Tag Archives: Cycling

A Brief Reflection on the 2015 Tour de France

A couple of days ago, there was a great interview with Team Sky boss David Brailsford, done by the sports editor for The Times, Matt Dickinson (which you can read here). It was probably more interesting to me than your average reader, because it starts with Brailsford talking about my book:

It made me think, ‘blimey, this is why I got into cycling, why I fell in love with it in the first place […] It’s not just the winning but the struggle, the ambition, the subplots, the suffering of it – a gallant suffering, heroic. Sometimes the most heroic guy ended up third.

But, as Brailsford continues, “then you find yourself in a pro team and you’ve got to win.”

I’ve often wondered what someone like Brailsford might make of 21 Nights. We come at the sport from entirely different directions, so it was oddly comforting to think he sees something similar.

Indeed, he directly addresses what I consider the paradox at the heart of the sport; what Dickinson labels the dichotomy of “romance against efficiency, passion versus science.” The critique of Sky has always been that they reduce cycling to a calculation, until (as Brailsford puts it) “it looks like a machine, automatic, less human.”

It’s the same critique Laurent Fignon made of the 1989 Tour:

The craftsmen were defeated by mass-production. Handmade goods were overwhelmed by factory made stuff. The people’s heroes were strangled and the glory of the Giants of the Road trickled away.

I think Fignon’s description makes it clear the frustration is greater than Froome and, indeed, cycling. There’s something else motivating those fans hurling urine, punches and spit; some legacy of what sport is meant to embody, and what many people felt Armstrong tarnished.

Brailsford addresses it when he reminisces about the key moment of the 2015 Tour; Quintana’s attack on Alpe d’Huez:

People have this idea that we crushed everyone but it didn’t feel like that for any of us standing on Alpe d’Huez. Losing felt very close… People think we are obsessed with data but it’s human endeavour. You can never replace the sensation, the feel. We put a lot of hard work into planning but we can’t get everything right.

The image of Froome chasing after Quintana reminded me far less of Armstrong than of another great cyclist who was accused of being too scientific; Jacques Anquetil, who once lamented, “They call me a calculator, a strategist, even if a miscalculation has just made me lose.”

When Anquetil began his career, all of those traits had been virtues. At that point, cycling coverage relied on newspapers, and dominating the peloton produced tensions and intrigues that came out well in text. But Anquetil, like Froome, had the misfortune of riding in the age of television. Dickinson describes their mutual fault; hours of footage of “black jerseys gathered at the front, controlling the race, killing the spectacle.”

Anquetil’s reputation improved after his near loss to perennial runner up Raymond Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme. Anquetil had let his rival slip away but, in doing so, reserved just enough time and energy to win overall. It was a loss that stripped back the façade of the smooth machine to reveal the focus and persistence underpinning those seemingly effortless victories. It’ll be interesting to see if the same thing happens with Froome.

As for Brailsford, I’m both flattered and glad he enjoyed my book. I remember watching him in John Dower’s documentary A Year In Yellow, on the Wiggins victory.

Initially, he seemed much like the stereotype, coldly assessing Wiggins’ training data. Then he tells Dower about his hatred of clutter, before dropping into a lament that “I’m not close to anybody… I don’t have many friends.” The film then cuts to Shane Sutton’s comically Spartan flat above a bike store.

I remember watching those scenes and thinking, “They’re not winning because of something superhuman. They’re winning because they’re utterly obsessed.” It strikes at that dichotomy Dickinson recognises; your work might rely on science and efficiency, but to care that much about it is a rare and beautiful thing unto itself, even if it isn’t always obvious.

By Bread Alone by Ernie Old

I had a wonderful time at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last week with Emma Ayres, Tom Doig and Greg Foyster, notably all long distance touring aficionados. Coincidentally, so is the MWF’s director, Lisa Dempster, who rode across the Nullarbor on her Surly. Whilst I’ve done long rides, I’ve never done so without ending back at my house, with my shower, comfortable bed and fridge stocked with carbohydrates. I can’t imagine hammering through a full century with no consolation at the end, other than a sunburnt Tom Doig and a can of catfood.

Moron to Moron – Meat in a Can from Tom Doig on Vimeo.

If you’ve read Emma, Tom and Greg’s book, something to keep an eagle eye out for is Ernie Old’s By Bread Alone. It’s been out of print for several decades now, but it’s worth the reward if you can track it down. Ernie OldIn his youth, Old had been a reasonably successful competitive cyclists, finishing fourth and eighth in Warrnambool-Melbourne. His autobiography, published in 1950, captured a rather different portion of his career.

After enlisting for both the Boer War and the First World War, he tried to sign up when World War Two broke out, but was rejected on the grounds that he was too old. To be fair, he was in his mid-Sixties. As a consolation, at the age of 71, he made a 1828km ride from Melbourne to Sydney in a mere nine days. The next year he did a round trip from Melbourne to Adelaide, followed by a 4025km trip from Melbourne to Brisbane. Next, he rode a 9650km circle from Melbourne to Darwin and back, via Adelaide, Mount Isa, Brisbane and Sydney. In 1948, aged seventy, he rode from Melbourne to Perth and back, unsupported and sleeping by the roadside each night.

His autobiography was published in 1950 when he was 76 and had just returned from Perth. He recalls being paced back in to Melbourne by Russell Mockridge:

In the morning it was arranged that Olympic cyclist Rus Mockridge, a fine Geelong boy, pilot me a few miles out of Geelong. I was then to ride to Werribee, where another escort would meet me to pilot me to the finish. Unfortunately, a cold, steady rain set in as we were leaving Geelong. So I sent Mockridge back, not wanting to see him take any risks on a severe cold before leaving for the Games.

He concludes the book by declaring, “I resolve to visit the wonderland of America (whilst still young and strong enough to ride from San Francisco to New York), as I cannot expect to cover the ground more than another 30 or 40 years.”

Unfortunately he never made it to the US. Instead, aged 85, he rode from Melbourne to Uluru, and then did a trip across Tasmania. He died in 1962, and was still riding up until 1960.

His autobiography is an interesting piece of Australian history unto itself, but also a rare first hand account of the development of the bike. He reminisces about 1896, “when pneumatic cycle tyres had come into general use”. My favourite part of the book is his first memory of seeing a bicycle, at the age of twelve in 1886:

One memorable day I was on the road in front of our house when I saw a bright flash of sunlight on something new and strange coming along the road. Soon a man appeared in the road about half a mile away, with no visible support under him. As he turned a little this way and that, there came the sudden bright flashes which I had first noticed. He came swiftly nearer and soon I was able to see that he was riding a tall, graceful wheel with a little one trailing behind. Soon the rider reached the house, swung down from his high seat and asked me for a drink of water, which I hastened to get.

He continues:

I saw at once its possibilities, the races we could have, the speeds we would attain. Boy-like I at once began to see visions and dream dreams…

It’s a wonderful book, albeit hard to track down. My copy, picked up in a secondhand store in Adelaide, is signed by Ernie Old himself, aged 83.Ernie Old Signature

Wonder Wheels by Eileen Sheridan

Wonder Wheels

Eileen Sheridan’s Wonder Wheels is one of my favourite books on cycling, originally published in 1956 when she was thirty-two. She’d turned professional a three years earlier with sponsorship from Hercules. In that time, she’d broken all of the twenty-one records kept by the Women’s Road Records Association. She still holds five of them. Now in her Nineties, she’s still the President of the Coventry Cycling Club. Sheridan seems like a bit of a feminist cycling icon awaiting rediscovery; she not only excelled in her sport and dealt with the usually bias, but came out of it happy.

She’s best known for her record breaking Land’s End to John o’Groates ride – 1407km covering the complete length of the British Isles. Cycling tours cite this as a nine or ten day ride. She did it in two days, eleven hours and seven minutes. She also set the record for the Thousand Miles, which wasn’t bested until Lynne Taylor took it in 2002.

Sheridan’s book was one of my first encounters with a particular sub-genre within cycling literature of personal, amateur autobiographies. It’s a form I love, evident in Burton’s Personal Best, as well as Vin Denson’s The Full Cycle and Alan Peiper’s A Peiper’s Tale. Closer to home, and nigh on impossible to find, is Ernie Old’s By Bread Alone, written when he was in his late seventies and still riding across the Nullarbor for fun.

None of them were professional writers. Their prose is technically imperfect, oscillating between technical discussion of cycling and obscure races, and reminisce and memory. The tone is inevitably personal and earnest. You can see it filtering through into more established writers like Tim Hilton and Paul Kimmage. Underneath it all is a common experience of cycling in countries where the sport was relegated to the level of a hobby, obscure and almost subcultural. You get the impression the books were written to document something otherwise likely to fade away.

Certainly Sheridan’s accomplishments were at risk of being reduced to novelties. In his wonderful interview with her, written for Rouleur, Jack Thurston draws attention to this piece of film:

Like Burton, she was framed as a sort of comically athletic housewife. The commentator announces, “No wonder she wins races. She has to. To get back in time to catch up with the housework!” Her husband, Ken, was famously extremely supportive, as was her local club, yet their backing was far from universal. In her autobiography, she recalls being critiqued for neglecting her duties around the home. At a forum on sports in her native Coventry it was suggested to her that a women’s place was at the kitchen sink, not on the bike. On this, Thurston writes:

These attitudes go a long way to explaining why women’s cycling was so slow to develop on the world stage. The first UCI Women’s Road Race World Championship wasn’t held until 1958 and there was no women’s time trial event until 1994. Women’s cycling didn’t become an Olympic sport until 1984 and it still rarely features on television, denying it crucial sponsorship money.

Clearly, there was a drain to committing oneself to a sport simultaneously marginalised within the wider culture and riddled with its own internal biases. You see some of this in the bitterness of Burton’s biography. In her interview with Thurston, Sheridan cites the suicide of the war era champion Marguerite Wilson, reflecting:

A very powerful rider. I think if she’d have been riding when I was riding she’d have got everything. But she got depressed and then she suddenly committed suicide. A lovely, lovely girl. So very sad.

Information on Wilson is hard to find. There’s an article here and a short newsreel describing her as a ‘receptionist’ up on the British Pathé website.

Sheridan seems to have taken the disapproval and tokenism in her stride. Her writing is almost constantly cheerful. You can imagine a film of her life would be part Breaking Away and part The Good Life. When Thurston interviewed her, she told him, “I’ve had so many things I can do, I’ve never had time to feel down.” She’d taken to glass engraving, showing him a glass goblet she’d engraved with an image of Chris Boardman on his Lotus.

In both her book and the interviews I’ve read with her I get the sense of a wilful, stubborn goodwill. Where most cycling books will tend to dwell on the suffering, competition and the quest for overcoming, Sheridan writes of cycling:

No sport, no movement, no organisation of any kind can produce finer friends, or inspire greater understanding, loyalty, and unselfish enthusiasm than the great game of cycling.

Incidentally, there’s some great articles on her here and here.

And here’s the back cover image from her re-released autobiography, with her and Ken in their backyard in 2009:


Personal Best by Beryl Burton

Beryl BurtonWhen I was in London I picked up a copy of The Independent with this article on the ‘unknown’ cycling legend Beryl Burton.

Unknown is probably the wrong word. Within a particular subculture of British club cycling, Burton’s legend is on par with Eddy Merckx. The two are certainly quite comparable in that both won nearly everything they raced. Personality-wise, both shared the same neurotic inability to comprehend losing, which combined with their natural athleticism to create a phenomenon. Burton’s palamares includes two world champions, five world pursuit championships and a 20km time trial world record. She also broke the men’s record for the twelve hour time trial. Probably the most telling statistic of her career is her place as the Best British All Rounder, a title she held for a colossal twenty-five years running.

Like Merckx, Burton eclipsed her competition entirely. Unlike Merckx, her career lasted thirty years, she rode without pay, received little or no public recognition outside of the British club scene, and had to endure the patronising tokenism so common to elite women’s sport. Her autobiography, Personal Best, is out of print now, although you can still find copies floating around online.

Burton’s literary talents didn’t match her athletic prowess, but her unflinching personal analysis of her sporting life is superb. Like Merckx, her drive was vocational rather than merely competitive. Her book also covers a largely forgotten field of elite amateur competition; racing top tier Russian teams in Belgium, hammering through rainy weekend time trials, and mixing heavy training with long days working in market gardens.

Usually when you read a book on elite athletes there’s an element of fame and glory that underpins their experience. Key in most sporting books is the validation of public recognition or the pressures of superstardom. In Burton’s case, that’s markedly absent. Despite being one of the greatest athletes to emerge from the UK, she was largely ignored. There are points at which she obviously found this frustrating. After returning from winning another Pursuit World Championship in front of screaming Belgian crowds, her local paper, The Yorkshire Post, “managed all of three inches while giving twice as much space in the next column to a local athletics meeting in a Leeds park.”

With her phenomenal record, Burton did attract a certain degree of media, but it seemed intent on treating her as a novelty. Of the media coverage she had at the peak of her career, she recalled:

Many journalistic interviews I have given have highlighted the ‘housewife’ angle and, while I welcomed the publicity for my sport, it was difficult sometimes talking to people who had no concept of bike racing in the international sporting scene. […] I felt particularly annoyed when I could not recognise what I was supposed to have said when it appeared in print. It was almost as if they had interviewed somebody else.

With Pat McQuaid finally purged from the UCI, it’s worth tracking down Burton’s autobiography as part of the resurrection of elite women’s cycling. It’s also an antidote to the pessimism of the doping era. Burton is proof that people do engage in competition with a whole-hearted and life long passion even when the opportunities for reward or fame are virtually non-existent. She was utterly devoted to the bike, and drew something from it that transcends the usual glamour we associate with professional cycling.

Fittingly, Beryl Burton died on her bike, suffering a sudden and unexpected heart failure whilst out riding aged fifty-eight. Legend has it she was found on the side of the road, with her feet still in the straps. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it seems apt that such a poetic legend should emerge around her death, given she received less than legendary accolades during her extraordinary career.