JOHN WHITNEY: Cycling isn’t the biggest sport in the UK, but it does have its own section in Waterstones. What is it that makes it such a popular form of literature?
JAMES WITTS: In both cycling and life, we can relate to digging deep, to carrying on when every cell’s telling you to stop. It’s hard to relate to Lionel Messi or Ronaldo, whose deft footwork is other-worldly. Cycling’s struggles are poetic, almost romantic, fertile ground for the written word. And then, of course, there’s doping. Ever since Adam nibbled the apple, humans have bowed to temptation. Sprinkle those flaws into the mix and cycling lit’s appeal is clear to see.
JOHN: I often tell people that Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race is the cycling book to read, even if you have no interest in the sport. Hamilton was a super domestique to Lance Armstrong during his early Tour de France wins, and he was one of the most important informers to Armstrong’s doping before his confession. This could only occur while unspooling his own secrets and the depths that Hamilton plumbs in The Secret Race are startling. It’s a fascinating, thrilling account of what is arguably cycling’s darkest period, and one that you, like me, will likely flick through in just a few sittings.
PAUL ROBSON: David Millar, in Racing Through the Dark, not only lifted the lid on the reality of a life in the peloton, but left enough of the cover intact to maintain a sense of romance and mystery. There’s plenty of gruesome detail, of sitting around a teammate’s kitchen table deciding whether or not to start injecting EPO, the night in a police cell and wilderness years that proved to be the ultimate destination of that journey. But there is also a compelling narrative about a search for a sense of self, an insatiable need to race and a love of cycling that he rediscovers during his ban and which seems to have informed everything he has done since.
JAMES: Let’s give a shout out to someone who refused to dope but still has a compelling story to tell: Graeme Obree. The home-made bikes, battles with Chris Boardman, and with bipolar disorder – a tortured, highly moralistic soul on two wheels. It’s hard not to be fascinated by Obree, whether you’re a cycling fan or not. The Flying Scotsman is heartfelt, sad and inspiring. Like any autobiography worth its salt, you really do care for the man.
PAUL: Tom Simpson’s story, told by William Fotheringham in Put Me Back On My Bike, is the story of British cycling finding its feet in Europe. Tom’s generation of riders in the 1960s paved the way for every rider from these shores that followed, and, of course, Tom’s story is the most alluring because of the nature of his success – first British yellow jersey, world champion, Flanders and Sanremo winner – and the nature of his demise. Fotheringham examines Tom’s career in detail, pointing to the truth of the tragedy on Mont Ventoux without extracting all of the mystery. The book is called Put Me Back On My Bike, after all, which makes it pretty clear what Fotheringham feels about the importance of whether Simpson ever actually uttered those words. And because this is cycling, where all the best stories come wrapped in layers of embellishment and are all the better for it, he’s right.
JAMES: In his autobiography, We Were Young & Carefree, Laurent Fignon quickly tackles his eight-second defeat to Greg Lemond at the 1989 Tour de France by triumphantly reminding readers that he was the guy who won it twice (as well as a Giro and two Milan-Sanremos). As we discover, he did so despite the betrayals of team managers and a two-foot tapeworm buried in his rear that Fignon blamed for a spell of bad form. Fignon twice tested positive for amphetamines, but claimed they were down to both a commercial dispute between warring pharmaceutical companies and recreational use. He also recalls a time spent snorting cocaine with locals at the Tour of Colombia, though he refused EPO, ‘crediting’ the blood-booster for his retirement at 33. This is a great epitaph for a man whose independent streak was legendary. “From the beginning to the end,” he concludes. “Whether people liked me or not, whether they were impressed by my exploits on the bike or not, whether or not they felt I was an exceptional champion, I remained Laurent Fignon. Just Laurent Fignon.”
The Cycling Plus Top 5
1 – Put Me Back On My Bike
2 – The Secret Race
3 – Racing Through The Dark
4 – The Flying Scotsman
5 – We Were Young & Carefree
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