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

Cyclist - - Lead Out - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy TA­PES­TRY

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

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