Recently my brain has been on strike, it won’t do what it was doing a few weeks ago, it’s not doing what I ask it to do. I tried very hard the other night to read Black Mass, the John Gray wander through religious history and the apocalypse, but my head exploded. I also tried to read Orhan Pamuk’s book of essays, Other Colours, and, well, I was asleep so fast I didn’t even startle when it crashed from my chest to the floor. This isn’t a reflection on either of them, I will get back to them, but it is a reflection of fatigue and ditzyness that currently envelopes me.
The material I’ve managed to get into during these days of ache and yawn has been cycling books. Good cycling books that tell rich, heroic and fascinating tales about, well, the Tour de France. There are some good ones that I’ve read since the Tour ended and boring Bradley Wiggins claimed the 2012 malliot jaune. One of the best I’ve ever read is Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger, which tells the compelling tale of the Bernard Hinault-Greg LeMond rivalry. Covering the 1985 and 1986 Tours in depth, the narrative is really a lovely thriller about who betrays who and for whose benefit. There was no cliffhanger, if you’re interested you know who won, but the tension between Hinault and LeMond is a rich vein of paranoia beautifully exploited.
William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike is a tough story to read, Tom Simpson’s decline and fall. Not so much heroic as crushingly sad, Simpson dies and the waste is made horribly clear. Horror is a big part of it too, the shocking pathos of him dehydrating to death on Mount Ventoux and really asking, fifteen minutes or so from the end, to be helped back onto the bicycle. The passion, the blindness, the sheer selfishness: as Fotheringham maps these out it becomes clear how romantic Tom Simpson has become since his death. And how useless than romance really is, given the end point: valour means you’re dead.
Matt Rendell has written several first rate bits of cycling lore: The Death of Marco Pantani is a similar romance to Fotheringham’s, the same outcome ensues. There’s something wonderful about Pantani but, whatever that something is, it is devilishly flawed and he detours into cocaine and EPO. The predictable results are described with compassion and a careful lack of judgement. There’s splendour in Pantani’s 1997 Giro and 1998 Tour victories; the glory of his Alpe d’Huez ascent in only thirty eight minutes (that’s three minutes faster than our Cadel managed in 2008) but also a shocking squalidness in his Riveria coke binges and petulant denial of these being a performance issue. I couldn’t help but love Rendell’s Pantani, and near weep at the shallowness of his death.
The other quality Rendell work is A Significant Other, a book about domestiques, focused on Victor Hugo Pena who was one of Lance Armstrong’s worker bees in the US Postal Team of 2003. What reaches out from this book are the explanations so many non-cycling non-enthusiasts seek: what are all those guys doing there when they can’t possibly win? The answer is beautifully eked out by writing about Pena: what his job is, how that job gets done, why that job is so difficult, and how those tasks assisted Lance Armstrong to win another Tour de France. If you’ve ever listened to Phil Liggott and Paul Sherwin and wondered what those guys were on about, A Significant Other provides the answers with gorgeous clarity.
Just about the best cycling book I’ve read though is Jeremy Whittle’s Bad Blood: the Secret Life of the Tour de France. What makes it great is that is all about the drugs, which are usually the subject of the second question people ask about the Tour de France: aren’t they all on drugs? The short answer, from Whittle, is yes. How drugs and performance enhancement become part of professional life for cyclists is fascinating, as are all the tales about beating the World Anti-Doping Agency. What Whittle’s book really makes clear is that in mind and body professional cycling is a dirty business, it’s all about bodies: unruly, unresponsive, and weak-kneed bodies that require more than training and more than a bit of speed to win. Professional cyclists require a full blown medicalised regime to win, and central to the medicalisation of professional cycling are the additives. Call them supplements, call them enhancements, call them a training tool, call them dope: they are all the same thing: disciplines for victory. Whittle makes clear sacrifices aren’t made just on the course, but on the body. Bad Blood is a great book.
And so, tonight I will return home, toting contemporary philosophy and literary stuff, ultimately destined to retire with another cycling book. Though maybe, tonight, I’ll be in the mood for cricket books.
(You know, I was thinking last night as I imagined Alpe d’Huez, that there is more than a touch of the Tour at work in The Hunger Games: all that pomp and metropolitanism; those alliances and failed alliances; the sense of duel to the death, mountainside fear and loathing; all that sublime nature and then sharp relief. I can well imagine a bunch of hapless domestiques nodding to one another, may the odds be ever in your favour!)