In praise of… memoirs
When so much of bike racing happens off screen, it’s left to the written word to capture all the drama and intrigue
The worlds of pro cycling and literature are inextricably linked, with some of the most dramatic and eloquent sports reporting coming from bike races in the pre-tv era.
Unlike many sports, the drama of road cycling is not confined to a stadium or other purpose-built venue. It unfolds over hours – days in the case of stage races – across remote and unforgiving terrain. Even today, with live TV, GPS transponders and fleets of helicopters tracking the peloton, many details of a race go unseen and won’t be reported until well after the finish.
The biggest races, including the Grand Tours, were designed to sell newspapers, so journalists were given free rein when it came to describing the daily events. Henri Desgrange, father of the Tour and editor of the newspaper that sponsored it, set the tone for decades of race reporting in one of his earliest editorials: ‘With the broad and powerful swing of the hand which Zola in The Earth gave to his ploughman, L’auto, journal of ideas and action, is going to fling across France today those reckless and uncouth sowers of energy who are the great riders of the world...’
With no TV pictures and limited radio broadcasts, it was left to the reporters to fill in the gaps for a ravenous audience. They would be waiting at the end of each stage, their pens poised to embellish the riders’ already highly subjective accounts of events. Before technology, the degree of the riders’ suffering was left, literally, to the imagination of saleshungry newspapermen.
The result was a school of journalism that relied on second-hand accounts for its content but was never less than articulate and enthralling. Bike racing attracted literary giants such as novelist, philosopher and political commentator Antoine Blondin, who covered 27 editions of the Tour for L’equipe before his death in 1991. And it was poet and war correspondent Albert Londres who coined the famous headline ‘Convicts of the Road’ after interviewing riders in the 1924 Tour about their suffering and drug-taking.
It is against this legacy of highbrow journalism that we must evaluate the efforts of the riders themselves. Sporting success alone is no longer enough of a USP for memoirs these days, so riders – or their ghost writers – have had to unearth hitherto hidden histories of self-harm (such as Victoria Pendleton’s Between The Lines) or resort to candid confessions about
We look to memoirs of our sporting heroes for a candid glimpse behind the scenes that is denied us in an era of Pr-sanitised interviews
doping, drinking or worse (such as Thomas Dekker’s The Descent).
Some riders manage to find the perfect balance between celebration and confession, with Bradley Wiggins devoting two chapters of his first memoir, In Pursuit Of Glory, to the ‘nine-month bender’ he went on after winning three medals at the 2004 Olympics. In his next memoir, On Tour, he went on to describe the epic fatigue and suffering he endured during the 2010 Tour, even admitting he was ‘actually mildly allergic to beer’. (Yet oddly, in the combined 960 pages of his four memoirs – yes, four – there is no mention of his pollen allergies or asthma which, years later, would be his defence during ‘Jiffygate’.)
We look to memoirs of our sporting heroes for inspiration and a candid glimpse behind the scenes that is normally denied us in an era of PRsanitised interviews. It will usually take a good ghost writer to continue the traditions of Blondin and Londres by turning a plodding procession of palmarés or mealy-mouthed mea culpa into something more compelling.
Despite the selective omission of his asthma, all Wiggins’ books are hugely entertaining, thanks in no small part to his ghost writers, journalists Brendan Gallagher and William Fotheringham.
Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that while Fotheringham maintains Wiggins never once referred to his asthma during eight years of regular meetings, Gallagher recently said on Twitter that during the four days he worked with him in 2008, ‘he was using his puffer from dawn to dusk and we had to abandon a 400-yard walk to a pub one night he was so bad.’
Not all memoirs require the services of a ghost writer, however.
Tom Simpson’s Cycling Is My Life, published a year before his death on Ventoux, is almost Hemingwayesque in its spare, succinct prose. Graeme Obree’s Flying Scotsman, while not as polished, has a raw energy and unflinching candour that makes a gripping read. And what Michael Barry’s memoir of his time as a domestique with US Postal and Team Sky, Shadows On The Road, lacks in substance it more than makes up for with Barry’s fluid, engaging style.
Ultimately, you don’t even have to be a pro rider to produce a great read. Regular readers will already know of my admiration for Tim Krabbé’s The Rider, a heady mix of memoir, fiction and philosophy that revolves around an amateur bike race in southern France.
Published in the same year (2002) as the English translation of The Rider was the memoir of another amateur racer, Matt Seaton, a regular on the south London circuit. The Escape Artist is a beautiful, lyrical memoir of a rider juggling his time on the bike with the demands of work, family and, ultimately, personal tragedy.
Seaton opens with a quote from another memoir, that of American writer William Saroyan, that perfectly sums up why every cyclist is a born storyteller: ‘I was not yet 16 when I understood a great deal, from having ridden bicycles for so long, about style, speed, grace, purpose, value, form, integrity, health, humour, music, breathing, and finally and perhaps best of all, the relationship between the beginning and the end.’
Despite the selective omission of his asthma, all Bradley Wiggins’ books are hugely entertaining
The bar was set high for cycling literature very early on, when the big newspapers would employ famous writers to embellish the tales from the Tour de France for a pre-tv audience
With expectations so high for the modern memoir, it can rely on a good ghost writer to light up even the most candid of rider confessions