Accompanied by an exclusive illustration of Victoria Pendleton by the artist Lilly Allen for The Substantive, Mark Perryman declares Cycling ‘Sport of the Year’ and chooses his favourite books from 2012 inspired by life on two wheels. Details of The Substantive t-shirt with a Lilly Allen design at the bottom of this piece.
Never mind the BBC hyped-up hoopla of ‘Sports Personality of the Year’, for most successful British sport of 2012 surely nothing comes close to cycling. An extraordinary first, and second, places for British riders in the Tour de France, a hatful of medals in the Olympic velodrome, more on the road too, and by the autumn a new generation of winners breaking through on the track in the World Cup series too. The achievements, matched by an explosion of popular participation is truly breathtaking.
For those new to the sport, this is one with a rich and varied literature, cycling takes its history seriously, the efforts to excel are tales of human endurance hardly matched by any other sport. Matt Seaton’s The Escape Artist may have been published ten years ago yet it remains the single best depiction in print of how a commute to work by bike can become the force to transform the individual into a cyclist driven to pile on the miles in the cause of speed, and endurance on the road. A route no doubt many tens of thousands are taking inspired by Wiggo, Cav, Hoy, Pendleton and the rest. Dutch author Tim Krabbe does a similar job to Seaton with The Rider but this time as compelling fiction. More than any other book The Rider gets across the the extremities of human spirit and physical effort to ride the distances, and at the speed, which top road cyclists endure, in a tour event, day, after day for weeks on end.
Of course as we now know many were only able to achieve this via performance-enhancing drugs. Lance Armstrong’s world-wide best-selling autobiography It’s Not About the Bike now inviting the obvious response, no, it was about the needle! Long derided by the cycling establishment as a lone and maverick campaigner, author Paul Kimmage has been one of the most dogged exposers of the cycling drug cheats who nearly ruined their sport. Kimmage’s Rough Ride remains a devastatingly frank description of life on the professional road cycling circuit , hurtful in its telling of unwelcome truths yet powerful in its capture of what it takes, legally and illegally, to compete.
Of course it would be quite wrong to allow either the cheats, or cycling’s enemies, to create the myth that this is an entirely dirty sport. Cycling can boastst plenty of heroes as well as more than its fair share of villains. Of the former few come close to the Belgian legend Eddy Merckx. William Fortheringham, has this year written the definitive Merckx biography, Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike. In the 1969 Tour de France Merckx won the overall winner’s Yellow Jersey, the sprinter’s Green jersey and the King of the Mountains Polka Dot jersey too. This would be like Usain Bolt winning the 100m, 200m and 400m Golds, beating Mo Farah in the 5000 and 10,000 metres then grab first in the Marathon too. The madness of such an idea provides the measure of Eddy’s magnificence as cycling’s unrivalled greatest.
Writer Richard Moore has produced a series of exciting incisive books chronicling the innovation and commitment that has turned Team GB cyclists on track and road into a world-beating outfit no other British team can come close to matching in terms of world domination. Compared to the cyclists’ achievements the likes of Rooney and Gerrard are stripped bare as mere journeymen on the international stage. Moore’s Heroes, Villains and Velodromes chronicles British cycling’s transformation of its medal-wining prospects on the track. While his Sky’s The Limit tells the sort of Team Sky’s success on the road. Both have been fully updated in new editions this year to include the success story that 2012 became for British cyclists. If cycling literature lacks anything it is a decent social history. There are exclusions that remain which need accounting for. Why is the sport, recreational and competitive variants, almost exclusively white? What are the forces of discrimination that have entirely marginalised women’s road cycling while their achievements on the track, in terms of Team GB at least, are treated virtually on a par with the men. There’s plenty of scope for writing a critical account of the sport while at the same time applauding its successes. A model for such writing is provided by John Foot’s Pedalare!Pedalare!, a brilliant history of cycling in one of its continental heartlands, Italy. Foot’s writing is a testament to how in providing a social, cultural and political context sportswriting is informed and elevated into something truly special.
Road cycling is a team sport won by individuals. Understanding how this apparent sporting contradiction works is central to Nicolas Roche’s insider’s account Inside the Peleton. Its a riveting read and full of the heartbreak and happiness of life as a professional cyclist reaching out for he glory of a Stage win, or even better. David Millar is one of the British riders to have achieved that kind of status in recent years. His painfully honest Racing Through the Dark tells the story not only of his triumphs but the drug regime that became a vital part of his successes, how he was caught, came back after his ban and has now become not only a better cyclist but one of the most vocal campaigners for cleaning up his sport. Highly articulate, Millar has written a courageously combative book that both exposes the conditions that create drug cheating and explains how his sport has to confront those conditions if it is to break from this most murky of pasts.
The era that Millar describes in such painful detail, horribly amplified by the full exposure of Armstrong’s drug enriched achievements, was the sport’s low-point. For British cycling 2012 represents the kind of blazing trail of victory following victory that could yet establish cycling as a major sport in this country. More than anything else of course this has been shaped by Bradley Wiggins’ first ever victory in the Tour de France by a British rider. A win dubbed by Philosophy Football, and then designed into a best-selling T-shirt, as Le Maillot Britannique. The Tour means so much because of its rich and varied history, one that is rooted in its Frenchness . An ‘away’ victory of this sort by a British cyclist surely ranks Wiggins’ win as one of the greatest of any by a British athlete, whatever the sport. The history of Le Tour is entertainingly and informatively told in a collection of race reports from the pages of the Guardian over the years compiled in the new book The Tour de France … To the Bitter End. An unashamedly contemporary account of life following Le Tour, with a spiky disrespect of officialdom, and sometimes tradition too is provided by Ned Boulting’s How I Won The Yellow Jumper. Cycling at its best is fiercely cosmopolitan and internationalist, Boulting provides the kind of commentary the sport deserves, and will need if it is to fulfil its undoubted potential to reach out and grow.
For the past eight years, since the 2004 Olympic medals on the track, British cycling’s success has surpassed all realistic expectations. Already the signs post London 2012 are that a new generation will now continue the winning ways. Amongst the champions of this era who have now retired one will certainly tower over others’ achievements for some time to come. In her autobiography Between the Lines Victoria Pendleton reveals both the frailties and the strengths that have helped make her such a stunningly successful cyclist. Aided by her co-writer, Donald McRae, Pendleton’s complex character is revealed. In part this is about her ambition not to conform to what others expect of sportswomen. Of course she would fiercely, and correctly, resist any suggestion that female athletes are in any way inferior to their male counterparts, but neither are they necessarily the same. Resisting the pressures to conform has been the watchword of Pendleton’s career, and her many successes too.
Of course, with all due respect to the rest, 2012 belongs to one cyclist more than any other, Bradley Wiggins. His autobiography, My Time like Pendleton’s much helped by the choice of co-writer, in Wiggins’ case the superlative William Fotheringham. Wiggins’ story is unsurprisingly dominated by the account his book provides of what it took to become the first British rider to win the Tour de France. But in the course of telling the tale his image as an everyday hero is absolutely confirmed with all the necessary detail and insight both cynics and fans would require. He is truly not only a great athlete but a great guy too. No BBC hoopla or appointment at the Palace is required to confirm this well-deserved status.
There is no sign that British cycling’s success story will end on 31 December 2012, nor much denting of cycling’s growing popularity as a participation sport exercise. These books will not only liven up your seasonal reading but act as a testament to what it has taken for British cycling to become such an incredible success story.
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