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Reading and Riding

Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France had some incredible crashes. On the descent of the second category climb, a crash resulted in broken bones for two of the big Tour riders, Alexandr Vinokourov (femur) and Jurgen Van der Broek (collarbone). The second crash was as bizarre as they come with two riders in the six man leading breakaway knocked down when one of the passing TV cars veered into the group hitting Sebastian Flecha and bringing down Jonny Hoogerland. The Dutchman ended up stuck in a barb wire fence at the side of a field just like Steve McQueen in the Great Escape. It probably was a lucky escape for Hoogerland who “only” had to receive 33 stitches in his wounds.

With a rest day today, there were no live pictures to watch but it got me thinking about my interest in the race. I’m of an age that I remember the heady days of four professional riders taking part in the Tour de France (Kelly, Roche, Earley and Kimmage) with yellow, green and stage wins coming in the Tour for the first three in the quartet. And while Sean Kelly now commentates on Eurosport and Stephen Roche’s son Nicolas is riding this tour, it is probably the last of the quartet in Paul Kimmage that probably shapes my view of the tour and pro-cycling in general. I still enjoy watching it but I do so with a certain healthy skepticism.

Kimmage’s “A Rough Ride – An insight into pro cycling” is the seminal book on cycling and drugs. The Dubliner certainly broke the mould with his book where he told the story of his entry into the pro-ranks and how he began to take drugs, not to win, but to stay in the sport. Kimmage was lucky in that he was able to switch careers to journalism and his book is warts on all on the subject. The view from many in the sport is that he “spat in the soup” as many of his former professionals say about those who tell the tales of drugs in the sport.

Kimmage’s book, 1990 William Hill (WH) Sports book of the year, is one of a number of cycling books I have on my bookshelves. There is a mix of auto-biographies, biographies as well as a number of sports book of the year winners and nominees. I’ve a few books by Irish sports journalist David Walsh. His Kelly biography documents Sean Kelly’s career up until 1986 and I’ve also a pictorial book by Walsh and Kelly himself (Sean Kelly – A man for all seasons) which charts all of Kelly’s career from his first Tour de France stage win in 1978, his amazing seven Paris Nice’s in a row and all those classic wins (Paris Roubaix, Liege Bastogne Liege, Milan San Remo to name but a few).

A rider from Kelly’s era who is no longer with us is Laurent Fignon who died of cancer last year. His autobiography “We were young and Carefree” tells the tale of a rider who straddled the era of more casual drug use in the sport and the recent rampant EPO era. The story is shaped by those eight seconds that he lost the 1989 Tour by but this is rider that won a brace of Tours as well as a Giro d’Italia. In a brutally honest account Fignon outlines not only his strengths but his weaknesses and cycling against Tour legends like Hinault and LeMond.

Britain’s current top rider Bradley Wiggins was another rider that had to abandon this year’s tour due to a broken collarbone following a crash. In the 1980s, Britain’s most successful Tour rider was Scotsman Robert Millar. In 2007, Richard Moore wrote “In search of Robert Millar” (Best Biography British Sports Book Awards) a fascinating insight into this enigmatic climber. A former team mate of Stephen Roche, Millar won the climbers polka dot jersey in the 1984 tour. His story includes how Spanish riders conspired for him to lose the 1986 Tour of Spain where he finished runner up. It also includes the strange story of Millar’s withdrawal/disappearance from cycling and public life in recent years.

A cycling book collection would not be complete without ones on the rider that dominated the sport in the 2000s and continues to be one of the most talked about riders despite his recent retirement. Lance Armstrong’s autobiography “It’s not about the bike – My journey back to Life” (WH Winner 2000) is the incredible story of Armstrong’s battle with testicular cancer. Most readers will have been touched at some point in their lives by cancer and the story of how he is diagnosed and the battle to recover is amazing even without the conclusion to the story with him coming back to cycling to win the Tour a record number of times.

The problem with the story is that it is too good to be true. David Walsh’s “From Lance to Landis – Inside the American doping controversy at the Tour de France” chronicles Armstrong’s story. Walsh uses court testimony and interviews with those who were within Armstrong’s inner circle to document what was going on at the Armstrong’s US Postal team. The section where Walsh details Damien Ressiot’s L’Equipe newspaper examination of past blood samples using the new test for EPO and Armstrong’s doping control form documentation is stunning. In a similar vein (pun intended), Jeremy Whittle published “Bad Blood – The secret life of the Tour de France” (2008 WH shortlist). Whittle tells the story of following the tour as a journalist and his gradual awakening to the doping fraud that he was watching in front of him in the peloton.

One final book on my shelf is Matt Rendell’s “The death of Marco Pantani”. Pantani was a pure climber who seemed to glide up mountain passes with his career highlight being his victory in the controversial 1998 Tour de France which started in Ireland. The first half of the book documents Pantani’s soaring career and his fall from grace that ultimately saw Pantani found dead in a Rimini hotel following a cocaine overdose. The second half of the book is a forensic assessment of Pantani’s drug use using Pantani’s own doping records. It details how if every rider is on drugs, it is not the best rider that wins but the rider who responds best to the drugs. Whittle explains how the drug use in the off season or when there are no controls, allows riders to train harder and push their bodies to the edge pushing their haemocrit levels far above the safe 50% allowable level.

It was with interest I read the reviews of David Millar’s recently published autobiography in the paper over the weekend. Millar, who has returned from a two year drugs ban, is riding in this year’s tour. The book has been described in the Irish Times as “a shocking expose of the corruption at the heart of a wonderful sport. Those who run cycling at every level would be well advised to closely study it, though history tells us they probably won’t.” Sounds like my kind of book! Happy reading and riding…

Categories: Cycling, The Book Club

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