One is always reluctant to make promises on this blog, to build up reader expectations and then fail to deliver. Shortly, though, your author will be in Copenhagen (on non-cycling business) for a time and so some foreshadowing of posts to come seems appropriate. (There will hopefully be time to investigate the course for the Worlds in Copenhagen, so there will be a little cycling time.)
The pro racing so far this season has been superb, even with team radios in full use (UCI take note). But there are two other issues that this blog will be shortly commenting upon. The first is the broader issue of ‘what is cycling’, particularly with possibly substantial historical doping revelations looming. Some have claimed that it is merely entertainment, but the case can be made that cycling, and sport, is indeed something else – even larger and with wider meaning.
The second issue is the apparent crisis in Italian cycling, not just an absence of wins but a deeper malaise that, unfortunately, again has doping right at its heart. It is hard not to see some parallels between Italy’s cycling fortunes and the state of the entire country, gripped with controversy over its 150-year anniversary of unification. With two major books on the Giro having just been published, it seems timely to look at its trials.
For your author, the slow realization that only four hours per week on the bike does not a training programme make, continues to sink in. But sunnier skies, weekday crit racing, and (hopefully) some better form awaits. In the interim, the Road Holland jersey continues to perform impressively and provides some superb comfort with its traditional cut. Well worth checking out. The jersey features on Bikes, Books and Beers, which also includes some reading recommendations for when you are unable to make it out on the bike and want to keep the passion for cycling burning.
At the finish line in Grenoble, everyone waits. It is the final stage of the 2008 Dauphiné Libéré, and for the riders a final 128 kilometre romp through the foothills of the Alps from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – two Cat.1 climbs and a Cat.2 before a 20-kilometre descent to Grenoble.
The crowd has been building slowly all day. The Dauphiné is a Pro Tour race, the traditional warm up for the Tour de France and the majority of the major contenders are represented. But this is also a local race, 60 years old that year no less, and a race that has had plenty of time to build its own history and write its own stories.
And the crowd seems to know that there will still be room on the barriers late in the day, still room to wander among the team buses and the anxious crews, and still room to score a souvenir Crédit Agricole hat before the riders come streaming in. The sun is out, it’s hot, and there’s no hurry.
Inside the secure area, the VIPs for the day have enjoyed complimentary beverages. The more well connected, local politicians and the like, have been able to rub shoulders with invited guests, including an impossibly tanned Richard Virenque. As Virenque shakes hands and provides a little race commentary, his impeccably presented (and also impossibly tanned) post-racing crisis smokes constantly and with appropriate insouciance under an umbrella, talks on her phone, and looks utterly bored.
The gendarmes are out in force, but the mood is light. The photographers line up in their assigned positions, watching the big screen for updates on the progress of the stage. In seems that the GC has been largely decided and today will be a day for the lesser names, a chance for glory on the final day of the race and a front-page photo in the Dauphiné newspaper itself.
Crew from the teams start to assemble as well, ready to nab their charges and shepherd them quickly to doping control, the podium, or back to the team bus as required. They know exactly the order of the arrivals. First the photag motorbikes, which will roar down the finishing straight well ahead of the race, quickly park in a uniform row, and allow their camera-garlanded passengers to rush to their position on the line or off to the seclusion of the media room. Then will come the official race cars; quick, move aside, part the crowd, as no one seems to have any intention of slowing down.
The the crowd lining the barriers starts to become animated. Cheers and shouts can be heard from further up the road, a ripple effect as it starts to approach. The crowd noise builds, then it all becomes a frantic blur of sound and movement. The last of the official cars swoops in, with the riders hard on its heels – they move so fast, and are so diminutive, that it’s easy to miss them as they roll through, faces animated by the ecstasy of victory or the anguish of being so close.
A whirlwind of colour, camera flashes sparking, journalists and team crew jostling, team car horns blaring, the riders themselves – exhausted – trying to navigate the chaos, find their chaperone, and make their way through to the safety of the team bus. Overall winner Alejandro Valverde congratulates second-placed Cadel Evans, who momentarily finds himself alone without someone to direct him.
For the winner of the stage, Dimitry Fofonov, a Kazakh rider for the French team Crédit Agricole, a chance to bask in the glory of a stage win, and chat to journalists and officials as the rest of the peloton rolls in (he will later suffer the ignominy of a positive doping test at the Tour, for the obscure product heptaminol, but later find his way back to the pro ranks with Astana).
But there is little time to waste, as everyone is anxious to move the proceedings along. The are the riders summoned to the doping control caravan, and then the prizes are presented – for the stage and for the overall. The ceremonies are quick and functional: a bouquet, a kiss, a handshake, and a pose for the assembled photographers. All the while, the stragglers for the stage continue to roll across the line; no one has anything for them, let alone applause for their efforts, but the majority of them look too tired to notice their anonymity.
Back among the team buses and trucks, the mechanics and crew are looking anxious and rushed. It has been a long week, of early starts and late nights, but the bikes from today still need to be washed and cleaned, then stowed on the bus or the truck for the ride back to the Service Course.
There are few formalities now, no security barriers like at the Tour, and the fans mingle among the riders coming back from the awards ceremonies, with the cheekier grabbing an autograph or perhaps a discarded team bottle. Any riders making their own way home grab their luggage from outside the bus. Some of the French riders have friends and family in attendance, and collect their bags and head for the family car amid congratulations and commiserations.
In no time at all, it seems like the buses and team cars are pulling away, the riders tucked away inside while the managers and directors look more relaxed, relieved at another race in the calendar completed, sponsors satisfied, prizes collected, and sporting glory assured. As the skies darken with rain over the mountains, the Dauphiné Libéré for 2008 draws to a close, a well-lubed and efficient machine, impeccably organized. It rolls into town, bringing a taste of professional cycling to the locals and visitors, upbeat enough to entertain but relaxed enough to keep the dedicated fans engaged and involved.
A glimpse behind the scenes offers the thrill of proximity to the excitement, a closeness to the intimate race action and its chronicling. But for the riders, the machine rolls on relentlessly as they are hustled by their team or by officials to their next appointment; they are dulled after a tough week of racing, already looking ahead to their next race, anxious to rest up and recover. Without them, though, none of this would be here.
In Karl Popper’s magisterial book The Poverty of Historicism, the philosopher warns about extrapolating the future from the present; given that we are unable to adequately describe the present, even the future will be elusive to us. “It is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature,” he wrote. “In fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective.”
Popper was talking about the great sweep of human history and criticizing the idea that there are laws of development in history and that these laws are evolving towards some sort of ideal end point. But even on a smaller scale, Popper was wary about relying on certain ‘truths’. In his epistemology, we accumulate knowledge of the world through the process of deduction. We put forward hypotheses and test these with appropriate observations. The rules or laws that we discover are at all times subject to falsification through further testing. Some laws withstand a substantial amount of testing, and are therefore more robust than others, but are – in a philosophical sense at least – still falsifiable. Overall, we must always be critical. “For if we are uncritical, we shall always find what we want,” Popper said. “We shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”
This post will look at the question of speed on a bicycle, and how we achieve it, with these two approaches in mind: the difficulty of accurately describing the present situation, and hence the difficulty of predicting the future; and a critical approach to established theories of going faster. As such, I argue for a much less obvious epistemology of speed.
Fast bikes and fast wheels
It is common, in advertising and in reporting, to see claims for fast bikes or fast wheels. Witness Cycling magazine recent testing of a suite of ‘super fast superbikes’. An ad for Ritchey components (and I don’t pick on Ritchey in particular, because the advertising style is common) reads: “Tom Ritchey swore he’d shave his moustache when Ritchey components stop winning races.” The accompanying picture shows Ritchey still with his moustache.
The implication in both these examples is that bikes and components have certain intrinsic properties and that they can be described as ‘fast’ or, by extension, ‘slow’. But these properties are not intrinsic to the bike or the components, they are all relative to something else and they are only made so by the addition of a rider. For example, Ritchey’s great looking wheelset in the ad described above is not going to make me win races – that I can guarantee. If that is what the ad was implying, he had better shave that mustache. We might say, therefore, that these bikes or these wheels have the potential to be fast (or faster than our current ride, presumably) with the addition of a rider.
The most well-known universal ‘law’ in cycling is that lighter is faster and that a lighter bike (and particularly lighter wheels) will enable one to go faster – and more speed is, after all, what we want the most. For example, in a recent test of a bike in Bicycling magazine, the tester noted that for the particular bike, “we noticed the difference on group rides, when we struggled to keep up with riders on lighter bikes.” This is powerful stuff – is was not that the other riders were 140-pound Spanish whippets doing interval training over rolling hills, or that the test rider was an out-of-shape Cat.4 racer with a hangover, but that the bike was too heavy. Given that the bike in question, at 18 pounds, was about half a pound (the weight of a half-full drink bottle) heavier than the bike that Lance Armstrong won the 1999 Tour de France on, this is a serious charge meriting further investigation.
In the spirit of Popper, then, let us take a deductive approach and put forward a hypotheses, and one that we can really test. Focusing on wheels is a good choice. Riders now have a huge array of custom built wheels to choose from, not just the old choice of 32 v 36 hole, single v double-butted spokes, and clincher v tubular. We now have varying rim materials, rim depths, spoke configurations, aero options, and a range of weight differences (usually in the 1 pound range, except for the lightest of the light). Let us test, then, the following hypothesis: If I have a lighter wheelset, then I will go faster.
If you, dear reader, would prefer not to wade through Karl Popper’s dense tome on the philosophy of social science, your author can strongly recommend the book by Guardian columnist and medical doctor Ben Goldacre titled Bad Science. In the book, Goldacre provides numerous examples of science done badly, and how we come to rely on the conclusions of bad science, ultimately to our detriment.
Bad science in bike testing is not hard to find. In a test of wheels in the March 2011 issue of Bicycling, several wheelsets were subjected to “systematic testing” (note the imprimatur of rigour by saying that the testing was systematic, as opposed to random or ad hoc). In reviewing the performance of tubular versus clincher tyres, for example, the testers reached the following conclusion: “Empirical testing may reveal that there is little, if any, quantitative difference between the performance of similar tubular or clincher tires [sic], but anyone in tune with his or her bike will still feel the difference.”
Popper would be dismayed at such a conclusion and any friend of science should be too. The concession is made that there is no difference that can be measured in performance, but that testers could ‘intuitively’ feel a difference – they could feel something that might not actually be there. Two comments arise from this. Firstly, for this to have been a more objective test, it would have needed to have been a ‘blind’ test; that is, the test riders should not have known which type of tyre they were riding (presumably this was not done). Such blindfolding is necessary for a test to be objective, otherwise we are influenced by our expectations (“tubulars feel different, everyone knows that”). Secondly, as numerous scientific studies have shown, we are very bad at making objective judgements. Many of the observations we make are highly subjective and are influenced by external factors (particularly our social environment and perceived wisdom) and internal factors (our own beliefs) – this is how our brains work, and there is not much we can do about it. This is why we perceive things that are not there, and how we fool ourselves (wishful thinking, for example). This is why scientific testing, proper science, requires all sorts of safeguards to prevent our so-called intuition from getting in the way.
If we are to test our proposition about lighter wheelsets, we can turn to some good science (Popper’s caveats on falsification aside, for now) to help us test our hypothesis. The main forces that a cyclist needs to overcome are wind resistance and gravity (and a small amount of rolling resistance). In general, the flatter the road and the higher the speed, the more importance that wind resistance plays, hence the focus on aerodynamics for time trialling; the greater the gradient and the lower the speed, the more importance that weight plays – particularly for climbing and for accelerating from slow speeds. The excellent website www.analyticcycling.com has some great tools for calculating the forces on riders, and the impact of certain changes, particularly for wheels. Without using examples just yet, it is clear that it is not just a case of lower weight equals greater speed because there are a number of variables in play, and that these variables are important, notably wheel weight, rotational inertia, and drag coefficient (aerodynamics).
When looking at wheels, the author of the site, Tom Compton, cites a scientific paper on the aerodynamics of bicycle wheels that reaches the following conclusions. The total drag of wheels is in the 10-15% range of total drag on a bike and rider. Different wheels choices can give improvements of up to 25%, so 2-3% of the total drag – which is not a very large figure. Also, the rotational drag of different wheels does not change with speed or with different wheels. We can conclude, therefore, that aerodynamics matters, and can be improved with different wheels, but that the magnitude of possible gains is relatively small.
A more interesting example with wheels is acceleration, where wheel weight and rotational inertia are other important considerations – although certainly not the only considerations when calculating acceleration rates. To make these calculations accurately we need a bewildering array of information: effective frontal area, drag coefficient, bike weight, rider weight, wheel weight and inertia and drag, power output of the rider, air resistance, gradient of the road, and a coefficient of rolling resistance depending on the road surface. According to the necessary calculations, in a 250 metre sprint for example, where two riders are accelerating all out, starting at 36 kph, a rider with wheels that are a pound lighter, and all other forces being equal, would be faster by less than a bike length. In fact, in a sprint that starts at a relatively high speed, the more important factor is not wheel weight but aerodynamics.
A more interesting case is what Analytical Cycling calls the ‘criterium corner’, the idea that accelerating out of a low-speed corner will be assisted by lighter wheels. This is true, according to the model, as a one-pound lighter wheelset (or bike, for that matter), all other factors being equal, will give an advantage of around a tyre width or two after 100 metres of acceleration (lower rotational inertia can also compound this effect; lower weight wheels typically have lower inertia as well, but this depends on their design; finding out and comparing inertia rates is a difficult proposition).
The example of the long climb (5 kilometres at 8%) gives more of an advantage to lower weight. All factors being equal, a lower weight of wheel can save real time over a heavier weight. Aerodynamics is still a factor, but it plays less of a role due to lower speeds. Indeed, on this long climb example, the weight of the bike, rider and wheels is relatively important – a 1 pound saving of either bike or rider weight equates to roughly 7 seconds or 30 metres in distance. (Throwing away that full drink bottle at the start of the climb could win you the race.)
So, using the good science and crunching all the numbers we can conclude that wheel weight does matter. A lighter wheelset will enable you to go faster. As we have seen, the gains range from small (winning a sprint, accelerating out of a corner) to relatively large (a long hill climb). But these need to be kept in perspective. In both the case of the criterium corner and the hill climb, producing just 1% more power is enough for the advantage to be offset (you can run all the numbers in the models on the website). There are cumulative effects, to be sure (multiple climbs, multiple corners) in a ride or race but we should be careful about ascribing a too generous of an impact to a factor that is a small part of a much larger and more complex calculation. And maybe we should leave the last word to Cervélo race engineer Damon Rinard, who is somewhat interestingly quoted in the same Bicycling magazine review test premised on the value of lighter wheels, who said: “Heavier wheels aren’t the big performance disadvantage most riders think they are. I’ve done the math, and although rotational inertia is real, it’s tiny.”
Back to Popper
Returning to our hypothesis, we have a tentative answer: yes, a lighter set of wheel will enable me to go faster. Although perhaps we should say that lighter wheels have the potential to allow me to go faster, all other factors being equal. We have learned, though, in many riding situations, that aerodynamics matters more than we think. Which is why Bicycling magazine is correct in its conclusion that aero wheels are “the fastest overall option for most riders”. But before one rushes out to purchase their favourite choice, the ZIPP 404 at US$2,700 a set, we should pause to reflect not just on the small relative gains to be achieved but also on Popper’s concerns.
To know what will happen in the future, we have to know the present. The key factor in the conclusion to our hypothesis is that all the other factors in play from physics in our speed equation must be equal – and there are a lot of other factors. We have dealt with a hypothetical example, but in the real world it would be extremely difficult to calculate all those factors for any given speed. Our ability to ride at, say, 36 kph is determined by all these factors having a number that we can punch into the equation. We may be able to calculate our wattage (using a power meter) but the drag coefficient of our wheels, their inertia, and the drag coefficient of ourselves as the rider would be highly difficult.
The problem is this: if we do not have a value for each of the factors required to calculate all the forces causing us to go at the speed we are going, or inhibiting us from going faster, we cannot change just one of those variables and be able to know the impact that it is having in a future scenario. We also cannot know by how much these variables have changed in a future scenario. If I ride faster tomorrow with a lighter set of wheels, I cannot know if this is the factor that has allowed me to ride faster. In a Rumsfeldian epistemology, it is a known unknown – we know that we cannot know this. As Popper warned, if we cannot describe the present, we cannot describe the future either.
As riders, we (mostly) know this to be true. We know that we ourselves are the biggest variable. From day-to-day we produce varying amounts of power, weigh more or less, and ride in a different aerodynamic position on the bike depending on circumstance or how we feel (and carrying an extra full drink bottle may offset a one-pound saving in bike or wheel weight). Because these factors are changing all the time, we cannot measure them accurately like we can with bike and wheel weights (and possibly drag coefficients). This is why our hill climb times on the same hill and on the same bike vary considerably, why sometimes we sprint past they guy on the $3,000 carbon aero wheels at the local crit and sometimes we get spat out the back of the pack as soon as the pace kicks up. It is also why we should at least keep our critical faculties engaged when reading product review articles that say a wheel is too heavy for racing or a bike too heavy for keeping up in the group ride. In terms of epistemology, we are unable to know enough to make that conclusion, and we should challenge these pet theories.
Perceptions and the placebo effect
But this is not the end of the story. Also in Ben Goldacre’s book is an excellent discussion of the placebo effect. In medicine, a placebo is when you are given a treatment (such as a pill) that has no medicinal ingredients but which you are told will help you and that indeed you find that there is a benefit (typically subjective) to your condition. Much of the effect of the placebo is due to social conditioning and to expectations, such as belief in medicine and authority.
The placebo effect is particularly good in subjective cases, such as pain, depression, or minor ailments (that heal themselves anyway, which is why homeopathy ‘works’). Thus, we can say that a lighter bike might have a placebo effect. We pick it up, feel the relative lightness of our new wheelset, and when we ride it we expect it to go faster. This is how we have been conditioned. And because the feeling of speed is subjective, we may ‘feel’ that we are going faster.
The controversial aspect of the placebo effect is whether there is actually any measurable or objective effect from it, an actual therapeutic process. In one study, referenced on www.badscience.com, Goldacre’s website, the placebo effect produced actual and real exercise health benefits in a group of workers who were educated about the effect of the exercise they were doing. They actually got measurably fitter, despite doing the same amount of exercise as the control group. Thus, there was a measurable effect. One study does not make a universal law (neither will multiple studies, if you follow Popper to his logical conclusion) but the suggestion is, therefore, that if you feel faster on the bike, and expect to go faster, you may end up actually going faster than the potential gains from the weight change – your brain makes you work harder to achieve that speed increase.
In a recent interview with Bicycles Network Australia, Jens Voigt was asked about bike technology. He said: “I swear, in the first year on the Cervélo, with the wheels and everything, I felt like sitting on a sailing boat. You don’t pedal and this bike moves. You are just looking at the other ones around you and are going ‘Oh, you poor thing, you’ve got no chance, you’re already beaten’.” Perception is important. Feeling faster is a good thing – and it can be fun (although very light wheels can feel sketchy, at least for your author). Feeling like you are faster on the hills because of the bike, or quicker to accelerate in a sprint, will improve the enjoyment of your ride. Maybe it can even make you go objectively faster.
The last word
In conclusion, therefore, we should be very cautious in ascribing effects to certain variables that are a) difficult to measure and b) may be less important to other variables that are also difficult, if not impossible, to measure. Ultimately, our own capabilities and characteristics are the biggest variable: we weigh around ten times as much as our bike, we are the biggest factor for wind resistance, and very small variations in power have disproportionate effects on performance.
We might reflect, too, on the conclusions of Heinrich Haussler, after his disappointment at this year’s Milan-San Remo when he was gapped on the Poggio from the winning group, despite being in a relatively good position. “I felt good the whole day and on the Cipressa even played with the idea of attacking,” he said, “but 200 metres before the top of the Poggio it was over. I just could not follow the decisive attack.” When we have trouble keeping up on the group ride, or in the race, if we are really honest we know that the problem was not really with our wheel choice but with our own performance. On the other side of the coin, when we blitz past the guy at the local crit who has a bike that cost three times as much as our own, we don’t look down at our own bike and wonder how it was possible, we know that we were the better rider on the day.
A lighter bike feels good to ride, of that there can be little doubt, and we can enjoy other (possibly highly subjective) traits such as quick handling. As such, this is not an argument against light bikes or expensive wheels, just a plea of critical thinking and for realistic expectations. For beyond the subjective we have the objective; according to the epistemology of speed outlined above, the realm of the objective, now and in the future, cannot be known. Ultimately, while we may want to go faster, it is not all about the bike, it is mostly up to us.
I look down at the sticker recently added to my stem. It’s from Solo, the “race-bred cyclewear” company. It reads: You are not alone. Right now, though, I feel very much alone.
Up ahead the remainder of the pack, already reduced by two-thirds early in the race, is now leaving me behind. One moment I’m climbing the rolling hills with the leaders, the next moment my legs are simply not answering when my brain tells them, “go”. Just five minutes before, I was feeling strong, even confident; but now, nothing. I slip inexorably backwards, the last wheel that I could have followed is now receding away from me. I am alone.
I run through the excuses in my head, a kind of balm to soothe the road rash of ignominy of being dropped. Maybe it was only managing two rides in the previous two weeks before this race; maybe it was the extra few pounds hanging over from the off season; maybe it was a lingering cold; maybe it was getting up a 5.30 am to soothe a crying 3-month-old daughter? But one can never know what the answer is; no excuse is ever a satisfactory explanation. You can either hold the pace or you can’t.
Road racing has been described as chess on wheels, given the multitude of tactical choices that supposedly need to be made in any race situation. But it can be pared down to three basic principles: one, stay out of the wind and follow wheels most of the time; two, get out in the wind and work some of the time; three, sprint like crazy when you need to. But even sticking to these three principles can be difficult – especially if the pace suddenly lifts, unexpectedly, imperceptibly, and you can’t match it.
And then you ride alone.
But there is no point dwelling on disappointment. We amateurs are out here for fun; for most of us – except those on the ladder of ascension to higher Cats – we get to play at bike racers and to enjoy ourselves. We thrill at the chance to test our legs, to swoop through the corners and to (at least try to) sprint up the hills; we ignore some other riders yelling “braking” – as if shouting out what you’re doing in any way gives useful information beyond what your own eyes can see ahead of you – and we ignore the jittery riding of others, and sometimes ourselves.
For we are not the Heinrich Haussler’s of this world, missing the final attack on the Poggio on Saturday’s Milan-San Remo, or Filippo Pozzato on the same day, apparently unable to sprint from a prime position to win the race in front of an Italian crowd. We don’t have to face a critical media, directors, and managers and the burden of our own professional expectations. We are the weekend riders, leaving our day jobs behind, flying past the handfuls of spectators out to watch for their family members and friends in the bunch, doing something we enjoy.
So I ride alone, thinking of the irony of the sticker on my stem, thinking of how I should mention it here for you, dear reader, and at least pay some form of homage not only to a very apt message but also to the superb service that the company provided to me over a mix up in my order (which, by the way, contained some equally superb and highly-recommended products).
Another group catches me up and we ride together for the remainder of the race. I rest up at the back, and then go to the front to take some big pulls – why waste an opportunity for some good training. Now, if I could just get some more sleep, lose the cold and a few pounds, and get a bit more time on the bike.
Then maybe next time I won’t have to ride alone. And if I do, maybe it will be off the front, instead of off the back.
Coming soon: posts on bike style as well as the epistemology of performance…
There is a moment of truth in any race; in fact, it might be called the moment of truth because it is usually when the outcome is decided. The final attack, or the finishing straight, when you pull out into the wind and your brain sends a message to your legs: GO!
At this point, your legs always send back the same message: ‘No’. This is a truism in racing, a known known if you like. By the end of the race, your legs are always tired. Fresh legs are a myth. No matter if you spent the entire race on the front, or sitting in the pack; whether you were chasing down the attacks or following wheels, your legs are always tired. There is always pain. And the natural instinct of your legs is to reply in the negative when your brain asks them to sprint.
Which is why sprinting or attacking into the wind is as much of a mental game as it is a physical one. How badly do we want it?
In racing, we try to convince ourselves that this is not the case, that there are other things that we can do to go faster in the last few kilometres or two hundred metres of a race. Bike choice, wheel choice, how many psi are in the tyres, what tyres we’re using, how full our drink bottle is, how much work we did on the front, whether we should have chased down that break, how many gaps we closed, what we had for breakfast, how many miles we’ve ridden so far this year.
The cumulative percentage value of all these factors when it comes to that final attack is somewhere less than 1 percent. To think otherwise is simply delusional.
What matters is what your brain does when it gets the signal from your legs that they don’t want to work. They will be crying, we’re too tired, we’ve done too much work, we haven’t done enough mileage, the bike is too heavy, the wind is too strong, the other riders are stronger/fresher/faster. They will try to fool you. And you can either be fooled by your legs or tell them, Jens Voigt style, to shut up and start working.
Your brain therefore has to make a choice how it deals with the pain. It can take heed of the pain and abandon the sprint. Or it can ignore it, and tell your legs that no matter how much they complain they will work harder. And if you tell them to work harder, they will do it. They will work until the lactic acid eats aways the muscles and your tendons snap. They will do exactly what your brain tells them to do.
How badly do you want it?
Your author is not a sprinter. But there are races where he has sprinted with some semblance of speed past other riders simply because he wanted it badly enough. Because he wanted to ignore the pain and push himself a little bit more. Because for some insane reason, he wanted to.
But, this Sunday past, the first race of the season, when the legs said ‘no’, your author’s brain hesitated: ‘Are you sure? Maybe just a little?’ It was a chaotic sprint, a single lane with riders at various speeds strung out across the road. There was a gap, a slight nudge with another rider (apologies, good sir), and an opportunity. A chance to pull past another group, to place top 10 – or even top 5 – instead of top 15. Maybe.
But your author’s brain was still preoccupied with a question that had been dogging him all race: is it too soon to be sporting white bar tape? Does one have to wait until after Milan-San Remo or Paris-Roubaix? When? (Reader answers gratefully accepted.) He was distracted enough not to be focused down that narrow racing tunnel, when every synapse in the brain is firing in sync: GO!
So when he pulled over after the sprint, instead of his legs resembling disembodied sticks of concrete, and his lungs bursting out of his chest, wheezing with agony, all functions quickly returned to normal. The opportunity for a better result was there (maybe) but he didn’t want to try for it badly enough.
So the next time that your legs say ‘no’, what will you tell them?
In an interview for the Paris Review on the art of fiction, Ernest Hemingway noted: “Trying to write something of permanent value is a full-time job even though only a few hours a day are spent on the actual writing. A writer can be compared to a well. There are as many kinds of wells as there are writers. The important thing is to have good water in the well, and it is better to take a regular amount out than to pump the well dry and wait for it to refill.”
Regular readers of this blog will know that its author is a fan of the old school cycling writers – Samuel Abt, Geoffrey Nicholson, Robin Magowan, and David Walsh. All were pioneers in the English language coverage of professional cycling in Europe. Their writing betrayed their deep passion for the sport and was symptomatic of its time – newspaper columns and book-length features allowed for studied deliberation, even literary pretensions. As print journalists, they also had a monopoly on the written word and were not competing with news websites, blogs and twitter feeds.
As journalists, the style of the time was strictly along the lines of classic reporting, notably the third-person perspective. Consider this excerpt from Samuel Abt, covering the 18th stage of the Tour de France in 1984 from Alpe d’Huez to La Plagne: “Hinault was in trouble, reaching the top in fortieth place, 3 minutes 50 seconds behind the leaders, including Fignon, who was having another splendid day… In a car following the riders, all the cliches were uttered: The Pyrenees are lovely mountains, human in their scale, but the Alps are truly majestic, dominating, forcing man to feel insignificant.”
It is clear that the passengers in that are are the journalists themselves, Abt included, but they are background characters, their views and utterances adding colour to the story but not acting as pronouncements. Later, as the Tour continues through the Alps, the culinary experiences of the journalists are recounted, but again short on specifics and long on setting the scene: “When the Tour passes through, everybody turns out, eagerly awaiting the publicity caravan… Teenage girls wave at each car beseechingly, like some Cinderella hoping to flag down her prince… At a café a whole family has moved chairs to the side of the road, except for the children who are too excited to sit. The bar is deserted; the owner says, ‘Help yourself, pay later.’ …The local brasserie runs out of hot food as waves of visitors in press cars descend for lunch.”
In his biography of Sean Kelly, David Walsh follows the same template. During the 1984 season, he accompanies Kelly on a round of criterium races following the Tour, the important money-making races for the big stars. Walsh dutifully introduces his presence in the car – Kelly is also accompanied by his wife, Linda, and teammate Ronny Onghena, but does most of the driving himself – but quickly fades into the background. It is the dialogue of his companions, not his own, and the action that fills out the story: “[The] Kortenhoef [criterium] ended before five o’clock, Kelly was back in Brussels before nine and dropping his journalistic companion at the Gare du Nord for the nine-fifteen train back to Paris. The Gare du Nord in Brussels is located in one of the city’s most sleazy quarters with ladies of the night glaring indiscreetly from giant windows. Helping to remove his passenger’s luggage from the boot, Kelly took a sideways glance and said, ‘At least if you miss that Paris train you’ll not be short of something to do around here.’ He smiled but not with the warmth of one at ease. It was the vague expression of a man not naturally inclined to sentimental farewells.” Walsh’s own reply is not recorded.
The new wave
We might see this old style of writing as ‘creative non-fiction’ in that it uses literary devices in a non-fiction setting, but this genre has only recently been defined and seems more applicable to the new wave of writing on cycling, which often has more in common with the memoir, a sub-genre of creative non-fiction. The fundamental change has been the introduction of the author as a key player in the narrative – a full-blown character in the story. For example, in Bill Strickland’s book, Tour de Lance, Strickland has met up with Chris Carmichael: “I looked at him there in the lobby and said, ‘I understand you’re about to get fat again.’ Carmichael shook his head no, puzzled. I didn’t say anything else. I just watched his face and waited for him to unlock the coded meaning of what any bystander would have heard as nothing more than a lame bit of joking. Finally he squinted at me, harder and took a step back, and gave a tentative smile. ‘Where’d you hear that?’ he asked… I shrugged, which was no answer, and, in a way, more telling than any answer I could have given him. He knew that I knew. I knew what just might have been one of the biggest secrets in sports at the time.”
The secret was, of course, Lance Armstrong’s comeback. Strickland had heard it from Johan Bruyneel, when co-authoring their book together. (And as Strickland delights in telling the reader, he also learned a lot of other secrets about the pro peloton that he is unable or unwilling to share.)
Strickland’s book is worth mentioning as an example because in it he is as much of a character as Armstrong is; it is as much about Strickland writing the story – a memoir of his journey, physically and intellectually – as it is about Armstrong’s comeback. This is both interesting and problematic. Firstly, we are privy to Strickland’s insights and musings, a notable addition to the text. Secondly, though, these can become a distraction and a focal point; it is not the action that is always driving the story, but the author’s own inner monologue.
The balance between interesting and problematic is a tricky one. Mike Magnuson, a regular contributor to Bicycling magazine, had his story on Greg LeMond selected for The Best American Sports Writing 2010 anthology, (a collection that also features a story about Jock Boyer by Steve Friedman; that’s quite a coup for cycling writing; whatever one might think about Bicycling’s general editorial policies, it is still a repository for great writing). A casual cycling fan might find the inclusion of the following in a story ostensibly about Greg LeMond to be perplexing: “For years I had more or less done nothing with my life but ride my bicycles or work on my bicycles or read books about riding or books about working on bicycles, and I certainly had gotten much out of the lifestyle, the kind of benefits any cyclist knows so well. Then for reasons that I can only begin to approach by saying I had lost my mind, I had betrayed my wife and taken up with a mistress who was overweight, smoked heavily, was in her mid-20s, considerably younger than me, and had been a student in a class I’d taught the previous spring.”
And that is not Greg LeMond that Magnuson is talking about, of course, but himself. His story is his life filtered through his relationship – as a fan and a working journalist – with LeMond. This makes for some compelling writing, particularly for those who have read Magnuson’s previous articles, or his (great) book, Heft on Wheels. But it is not going to work for every reader, particularly one who wants to know what actually happened to Greg LeMond, not what happened to the author and LeMond.
In a Samuel Abt book, one’s enjoyment of it will depend on two factors: the subject (the events and the characters), and the description of the subject – the style of the writing. The first is probably a given, for cycling fans interested in the races and the riders; the second is the variable. To return to the example of Tour de Lance, this means that one’s enjoyment of the book will also depend on a third factor: whether one enjoys the addition of another character – the author.
In this case, dear reader, I was initially skeptical of this book. As a regular consumer of the memoir-style creative non-fiction story, cycling and otherwise (there are many such titles available at present, it would seem), one finds one’s tolerance of many authors’ musings to be somewhat low. Add in the subject (Armstrong – did we really need another book; was there anything about his comeback that hadn’t been editorialized, serialized, blogged or tweeted about?), and the initial prognosis was not looking good. But Strickland is a superb writer. He descriptions of the race action, such as Armstrong in Monaco for the Tour that opens the book (“Here he is. Lance Armstrong. And there he goes: a blue-and-yellow-and-white figure on a black-and-yellow bike streaking over the gray surface of the road in Monaco late on a summer morning, the sun’s yellow pale in comparison to the shoulder of his jersey, the sky’s blue like nothing more than the original idea for the magnificent tones that wrap around his back and legs.”), or at the Giro are as good as anything put into print about the sport. For this reason, the book itself is excellent – the writing trumps any reservations about the subject or the take-it-or-leave-it author’s narrative of his own journey.
These days, there are plenty of critics. At their best they add to the coverage and the debate; at their worst, they are what Jonathan Vaughters recently lamented as the “the chattering, anonymous fans hurling comments and critiques.” The purpose of this post is twofold. Firstly, to outline how writing about cycling has evolved; indeed, it has followed the styles of the times. This evolution has not necessarily been negative: it all depends on the reader. There are many writers and many wells, but the water they draw from them will not be to everyone’s taste. (Although, as noted, a good writing style can trump all.) We are now saturated with coverage from all manner of sources, and one cannot help but think that the well can get pumped pretty dry on the particular aspect of cycling that is being covered at the time. We expect a more engaged and opinionated author – with strong views to provide a counterpoint to our own. If it is a certain romanticism that has been lost, perhaps that is indeed symptomatic of our times. We may not wish to lament it, but to simply note that it has passed.
Secondly, this blog has always endeavoured to provide a detached and objective view of the various topics it has covered, as much in the style of the old-school journalists as a decided amateur can accomplish. As time permits, this blog hopes to continue to do the same, but to also branch out a little and provide some slightly different coverage to what regular readers will be familiar with. A little freshening up for spring, perhaps. One hopes, therefore, faithful reader, that you will humour this branching out and find some small satisfaction in the change of style and pace. Watch this space.
In the interim, in the humble view of your scribe, it is hard not to think that Samuel Abt followed Hemingway’s advice on writing to the letter: good water in his well and taken out in regular amounts. Abt was always on the lookout for the human side of cycling, the forgotten and struggling lesser riders, labouring in the shadows of the stars. He also clearly relished being among the locals, and many of his columns feature vignettes involving spectators along the route, such as in this excerpt from Off to the Races in 1986.
The cynical Monsieur Dupont locked his country post office, slipped into his government-issued blue overcoat with gold buttons and drove to the highest hill overlooking the village of Vaudebarrier.
“It’s a fraud and a cheat – no question about that,” he announced to somebody already atop the hill, peering down the valley to catch sight of the pack in Paris-Nice. “I know, we all know, that races are being bought and sold,” Monsieur Dupont continued. “You see it now even in the Tour de France. Money talks and everybody listens.” He rubbed his thumb over his first two fingers in the universal gesture.
Then why was he standing on the edge of a stubbled cornfield on a cold day in March, waiting for Paris-Nice to stream by? “It’s a cheat and fraud,” Monsieur Dupont explained, “but it’s spring.” Yes it was.
Reading Abt’s writing is like a restorative tonic. It is a reminder that professional cycling will endure yet another scandal because we fans will continue to line the roads whenever we can. Your author can only hope that we readers will continue to be well served by cycling writers – current writing fads aside, perhaps – who will continue to nourish our enjoyment of the sport in ways that a regular diet of websites, blogs and twitter feeds cannot.
Even the most enthusiastic can get jaded from time-to-time. But as Abt writes in the following excerpt from his book Up the Road, the Tour can still move even an ill-at-ease old writer (who is never identified, although his identity is hardly in doubt, as Abt still stays close to his journalistic style even when allowing his own views to creep into his narrative).
An American who began living in France more than two decades ago as a Francophile (don’t they all?), and over the years believed he had become a Francophobe (don’t they all?) was having dinner in Rouen and, as he ate his was through the cheese course, was thinking about what those years had taught him.
For one thing, he had learned how to eat cheese. Since this was Normandy, he selected Pont l’Eveque, Livarot, and Camembert, three regional cheeses made within a few miles of each other, all soft and covered with crust. With Pont l’Eveque and Livarot, those many years had taught him, the crust is cut away; with Camembert, the crust is eaten. Get that wrong, the French snicker at you. They snicker at you anyway, he told himself.
Abt goes on to describe how this American is lamenting the weather, the poor state of his hotel, and the sudden intrusion of a bus load of elderly customers into the restaurant. But then he recognizes a familiar voice, a former official from the Tour that had “ordered people in cars – the press (this very fellow, for one) – the clear the road for the riders”. An announcement is then made that the group is the former teammates of Jacques Anquetil, celebrating the great champion’s victory in the Tour forty years before.
The grouchy American lifted his glass and saluted the old men, who were too busy talking about the old days to notice. For them, the 1957 Tour was still rolling around the country in that summer’s heavy heat and Anquetil was preparing to don the first of his many yellow jerseys in Charleroi. They were rolling through the Alps, the old men, and then the Pyrenees, where their leader had faltered on the final 1,500 metres of the Aubisque and had to be helped up and over. And then, do you remember, two days later, Anquetil, looking fresh as a daisy, won the final time trial.
Listening to their stories, the fellow so down on things French only an hour before felt the old affection stir. It was hard, he decided, to dislike a country where the Tour de France in all its glory and colour could sweep right through a restaurant.
The official records note that the 1946 Milan-San Remo, the first edition of the race following Italy’s devastation in World War II and thus a historically significant running of the race, was won by one Fausto Coppi. But ‘won’ is slightly misleading. If the goal of any professional cyclist is to win a major race in the clear, alone in the finishing photograph, Coppi’s ride that year gave new meaning to the notion.
Coppi attacked some 200 kilometres from the finish, well before the strategically important Passo del Turchino, the climb just before the route turns onto the coast. As William Fotheringham recounts in his book, Fallen Angel, Coppi left the last of his breakaway companions behind on the Turchino itself. The last of them, Lucien Teisseire, looked down to change gears and when he looked up Coppi was gone. Coppi rode alone for the last 147 kilometres of the race and his winning margin in San Remo was 14 minutes. Arriva Coppi, the crowd chanted at the finish. That day, there was Coppi and then there was everyone else.
The Italian winter
In his training manual, Greg LeMond laments the typical Italian rider’s winter. “The Italians always take two months off their bikes,” he said. “They put them in the basement and never touch them for the entire winter.” LeMond went on to say that no wonder they had to start with small gears when they got back into training, that for every week off the bike it takes about three weeks to get back into shape. LeMond notes that Franceso Moser ignored this approach for the 1984 season and went on to several notable victories, including Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Italia (with some help from the organisers in the latter to beat Laurent Fignon).
The axiom is that if you want to ride fast in the spring, you have to put the work in over the winter. A glance at the results of the early season races suggests that the the Italians traditionally struggled with the more demanding events. In the first stage race of the year, Paris-Nice, run in early March, Italian riders faced a multi-decade long drought with Dario Frigo’s win in 2001 (Frigo was later expelled from the Tour de France for EPO doping) the first since 1946. The only other Italian winner in recent times was Davide Rebellin in 2008.
Sean Kelly, well known for his winter training, won the race seven times from 1982 to 1988. Kelly was regarded as a sprinter early in his career, with good wins by the end of 1981 but without any of the major race victories for which he would become known. In 1982 he found new direction in the small Sem France-Loire team under Jean de Gribaldy, who saw something else in Kelly to nurture. As David Walsh recounts, he arrived at the first team training camp of the season already “very fit” and soon showed his form with a win at the Tour du Haut Var.
In Paris-Nice, Kelly had just a one second lead early in the race. Just before the Col d’Eze mountain time trial, this had become a four-second deficit. Expectations were that French racer Gilbert Duclos Lasalle would hold this lead as Kelly could apparently neither climb nor time trial.
But on the 11-kilometre climb, Kelly produced a performance, according to Walsh, of “power and class… trading entirely on raw strength.” By the summit, Kelly had put 44 seconds in Lassalle and Kelly’s first major stage race win was in the bag. His winter preparation had paid off.
In all fairness, Italian riders have typically placed more emphasis on Milan-San Remo in the spring rather than Paris-Nice. In La Primavera, their record has been much more consistent. Moser’s win in 1984 followed Guiseppi Saronni’s win the year before (although there was a drought of wins in the 1950s and 60s) and since then Italian’s have been regularly on the podium.
Still, in preparation for his ride in 1946, Fausto Coppi left nothing to chance. Having spent the latter years of the war in a British prison camp, Coppi had to recover his form. By March 19, the race day, Coppi had completed 7,000 kilometres since the start of the year. After three weeks of light work, distances had jumped to 250 kilometres per ride. In the last two weeks, the speed work started; Coppi would ride solo for 150 kilometres before meeting up with a group of amateur riders who would attack him constantly for the 100 kilometres remaining on the ride, simulating racing conditions.
This punishing regime gave Coppi both speed and stamina. His early attack was audacious, catching the rest of the race by surprise. But he had the conditioning to hold it all the way to the finish and to utterly dominate the event. It would be the template for the rest of his career.
So, for any amateur rider approaching their local spring season with delusions of grandeur, what sort of Italian winter did you have?
In 1986, Bernard Hinault raced the Clásico RCN in Colombia. “[It] is terrifying,” he said. “Every day you’re in the mountains, climbing to unbelievable altitudes. It was a difficult race and we never stopped climbing. The landscapes are enough to make you dizzy.”
Hinault won the final time trial, held at an altitude of 2,600 metres, in which he beat Lucho Herrera, the overall winner. Hinault complemented the great climbing of the Colombians, but later could not resist a little jab when he noted that the riders who were beating him in the mountains in Colombia were “crucified” on the flat in that year’s Tour de France.
Similarly, as preparation for his Tour ride in 1984, Laurent Fignon also raced in the Clásico. He wanted to prove that his win in the 1983 Tour was not, as he said, a “fluke” and was looking for some tough riding in the mountains. “The event was perfect preparation because it all took place at over 2,000 metres above sea level.” It is difficult to assess the value of this preparation, but Fignon dominated the Tour in that year and won five stages.
Ride. Hills. Lots
The message seems to be a basic one: if you want to go faster up hills, ride more up hills. Climb, climb and climb some more. It will never get any easier, but you will go faster. Eventually. As Jonathan Vaughters said: “I see so many people looking for that secret technique or training method that will make climbing painless and suffer-free. This will never happen. Climbing is painful, period. The sooner you just accept that and stop looking for ways around it, the better you will learn how to climb.”
This appeared to be the accepted wisdom, but this may well be not the case at all. In the latest issue of Bicycling, a reader writes to Chris Carmichael ‘The Coach’: “I’m used to long climbs, but I just moved to an area with lots of short, steep hills. Any tips on acclimatizing?”
One would have expected Carmichael to answer something like: “Er, go ride the short steep hills. Lots.” Instead, he suggests a series of gym exercises, then intervals (at which point your author’s eyes glazed over at the mention of intervals), which can be done either on the bike or on a stationary trainer. At no point did Carmichael suggest that the reader actually do any climbing.
Clearly your author is missing something here. Carmichael, a former professional racer, has had – as we all know – a spectacular coaching career, including coaching some Texan who won the Tour seven times (and spent a lot of time training in the mountains before racing in the mountains). Carmichael’s book on riding less now to go faster later was even reviewed right here.
Clearly, your author – who can claim no particular coaching expertise or even riding prowess, but just an affinity for old school training – has been labouring under the impression that the short, steep hills he has been riding in his own neighbourhood would help him go faster up those same hills in the future. This appears not to be the case. But who has got time for gym routines and complicated intervals when there is riding to be done?
It is back to the drawing board, as they say. In the interim, in case you (dear reader) missed it, here’s an old post on climbing like Bernard le blaireau Hinault himself – and don’t forget to check under the Climbing Skills tag on the menu above to see other posts on suffering in the mountains.
In the interests of science, your author has eschewed all conventional energy drinks (and other quack remedies, such as those pictured in this post below) to concoct what may indeed be the perfect tonic for winter riding. The winter riding tonic should be fortifying against the cold, and restorative of both morale and energy.
For this tonic, take one bidon and fill it three-quarters full of hot tea (English Breakfast is particularly suitable, but don’t be too picky), add milk – and lemon, if you prefer – to taste. To keep increase the restorative function, add some brown sugar and a healthy tipple of Drambuie (or similar) – the latter ingredient also having the advantage of helping to reduce the chances of your tonic freezing in its bottle, or the rider freezing on the inside. It won’t stay hot for your entire ride, but will do for the first few miles until you get warmed up; and the little tipple will keep you warm on the inside for the entire ride.
Naturally, having an iron constitution will also help the function of this tonic. Also, remember to wash your bottle thoroughly. Your author is currently testing the Clean Bottle which makes the process of cleaning out the residue a very straightforward process. Finally, as your training gets more serious, substitute orange juice for the milk (or add some more sugar) to give it more of a readily-accessible calorie count.
If such a tonic is not to your liking, feel free to submit your own winter riding recipe below. And remember that having ‘a little something’ in your bottle is not always necessary – the café raid has a long and venerable tradition in cycling. Feel free to uphold it.
If you think you had a rough time on your last winter ride, it was likely nothing compared with the pro season in Europe.
[Maynard] Hershon: Tell me, Alex, about the “typical pro moment”.
[Alex] Stieda: In my mind, it’s racing in Belgium, or anywhere, but Belgium comes to mind. It’s pissin’ rain, the wind’s coming across the road at an angle…
[Bob] Roll: Slowed down by nothin’ whatsoever…
Stieda: No trees…no hills…the wind’s whipping across your face. Anything you say gets torn out of your mouth and thrown out into the cow shit. Cow shit’s getting sprayed up at you off the road ’cause you’re riding through where the manure spreader was the day before.
Roll: It washes out onto the road. You have pig shit and cow and horse crap and human feces coming up in your mouth the whole race…
Stieda: …from the spray from the rider in front of you. You look up; there’s five echelons up the road. You look back: there’s no echelon behind you. You’re the last guy, just hanging on. You can’t pedal any harder. You pull on the bars harder, just trying to keep up. You’re giving everything. You look up the road and there’s a guy from your echelon attacking, trying to get to the next echelon. Nothing you can do. That’s a typical pro experience… — Maynard Hershon, Half-Wheel Hell & Other Cycling Stories.
Gore-Tex surely rates as one of the most useful inventions in the last 50 years for the outdoor enthusiast. The porous fabric was first patented in 1976 and then again in 1980 as a ‘waterproof laminate’. One of its inventors, Robert Gore, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2006. It is hard not to marvel at its function: waterproof, yet breathable; lightweight and (relatively) easy to maintain. Since its invention, outdoor activities in inclement weather have never been more bearable.
Which is exactly why no self-respecting roadie needs a Gore-Tex rain jacket, or any of the fabulous other high-tech rain wear subsequently developed.
Riding in the rain, when it is really raining, is not meant to be enjoyable. It is meant to be miserable and uncomfortable. The rain makes us ride faster, work harder, so we can be home quicker to be cozy with our families.
Riding in the rain is a necessary part of being a cyclist. Getting wet and cold is not. Which is why we have the rain cape. The ‘modern’ rain cape jacket is made of PVC, a polymer that was plasticized in 1926. It is impervious to wind and to rain (and to sweat) and is also compact and lightweight. It is entirely function over form; it’s uncomfortable to wear, won’t wick and won’t breathe (your author’s Louis Garneau version, which is made of another plastic, EVA, has some micromesh side venting, which helps a little) – although some improvement can be made by cutting the sleeves short.
Such a jacket is essential for the fact that it is uncomfortable, for the reasons noted above. And if the rain does stop, or a quick cafe stop is required, the jacket can be easily stowed in a rear pocket – wearing a rain jacket when it is not raining or indoors is simply not done.
Sean Kelly is the patron saint of winter riding. He spent nearly 20 years suffering in the Belgian rain for our sins. We honour his contribution to the sport with a teaspoon full of his suffering. A plastic jacket should be good enough for all of us.
Sean Kelly misses out on the World Championship title to Greg LeMond in the rain in Chamberey, with great rides from Laurent Fignon and a very unlucky Steve Bauer (who was passed by Fignon on the climb just before the video starts).
As the year comes to an end, your author – like every other cyclist – is looking back on the year just past, adding up the miles and wishing that there was more time in the schedule for riding. Ironically, we want to get to the top of that hill as fast as possible, but always want to spend more time on the bike to do it.
Christmas this year yielded many surprise gifts. A couple of secondhand books in the stocking will hopefully provide fertile ideas for new postings on this blog in the New Year – in between rides, of course.
One highlight from the bookshelf will be Kings of The Road: A Portrait of Racers and Racing, which combines the writing talents of Robin Magowan with the photag skills of Graham Watson. Before our current era of websites, blogs, Facebook and Twitter, the printed medium was where this combination could shine. The helmet-less riders that grace the covers of such books are now as dated as the medium itself – replace by instant updates and continuous coverage.
Not to worry, as we can still look back and enjoy some great portraits, written and visual, such as this great rendering of climbing ace Robert Millar, in his Peugeot kit in the 1980s, his face twisted with fatigue.
Another gift this year was a New Zealand cycling cap, which will be a useful addition to your author’s now nearly complete antipodean kit. It will be a big season for NZ cycling with the launch of the Pure Black Racing professional team – who will be distinctive in their definitive black colours. NZ racers have been visible in the pro ranks for a number of years, perhaps best currently epitomized by Julian Dean (constantly vying with Mark Renshaw from Australia for the title of best lead-out man in the world, a classic cross-Tasman rivalry), who will be going strong for another season with Garmin. So much to look forward to as a fan in 2011.
Thanks to everyone who read the (rapidly diminishing number of) posts on this blog in 2010. Watch this space for the annual post on winter training coming in due course. But in the interim, in the words to Eddy Merckx, ride. Lots.
Selected vignettes from some of your author’s favourite cycling authors and books.
“For the stake of the combat is not to know who will defeat the other, destroy the other, but who will be subjugate the third common enemy: nature. Heat, cold, it is these excesses, and worse still their opposites, which the racer must confront with and even, inflexible movement; it is Earth’s resistance he must add to the resistance of objects…
“The severest ordeal that nature imposes on the racer is the mountain. The mountain: weight. Now to conquer the slopes and the weight of things is to allow that man can possess the entire physical universe. But this conquest is so arduous that a moral man must commit himself to it altogether; that is way – and the whole country knows this – the mountain stages are key to the Tour: not only because they determine the winner, but because they openly manifest the nature of the stake, the meaning of the combat, the virtues of the combatant.
“The end of the mountain stage is therefore the a condensation of the entire human adventure: there are winners… there are the unlucky ones… there is despair. There is self-control.
“Muscle does not make the sport: that is the evidence of the Tour de France. Muscle, however, precious, is never more than raw material. It is not muscle that wins. What wins is a certain idea of man and of the world, of man in the world. This is the idea that man is fully defined by his action, and man’s action is not to dominate other men, it is to dominate things.”
— Roland Barthes, What Is Sport?, 1960.
“Although Barthes wrote as a fascinated outsider, the Tour had just acquired the greatest of all its chroniclers from the inside. Antoine Blondin was a dazzlingly gifted writer, as can be seen in novels like Un singe un hiver (A Monkey in Winter), a sardonic reactionary contemptuous of the leftist domination of French intellectual life, a self-destructive boozer, and a passionate devotee of the Tour. His dispatches for the Equipe from 1954 to 1982, apart from showing how well a man can write even when half drunk half the time, are an uncommon example of truly fine sports writing.”
— Geoffrey Wheatcroft, Le Tour: A History of the Tour de France, 2003.
“During the Tour I met the writer Antoine Blondin at several receptions. He never interviews anybody, but just records his impressions of what he’s seen and what he feels. Sometimes René Fallet was with him. They both love the Tour and, in simple language, they turn it into a modern epic, a troubador’s song, a crusade, as they describe its beauty. The most banal event becomes significant to Blondin: he has only to see it and write about it. He raised the status of the Tour by giving it his own cachet; it became a myth to be renewed every year. No matter how predictable the race he could maintain the interest in it.
“The only thing I won [at the Classico RCN in Colombia in 1986] was the time trial in which, over 2,600 metres up, I was delighted when I beat Herrera. The Colombians excel in such conditions but when it came to the Tour de France and the return match it was my turn to lay down the law. The same riders who had beaten me in the mountains were crucified on the flat. When they reached the Pyrenees and the Alps they had no strength left. We made them ride against the wind without letting them shelter so, when they reached the passes, they’d lost their strength in battles they weren’t used to. When they were worn out I took my revenge. Being an excellent climber isn’t enough to win the Tour. You need to stay with the pace on the flat and to survive the time trials. Perhaps a Colombian will win the Tour one day, just as Martin Ramirez won the 1984 Dauphiné to become the first Colombian winner of a European stage race. When it happens I shall be very happy for the winner and for Colombia.”
— Bernard Hinault, Memories of the Peloton, 1989.
“Not everybody was pleased with the way Laurent Fignon had mocked Bernard Hinault after the climb to L’Alpe-d’Huez, but Fignon seemed to believe that if you couldn’t kick a man when he was down, when could you kick him? Even while he talked offhandedly and modestly about himself, he was unable to skip an opportunity to needle his rival. “I don’t know if I’m becoming one of the great riders,” he told an interviewer, “but I do know that it all ends one day. Look at Bernard. Two years ago they called him unbeatable.
“Nobody was will to confirm it, but the rumor said that as the pack began to climb the 2,640-metre high Col du Galibier, the struggling Hinault had been jeered by riders who recalled with bitterness his breakaways on the road to Bordeaux, to Blagnac, and to L’Alpe-d’Huez. Another version of the rumor went that they had not so much mocked him as tried to shame him into not attacking and allowing the pack to have a paced, uneventful day.
“Nobody need have worried on the way up. Hinault was in trouble, reaching the top in fortieth place, 3 minutes 50 seconds behind the leaders, including Fignon, who was having another splendid day. He climbed like a sightseer, he said later, taking time to admire the grand view across the top of the Alpine world. In a car following the riders, all the clichés were uttered: The Pyrenees are lovely mountains, human in their scale, but the Alps are truly majestic, dominating, forcing man to feel insignificant.”
— Samuel Abt, Breakaway: On the Road with the Tour de France, 1985.
“On the first mountain stage of 1976, finishing at Alpe d’Huez, Zoetemelk and Poulidor used a double chain wheel of 42-53 and six rear sprockets of from thirteen to twenty-three teeth. Van Impe and Romero, on the other hand, had chain wheels of 44-52, and when Romero made his attack to chase the leaders he used a ratio of 44×21, or 44×19 in the harder sections. I’m not suggesting that I counted the teeth as I passed; this information was contained in an advertisement by Maillard, maker of the most fashionable freewheel in the Tour. (Freewheels are compulsory; if a fixed rear wheel were used the pedals might touch the ground in cornering and cause dreadful carnage.) Nor do I think in themselves the gear ratios are of any interest except to a specialist. But to the kind of person who just rides a bike to get somewhere, it might come as a surprise that cycling can even be considered in these terms.
“In fact the racing bike, for all that it has retained the basic simplicity of Starley’s design, is an instrument of high refinement: a single lens reflex compared with the box cameras most of us grew up with. For all that its chief fascination remains, that it’s the only form of transport with an engine that can think for itself, act on impulse, show courage and alarm and suffer from loss of morale.”
–Geoffrey Nicholson, The Great Bike Race, 1978.
“The sport I saw took place in a social backwater, in a landscape of industrial blight. And it was the notion of that sub-proletariat, that class of the forgotten-about, the dispossessed, that gave cycling its charm, its coherence. Seem from within the ghetto, the racers had something epic, colossal, about them. They were “giants of the road”, men who on their fantasy bicycles transcended the great mountains. And the mountains, as everyone knew, were not far from the abyss with all its temptations, it criminality. It was a sport in which scandal and achievement were constantly mixed. There was this fine line and we all watched, fascinated, by how each in turn negotiated it.
“This ghetto base did not keep cycling from being a sport created by writers from the sporting tabloids; people who knew their “Iliad”, their classical mythology. And with the freest of brushes they painted a sport that was truly like nothing else, based as it was on sheer hyperbole. But there was a challenge it it as well. Either a race flabbergasted our imaginations, or it didn’t. Those that did, like the Tour, or Paris-Roubaix, survived. And many did, enough to sustain and eight-month season.
“It was this ghetto base and the heady verbal mix that went with it that drew us. And it was why the sport came into its own in the mountains. Here was racing that we could actually see, for an hour or so as one then another struggling member of the peloton passed us, the living myth, cartoon reality at its richest, its most haggard. And it is what I believe has changed most in recent years. The television camera cannot show the steepness of the road, what it means to be dragging your carcass uphill, against all that gravity. And it’s no accident that the Tours keep being decided in time trials, on the flat, and which keep getting longer. It makes for riveting television watching. But it is not quite the same as being up there yourself, stoned, with a picnic basket, weeping, taking it all in: the melting roads, the snow, the frantic figures with their hoses and buckets and merciful hands, and the poor, gaunt, blasted figures themselves, who have ridden up into this hell, this paradise.”
— Robin Magowan, Tour de France: The Historic 1978 Event, 1979.
No, La Niña is not an exotic Spanish doping technique but an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon that lowers the ocean temperature in the Eastern Pacific by 3-5 degrees. This phenomena is going to be the primary driver of the winter weather here in British Columbia and, according to the Farmer’s Almanac, “Winter temperatures will be a bit below normal, on average, with below-normal precipitation and above-normal snowfall.”
The Fall season, if it is agreeable, can be a fantastic time for riding – days that are cool and clear, with the change of season producing fabulous new colours from the trees. But it is but a temporary hiatus from the weather to come – cold, dark, and wet; each ride becomes delicate balancing act in choosing between how many, and which, layers to wear and making the right choice of gloves, rain protection, hot toddy, and riding route. Foraging for one’s old booties from the bottom of the drawer is essential, as four months of fighting off wet feet awaits.
Yet Winter riding can have its satisfactions, if nothing else than the relief it brings from short days spent mostly indoors, and the opportunities it affords for plotting and scheming about plans and exploits for more agreeable weather. Plus, it’s an opportunity to explore new routes, which your author hopes to do – avoiding the dull monotony (but obvious training advantages) of the indoor trainer, a most disagreeable invention.
A season of discontent
By most accounts, the season of professional racing just passed was the most memorable in years. Thrilling, engaging racing with some great individual performances and a variety of winners; plus, the spectre of doping seemed to be retreating further into the background.
Then came the news of the two positive results from the Vuelta, one from the runner up himself, Ezequiel Mosquera. The rider from the Xacobeo Galicia team gave a climbing master class during the Vuelta, epitomized by his performance on the Bola del Mundo summit finish. Mosquera tested positive for hydroxyethyl starch (HES), a banned masking agent that expands plasma volumes to lower hematocrit levels; it can only be taken via blood transfusion – a banned procedure. Oscar Sevilla also tested positive for the substance in Colombia.
If this was not enough, the news then leaked out that Alberto Contador, winner of this year’s Tour de France, had tested positive for clenbuterol, a steroid apparently used to control weight gain. The case to date has followed a familiar theme: media leaks from the laboratory, accusations of foot-dragging at the UCI, a convenient – possibly plausible, according to some – excuse of tainted meat, and suggestions that the clenbuterol was part of a wider doping regime involving blood transfusions.
Once again, cycling is under the popular spotlight, a spotlight largely oblivious to the technicalities of the case but which is shining a bright light on the sport and concluding that it is business as usual for doping.
This, of course, may not be too far from the truth. We now have all of the Tour winners going back to 1996 having been suspended for doping (not necessarily for the Tour they won), under suspicion of doping, under investigation for doping, or having tested positive for doping – with the exception of Carlos Sastre in 2008. By some accounts, you have to go back to Greg LeMond to find a clean winner. Does this mean that Bernard Kohl (“People know in cycling that’s it’s not possible to win the Tour de France without it…”) is correct?
Given that most serious observers and participants have argued that this year’s Tour (and this year’s season) was the cleanest in some time, and given that numerous riders who have never been suspected of doping won races and stages, it is more accurate to say that doping is not required to win the Tour – but it certainly helps. Such is the nature of professional sports, where the rewards for winning are fame and, more importantly, fortune.
Sport as work
Your humble author has already noted the tension between the mythical status given to cycling and the hard graft undertaken by the riders themselves. This issue – sport as spectacle versus sport as work – was taken up directly at the anti-doping conference in Geelong recently, to coincide with the World Championships. The report by Australian and other researchers, I Wish I Was Twenty One Now – Beyond Doping in the Australian Peloton, which drew extensively on interviews with Australian pros in Europe, is worth quoting at length.
The difficulty we’ve consistently struck up against in preparing this report relates to a point of tension between regulatory and legal frameworks designed to maintain certain social values and the practical ‘coal face’ experiences of our participants. That tension reflects a difference between what sport ‘means’ as a cultural spectacle or social force, and what it means to its workforce and the industry that surrounds it. Of course, the two are inherently linked. As participants constantly pointed out, being a professional cyclist isn’t just another day job. The values of fair play, athleticism and competitive spirit are part of their sense of self just as much as they’re part of the wider social appeal of sport. At the same time, it’s hard to have a healthy sense of identity when you’re faced with pressing poverty or you know full well that a minor crash might result in an untimely return to a ‘career’ stocking supermarket shelves. (Page 143)
The idea of the values of sport being part of cyclists’ identities is not so far from Henri Desgrange’s idea of l’ouvrier de la pedale, so we have been grappling with these ideas for some time. The broader point is important, though, and the report goes on to note the somewhat precarious situation that pro cyclists find themselves in – entering into the sport early in life and having little or no tertiary education or other job skills, and having perhaps only 10-15 years to get ahead financially and perhaps find another place for themselves in the sport or elsewhere. Also noted was the lack of financial support given for retirement savings and so on. Given that only a small percentage of the peloton would make the really big money, being part of that super elite group provided a major incentive. One interviewee told the authors, “…it’s no wonder that all those poor Spaniards with little education, they were prepared to do whatever it takes.”
Compared to other professional sports, cycling is not a big money sport. To see the real money, one has to look to professional football/soccer, or to US sports. Given that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg for doping scandals in these sports, it is clear that money is a major issue.
Given our attitudes on doping, one wonders if the current model of professional sports is hopelessly flawed. Big money is simply too much of an incentive to take shortcuts. One cannot help but wonder if a new model could work. What if all the salaries were divided equally among the professional teams; what if the prizes for winning were simply the glory? Sponsors would presumably still be happy; would the racing be any less exciting?
Still, we are a competitive bunch. As anyone who has raced a local amateur road race or a mid-week world champs criterium knows, fair plays soon gives way to heated competition fairly quickly. There may be no doping, but attitudes – although friendly in the main – are not always so convivial. We are a competitive bunch. As one participant told the study’s authors, “I guarantee you right now… you will never stop doping as long as there’s money and people who want to win.” You can take away the money factor, but racers still want to win.
The biggest change in pro cycling regarding doping happened after the Festina Affair in 1998. The sport set itself, slowly but surely, on a path of not ignoring doping and treating it like a fact of life in the sport. Public attitudes have subsequently hardened. Doping was previously seen as necessary for the spectacle of cycling; past champions like Coppi and Anquetil talked openly of their use of amphetamines. But as the EPO era finally spiralled out of control, the majority of fans and the sport’s organizers were changing their view, and a new norm was emerging.
The peloton has been slower to react, as the ongoing, incessant doping scandals bear witness to. But norms are changing there, too, as one participant in the study noted, sounding typically Australian: “I think one of the things that’s changed the most with the peloton at the moment is that, back in the old days, everyone would talk about doping, and everyone would talk about what they’re on and how much they’re having, and this guy’s was on this, and this guy’s taken that and all this sort of thing and just a completely open forum about doping basically.
“And it’s got to the stage now, where if someone gets caught using something, there’s guys in the bunch, and everyone just – they’re on the outer, they’re the ones getting the piss taken out of them, they’re the ones that are not get… that are getting fucked over in the cross winds, and they’re the ones that are getting slowly outed from the sport because socially they’re not, they’re not one of us anymore. They’re the ones ruining the sport.”
The future, therefore, towards a cleaner sport lies with the changing attitudes of the riders. Anything that can be done by the powers-that-be and by fans to assist that process can only be for the better.
The yellow jersey, R.I.P?
As this post was being written, the Tour de France route for 2011 was announced, with the usual fanfare but without the defending champion at the presentation – yet again. This year’s edition produced some absolutely thrilling racing, but mostly that was not important for the overall – sprints, breakaways, and mountain wins by plucky adventurers provided more entertainment than the top tier of the yellow jersey competition.
Given the nearly total invisibility of Tour winners free from doping suspicion in the last 15+ years (take your pick as to your standards of evidence), one can only wonder whether the carnival and hoopla that accompanies the maillot jaune is simply now just hype devoid of any standing or significance. Is it simply a magnet, still, for those riders who won’t change, who are still ruining the sport? It is a sad thesis to posit, but any cycling fan could surely not be blamed for searching for more satisfaction for their support of the sport in other jersey competitions or in other races.
We have had a feast this season of great racing action, with winners that are surely clean and at races that have been slightly below the usual radar of the mass media. These are the riders and the races that will continue to sustain cycling well into the future, until the yellow jersey can be finally claimed back.
May La Niña pass quickly this winter and, too, this season of discontent.
Periodically, one hears the refrain that sports and politics should be kept separate. Such calls are often made when the participation in or holding of certain sporting events is controversial – not for sporting but for political reasons.
One might fairly trace this debate in modern times back to the 1936 Olympics to be held in Berlin. The US considered a boycott, due to concerns over Hitler’s racist policies, but the boycott was opposed by US sports official Avery Brundage, later the IOC president, who was adamant that political differences should not affect the Olympic ideal (“fine athletics and fine art”).
Brundage was later criticised for his pro-Nazi views but this did not prevent his acension in the IOC. His views of politics and sport would later surface when he strongly opposed the exclusion of Rhodesia from the 1972 Olympics, conflating it with the terrorist attack in Munich that year and arguing that after the hostage taking that: “The Games must go on…” In 1968 he ensured the suspension from the US team of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos after they gave their Black Power salute on the podium following the 200 metre event. “They violated one of the basic principals of the Olympic Games. That politics play no part whatsoever in them,” he said. (Interestingly, the second place finisher, Peter Norman, also protested and wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, attracting criticism but not suspension.)
Perhaps it is worth noting that Brundage was also a proponent of amateurism in sport, and was quoted saying that, “As soon as you take money for playing sport, it isn’t sport, it’s work.” He would certainly have been opposed to the commercial direction that the modern Olympics has taken – although the ‘amateurism’ of the Olympics was always rife with contradictions.
It may be a cliche to say that everything is political, but it is clear even from Brundage’s views that he was motivated by strong political beliefs of his own. Presumably, too, he could see that the Berlin Olympics – like perhaps every games subsequent – was a political project as much as a sporting one. Host cities have used the Games as political showcases (see Beijing most recently), just as athletes have used them to make their own statements, or terrorists and protesters have attacked the Olympics to make broader statements.
Given, too, the boycotts that have affected Olympic (and Commonwealth) Games over the years, separating the politics from the sport is a pure fiction. We might hold up sport as a pure and untainted ideal, but its organization and conduct is but an extension of the values – the politics – that we deploy to govern ourselves and project our image internationally. Politics as culture as sport.
The cycling connection
The link between sport and politics in cycling is an interesting one, which can only be briefly discussed here but which is one of the themes of this blog. It is worth noting, in particular, that the Tour de France in its early history was a specific political project. Henri Desgrange conceived it as a unifying force for a France dominated largely at the time by regionalism, and also as a project for improving the health and vitality of its population. It also became a tool for upward mobility, for working-class riders to learn bourgeois values but while always remembering their place in society – under the benevolent tutelage of rule-makers such as Desgrange.
Desgrange, like Brundage, was a strong proponent of amateurism. He resisted the commercialism of the Tour and was in constant battles with the manufacturers who sponsored the teams. He wanted his political values to drive the Tour, not the commercial imperatives of industry. (It is perhaps worth contrasting the Tour, pre-WW II under Desgrange, with the Giro, with the latter essentially run by the trade teams.) Much of this sentiment persisted in even the smallest ways, such as the yellow jersey for the longest time being free of large sponsor of team logos – a sharp contrast with today.
The running of national teams at the Tour was a tool that Desgrange used to blunt the commercial ambitions of the sponsors, somewhat ironic given that Desgrange still wanted to sell newspapers after all. National teams were also run post-WW II (after Desgrange had passed) as a means to boost nationalism and to equate sporting success with a national pride focussed on rebuilding the country after the war (and perhaps forgetting some shameful incidents as well). Of note, these post-war Tours also benefitted from explicit political gains won in the 1930s that gave workers long summer holidays, ensuring large roadside crowds to support their heroes.
Trade teams returned in 1962, under pressure from the sponsors. National teams were run again briefly in 1967 and 1968, “In response to the noble and superior interests of the race, to the wishes of the public and the desires of the public authorities,” according to L’Equipe. In truth, it was as much of a battle between the Tour organizers and the sponsors, and an effort to boost public interest, as it was about ‘noble’ goals.
Today, commercialism and the interests of the sponsors is at the fore, although there has been some talk – that has come to naught so far – of a return to the national team format. Despite the ascendancy of commercialism, itself an interesting political development (the market as the dominant force in organizing the race, the monetary factors determining the route, the requirements of television in making the schedule, and so on) there is still plenty of politics – best seen by the ASO versus WADA versus the UCI over doping controls at the Tour, or the ASO versus the UCI over the pro tour calendar and the worldwide development of the sport.
The Tour as a political statement
The 1948 Tour de France saw the first post-WW II participation of an official Italian team. It was only the second post-war Tour, although the Giro d’Italia had held its first returning race in 1946. It was clear that the rivalry between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi was going to define Italian cycling: Bartali won the Giro in 1946 and Coppi won it in 1947. By the following year their professional rivalry was so intense that Coppi refused to ride on the Italian Tour team with Bartali and pulled out of consideration. The Giro that year had been won by Fiorenzo Magni.
Despite Bartali being only five years older than Coppi, much was made of Bartali’s role as the elder statesman and Coppi as the young upstart. Bartali was the traditional; Coppi the modern. (For more on the fascinating contrasts between the two men, William Fotheringham’s book Fallen Angel is an absolute must read.) There was much truth to this contrast. Coppi investigated all manner of dietary and training innovations, such as increased carbohydrates and lighter, more frequent meals instead of large and meat-based servings, as well as interval and motor-paced training. He stressed hydration, rest and recovery, and also explored the latest pharmacological aids (primarily amphetamines).
In contrast, Bartali was a volume trainer. Blessed with a seemingly iron constitution (and reportedly a very low heart rate), Bartali was well known for staying up late, enjoying his red wine and other beverages, and more than the occasional cigarette. He was wary of doping – and apparently fascinated by Coppi’s use of drugs – but was reported to have enjoyed more than 20 espressos every day, leading commentators to suggest that he was already well stimulated.
Bartali was unsure how he would fare in the 1948 Tour. By the rest day in Cannes on 14 July he had won three stages, but was 21’20” behind a brilliant young Frenchman, Louison Bobet. According to reports, the Italian press corps was already packing its bags to go home. But back in Italy, the head of the Italian Communist party, Palmiro Togliatti, was shot by an assassin in the morning and badly wounded. Given the fragile post-war political situation, with its roots back in the collapse of fascism at the end of WW II, the assassination attempt provoked chaos and a general strike was called. A Communist uprising and civil war was feared. That evening, according to the story, Bartali’s old friend, Alcide De Gasperi, prime minister and head of the Christian Democrat party (he had been imprisoned under Mussolini for opposing fascism), phoned him and pleaded for a miracle.
Bartali responded by winning the next two mountain stages in the Alps, with winning margins of 6’18” and 5’53”. By the end of the second stage in Aix-les-Bains, he had clawed back his deficit to Bobet and added an 8 minute buffer (by Paris, he would be 26 minutes ahead of the second place finisher; Bobet was fourth at 32’59”). It was a display of total dominance and Italy was supposedly spellbound, all thoughts of civil war forgotten as they listened to their radios. On 17 July, the day after Bartali’s two stage wins, the general strike was called off and Togliatti was declared in a stable condition in hospital.
Once the Tour was over, Bartali was declared the ‘saviour of Italy’ by many reporters and the myth was cemented in place. Sport had epitomized the political – one sportsman had saved a whole country from political upheaval and civil war.
Experts were later been skeptical of this narrative. Benji Maso argues that despite the general strike the danger of civil war after the attack on Togliatti was already easing due to the failure of the assassination. Others have agreed, and former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, who at the time was a young Christian Democrat politician, told the New York times: ”To say that civil war was averted by a Tour de France victory is surely excessive. But it is undeniable that on that 14th of July of 1948, the day of the attack on Togliatti, Bartali contributed to ease the tensions.” Actually, Bartali’s contribution started the next day, on the 15th, which only reinforces Andreotti’s downplaying of Bartali’s efforts. Nonetheless, Bartali’s stage wins were given political status and a meaning greater than just their stature as sporting victories.
The politics of the personal
Yad Vashem is “the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust”, established in 1953 in Israel. One of its projects is to celebrate and remember The Righteous Among The Nations, individuals that stood up to Nazi atrocities against Jews. Sportspersons are included among the righteous. For example, Yad Vashem recounts the story of Polish soccer player Tadeusz Gebethner who in 1939 fought the German invasion of Poland, then later escaped from a prison camp and saved Jewish families from imprisonment before dying in the Warsaw uprising in 1944.
It has been known for a number of years that Gino Bartali was involved in efforts during the war to shelter local Jews, something that he keep largely quiet in post-war years. Yad Vashem is currently considering his elevation to The Righteous Among Nations, like Tadeusz, in recognition for his efforts.
One might have reasonably titled this article sport and religion, given Bartali’s well-reported piousness and the role of the Catholic church in Italy. But politics was still always to the fore, perhaps epitomized by the debate over Pope Pius’s response to Nazi deportations of Italian Jews and Nazi atrocities in general. This debate among historians will be ongoing, but at the personal level, a number of Catholics and Catholic institutions in Italy sheltered Jews from deportation.
The Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (Delegazione per l’Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei) or DELASEM was responsible for coordinating the emigration of Jewish refugees from Italy from 1939 onwards. After the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, DELASEM was forced underground but continued to work with local Catholic leaders in the Rome and Genoa areas and helped coordinate the hiding or escape of up to 35,000 Italian and foreign Jews, according to reports.
In the Florence area, DELASEM’s efforts were run by Giorgio Nissim, a Jewish accountant from Pisa, and the branch is credited with saving 800 people. Reports have not recounted exactly how Bartali became involved but in the period of the occupation he was not required for wartime service and devoted himself to training. During his training rides from Florence, often to Pisa and Lucca, he helped carry forged documents hidden in the tubing of his bike frame to assist refugees hidden in convents and monasteries.
“His role was to take photos and paper to clandestine printing presses to produce the false documents,” according to his son, Andrea. “He was also a guide to indicate the lesser known roads to arrive at central areas of Italy without being seen.”
One such refuge was the monastery in San Quirico d’Orcia, which Bartali would visit with forged documentation. Naturally, his training rides enabled him to range far and wide: San Quirico d’Orcia is 127 kilometres from Florence. According to testimony for Yad Vashem, Giulia Donati recalled the escape of her family from Florence to Lido di Camaiore where they were offered a home thanks to two elderly sisters, Isabella Pacini and Settilia Crocini. Bartali ferried documents to them as well, some 100 kilometres from his home in Florence. Reports have suggested he might have ridden as far as Rome: 285 kilometres, which is not unreasonable – the longest stage in the 1938 Tour (Bartali’s first Tour win) was 311 kilometres.
The authorities were suspicious of Bartali’s activities but, given his public profile, were reluctant to intervene. Despite this, one must not minimize the risks he was taking on with such support for resistance efforts. At one point he was reportedly forced to send his own family into hiding.
One cannot help but wonder as to Bartali’s motivation. His reputation as one of cycling’s old-school hard men, even against the standard of the 1940s, is set in stone. He was a good Catholic and his piety is well known. He was a garrulous character, but with conservative politics. What political views drove him to take such risks? According to reports, Bartali spoke little to his family about his exploits. “One does these things and then that’s that,” he apparently said. It may have been that Bartali articulated his politics by his actions, through his riding. Or it might simply have been his humanity. Maybe not everything is political after all.