We Begin Our Ascent
What leads a cyclist to dope? Tyler Hamilton’s Thes ecretr ace and Thomas Dekker’s Thedescent are fairly successful works of nonfiction that tangle with that question. In English writer Joe Mungo Reed’s work of fiction, Webeginourascent, doping creeps into the story. In a way, Reed’s book details how a pro cyclist turns to cheating with more subtlety and nuance than former riders like Hamilton and Dekker.
While pro cycling and the Tour de France feature prominently in the book, it’s about more than those topics. Sol is a successful domestique, but one whose ambitions have limits. His wife Liz is a driven geneticist and struggling to make a scientific breakthrough. They’re both high-achievers, yet also an average couple with a young son trying to make their lives work.
Reed’s portrayal of professional cycling is quite good. He captures the complicated dynamics of the team sport and the pain and suffering that happens out on the road. He does have some turns of phrase that are curious. In one sentence, he refers to a directeur sportif and a race referee. It seems odd that he would use “race referee” i nstead of “commissaire,” especially since he didn’t opt for “sporting director” or “coach.” These are just minor distractions from the otherwise well-constructed world.
So what leads Sol to dope? His amoral director, Rafael, does have a role in it, as does the rider’s own desire to contribute to the team. Liz, too, helps her husband make the decision. As with any good work of fiction, their decisions seem inevitable. You’ll likely find yourself sympathetic with their choices, regardless of how destructive they are.