darker side. In the book, we want to lose ourselves in the pleasure of the text, but should not slide too deeply into its embrace.
Therefore, being part of that experience, or taking meaning from it ourselves, is a fraught process. We are captured by the panache, the victories, the mountains. But it has come at at cost. For many of those involved it has been a terrible personal cost of shattered dreams and dashed expectations. Barry doesn’t cover that in Le Métier and one can only hope that future writings will give us more of an insight. We will do our best to understand. Ultimately, we can walk away and the travails of the pro peloton do not affect our time on the bike, our escape and our spiritual passion for riding. In riding for ourselves we can find more of our own meanings.
Looking forward, we can be optimistic that a new future is ahead. “Nothing can erase what has happened in cycling’s history, but we can learn from it. We can look back and say: never again. We can look forward to the crop of young athletes coming up not just on our team but on other teams and have confidence that the future of the sport is here,” according to a statement from Slipstream Sports. For now, though, the doping wildfire continues to suck the oxygen from pro cycling, leaving us with little air to sustain our support. Perhaps that is why I had little energy to attack the climbs on my ride, the mist like the smoke from the ashes of the recent past.
An addendum: In his book Nous étions jeunes at insouciants, Laurent Fignon also talks about le métier. “If you wanted to be the best, you had to learn to improve in every area. And obviously drugs were part of that panoply. At the very least, the riders made sure they were informed. And then made a decision. That’s the ‘cycling way’. That what faire le métier means. Do the job the best way you can.” (In the original French version, the last sentence is omitted and its inclusion in the English version likely a translation clarification.)
In Fignon’s definition, drugs are only part of a rider’s tools for preparation. Attention has to be given to every aspect. In Le Métier, in the introduction, David Millar writes: “…the things that have stood strong and proved their worth are the elements that make up le métier: the traditions, experience and knowledge gained.” We are still peeling back the layers of those traditions, as if everything now has a hidden meaning. C’est la méthode cycliste.
Back in April, your author posted The Dangerous Summer, a somewhat convoluted discourse on Ernest Hemingway and cycling (an ongoing theme on this blog). Hemingway’s legacy is a mixed one, particularly in literary circles. In reviewing the publication of the first volume of his collected letters (in itself an interesting story, given that all the new letters come from archives in the basement of his former house in Cuba), Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books repeats the typical charge that Hemingway inflated his own experiences into his fiction then did little to deny the myths he had created. “The letters show the moment by moment process of self-enlargement, of fiction taking over from reality, of Hemingway braiding himself a style first and then a history to match it,” O’Hagan writes.
Perhaps Hemingway was complicit in this process, or perhaps it is just easy to see it that way. His writing, so much of it based on experience, skates uneasily between truth and fiction. His early works drew on personal events, although clearly fictionalized. Later, in Islands in the Stream, for example, the main character of Thomas Hudson appears to substitute almost entirely for Hemingway and his life in the Caribbean. In The Green Hills of Africa he sets out to write real events as if they were fiction; his posthumous follow-up, Under Kilimanjaro (first published as True At First Light) is a ‘fictional memoir’ – and much of it must indeed be fiction, although just how much is for scholars to unravel. Indeed, in the book Hemingway acknowledges that truth can be slippery: “…but then almost nothing was true and especially not in Africa. In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon…” But does this matter? Surely it is unimportant that Hemingway may have enlarged himself through the process of his writing. Going wider, do we really care if the author himself was a lying, alcoholic, misogynistic egotist? Do we not read Hemingway’s books for what they are, not what they pretend the author to be?
But personality matters. All the more so, one might argue, in professional sports where much of our fascination is with the personalities taking part and not just the action on the pitch or on the road. Perhaps part of the fascination with Hemingway, and why the publication of his letters from 100 years ago matters, is because of his outsize personality. He was a literary figure but also a public figure and his life was anything but uninteresting.
What your author finds more interesting is that Hemingway, in his works, never seemed to be interested in the big picture, in the big issues of his time. In his fiction (and even his reportage) the focus was often very narrow – the individual swimming in the currents of history, rather than the history itself. One might contrast this with his contemporary John Dos Passos and his sweeping trilogy, U.S.A. Or, to take another tack, note that the Spanish Civil War saw Hemingway produce For Whom the Bell Tolls – a heroic tale of sacrifice for the republican cause – while George Orwell wrote a Homage to Catalonia – the tragic collapse of the revolution into cynical betrayals. Elsewhere, the fate of Hemingway’s beloved Velodrome d’Hiver as the round-up location for 13,152 Jews from Paris and its suburbs from 16-17 July (when the Tour de France would have been running had it not been suspended due to the war) to be shipped to German concentration camps (only 811 survived) never receives a mention in his wartime reporting, surely an interesting story with parallels worth drawing.
Perhaps the newly discovered letters will contain comment, although – as historian Tony Judt has pointed out – discussion of the Holocaust, in France and elsewhere, did not really start taking place until decades later. (A future post will look at the Vel d’Hiv events in some detail.) Hemingway might not have actually known what transpired. When he was circulating around old haunts in Paris following its liberation, there is no mention of whether he went past (frustratingly, in Carlos Baker’s nearly 1,000-page biography, there is no listing in the index for the Vel d’Hiv at all, although it is mentioned in parts of the text). Hemingway was involved in the thick of the action on the approach to Paris in 1944, working as a war correspondent but managing to become the liaison between a group of French irregulars and US troops. He was later mocked for being more interested in ‘liberating’ the Hotel Ritz and its bar, and he did apparently exaggerate his role in the liberation of the Travellers Club, but the most detailed accounts suggest that he did actually find himself in considerable physical danger as the Germans fought their rearguard action. Playing soldier and inflating his successes likely obscured the actual role – minor, but indeed dangerous – that he did play. As always, it was writing he did best and on the approach to Paris he wrote this memorable line: “…I had a funny choke in my throat and I had to clean my glasses because there now, below us, gray and always beautiful, was spread the city I love best in all the world.”
One could argue that Hemingway never really claimed to be more than he was. He took his experiences and wrote them up as fact or fiction, as the experiences of the individual. He wrote what he wanted and should not be accused of sins of omission. His works should judged on their literary merits rather than for what they say about the author. But, for the sake of this discussion, let us take this focus on the individual versus history and run with it a little further and see where it takes us.
The autobiography (and heroism)
There are numerous books on cycling that are excellent and well worth reading (another future post will discuss some of these). As a rule, cycling autobiographies do not make for the most dramatic of reading. They are either self-serving to various degrees (like a Hemingway book, if the critics are to be believed) or just dull: an impossibly-talented youngster enters the rarefied and pedestrian professional cycling world and wins lots of races and suffers some notable, character-building setbacks that are then overcome. Unlike a biographer, the autobiographer finds it difficult to step back, to view themselves from the necessary distance.
The exception to this rule is The Game by Ken Dryden. This is not a cycling book but a book about hockey and the author’s experiences with the almost always victorious Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s. Regarded by some as the best sports autobiography available, part of its appeal is surely that the author can indeed detach himself from the various narratives and consider many of the wider questions of sport, although tensions remain: “Even now… I can’t forget enough to get outside my story and see it as others do.” There are echoes of Dryden in David Millar’s autobiography, Racing Through the Dark, where – despite the criticisms that he does not go far enough and still wants to control the narrative – Millar is able to detach himself and give an unconventional and brutally honest account of his experiences and to do so with candour and humility.
Millar’s comeback is a heroic one, but perhaps he is ultimately an anti-hero, in terms that Hemingway would recognize. His downfall was almost preordained by a system that cared little for individuals but saw them ultimately as pawns in a larger game of success, fame, money, glory and power. Such was the milieu in pro cycling in which he participated. His choices were always constrained by the system and it was run by those in power to be thus. Perhaps there is – contrary to the grandiose prose we are often subjected to – little actual heroism in sport, just a mistaken believe in the claims of those who would seek to inflate its essence to sell the sport to the public. On this point, Dryden is illustrative and worth quoting at length:
We are not heroes. We are hockey players. We do exciting, sometimes courageous, sometimes enabling things like heroes do, but no more than anyone else. Blown up on a TV screen or a page of print, hyped by distance and imagination, we seem more heroic, the scope of our achievement seems grander, but it isn’t, and we’re not. Our cause, our commitment is no different from anyone else’s, the human qualities engendered are the same. Instead, we are no more than examples, metaphors, because we enter every home, models for the young because their world is small and we do what they do. But by creating celebrity and mistaking it for substance, too often we turn celebrity into hero, and lose again.
Yes, even if you know little about hockey (like your author, although better informed now), there are some very thought provoking insights in The Game.
The golden age (of cycling)
It was a dangerous summer of cycling for a number of reasons, but perhaps no more so than the ongoing sage of Lance Armstrong and the charges against him of doping. Thousands of keyboard strokes have already been expended on the subject, and many more will follow. The editorials have been engaging but have ultimately said more about where the author has positioned themselves in the debate over the last few years than their actual subject. Indeed, perhaps you, dear reader, took some satisfaction from the pithy statements made by long-time supporting journalists, or took some delight in those long vilified being able to at last been seen as capably doing their jobs.
With the USADA file threatening even more revelations the spotlight of media will again be on the less salubrious aspects of cycling. For some, these revelations will be neatly assigned to the ‘bad old days’ and we can put them behind us and move on. For others, they will represent just a few more cracks in cycling’s edifice, perhaps not to bring it down completely but at least to leave it well scarred. This we might lament, just as writer Jeremy Whittle notes in his book Bad Blood: “In a problematic world, sport should offer escape; it should offer sanctuary from the casual lies and banal cruelties that punctuate everyday life. Rather than embodying the ugliest elements in human nature, it should strive to encapsulate the best.”
Overall, these are noble sentiments, but too idealistic. This is what sports should represent to us, the fans. But to those taking part, it is not an ‘escape’, it is their everyday life, their job and their profession. If your own work does not encapsulate the best of human nature, why should their job be any different? Surely we are not naive enough to think that professional sports, or even Olympic sports, is a pure endeavour instead of one intimately bound up a multitude of forces. As one commentator said, somewhat cynically, of the Olympics: “The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multi-national capital.” Sport is not some separate arena from the rest of society, but a part of it; we don’t escape, we participate.
Money might be part of the problem, and every professional sport that has grown too fast has had to deal with this issue. As Ken Dryden laments, “money is a threat, not in the stresses it puts on sports’ structures (though that is significant), but what it can do to those who have it,” with over-paid participants increasingly cut off from the public and the fans that sustain them. Still, players (and riders) have to make a living, and determining appropriate remuneration is a fraught process. Are top cyclists really earning too much for their hard, hard sport?
In moving forward, Whittle puts the onus on us: “Ultimately, what happens next is our responsibility.” With respect, not entirely. Amid cries that we need to do more, or that riders need to speak out and change their sport, we have to remember that the power lies with the organizers, the administrators, the owners and the overlords. There is much we can do (witness the Paul Kimmage defence fund, for example), but we should recognize the limit of our power. As well, we should not expect the riders to join in. Their positions are always tenuous and they operate in a top-down management structure where they are employed by a team and that team is ultimately responsible to those further up the chain, particularly those who administer the rules of the sport and organize the races. It is from the top that change must come, and where public pressure should be applied – if it can be. It is the managers of cycling that have put us in this predicament and they should be the ones to get us out. If they will not do so, then the sport will not change. For riders such as David Millar, they were working under the conditions given to them. In this sense, perhaps the interesting debate is not over the details of Lance Armstrong’s (apparently now well proven) doping but whether he was a victim of the system or one of the architects that prolonged its existence. If societies set their own morals, rather than through reference to an external system, and pro cycling is a societal microcosm, then was Armstrong just following the ‘rules’ or was he also shaping them?
Which brings us to the golden age, a lament that ‘back in the day’ things were better and different. Cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world, but at the professional level in Europe, when you strip away the self-serving myth making, it has been a curious, insular world for much of its existence. “There was never a golden age of fair play in cycling’s history,” Whittle writes. “Cheating has always been characteristic of the sport…” Which is perhaps no surprise. Riders have constantly been struggling, labouring under a structure that is ultimately exploitative and places on them intense physical demands for often limited returns (again the subject of a future post). A team sport, it still celebrates and rewards individual excellence and winning is paramount. Yet, despite its quirks, there is still something about its beauty, grandeur and captivating nature that draws in participants and observers – pros are still joining its ranks and we still want to watch them. A curious paradox, indeed.
“Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports’, the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood,” writes Ken Dryden. Indeed, it is when we are young – still with our enthusiasm intact and not yet cynical – that our indelible memories are formed. This is the time we want to return to, even though we cannot and the times were not as good as we remember them to be. On this, we will give the last word to Hemingway: “The old days were supposed to have been simpler but they were not; they were only rougher.” For pro cycling, maybe those rougher days are now indeed behind us, and it is the future that holds the golden age, a time for childhoods again.
The dangerous summer is almost over. One must confess, dear and faithful reader, that your author’s intention was originally not to return to posting on this blog. One always questions whether one has anything useful or interesting or constructive to contribute to the discussion on cycling, given the crowded marketplace and the already very insightful comments provided by some of the more outstanding bloggers. Still, your author was gratified to receive many supportive comments on the penultimate post back in April; a return to at least some musings on the current – and historical – state of cycling in all its meanings seemed therefore appropriate.
It is perhaps no coincidence the the two occurrences of pro cycling on the front page of the local newspaper here in Vancouver were, firstly, Ryder Hesjedal’s Giro win and, secondly, Lance Armstrong’s – how does one phrase it – fall from grace. Victory or scandal is what is required to capture the attention of the mainstream press. The events must be dramatic, outsized and of historical importance. There must be opportunities for pundits to editorialize on their significance. We need to be able to be invited as readers to assess their wider meaning.
The American writer Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, has said: “Sports are about human character inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they show that you can master anything with enough effort.” This is undoubtedly true: sports may not say much about the human character. But they are at least, however, reflective of the human character. The unfolding sagas of Lance Armstrong, Tyler Hamilton, Jonathan Vaughters and several others – of which we have heard much over the last few months and will continue to do so in the months ahead – are human stories, with sport at their heart. Sport is not just a physical challenge to be mastered. Sports are the arena where human character plays out, they are the backdrop of suffering, sacrifice, joy, heartbreak, greed and deception. It may not be as important as politics or the economy but sport is still just as interesting, if not for what it is but certainly for those who take part. Why else would we find it so engaging?
Cycling books occupy roughly three shelves of your author’s Billy bookshelves. And these are just the ‘core’ texts, not counting those that have been sold on, given to friends, or donated to the local library. It is hard to think that so many books could have been written about something with very little meaning (but more on that idea, later, perhaps). Thus, the other books on the shelves are always sharing their space with cycling books. Making connections, tortured and disparate but nonetheless hopefully interesting, has been one of the goals of this blog. This is likely to be the primary focus going forward, although there will – of course – be the opportunity to talk about climbs and climbing as well.
Sharp-eyed readers will also notice the change in background colour. The focus here on Italian cycling is officially over and some comments will be forthcoming on why this (dead) end was reached. The chosen colour is, according to some palettes, in the style of a Provence yellow. In his book A Little Tour in France, Henry James wrote: “It was a pleasure to feel one’s self in Provence again,— the land where the silver-gray earth is impregnated with the light of the sky.” With fall approaching, if not already here, and winter coming on behind it, we might all wish we were in Provence. To paraphrase James, “The [ride] itself was charming; for there is an inexhaustible sweetness in the gray-green landscape of Provence.”
Watch this space, therefore, for new postings. They are likely to be infrequent, with monthly being the goal, and may be overly ambitious in attempting to weave together too many disparate strands of ideas. They may also be reflective, indulgent, even solipsistic, or excessively focused on the minutiae of our sport. With only the barest of plans at this stage, one can only hope that a coherent set of postings can be produced. As always, your indulgences are appreciated. As such, the next post will revisit Ernest Hemingway, discuss the meaning of heroism, consider the golden age of cycling, and conclude with disparaging comments on cycling autobiographies and why the Tour de France is sick and depraved. Yes, it will be a wild ride. A bare-knuckle, high-speed decent from the summit of Mont Ventoux, reflexes straining and legs muscles screaming, the brain dulled to witlessness by the preceding ascent, the gray-green landscape of Provence stretched out before us, but with its sweetness exhausted and only our pounding hearts to offer solace as our tyres lose their grip beneath us.
The ‘dangerous summer’ is interrupted for a special post. It is an interesting quirk of professional sports, which typically know no national boundaries, that nationalism is still celebrated. As you may have read, seen, or even witnessed, a Canadian on an American cycling team, supported by a multinational cast and crew, sponsored by two American companies, just won the Giro d’Italia. And we celebrate Ryder Hesjedal’s victory as a ‘Canadian’ win – complete with the maple leaf flag on a hockey stick.
This is not to say that we should not celebrate Hesjedal’s win in this way (and we are indeed celebrating it here). It is just interesting to note that his being Canadian, something largely irrelevant in the pro cycling world, is somehow now receiving attention and prompting discussions of how Canadian cycling may benefit. One such suggestion has been that a Canadian flavoured team, along the lines of Orica-GreenEDGE or Astana, might now be possible – although with team SpiderTech under Steve Bauer, maybe we have that already. The financial health of both those aforementioned teams, though, relies on wealthy benefactors: one individual and one company for the former; for the latter it is Samruk–Kazyna that pays the bills, “a company managing government-owned assets [in Kazakhstan], which controls shares of national companies and financial development institutions” (what it is actually promoting seems a bit less clear). Whether SpiderTech might attract such a local benefactor is uncertain and whether such benefactors simply delay much needed financial reform in pro cycling is an issue worth discussing but not here.
Pro cycling, like all pro sports, is about money. Which is why Garmin-Barracuda boss Jonathan Vaughters did not ask team supporters to go along to their local races in Canada and help out with the juniors so that more Ryder Hesjedals might make it up through the ranks. Instead, he asked supporters to let sponsor Garmin know if they had bought Garmin products based on the company’s sponsorship of his team. Mercenary? Of course. Vaughters likely has a narrow set of interests and knows full well that sponsor dollars are required to get a team to races like the Giro and to win shiny trophies that will reflect enough glory to allow us all – team supporters and perhaps even Canadians as well – to bathe in.
One is not being cynical here, just commenting on the reality. The business of cycling is at the core of the story told by Mark Johnson in his engaging and visually sumptuous book, Argyle Armada, which is available from VeloPress. Your author had the pleasure of speaking with Johnson about his book for an article to appear shortly on Pez Cycling News. As a sneak peek, for the loyal readers of this blog, the postscript to that interview is as follows. Johnson comments on the significant of Hesjedal’s win at the Giro and puts it into a more informed context than your ‘holidaying’ author could manage. The link to the full interview on Pez will be included here later once it is posted.
One of the things that struck me about the team’s medical staff is how interested they were in holistic approach to medicine. The doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists were personally and professionally vested in looking at the riders as interconnected mind-body organisms, rather than machines that demonstrated various symptoms.
For me, Hesjedal’s Giro win is a testament to how that holistic approach to human performance also informs the way Vaughters has built his team. Rather than hiring a single superstar rider and dictating to the team that they are at his service in the defense of a Giro win, Vaughters and Allan Peiper put together a raft of riders whose collective efforts allowed Hesjedal to reach a level of success that was latent, but as yet not totally realized. The Giro win is a tremendous validation of Vaughters’ approach to winning races: hire a collection of strong, honest, like-minded riders then get out of the way and let them perform to the best of their capacity. I also think that the win shows what a smart move it was to bring Peiper on board. He is one of the most experienced, and, in the general public’s eyes, perhaps under-appreciated directors in the sport. His quiet guidance of Hesjedal to a Grand Tour win may change that perception for good.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this Giro win affects the team’s collective sense of confidence at the Tour de France this year. I also think the win can’t but help give Vaughters more stature as he continues to try to improve the business side of the sport. With every big win like this, it becomes more and more difficult for the old guard to dismiss him and his vision.
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.
This will be the final post on this blog for an undecided period of time. There will be a hiatus while your author devotes ‘blog time’ to other more pressing projects, which will hopefully include some more summer riding. There may be some infrequent updates to resolve some technical issues with the archives, and additional pages to highlight particular articles. The regular musings that you, dear reader, have faithfully supported, will not be forthcoming. May your summer of riding be free of danger. Remember, despite the entreaties of philosophers and marketers, cycling is not just about suffering and glory. It is also about passion, which is why we all do what we do. It’s why we ride.
Any local riders based in or around New Westminster should feel free to check out the FR Fuggitivi page if you are interested in Sunday morning rides throughout the summer.