Thursday, 28 August 2008

Heroes, Villains and Veoldromes, Chris Hoy and the Track Cycling Revolution, Richard Moore (2008)

HarperSport 13 978 0 00 726531-2 Quarto 310pp £15.99
A well-written and enjoyable biog of Sir Chris taking in the evolution of the entire track cycling phenomenon that came out of the east of Scotland in the 1990s

Just how do you explain Britain’s emergence is as the pre-eminent force in world track cycling? It is an important question, now that Hoy has brought back three gold medals from the Beijing Olympics?

And who better to answer the question than Richard Moore – and ex team mate of Hoy’s, and now a writer who has already shown his talents as a biographer?

This book came out on the eve of the Beijing games, so takes the story up to the British team’s crushing performance at the world track championships in Manchester 2008. So complete was their demolition of the opposition, that Moore confidently concludes with a promise that there will be much, much more from Hoy. How right he proved to be. You can expect an updated version of this book with a new final chapter any day now, I would guess.

Moore is a diligent journalist who is successful at rooting out the early twists and turns in Hoy’s life: his attitude to BMX racing; the emergence of a dedicated track cycling team in Edinburgh (City of Edinburgh Race Team) in the early 1980s; and, his relationship with his trainers. This is a book that is rich in interviews – with Peter Keen, Chris Boardman, David Brailsford as well as fellow competitors from the UK and beyond.

Moore certainly appears to come close to nailing what makes Hoy special – a fantastic raw talent, married to an obsessive zeal for training. In one of the most interesting passages, a despondent Hoy seeks out Chris Boardman for advice. The Wirral rider’s suggestion is that Hoy needs to devise a training programme that really excites him, rather than one that he simply feels that he has to follow. Given that the Scottish rider apparently always trains on Christmas day – because none of his competitors will be doing so – this was just the kind of advice to help him turn the corner.

Along the way there are plenty of colourful diversions – particularly Hoy’s unsuccessful attempt at the kilometre record, at altitude in Bolivia, and a fascinating chapter on Japanese kerin racing.

Does Moore answer the central question, however? Obliquely, yes – but readers are left to fish for conclusions.

The disappearance of East Germany in 1990 removed from the scene the long dominant presence in track cycling. Like other Warsaw pact countries, the GDR: invested very heavily in facilities (Moore paints a vivid picture of the vast Cottbus complex of training facilities and velodromes); developed talent from a very young age; allowed mature athletes to effectively be professionals by employing them as soldiers; and, utilise a systematic doping programme.

Since then, track cycling has been relatively open. Most success has gone to those countries with the best infrastructure, generally the traditional European cycling nations, or Australia. (The Australian Institute of Sport was founded in 1981 to prevent further national embarrassment after the Montreal Games where the Aussies won no golds.)

The arrival of the Manchester velodrome in 1994 is clearly the springboard from which much of this success took flight. Just as important, however has been the investment in track cycling that the National Lottery has allowed. In 1996, British cycling received just £22,750 in state funding. This had grown to £2.5m in 1999, and now stands at about £4m per annum.

Britain’s home grown back room team is clearly exceptional – Brailsford, Keen and Boardman in particular. But they have also recruited specialist coaches and others from abroad, most notably Australia.

Also largely absent from Moore’s book are any real villains. Yes, the UCI dropped the kilo from the Olympics, but quite why never becomes clear, nor who, exactly are the shadowy forces behind the move. In the context of Hoy’s success in other disciplines, it also appears that they did the Edinburgh rider a huge favour.

Nevertheless, this is a hugely enjoyable book – particularly to those who, like me, have been watching Hoy since his early days at Meadowbank in the mid 1990s. Given his success, it will doubtless sell to a far, far wider audience than would otherwise have been the case. In doing so it will play its part in bringing this most spectacular sport to a much wider audience.

PS August 2008

Breakaway, Samual Abt (1985)

Random House, 0-394-54679-2 178pp $16.95

This is the story of the 1984 Tour, told in the in the style with which Abt’s many fans will be familiar. He is the consummate reporter – providing a vivid account of the racing, and peppering his account with dozens of incidental tales.

This was the year when Laurent Fignon was dominant, beating Hinault be a whacking 10 minutes, 32 seconds. It is also the edition of Robert Millar’s forth place and King of the Mountains crown. You can certainly find DVDs that will allow you to relive that great race – but they can’t match Abt for providing a joyful reimersion in that era.

PS August 2008

101 Mountain-bike routes in Scotland Harry Henniker (1998)

Mainstream Publishing 1 85158 936 8 223pp £14.99

There are any number of guides to various kinds of cycling in locations various. Henniker’s stand out for a number of reasons. His knowledge is that of a life-long enthusiast who runs Bike Bus – a service providing transport for cyclists. He packs all of Scotland into a single volume. And, his routes are straightforward to follow.

Given the size of Scotland, covering it all in only 200 or so pages is no mean feat, but he manages it. There are routes described from Dunnet Head to Maidenkirk – or very nearly. There are also immensely varied – including both modest circular routes and some of the more ambitious journeys that are possible in Scotland.

Henniker’s kind of rides are the tracks and trails that were once the preserve of the Rough Suff Fellowship. Glentress does get a mention, but his main interest is not really the high octane thrills and spills of downhilling.

Each chapter is accompanied by rudimentary maps, and is described. In all probability, you would need a set of OS maps to actually take to the hills and follow most of these routes. Indeed, one wonders how long it will be before volumes such as Henniker’s are offered with CDs containing sat nav files that riders can download to their own handlebar guiding devices.

The author maintains that Scotland is the best country in the world for mountain biking. That remains a matter of contention – but he certainly provides more than enough evidence for someone to make a comprehensive evaluation of the quality of Caledonia’s potential for aficionados of the knobbly tyre.

PS august 2008

Building Bicycle Wheels, Robert Wright (1977)

Macmillan 0-02-028260-5 46pp £3.95

This slender volume does exactly what it promises on the cover – provides enough information to allow you to build you own wheels.

Like so many, complicated technical processes, this was one that I fancied mastering. Indeed, I imagined that, once I had acquired the knack, I would build any number of clever variations on the simple bicycle wheel.

Wright’s instructions are clear and easy to follow. And he goes a good way towards explaining how wheels work, and the possible variations on the regular patterns. Notwithstanding the ease with which the author presents the instructions, though, the spokes that I tried to deploy were infuriating.

I did eventually manage to knit them together, and tighten them into reasonably true wheels. The end results even managed a decade’s service on my daily rides. That was more than 20 years ago, however. But in fairness, I don’t think my failure to repeat the exercise can be laid at Wright’s door.

PS August 2008

The Yellow Jersey, Ralph Hurne (1973)

Breakaway Books 1-55821-452-6 285pp $14.95

This novel comes with the recommendation on its cover that it is “The greatest cycling novel ever written”, courtesy of Bicycling magazine. It is, of course, impossible to know how accurately that sentence reflects the magazine’s review of this book, nor of how qualified was the originator of the phrase.

At the time of writing, however, I can think of only a dozen or so ‘cycling novels’ in the English language. Even assuming that I have missed a great many others, can there be more than 50 ‘cycling novels’? If this is the case, being the best in such a small field, is not quite the recommendation that it first appears.

Most cycling novels – and this is no exception – take professional racing as their backdrop. Hurne’s story is of Terry Davenport, a washed up, end-of-career pro, who is down on his luck competitively and unhappy in his personal life.

It is an engaging tale, with plenty of edge-of-the-seat thrills to keep the pages turning. And, as Hurne clearly has a considerable knowledge of, and a love for, professional racing, there is plenty of insider insight to impart.

What it does not do, however, is to transcend its backdrop – in the way, for example, that The Rider does. For a cyclist with a long-haul flight to pass away, it is thoroughly enjoyable diversion. Its is not, however, the volume to persuade anyone else that cycling has produced a rich literature.

PS August 2008

Rough Ride, Paul Kimmage (1990)

Yellow Jersey Press 0224 051 458 £8 261pp

There are bookshelves and bookshelves of biographies and autobiographies of enormously successful sports people. The testimonies of those who came close to the top of the game, but did not quite make the highest echelons of their sports, however, are few and far between.

When someone with the journalistic skills of Irishman Paul Kimmage does so, therefore, he does those with a serious interest in what it is to compete, a genuine service.

Kimmage was a professional cyclist, riding for a major European team, in the late 1980s. It was a golden age for Irish cycling – Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were at the pinnacle of their powers, and they were by no means the only compatriots in the peleton. Nonetheless, Kimmage came up the hard way. After a successful amateur career in Ireland, he joined ACCB in Paris as so many had before him. From there he clawed his way to a professional contract – and then rode with enough success to stay in Europe for four seasons.

It is a painful picture that he paints – insufficient money to eat and a lonely life in miserable, shared flats. Even when success comes, life seems to be so hard that he rightly questions why on earth he is carrying on.

Part of his reason for writing the book is to expose the drugs culture in the sport – and to do this, he made himself a persona no grata with many of his former colleagues. In truth, the drug taking that he exposes is small, small beer compared with what has come to light since then. Indeed, given that there is no reason to suppose that Kimmage trimmed his facts, his testimony is arguably evidence that drugs were far less rife that one might have imagined in the 1980s.

During the monstrous Bordeaux-Paris, he is offered ‘something’. On a few other occasions he took some kind of amphetamine ‘charge’ before a small town crit. He was also put under pressure to ‘charge up’ on days in stage races when his team had a lot of work to do to protect their leader.

Lifting the lid on this level of abuse, and the conviction that runs through this book that such drug use is wrong, make Rough Ride valuable. More interesting, though, is the light that Kimmage shines on the lifestyle of the journeyman professional sportsman. His experience is probably similar to the majority of the peleton – not to mention the leagues of young men who labour in the lower reaches of the football divisions, or try to break in to the big time boxing ring.

PS August 2008

Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric Newby (1987)

Collins 0 00 217639/4 308pp £12.95

Newby is a titan of travel writing. A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush and The Big Red Train Ride, among many others, are rightly considered classics of the genre. He was in his late 60s, however, when he and his wife Wanda took to these island’s rainiest land mass on heavily laden mountain bikes.

The Newbys are returners to cycling – having both clocked up a few clicks during the second world war, but few since. Perhaps because of this, their bicycles only play a small part in the narrative. Of course, there are terrible headwinds, unnerving hills and, more than anything, rain (hardly surprising given that they start their tour in December). But Newby is far more interested in, and interesting on, the countryside though which he is passing, rather than his means of transport – and the book is much the better for that.

For years, British visitors to Ireland have found aspects of life preserved there had apparently been consigned to GB’s history books long ago. Perhaps the 1980s was the last point at which this was true. That is certainly Newby’s finding, in the pubs, boarding houses and shops that he visits. Here he is in a pub in Waterford.

“We found it (food and drink) in T and H Doolan’s old snug and dark pub which contained no one but a very old man wearing a huge uniform overcoat who was drinking tea and a very grown-up young woman who was into the Irish Paddy and hot water, which seemed like a good idea in the circumstances. The old man told us to bang on the bar to summon attention, something that I am always loath to do in case the publican is on the bottle and comes rushing out to hit me over the head with it.”

There is nothing nostalgic about Newby’s book, however. He documents what he sees meticulously and is brilliant at setting it in historical and cultural context. Indeed, it is at doing this that he is almost without peer. Certainly anyone seeking to write a cycling travelogue of this kind would do well to start here.

His skill and care make this a fascinating document of Ireland just before everything changed – before the tide of migration turned, before money flushed though every corner of the country, before the substantial settlement of the ‘constitutional question’. It is an engaging, infuriating, beguiling place – now hard to find. But at least you can reach for Newby and pay it a fond visit from your armchair.

PS August

French Revolutions, Tim Moore (2001)

Yellow Jersey Press 0-224-06095-3 277 pp £12

A humerous account of the authors attempt to cycle the route of the Tour despite his lack of experience on a bicycle

This is a good – if obvious – idea for a travel book. Follow the route of the Tour de France, in this case the tour of 2000, at a touring speed. As a non-cyclist, this gives Moore a framework around which to hang a travelogue, meditation on cycle racing and a chance to marvel at those who complete the route at a rather less leisurely pace than the author achieves.

Moore is undoubtedly an amusing writer. Here he is teeing up his assault on Ventoux.

“The trouble with cycling up mountains is that – panniers or, as today, no panniers – after about four minutes, as soon as that first metallic-tasting, lactic gasp rasps inward at the back of your throat, any thoughts of appreciating your surroundings, contemplating the Continental way of life, or otherwise entertaining an appropriate holiday mentality have been booted out of your brain by an all-encompassing him-or-you struggle to the death with the force of gravity.”

Were someone who knew nothing about cycling looking for a light-hearted introduction to the Tour, this book would serve well.

To anyone who starts the book with a deeper knowledge of cycling and cycle sport than Moore, however, it is impossible to shake a feeling of irritation with him. He is an able writer, for sure, although the efforts of his wise-cracking show. He has read up on the great race, and can rehash many of its curious tales with some √©lan. But at the end of the day, he has little that is actually new to add. You can’t help feeling that he alighted upon the idea of a Tour-based book as a commercial opportunity, rather than anything fired by passion. As a result, he steadily creates a feeling that, at heart, he is mocking cyclists and cycling for the amusement of others.

PS August 2008

Bad To The Bone, James Waddington (1998)

Dedalus 1 873982 68 2 194pp

During the late 1990s, two stories recurred in the mainstream media coverage of professional cycling in the UK. One described how five-times Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain was in some way a physiological superman. With each year that he started favourite to win the race, there would be more discussion of his unnaturally capacious lungs, or his giant heart’s ability to pump blood faster than those of mere mortals.

The other story – and I am not suggesting that these things were related – was the rise of EPO as the peleton’s drug of choice. Evidence of the effect of this was easy to see – the average speed of la grande boucle rose year after year. And 1996 winner Bjarne Riis was widely known as ‘Mr 60%’ because of his ability to maintain an illegally high haemocrit level. There were also deaths. EPO caused the blood of those who took it to turn to the consistency of jam, causing some to have heart attacks as they slept.

These are the issues that Waddington takes as the themes of this novel. We demand of athletes ever more gladiatorial displays of endeavour, but throw up our hands in horror when they are revealed to be ‘drug cheats’. These are fantastic moral conundrums for a fiction to consider, and Waddington very largely does them justice.

His tale is of a five-times Tour winner, Akil Saenz, his wife Perlita, and a messianic ‘sports physician’ Mikkel Fleishman. It starts with an account of cycle racing which will be recognisable to aficionados, but becomes increasingly disturbed.

Waddington knows his cycle racing and has things to say to even the most trainspottery of enthusiasts. He also has an important point to make about professional sports in general – but to get to that, you should read the book. The end in not as neat as the rest of the book, which undermines its overall quality – but the journey to that point is sufficient to make this an enjoyable and stimulating read.

PS August 2008

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Bicycle, Pryor Dodge (1996)

Flammarion, 2-08013-650-X 225 pp £20

A lavishly illustrated history of bicycles

This is a truly sumptuous book, based on the author’s extraordinary collection of bicycles and cycle-related ephemera. There are hundreds of pictures – from the early velocipedes and Draisnes, to the promotional material to period shots of them in use. Every page is illustrated, mostly in colour and entire double page spreads are devoted to almost pornographic depictions of, among other things, pedals from the 1860s.

Accompanying the photographers are a scholarly account of cycling from earliest times, including the social developments that accompanied the first cycling boom, cycling organisations and the industrial backstory to the Victorian and Edwardian bike craze.

Dodge’s collection is fabulous, and this, luscious book does it proud. If I have one beef it is that it makes a claim to bring things up to the present day, with a brief mention of mountain bikes, human powered vehicles and other recent innovations. In truth, the period up to about 1920 is lavishly covered. Thereafter, the coverage is so slight as to have been better left out. Hopefully, some collector of cycle-related matter will do a job on the second half of the twentieth century will produce a volume that is the equal of this.

PS August 08

Ride And Be Damned, Chas Messenger (1998)

Pedal Publishing £24.95 0 9534096 0 0 151pp

Writing at the age of 84, Messenger tells the tumultuous tale of the British League of Racing Cyclists. These were the hardy band of roadmen who, by grit, guile and grim determination brought mass-start road racing to Britain in the years immediately after the second world war.

The author’s perspective is essentially that of a protagonist – he served for many years as an office holder with the BLRC and was subsequently involved in everything from organising the Milk Race, to working with Britain’s Olympic team.

At this distance, the rift that divided British cycling in the late 1940s and 1950s is difficult to comprehend. The sport’s governing body at that time was the conservative British Cycling Union. As cycling boomed in the 1880s, the Police started to prosecute competitive cyclists for ‘furious cycling’. The governing body wanted to ensure that bicycling remained respectable and, in 1888 that had adopted a resolution stating that: “(We) desire to discourage road racing and calls upon clubs to assist it by refusing to hold races upon the road”.

It was this decision – and the maintenance of that position for more than half a century - that prevented mass start road races from becoming the huge spectator sport in the British isles that it is in most of continental Europe. Racers on these shores had to satisfy themselves with secretively organised time trials, and track cycling.

At the end of the 1930s, however, Percy Stallard, a Wolverhampton cyclist, was one of a growing band who wanted the chance to race as they did on the other side of the Channel. His enthusiasm, and that of those who gathered around him, led to a new organisation – the League of Racing Cyclists, and a furious break with the British Cycling Union. Both sides entrenched, cycling clubs split, and there was much bad blood. As a result, however, big, road races were introduced to the UK, even if they were too late to become the mainstays of the sporting calendar that the European races became.

The joy of this book its two-fold. It is a story that is, otherwise, without a historian, and Messenger does his subject great service by setting down these tales for posterity. It is also fabulously illustrated, with flyers, programmes and photographs. There is scarcely a page without some kind of graphic – and seeing the originals really evoke the age from which they came.

The downside is that Messenger makes a somewhat confused historian. Often he seems uncertain whether he is setting down a dispassionate record, writing a polemic in favour of his own views, or writing a personal memoir. In the end, for anyone interested in the development of British cycling, it is a forgivable fault.

PS August 08