Thursday, 28 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

1 comment:

Barry said...

Good review. I read Bad to the Bone when it first came out and it remains my favourite sports novel. I'll take a look around your blog for more suggestions...