Inside track on a wretched life of endless lying and constant vigilance
GENERAL:Away from the mainstream, some of the best offerings this year are on two wheels. The planets have aligned for cycling literature just now, just not exactly in the way the sport might have chosen. For the casual sports reader, there has never been a better time to reach for a cycling book. Two separate but concurrent phenomena have brought us to this point – the collapse of the doping house of cards and the inexorable rise of the British machine.
To the grotty world of the needles and the damage done first. The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle(Bantam Press) was a much-deserved winner of the William Hill prize in the UK. It isn’t the first book to take the public inside the world of a peloton that was rife with doping throughout the late ’90s and the last decade but it surely the most detailed and most revealing.
Hamilton was Lance Armstrong’s war-time consigliere in the US Postal team, his almost freakish ability to endure pain making him a worthy foil for the toughest days in the mountains.
His climbing ability meant he was part of Armstrong’s A-Team, privy to the caste-within-caste system of doping in professional cycling where the idea that ‘they were all at it’ holds true but only up to a point. Hamilton was one of those animals who were more equal than others, who had to submit to the strictures of Dr Michele Ferrari and who got the best of the best when it came to pharmaceutical help.
His book lays bare the world that leads a cyclist like him to a point where EPO use and blood-spinning aren’t so much a Hobson’s Choice as a wholly logical next step. The sheer drudgery involved with a life of endless lying and constant vigilance is depressing, although the ease with which Hamilton and his cohorts sailed through years of doping controls will make you roll your eyes at the next person you hear using the lack of a positive test as proof of anything. You might not have much sympathy for Hamilton after reading it – and you certainly won’t have any for Armstrong – but you will better understand the life of a doped-up cyclist.
The world of Armstrong and Hamilton and the rest is the one that, fairly or not, Bradley Wiggins is charged with pulling cycling out of.
It’s not a job he particularly relishes yet his autobiography, My Time(Yellow Jersey Press), written with William Fotheringham, shows a level of self-awareness that suggests he’s gradually making his peace with it. You can’t win the Tour de France at such a slight remove from the Armstrong era without facing down the doping question and Wiggins doesn’t try.
There’s interesting stuff here about how Team Sky went about competing as a drug-free team in a doping-heavy world. Dave Brailsford estimated early on that a cyclist who systematically dopes has a 15 per cent advantage on one who stays clean and some of the best bits of the book detail how they went about making up that 15 per cent.
Beyond it, Wiggins makes for an engaging character. While he’s sometimes prone to overdoing the Kilburn-Boys-Aren’t-Supposed-To-Win-The-Tour stuff, he can be gloriously chippy at times. The account of his time-trial ride on the penultimate day of the tour is excellent as well, right down to the final 4km when he knows he’s won the Tour.
A completely different kettle of butterfly screws is Between The Lines by Victoria Pendleton and Donald McRae (HarperSport). Pendleton has always come across as by far the most interesting and least robotic of the British track cycling armada and her bracingly frank autobiography doesn’t disappoint. Wracked with self-doubt throughout her career, she still became a serial world and Olympic champion. Yet she never seemed to enjoy any of it, not until the very end where she experiences the joy of never having to sit on a bicycle ever again.
This is book about feelings. Pendleton’s lack of self-esteem that leads to her taking scissors to her arms, her anger and heartache at seeing the British cycling authorities fire the coach she started a relationship with – it’s all here and it makes for a fine read, if at times a slightly wearing one.
Elsewhere, a gem of a book is Sit Down And Cheer by Martin Kelner(Wisden). The Guardian’s long-standing TV sport columnist has gone the whole hog and written a history of sport on the goggle box. It won’t come as a surprise to anyone who turns to Kelner for Monday morning witticisms to find that this is one of the best-written and enjoyable books around.
Some of the early-years stuff is a little dense and not, to be perfectly honest, altogether that interesting. But Kelner always has a spoonful of sugar at hand and the further we go, the more familiar the names become.The book drips with research and interviews alongside the gags.
Finally, The Best American Sportswriting 2012, edited by Michael Wilbon (Mariner Press) is a stonking return to form after a pretty mediocre offering last year. A yearly anthology of magazine articles, the first, by Wright Thompson of ESPN, is a mesmerising account of India v Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup through the eyes of one of America’s truly great sports journalists.
And the second, by Deadspin’s Alex Beth, carries the brilliant title ‘The Two-Fisted One-Eyed Adventures Of Sportswriting’s Last Badass.’
It begins thus: “George Kimball hung upside down some 70 feet in the cold Manhattan air, still in need of a cigarette.”
If you don’t want to keep reading after that, what are you even doing here?