Christmas is almost upon us and the seasonal break from the grind offers time to catch up on the year’s literary highlights. We’ve witnessed a few at Rouleur, though in truth, haven’t had the time to read each of the newly-published tomes that landed with a soft thud in the office in-tray.
Those selected here (and in the choices of magazine editor Ian and assistant editor Andy) are merely those that struck a particular chord, either by their subject matter or the skill of the writer. You will have your own favourites among those published in the last 12 months, of course, and we’d be delighted to hear about them.
Here, then, in no particular order, are three more that caught our attention.
Faster by Michael Hutchinson (Bloomsbury)
It is easy to romanticise the business of bike racing. For its practitioners, however, the pursuit of speed demands a level of commitment that can border on obsession, as Michael Hutchinson, national time trial champion more times and at more distances than you can shake a stick at, and author of the excellent, Faster, knows only too well.
For those outside the tight circle of riders and coaches, athletic performance tends to be viewed through the prism of emotion (the unalloyed joy of victory, the crushing despair of defeat etc.) but, for the endurance athlete at least, it is largely a matter of blood and oxygen – the more of either, and preferably both, the better.
Hutchinson does not dehumanise the sport by his detailed analysis of its mechanics, which covers bikes, body, mind, and genes. Rather, by frequently sending up, instead of lionising the athlete, whose monastic lifestyle, esoteric diet and paranoid fear of illness would strike a more balanced individual as bizarre, he adds a warmth to the cold calculation of marginal gains.
Crucially, Hutchinson does not exclude himself from the gentle ridicule; indeed, frequently, he is its target. The tone is set early (the opening paragraphs on his purchase of an oxygen tent are hilarious) and continues throughout the book. The faddy nature of exercise theories – and his willingness, as an athlete, to believe them – often provides the source of amusement.
He admits, for example, when the importance of athlete psychology first came to prominence, to having been seduced by the theory that 90 per cent of time trialling ability is contained within the rider’s brain; a statement whose likelihood he now compares to the location of 90 per cent of chess playing ability in the pancreas.
Faster is an amusing and highly informative exposition of the athlete’s calling. We recommend it.
The Climb by Chris Froome
Few in the peloton have a life story as inspirational as that of Christopher Clive Froome. The boy whose love of cycling set racial divides at nought, helped him to survive the disintegration of his parents’ marriage, and took him from Kenya’s Ngong Hills to the Ventoux and the Champs-Élysées, is revealed in impressive detail in David Walsh’s ghost-written autobiography, The Climb.
From teenage python-keeper to grieving son, there is much even for close observers of Froome’s sporting achievements to learn about a man who admits to a paralysing politeness. He is tough, though, and The Climb is peppered with examples of his determination, from his arrival as the sole member of the Kenyan Cycling Association – rider and manager – at the 2006 world championships in Salzburg, having ‘borrowed’ the email address of KCA chairman Julius Mwangi, to surviving and even flourishing in a team conceived around the mercurial Bradley Wiggins.
The Climb also reveals the rider’s self-deprecating wit, though how much of this is enhanced by Walsh’s skill is hard to say. Froome is clearly content to laugh along with the nickname ‘Crash’, does not neglect to mention his team-mates’ hilarity after he rode the prologue at the 2012 Tour with nose plugs still in situ, and smiles at his earlier, more hirsute incarnation, when his flowing locks completed a look heavily accessorised with beads and bangles.
Most significant, perhaps, is Froome’s oft-repeated disdain for dopers, which, as might be expected, is expressed in understated asides, rather than with puritanical zeal (“Basso was my first and last hero of the peloton,” he mentions, disappointedly. “You never get over that feeling of betrayal”). He notes also the three tests given on the day of his victory on the Ventoux.
Comprehensive and revealing, The Climb is a book that does justice to Froome’s inspirational story. His version of the events on La Toussuire at the 2012 Tour commanded most of the pre-publication publicity, in Britain at least, but the chapters dealing with his early life, in particular his cycling education with David Kinjah’s Safari Simbaz, are equally engaging.
Cycling Anthology – volume five
The fifth volume of the Cycling Anthology, a collection of essays examining areas of professional cycling that do not provide obvious grist to the mill of race reports and rider interviews, maintains the high standard of the series.
Brendan Gallagher’s moving account of the role played by cycling regiments and the sport’s champions in WW1 (three Tour winners among the 10 million soldiers killed) is informative and, in this centenary year since the outbreak of the conflict, timely. Matt Beaudin offers an auditory account of the Tour: cycling’s biggest race experienced through the sounds that accompany his progress through it as a reporter. Risking accusations of parochialism, however, it is an essay about Joey McLoughlin by Rouleur’s Andy McGrath that is the pick of the bunch, for this reviewer at least.
Scouse phenom McLoughlin was once the hottest property in British cycle sport; a prodigious talent raised on Liverpool’s tough Cantril Farm estate and schooled by clubmates at Liverpool Mercury, some of whom would become his team-mates at ANC, the ill-fated British team whose Icarus-like ascent was undermined by flawed finances.
McLoughlin won the three big domestic stage races of his era (the Sealink International, the Milk Race and the Kelloggs Tour), finished fourth at the 1986 Amstel Gold Race, and graduated to the sport’s top-tier with a contract from Roger Legeay’s Z-Peugeot squad. Knee problems, however, forced his return to Britain, and he retired in 1991, aged 26. Three years later, after a brief stint as DS at the Kelloggs Tour, McLoughlin walked away from the sport and hasn’t been seen by the cycling community since.
McGrath begins his reconnaissance among McLoughlin’s friends, family, and former team-mates, in a manner reminiscent of Richard Moore’s excellent In Search of Robert Millar. We won’t spoil the story by telling you where his investigations lead, but for readers who gained their first, thrilling taste of bike racing from Channel 4’s coverage of the Kelloggs Series some 30-odd years ago, the pursuit of McLoughlin, its most charismatic performer, is fascinating stuff.