We have too many books in our house. They spill off their shelves to form untidy piles on the floor, like literary stalagmites. From time to time a purge is necessary, and on one such occasion I made a discovery that took me back 30 years. Time collapsed. I was 11 again and just beginning to fall in love with cycling. The madeleine that sparked this Proustian moment? Five dusty books, lost beneath a stack of novels, untouched for years. Along the spine of each book ran the legend ‘The Fabulous World of Cycling’.
Between 1983 and 1991, Winning Magazine published a series of annual books, reviewing the season just finished. The format was simple. Half the book was given to one-day Classics, half to stage races. For each race there were glossy photographs, a summary of how the race unfolded, and a question and answer session between the magazine’s editor and Eddy Merckx. When I was given the first of my five books I was barely aware of Merckx, but for Winning he was, of course, the star turn.
The various editors asked this supreme pundit about everything from how to descend the Poggio to how to stay warm during Het Volk and the financial attractions of competing in the Tour de Suisse. Much of the time Merckx seemed disappointed in the peloton of the time – according to him the riders were tactically naive, feverish (as he described Stephen Roche) or simply lazy. But he is a great analyst and the editors’ questions tease out some fascinating tactical insights. Merckx shows not only the depth of his understanding of the sport, but also of the psychology and physiology of his contemporaries. The great rivalries are explored, as well as the dynamics of teams like Peter Post’s all-conquering Panasonic, and the result is a masterclass in what makes cycling so alluring – that unique blend of heart, head and gut.
The editorial style is endearingly idiosyncratic – sometimes baffling. At the end of the 1986 Milan-Sanremo there is a picture of Stephen Roche’s wife throwing a fetching white bomber jacket over her husband’s La Redoute jersey, the photograph accompanied by the comment “Stephen Roche doesn’t seem very disappointed by the outcome of the Primavera. Perhaps he has other appointments to keep”.
What other appointments? A dinner party? And what happened to him in the race? The commentary gives no clue.
Roche and the white bomber jacket
With the benefit of hindsight, the books illuminate how doping was perceived during the ‘80s. When Sean Kelly won the 1984 autumn classic Blois-Chaville in convincing style, the editor, Leon Michaux, wrote how Kelly closed gaps to breakaways “with such ease that everybody marvelled at his strength”, before eulogising about Kelly’s ability and commitment: “Right now, Kelly is one of the best. He’s flying and his superiority keeps him from making mistakes.” On the same page, apparently without irony, there is an image of Kelly looking decidedly sheepish, accompanied by the caption “Kelly has just learned that the tests carried out at the end of Paris-Brussels were positive and that he has been disqualified. The Irishman protested about the conditions in which the control was done and found notably abnormal the fact that so many people had access to the official area.”
In the entry for the 1987 Milk Race, with news of three positive tests during the race, doping takes centre-stage. Rather than brushing the issue aside, as with Kelly three years earlier, this editor engages in a lengthy discussion about this “ugly topic” and concludes that the real question is “not whether the Milk Race organisers were right or wrong but how strict are other race organisers or how rife is drug taking in cycling”.
I wonder if Riccardo Riccò wishes he’d been racing in the mid-‘80s, when the penalty for doping was relegation to last place on the stage, a ten-minute penalty, a one-month suspended sentence and a £500 fine.
Blois-Chaville? Henninger Turm? Zurich Championships? There are races here which once had history and status, but have since disappeared from the calendar. Newer races too, like the Nissan Classic – a race built as a kind of promotional vehicle for Kelly. And the Coors Classic, with its uber-cool red-and-white-striped leader’s jersey. Merckx likes to see races in new territories and is refreshingly honest when it comes to those he dislikes. Top of his list for extinction is Bordeaux-Paris, a monster 580km-race run off behind dernys. He can’t really be bothered to analyse the race, simply saying: “Bordeaux-Paris is, however, a race which ages badly. Those who go there are often riders who have had a bad Spring Classics season or who are looking for a little publicity. This race exists, therefore, as a sort of vestige of old times and I can’t see what could improve the reputation.”
Malcolm Elliott (top left) and 'King' Kelly (bottom) at the Nissan
My 11-year-old self didn’t understand doping, nor the tactical nuances of the peloton. In those days before the internet, before cycling made it into newspapers, and before one could watch three hours of coverage of the Tour of the Basque Country on a wet Tuesday afternoon, I devoured any cycling content I could lay my hands on. I read Cycling Weekly cover-to-cover before school every Thursday morning. I hunted down the glossy monthly magazines. But these books felt deeper, more loving of the sport, more sophisticated. They have shaped my vision of cycling, the races I like, my penchant for obscure trade team jerseys. Even the way I ride. To this day, when I’m on the brake hoods and I split my fingers across them, I think of Eric Vanderaerden speeding towards victory in the freezing 1985 edition of the Tour of Flanders.
Our nostalgia for cycling focuses too much on the iconic. We think of the famous Renault jersey, Hinault’s legendary ride through the snow to Liège. But these books remind me of the little things: shiny Benotto handlebar tape, riders with trademark haircuts, the absence of sunglasses, Alexi Grewal eating an apple during the finale of the Olympic road race, aero covers stretched over leather helmets, those blue Patrick shoes Bernard Hinault wore with the first Look pedals.
Who needs gels when you've got an apple?
Why do I have such fondness for these books? Because they evoke memories of what I found to love in cycling in the first place – its colour, its drama, its diversity and complexity. But more important than any of that, is the human emotion. That’s what really connected. There is no science here, only pain and joy, anger, disappointment, stoicism. The whole gamut. Perhaps these books taught me a little more than how to hold my handlebars in interesting ways. The world of cycling is indeed fabulous.
From issue 51 of Rouleur magazine