in my early teens, faced with one of those long, hot summers that were all the range in the early 70s, i joined the local tennis club, if for no other reason than membership offered a discount on court hire. i did own what i regarded as a reasonable tennis racket and enough of my school friends were keen to play, making it an apparently worthwhile investment.
however, no sooner had i joined than the names for the club's summer tournament were posted on the board outside the clubhouse (which also provided the advantage of crisps, fizz and ice cream cones). it transpired that membership automatically entered me for this knockout contest and my name appeared opposite someone i had never even heard of before. it was a mere matter of minutes to pop into the secretary's office and scrub my name from the list, for not only was i distinctly not competitive, i really didn't have anything like the tennis skills required to progress past the first round.
this pretty much put me off clubs for the rest of my life, a condition which survives to this day.
though there may be several definitions of just what a club is, depending on its purpose of origination, i have always taken it to be an agglomeration of individuals with a common purpose or goal in mind. most clubs have to be joined; some, like the tennis club mentioned above, simply by paying a year's membership. in the land of golf, it's not always so simple. here it can be a case of proposal by at least two current members and proof that you were invited to the local porsche dealer's summer barbecue. some clubs, however, apply membership on the basis of achievement; no doubt there is a moon landing astronauts club, one that few of us qualify for.
and then there's the yellow jersey club, exclusively for those who have achieved victory in the tour de france. to write a book about each and every one, excluding the fact that the yellow jersey wasn't actually introduced until after the first world war, would not only be a massive undertaking, but would also be a rather massive book. author ed pickering wisely and logically restricted his subjects to those of the last forty years, from 1975 onwards, beginning with bernard thevenet and ending with vincenzo nibali.
it would not be outwith the bounds of intelligence and fortitude to think that those who have stood atop the podium on the champs elysees would have much in common. after all, it surely takes a similar competitive urge or desire to not only survive those three weeks in july, but triumph overall. yet ed pickering's book, if nothing else, demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth. in fact, what conjoins all of the 21 victors included in the yellow jersey club is the disparity between them all.
tellingly, pickering has opted (quite rightly in my opinion) to include lance armstrong, though the seven consecutive years of his domination are scored through in the list of contents. however, as he points out, the uci have singularly failed to nominate the runners-up in those seven years to receive the jersey instead (unlike other years), and it seems a nonsense to ignore him altogether.
it doesn't seem unusual that at least some of the winners achieved yellow tinted greatness as a result of controlled aggression, perhaps most obviously personified in the shape of bernard hinault. where others wished purely to be the victors "His primary motivation in life was to settle scores and impose himself on people - winning bike races was just the method he happened to use." contrast that with luxemburger, andy schleck, who inherited the 2010 tour after alberto contador was stripped of his victory for doping offences. "He liked being a racing cyclist, but he liked not having too stressful a life just as much...".
the subject of stress turns up quite frequently across all 21 chapters, either as a result of it being imposed upon others by those in the yellow jersey, or imposed upon the yellow jersey by race conditions, the paperazzi, other riders, or simply at their own behest. it turns out that cadel evans, a former world champion mountain biker, a genre of cyclist generally held to be relaxed to the point of being horizontal, did not live up to that image.
"...the stereotypical mountain biker is laid back, the stero-typical Aussie is laid-back. Evans, on the contrary, is highly strung and extremely complex."
the more you read about the likes of laurent fignon, vincenzo nibali, bjarne riis and bradley wiggins, the more you discover that yellow jersey is really all they have in common; that and the ability to ride a bicycle rather quickly. where marco pantani took top spot in the 1998 tour de farce after a thrilling demolition job on jan ullrich in atrocious weather conditions, miguel indurain's five victories scarcely ventured anywhere near the word panache.
as the author himself proclaims "My perception at the time of Indurain's Tour wins was that apart from the Spanish, for whom he was an unimpeachable role model and hero, the people who liked Indurain didn't like cycling, they liked winning."
pickering's narratives are cleverly deceptive; of necessity, he describes in varying detail, the path of each rider's triumph to the yellow jersey which ultimately would simply be a book of factual testament. but in so doing, by describing the inherent strategy (or otherwise) of the respective victories, it's surprising just how much the author unravels of each winner's character. but more importantly in my opinion, this is an eminently readable book; you may be better versed in tour de france history than am i, but nonetheless, the yellow jersey club makes for compulsive reading.
if i have any criticisms, aside from possibly a total lack of accompanying illustrations, it's a comparable lack of either an index or bibliography. pickering makes several mentions of interviews featured in cycling magazines of the time, but doesn't make mention of issue numbers, either in the text or by way of the missing bibliography. it's not what i'd call a necessity by any stretch of the imagination, but it would have been nice. and perhaps an index will have made its way to the back of the book by the time this arrives in paperback form.
superficial niggles aside, this is an excellent read, and possibly a franchise that by 2020, will have acquired another hundred pages or thereabouts. happily, and unlike many other books on le tour that are out of date almost the minute they're published, froome's win this year means the yellow jersey club will still be bang up to date on monday (though ed nearly needed a chapter on nairo quintana).
sunday 26 july 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................