the complete book of the tour de france 2014 edition. feargal mckay aurum press paperback. 722pp illus. £25

complete book of the tour de france

the european union is currently and perhaps always will be, a topical subject of conversation and comment. having entered life as the common market, a european body to help regulate and encourage trade between member states, it has now arguably become the monster our leaders have all created. i doubt there is a single community in the uk where some obscure or idiotic ruling has not changed things for the worse, though in mitigation, there are quite likely a number of others that have made things a touch more palatable.

those we don't really want to hear about because where's the fun in that?

but midst each and every regulation that has made monty python's ministry of silly walks look increasingly less silly and far closer to reality, i'm surprised there hasn't been one that caters to the minimum and maximum size of what you and i would refer to as a book.

according to common lore, everytbody has within them, a book just waiting to get out. judging by the standard of contributions received at our local newspaper, these books would be grammatically inept, and certainly badly spelt. however, it's a quote that surely equals that of andy warhol's contention that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes. (it's a shame that can't be enforced upon folks such as jeremy clarkson and simon cowal). i have been occasionally encouraged to turn my own writing talents, such as they are, towards book form, but i live in constant fear that i'd say everything i needed to say in a single chapter (hard to believe, i know), thus offering any publisher a somewhat anorexic manuscript.

however, the apparent absence of any minimum size for a book would likely allow me, in theory at least, to become an author. and the lack of any maximum constraints, other than the binding process, presumably allows authors such as feargal mckay to offer us volumes such as 2014's the complete book of the tour de france. it is, by its very size and heft, a doorstop of a book. i even went so far as trying it; and it worked.

no doubt this fascinating compendium from 100 editions of the race looked a lot slimmer when first published in 1988, and it's hard to see how it could manage to become any larger without being split into volumes a la the encyclopaedia britannica. in point of fact, that may well have been a clever idea several years ago, for i really can't see me wanting to buy the 2014 edition if i already owned that from 2013 or perhaps others from the past.

would i not simply be acquiring much of the same information paid for in previous years?

however, that is an accusation that can easily be laid at the door of many other books, and not just those from the world of cycling. that cycle sport has gained thousands of new aficionados in the uk in recent years may not be in any serious doubt. nor is the fact that many of those recently recruited are often less clued up than one undoubtedly needs to be during those sunday morning ride conversations. with the grand depart leaving yorkshire in a matter of 40 days or so (hadn't you heard?), i'd think several evenings of earnest revision would pay great dividends. but where to start?

probably, i should think, with fergal's book.

i'd be telling fibs if i said there was much, if any, original material contained in this massive book's 722 pages. yet even such largesse must face its constraints of space, leaving mr mckay in the position of having to precis pretty much all of the important historical facts.

"Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, really wanted the glory of a Tour de France win for Italy. His hopes dashed in 1937 as Bartali went for the Giro/Tour double, he issued an order for 1938: the Tour, and only the Tour. Bartali, the defending Giro D'Italia champion, was ordered to sit out the corsa rosa and concentrate solely on winning the Tour de France."

if you think that reads just a tad like a high school essay, then i fear you may be correct. this is not, and was probably never intended to be, great literature. however, given that i doubt it will ever be read in a single sitting, it does manage to provide salient information in bite sized chunks. but what really sets it apart, and may be its unique selling point are the comprehensive statistical tables relating to each year's running of the race. those could be pored over for hours. aside from such tabulated information, it is sparsely illustrated, but the paper stock does not offer particularly high quality reproduction.

it is bang up to date; the final chapter records froome's tour victory of last year, while the appendix and bibliography following are quite comprehensive, even stretching to an explanation of common cycling terms, a feature that ought to assist those hours of pre-tour study. there have been, as previously testified, hundreds of tour de france books published recently, all of them saying the same thing in slightly different ways; in truth, this one is no different, except to say that it may be one of the easiest from which to glean pertinent facts in a hurry when needed. the price of only £25 might conceivably simplify your choice, either as a present for the newbie in the family or as a reference guide for the coffee sh.. sorry, clubhouse.

monday 2 june 2014

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shadows on the road. life at the heart of the peloton, from us postal to team sky. michael barry. faber and faber hardback 259pp illus. £17.99

shadows on the road: michael barry

the professional cyclist, other than when hiding behind tinted death star windows, is pretty much in the public domain. we are constantly reminded, for no particular reason, that cycle racing is perhaps the most accessible of all the major sports. while soccer, rugby, tennis et al have the innate ability to seat their audience at remunerative cost, professional road racing is open to the elements and to those who wish to stand by the roadside, free of charge, and watch the proceedings whizz by. and having left the safety of the team bus, the riders' every moves are witnessed even to the extent of their pre-race warm ups on turbo trainers 'neath a sponsored gazebo. it is little wonder that many take this ooportunity to don headphones and ipods to gain what little solitude may remain in their jurisdiction.

to witness this is to question whether riders are truly concentrated on the moment, or simply making use of the only form of hiding behind the couch they have left.

several years ago, former sky rider, michael barry, collaborated with esteemed photographer camille mcmillan to produce an esoteric look at a year in the life. barry wrote the words and mcmillan supplied the imagery. the book was entitled metier. in order to enhance my review of this volume, i e-mailed michael barry a selection of questions just prior to that year's giro d'italia, pointing out that, in view of his participation in said three week race, i was happy to wait until the shouting was all over for his answers. i suddenly had need of hurriedly sending a second batch of questions to photographer camille mcmillan, when michael suprisingly sent his answers from italy just prior to the start.

you would figure that, in such a situation, there were considerably more pressing matters to contend with, yet michael promptly and kindly sent an impressively cogent set of answers for a feature in hardly one of the world's major cycling blogs. i also received one or two further e-mails during that particular race.

however, moving on just a few years, the disgraced phloyd landis decided to drag michael's name through the mud by testifying that he and one or two others were as guilty of taking banned substances as was he himself. simply to demonstrate that my naivety knows no bounds, i sent michael an e-mail offering my support (such as it was) and proclaiming my belief that phloyd was simply stirring the brown stuff in order to present himsefl as a more credible witness.

as a rider with team sky, michael barry points out in shadows on the road that prior to his pronounced retirement at the end of the 2013 season, sky had offered him the opportunity to move into a marketing and pr position with the team. then came the admission that he had, in fact, been guilty of injecting epo earlier in his career. with sky's zero tolerance stance, this meant the end of barry's cycling career and the withdrawal of the post riding position. it also made me feel a tad foolish for having sent those words of support.

it is, of course, easy to criticise from the sidelines, safe in the knowledge that such decisions will never be a part of our own lives. but unlike tyler hamilton's the secret race, barry's shadows on the road is not an explicit expose of drugtaking in the peloton. in fact, were it not for his opening chapter describing his feelings on being summonsed by usada to testify against others, you'd never know there was a bubble waiting to burst.

well, actually, that's not true; you probably would. the overall tone of his narrative seems none too optismistic.

barry is something of an intellectual; even his bespectacled photo on the book's inside rear flap gives that impression. he writes very well, very descriptively and often at length, adhering to my own philosophy of why use one word when several would do.

"The team moves quickly, skirting parked cars by inches and accelerating out of tight corners. Locals give a short cheer as we pass through a town in a blur of colour. Our conversation, mixed with the ticking and whirling of the the freewheels and the squeal of the brakes, creates a symphony of noise against more routine small-town sounds: the rattle of bottles being delivered to a bar, the laughter of kids playing in a park, the clink of glasses on a terrace."

shadows on the road reminds me a lot of jazz drummer bill bruford's autobiography written on his retirement from public performance after a 41 year career. though there are high points in the book, there is a distinct impression that happy ever after is not at the end of the last chapter. brooding would be an apt description.

though michael barry seems to have enjoyed a successful career in the peloton, shadows on the road seems to dwell more upon the hardships: accidents, travel, loneliness and being away from home for long periods of time. not especially surprising revelations, but part and parcel of a world tour rider's career. the early chapters in particular, number one excepted, read more as a series of pensive essays, often descriptive and moody, but also often unresolved at chapter's end.

"The laptop was a wonderful way to stay connected...But perhaps we have become too connected. There's less sense of community in the peloton and less solidarity amongst teammates and riders. Self-aware narcissism is the unhealthy side effect...We are no longer absorbed in the moment or immersed in our environment. A teammate once noted that many riders, especially the Americans, seemed more concerned with getting online to report on a race than with racing well."

it's not till we reach chapter twelve when the author almost surprisingly brings to light those revelations that ultimately ended his career (though in mitigation, he had already decided to stop of his own resolve). a bit like a stage race, those first eleven chapters, in retrospect, appear to have been been softening us up for the big bang theory, digressing somewhat and even leading us astray. if this was deliberate, it works very well because deliberate is not how it comes across.

barry appears more at ease with himself in subsequent chapters, having publicly admitted guilt which he felt team sky's insistence had made him keep hidden. admit and you're out; keep it to yourself, and you're fine. but there is a touch of the world weary throughout, perhaps not intentional, but this isn't the book you'd hand to someone considering a professional career in the peloton. i can't help thinking the title is somewhat of a heavy precursor to the contents.

that said, it's a good read if you're a connoisseur of good writing. it is not only hard to disagree with many of barry's points of view, but hard also to think we'd have done otherwise if in a similar situation. i think i was more comfortable with the reflective, observant barry in the first eleven chapters than with the revelatory man who occupies several of those subsequent, but the philosophical individual rises again towards the end.

"Speaking with my retired teammates, George (Hincapie) and Jez (Hunt), I find that they have also tried to find the same equilibrium in their lives. They continue to ride, no longer focused on a finishing line...
"Climbing back on my bike after months seems to put things straight. Pedalling is therapy."

sunday 1 june 2014

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merckx 69 by tonny strouken & jan maes. bloomsbury publishing large format hardback 180pp illus. £35

merckx 69

in 1969, the beatles had released abbey road, the one with the cover where they're walking across a zebra crossing just outside the recording studio of the same name. paul mccartney is walking in bare feet, a subtle oddity that led to rumours of his demise. according to legend, if you played the album backwards near the end of the record, a voice could allegedly be heard saying 'paul is dead'. i seriously doubt that works in itunes.

on july 20 1969, neil armstrong stepped off the lower rung of the steps of nasa's lunar module saying those immortal words 'this is one small step for mankind...'. i recall watching as much of those blurry space transmissions as i could, aged only thirteen and on holiday after the end of my first year at secondary school. it was also the beginning of the end of the lengthy summer of love. the woodstock festival took place at yasgur's catskill farm in bethel, sullivan county new york. reputedly 400,000 attended the festival, listing it as one of the 50 moments that changed the history of rock'n'roll.

meanwhile, on the other side of the atlantic, a twenty-four year old belgian, riding for an italian team sponsored by a coffee machine manufacturer had just won his first tour de france, beginning a domination of professional cycling that would last well into the 1970s. coincidentally, that makes eddy merckx 69 this coming month, explaining, in more ways than one, the title of this massive book from bloomsbury.

featuring some utterly fabulous, grainy, black and white photographs from eddy's 1969 season from the collection of photographer tonny strouken, accompanied by words from jan maes, tentatively holding your breath and opening the first few pages brings to mind nothing more or less than a pristine copy of rouleur magazine. you can argue the case for e-books all you like, there's simply nothing to match the heady aroma of printer's ink on heavy art paper. i mean no disrespect to maes' eccentric narrative, but the photos are not only glorious, fascinating, engaging and addictive, but undoubtedly the very reason you'd part with your £35 in the first place.

even as i type this review, with the book open on the table by my side, the fragrance rising from its pages truly ought to be bottled and sold separately.

maes' narrative occupies two distinct styles; factual and emotional. each chapter is preceded by a factual approach to the subsequent images; the twelve distinct captured moments begin with aix-en-provence. following on from a brief precis of merckx's career up to the end of 1968, maes ends the season's preface with "1969 looked sure to be a vintage year. It did not disappoint", despite my english teacher's dogma that you should never start a sentence with a number. following an image of merckx with ferdinand bracke in peugeot team clothing at 1967's trofeo baracchi, we reach the first of maes' letters to eddy.

merckx 69

"Dear Mr Merckx
"It really wasn't cycling weather today. The freezing rain beat down relentlessly onto my face. The icy chill didn't just deprive me of my remaining bodyheat, it also robbed me of my enjoyment of the ride."

this apparent flight of fancy leads us to his alleged recall of merckx two years previously in a soaking peugeot jersey at the summit of the giro's tre cime di lavaredo. i confess i was taken in. i truly thought these letters were real, written to eddy in 1969. but unless i really have missed the point, they are strategically placed devices providing an insight into particles of merckx's career. surprisingly, it's a device that works very well, offering a more human facet in a book about a rider that many considered superhuman.

i have great affection for film grain (if that isn't too odd a statement to make). i can understand why there are plug-ins for photoshop to restore this factor to modern day digital images. after all, digital noise is hardly contemporaneity's finest hour. the photographs are reproduced in all their monochrome glory, some at considerable size, so much so that reading this book in bed will make your eyes go funny. but if you're a fan of the days when riders raced eveything on one bike, machines with the gear levers on the down-tube (and they really were tubes in those days) and cables exiting the top of the brake levers, days when cotton caps were the only headgear and shiny toe-clips kept black leather shoes atop quill pedals, you will adore every print incense impregnated page.

and just to round out the definition of the book's title, there's a total of 69 glorious images in those 180 pages.

merckx 69

merckx is a rider not short of testimonies to his superlative cycling skills. attending the press day of london's cycle show in earls court many years ago, it was illuminating to watch a sizeable queue of supposedly hardened industry stalwarts waiting patiently to have a visiting eddy merckx sign posters, postcards and autograph books. they always say you shouldn't meet your heroes, but as maes testifies in the book's final page...

"I was aware of the dangers of finally meeting the idol who had made such an impression on my youth. It could have burst the 'myth of the hero', tainting my wonder years into the bargain. With Eddy Merckx, quite the opposite happened. Being able to meet in person the man behind the unapproachable champion has only increased my respect for him."

photographer strouken echoes those thoughts: "I will cherish forever the fantastic performances of the best cyclist I have ever photographed.". as the 2014 giro d'italia draws to a close, and the craziness of a grand depart in yorkshire looms on the horizon, i struggle to think of a contemporary professional who will elicit the same adoration in 45 years' time. in the absence of such, and despite the aforementioned myriad of merckx books already on the bookshelf, this is an absolute doozy, one that will continue to offer those rouleur moments for ever and ever and ever.

would i lie to you?

saturday 31 may 2014

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etape. the untold stories of the tour de france's defining stages. richard moore. harper collins hardback. 344pp illus. £20

etape by richard moore

seasonal is, to a certain extent, our watchword. a bit like groundhog day, but without the same results (apart from a seven year period, now discounted). cycling's like that; repetitive to the point of anticipatory enjoyment and embraced by the greater part of the pelotonese. after the tour down under, a race that, i confess barely scrapes in under the garden fence, and those mid-desert escapades, it's not overly long before we reach march and april for a healthy dose of the spring classics.

gosh how i adore those two months.

then in fairly rapid succession we have the three week giro, dauphine libere and the alleged pinnacle of sporting excitement, the tour de france, the vuelta, the worlds etc., etc. as the saying goes, 'you know the drill'. same time, same channel, with only the names being changed to protect the victorious. it would be naive of me to contend that the same is not true of many other sports, and just like aficionados of those, we love every minute of it. however, i often wonder if we pay close enough attention to the disparity contained in the separation between one day classics and three week stage races.

i'd agree that the outcome of the latter depends greatly on what might be termed a war of attrition. it's not only a case of performing well enough over a few stages to take pink, yellow or gold, but having the tenacity and team to retain it all the way to milan, paris or madrid. but that's really only true for a handful of contenders; the remainder of the riders are aiming more modestly for a stage win. or two. their one day classic in the midst of the circus. thus grand tours such as the tour de france are most often written about and appreciated as a singularity. it cannot be denied that yellow in paris is the principal objective; it's the very chase that provides the thrill.

but what if, and up till now, it's been a big if, the tour was broken down into its constituent parts, with at least one stage examined a tad more closely, and without the onus of the following day's stage to wash away the luxury of basking in that victory? that is precisely the premise behind etape, the latest offering from richard moore. through twenty carefully chosen chapters, the author not only examines the events of the day, but augments them by interviewing several of the principal protagonists. quite simply put, etape is not only a well conceived approach to the tour de france, but something of a triumph, the likes of which i haven't come across before.

in a message i received from the author as i approached the book's final chapters, he averred that this was a bit of a departure for him, with no one chapter offering a singular and definable flavour. in that contention he was at least partially correct; other than each stage being excerpted from the tour's recent history, the only other common denominator is that of the author. richard moore is his own secret weapon.

there are several memorable stages included in moore's two score: boardman's first yellow in 1994, chiapucci's lengthy and exhilarating escape from indurain's clutches on the way to sestriere, mark cavendish's stage nineteen victory in the tour of 2009, and marco pantani's substantial distancing of jan ullrich in the quest for yellow in 1998. however, i'm not making a case for any or all of the above to be the most important or exciting amongst the book's 20 chapters. indeed, one of the finer points of moore's choice is not only a total lack of chronology in chapter sequence, but in considering each as a story in and of itself. there really is no need to read start to finish, but in whichever order you choose to read, you will complete every last word.

richard moore is incontestably one of the finest published sports writers of our time, a factor underlined by the researched minutiae revealed in virtually every chapter, in this case via an interview with jorge jaksche.

"...Ullrich's team, Telekom, they had all this technical race food - the Power Bars. But they are shit when it's cold. You can't eat them. They turn into bricks.
"On the Italian teams, we ate small paninis with marmalade or honey or nutella. Not sophisticated maybe. But better in those conditions."

it is moore's reliance on interviews with those involved in the drama that brings each venture to life. rather than writing about a stage, the author has turned a two-dimensional narrative into a three-dimensional experience. granted, even in pixels, that description seems a tad overwrought, but as one who approached etape with certain reservations regarding its basic premise, the end product is nothing less than superb. as interlocutor, richard moore has spoken with cavendish, merckx, boardman, (david) millar, lemond and, believe it or not, lance armstrong.

i have made mention in previous reviews of richard moore's seeming ease and skill at transcending his subject matter. turning a specialist subject into one that could be read and enjoyed by a cycling agnostic. etape is his finest hour. there will be a great number of books about the tour de france published in the next month, but if your appetite for yellow extends to only one, make it this one.

compulsive and compulsory.

harper collins have generously provided a copy of richard moore's etape to give away to the sender for the first correct answer to the following question
what does the french word 'etape' mean in english?
send answers to and make sure you include a full postal address in the certainty that you're going to win. closing date is friday 6 june.

friday 30 may 2014

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on the road bike (revised edition) ned boulting. yellow jersey press paperback 323pp illus. £8.99

on the road bike second edition

"I can't believe you actually shaved your legs. Chris thought this was terribly funny, when he saw me.
But you told me to.
No I didn't, he pointed out. I just asked if you had
Oh. He was right of course, but still...Why did you ask if I had?
To see if you would.
And I had."

a book that i partially reviewed, or perhaps simply made mention of, gave testament to the dutch affiliation with the bicycle. though their country faced the same increasing onslaught of the motor car in the late fifties and early sixties, there seems to have been a greater resolve to retain the flexibility and goodness of the bicycle even in the face of motorisation.

britain fared less well, at least if you're a cyclist. our less than strenuous fascination with the bicycle has been usurped even by the good folks in portland, oregon, leaving us almost empty handed. i say almost because as we all well know, having read the first edition of ned boulting's on the road bike, professing an interested yet disassociated intrigue with the great british velocipedinal eccentric, he would always be my sole choice to offer such a perspicacious narrative such as that already read and reviewed. why then, other than the fact that i consider him a good friend, would i feel moved to offer this reprise?

aside from the fact that i figure little has truly changed since prince bradley's successful bid for world domination, ned has seen fit to tie up some loose ends with, as the cover tells me a brand new chapter along with many others, i rather enjoy mr boulting's writing; it is admirably self-deprecating, even if that often seems more of an adopted persona than a sketch of real life. at first publication, on the road bike cleverly managed to poke gentle fun at us all through his portrayal of some of the genre's more prominent characters (after all, the book is subtitled sniffing the yakskin shoe).

you may be wondering, not unnaturally, what it is that makes this stance so endearing, so let me explain. in much the same way as jokes about scotsmen are often only funny when told by other scotsmen, boulting has managed to be a scotsman, so to speak. his writing identifies him as one of us while he pretends not to be. like the fallacy that islay malts are all matured by a wave-dashed sea wall (they're not), the notion that a man who shaves his legs even at a whimsical behest of the 1992 olympic pursuit champion could not be numbered amongst the pelotonese (come the revolution) is almsot unthinkable. and that's despite his annoying predilection for turning up on itv's football coverage.

the brand new chapter is a scattergun of everything that's happened since last year's first edition; froome's yellow jersey, wiggo's eventual victory in his home tour and the bicycle ride with chris boardman for which legs were shaved. ok, so there's a tad more to it than that, but overall, this is the chapter that has turned a particularly excellent book into its gestalt. you'd think me a tad overwrought if i heartily recommended purchasing this in addition to the original; would i ever be so presumptious? but if the original passed you by, don't compound the error by letting this one go.

it's what the ad breaks in the tour coverage are for.

through the generosity of yellow jersey press, i have one copy to give away to the sender of the first correct entry chosen at random from the yak skin shoe.
'for which uk tv channel does ned boulting present the tour de france?
entries to remembering, as always, to include a full postal address. closing date is wednesday 4 june.

thursday 29 may 2014

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reckless. the life and times of luis ocana. alasdair fotheringham bloomsbury hardback. 296pp illus. £18.99

reckless by alasdair fotheringham

"...what instantly struck him as a team-mate...was that Ocana had a hugely reckless streak too."

the practice of placing something light against dark, or something quiet against loud is a common artistic ploy, tendentiously referred to as contrast, but more joyously framed by the italians as chiarascuro. either way it allows the accentuating of one against the other, frequently leaving the listener or viewer to make up their mind as to which is the more dominant factor. there have been similar moves afoot in the world of cycling, but very rarely have these been deliberate, relying more upon accidents of birth or confluence of the planets.

modern times bring to mind that of wiggins and froome, perhaps not in direct contrast with each other, but most certainly by implication. arguably the most famous of these accidental yet surprisingly common pairings are that of coppi and bartali, anquetil and the eternal second, raymond poulidor or maybe even hinault and lemond. it would be tantamount to arrogance to contest that one would hardly have been as successful or famed were it not for their anti-matter. coppi is as likely to have brought fame, fortune and disrepute upon himself were bartali to have been off fishing when the giro came to town, but that was via a different set of circumstances. as it was, application of their respective metiers surely brought out the best in both. as to anquetil and poulidor, the latter may not consider the former to have been the promoter of his finest hour(s)

almost without doubt, the greatest cyclist of all time, based purely on results alone is eddy merckx. and though he demolished all in his path, allegedly achieving a career total of 525 victories on the bike, his most famed challenger throughout the 1960s and 70s is surely personified by spaniard, luis ocana.

though merckx gained the reputation of being somewhat cold and calculating, ocana's character by contrast, is encapsulated in the title of alasdair fotheringham's superb biography, reckless. while the title may be perfectly apt in one sense, its synonym (wreckless) is also a decidedly appropriate moniker. aside from his fascination with fast cars, driving them in a manner that rarely gained favour with his passengers, he is perhaps most infamously renowned for the double-whammy of a crash in the 1971 tour de france while in the lead. crashing on the descent of the col de mente, he was hit first by agostinho then zoetemelk, and though no bones were broken, he was in too much pain to continue.

though many riders would contest that there is no such thing as luck in bicycle racing, merckx, who had fallen ahead of ocana, taking him down in the process, was able to remount and carry-on, missed by both those following riders who rendered ocana inert. the latter's career, at least on a superficial basis seemed at times to be the very definition of bad luck.

alasdair fotheringham shares many traits with his brother william when it comes to exhaustive research, and a praiseworthy ability to place each twist and turn in context. he has not only carefully traced each and every facet of ocana's life and career, from its rudimentary, rural, agrarian and poor beginnings, to his ascent through spanish cycling, and a tactical career move to france to the point where he became a credible if intransigent ying to eddy merckx's yang. despite a convincing win in the 1973 tour de france, the fact that merckx was not there (having opted for the giro and vuelta that year), debate continues to the present day as to whether he would still have worn yellow into paris had eddy taken part.

ocana's unpredictability both on and off the bike certainly makes for a fascinating and at times inspiring story, one which fotheringham is more than well qualified to relate. describing ocana's move into team directorship in later life, and making use of an interview with radioshack's dirk demol, the latter was keen to point out "What I can remember about him was that he wasn't particularly effective. That's often the case with big champions, they can't understand why bike riders aren't as good as they were and often get too easily annoyed with them." it is of great testament to alasdair's narrative skills that the researched minutiae of the spaniard's career never seems likely to overwhelm an exciting journey that sadly did not result in happy ever after.

after my recent comments regarding what i see as the commercialisation of the tour de france at the very least, it has, i believe, become ever more important to understand and learn from the sport's incredible past. in the days of the much bandied marginal gains, 'reckless is a salient reminder that it was not ever so; that swashbuckling was not invented by marco pantani.

ask anyone not of the faith to name a single cyclist and wiggins is likely to be at the top of the list. merckx is also likely to feature amongst the older generation, but dig a little deeper amongst the pelotonese, and coppi, anquetil or even bartali will receive the odd mention. i confess i'd have been unlikely to bring ocana into the conversation.

that would have been my great loss.

wednesday 28 may 2014

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tour de france. the complete history of the world's greatest cycle race. 10th edition marguerite lazell. carlton books hardback 240pp illus. £19.99

tour de france

popularity can be something of a double-edged sword. economics would dictate that just the right amount of popularity will bring, if not untold riches, certainly enough to be going on with. i know not whether it is purely a british trait to build someone or something to the point of fame and fortune before deciding to knock it down again on the basis that it/they are now too popular or famous for their own good. we've been doing it with pop groups for some considerable time, and latterly it's a national trait that seems to have entered the sporting fray. witness the hero worship poured upon tim henman only to resign ourselves that wimbledon was always going to be an ace too far. and having lumped untold pressure upon the hapless chap, scorn was heaped upon his every failure.

i'm sure there are a myriad of other situations which fit this particular bill, and i fear that the tour de france might be about to fall foul of the same process, if it isn't already too far over the summit.

every year, on the approach to july, amongst the pelotonese there is great debate as to who's in form, who might conceivably have fallen foul of a drugs test performed in the late eighteenth century and whether the dutch will ever regain their crown on alpe d'huez. this year, for me at least, has been considerably worse. i am as enamoured with the tour as any other, but only the tour, by which i mean each successive day's racing. i have little time for the never-ending punditry that disseminates each stage kilometre by kilometre, advising the great unwashed as to which particular rider the parcours might suit for the win.

let's just sit back with a brie baguette and a glass of something french and see what happens. please.

but the 2014 grand depart, as if you didn't already know, takes place in yorkshire over a couple of days before predictably heading to london. those in the country's capital city would no doubt storm off in a huff if something this sportingly important were to bypass the road to the queen's house. and yorkshire itself has seemingly gone to inordinate lengths to incorporate factors so far removed from cycling as to beggar belief. i know that i come across as the equivalent of cycling's victor meldrew, a deliberate pose for once, because it troubles me greatly that the tour de france is in serious danger of outshining the very reason for its existence. as a sporting edifice it has become schizophrenic; and in the process of becoming so, its endlessly increasing importance has diminshed its relevance to the average cyclist in the coffee shop.

if i really must offer evidence for this, it is perhaps by way of this hapless book, the complete history of the world's greatest cycle race. in spite of all i have just said, it is an excellent book, chronologically narrated from the tour's beginnings in the early 20th century through to its 100th edition in 2013. and since this is the tenth edition, the author and publisher could hardly be accused of jumping on an increasingly bigger bandwagon. or could they? on the top right of the cover is a small union jack accompanied by the words grand depart yorkshire 2014. i'm willing to bet it didn't say grand depart corsica 2013 on last year's edition.

on the cover's inner flap, the last paragraph: "Road racing has never been more popular and this stunning book provides all the stories of courage, endeavour, scandal and controversy that make the tour the intense spectacle it is today." the telling points are 'never been more popular' and the intense spectacle it has become today.'. the very words to strike terror into a veclocipedinal victor meldrew's heart.

if further evidence were required of the tour's parabolic commercialisation, you need only take a look at the yellow jerseys worn even since the year robert millar won his polka dots. on page 117 is a photograph of a smiling bernard hinault beside four yellow jerseys on a washing line bearing compact and bijou, tour, l'equipe and le coq sportif logos. there's a great deal of yellow.

that said, it's an exceptionally good book. using a columnised page layout reminiscent of the newspaper that fostered the race in the first place and a type size that might just give trouble to the hard of hearing, marguerite lazell's narrative offers a comprehensive precis of each and every running of the tour since 1903. add to this several interruptions to accommodate nominated tour legends, a superb array of imagery and a very thorough index at the back and that £16.99 starts to look like very good value indeed.

i would be unlikely to argue against anyone who said i ought to discard my questionable preconceptions and embrace the tour with all its foibles and arrogance. and i apologise to the author and publisher for framing their book in the midst of my disfavourable prejudices. for those whom the tour is the be all and end all of existence, you'll be hard pushed to find a better illustrated history of the tour.

until next year.

tuesday 27 may 2014

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................