Racing Hard20 Tumultuous Years in Cycling
by William Fotheringham with a forward by David Millar
Reviewed by Nick Dey & Sim Parrott
“A great writer and journalist who has contributed a huge amount to cycling over the years.”
Sir Bradley Wiggins, Tour de France winner 2012
The book is collection of William Fotheringham’s best* work as selected by the author himself. For those who are unfamiliar with his work, Fotheringham, a racing cyclist himself for over thirty years, has been the Guardian newspaper’s cycling correspondent since 1994, and has covered nineteen, and counting, editions of Le Tour de France. He has reported from four Olympic Games and, not content with the print coverage of pro-cycling, launched Procycling magazine. As a writer Fotheringham has penned very well received, and bestselling biographies, of three colossi of the sport: Tom Simpson**, Fausto Coppi** and Eddy Merckx**.
The eclectic collection of writing included represents, as Fotheringham himself states,
“… a snapshot of a given story or a race taken at a particular time.”
Riding Hard is a collection of standalone pieces covering the Grand Tours, the Olympic Games, the greats of the sport and the villains. It concludes with a section of powerful obituaries. Outside the two great sporting behemoths that are the Tour de France and Olympics, Fotheringham has attempted, for the benefit of a non-specialist UK audience, to generate a constructive narrative. That he achieves this is a testament to his skill as a writer.
Each piece is full of the now unavoidably suggestive, yet unspoken, nuance provided by hindsight and many often bristle with an unspoken truth and sense of anger. There is much to learn in returning the past and this journey is, without a doubt, a worthwhile and rewarding one. The underbelly of the sport does cast a haunting shadow throughout the myriad of articles, and rightly so, as it every much part of the story of many a racing cyclist. The folklore is there, along with the key players, the clowns, the visionaries, the supporting cast, and the villains. However, such is the quality of Fotheringham’s prose that one feels as if the mythologizing layers are being peeled away, revealing a genuinely fascinating ‘truth’. Well, a tale as close to the truth as a looming deadline and a Texans lawyers would allow! The Zeitgeist is keen and the selection, when revisited with added commentary, rewarding & thought provoking. William Fotheringham and Riding Hard serve the sport of professional cycling is very well indeed.
The book is subdivided into twelve sections each stitched together with a common, and sometimes rather unexpected, thread creating a tapestry covering the last twenty or so years of the sport of cycling. All, it must be said, from an unapologetically and uniquely British perspective. Every chapter is briefly introduced and the context of writing and selection set out clearly. This addition enriches and revives each piece.
Chapter 1, ‘The Tour and More’, begins with a rather wonderful piece that sees the author, somewhat askew to the organized chaos he has been plunged into, bewitched by the race for the very first time. It certainly chimed well with my own personal recollections of a balmy Breton afternoon, an unremarkable stage, a tiny French village, the cacophony of the caravan, the musical rainbow blur of the peloton… and the resulting sore head – ah, halcyon days indeed. How this piece is followed will give you some insight into the book and the author’s perceptions and recollections: Sean Kelly’s retirement, the Linda McCartney foods team & the 2000 Giro d’Italia (the first year a British team took part), the 99th Paris-Roubaix (2001), Etape du Tour (2002), the corporate transformation of the ubiquitous and friendly Didi Senft ‘the tour devil in red’: He who sounded the vanguard of the roadside fan in fancy dress… love ‘em or hate ‘em!
Chapter 2, ‘Tour de France 1994-2003’ is similarly constructed and begins in 1994 with Chris Boardman crashing when in yellow. It takes us to ‘Le Tour en Angleterre’ and Sean Yate’s yellow jersey, Greg LeMond’s abandon – and retirement later in the year. Onwards we move into 1995 and the luckless Boardman makes his second of many appearances, the heartbreaking death of Fabio Casartelli is reported with grace, and emergence into the media glare of one Lance Armstrong highlighted. Miguel Indurain and his Tour focus is critiqued (1995), his dethrowining (1996) reported and the unease behind the rise of Riis, Ullrich & Telekom, and the now infamous Festina Team presented. Lance Armstrong features in several pieces and is a prominent in Fotheringham’s explanatory end notes. We then move on to 1998 and the Tour in Eire. Enter stage left: Pat McQuaid, Kelly, Roche, and supporting cast.
Chapter three: ‘Festina Leave, Armstrong Returns’. You guessed it. We begin in Eire 1998, in a car with a then unkown soigneur, Willy Voet. Exit Festina, a tearful Virenque, a bullied Christophe Bassons and enter Tyler Hamilton, Laurent Jalabert and one Marco Pantani. You see what I meant by ‘haunting shadow’! Lance? Yes, he is here too. With recent events in mind the pieces here have an added poignancy.
In chapter four: ‘The Armstrong Saga’, we now see another facet of Fotheringham’s reporting. In a charming homage to the Observers late cycling correspondent Geoffrey Nicholson, Fotheringham bulletins from the front line take the form a diary. This charmingly off-center approach is highly effective and also serves to give us, the readers, a tantalizing glimpse into the life of journalist at Le Grande Boucle. It covers the now infamous years from 2001 to 2007. I unashamedly counting myself amongst the number of then thirty-something M.A.M.I.L’s who were inspired to begin cycling by Mr Armstrong, et al. Much of this came not from watching the racing – I didn’t watch much at the time – but from following the story in the press. These articles brought it all home… beware the hero but take even greater care with the ‘story’! Still, those who know me well wouldn’t hesitate to combine the phrase cycling with obsessive (possibly unfairly as I only own five bikes, six if you count a frame. OK, seven with one arriving in a fortnight!) So, no real damage done and the sport of cycling moves on. The chapter continues more traditionally and we meet Michele Ferrari, Chris Carmichael, Mario Cipollini and, oddly, Raimondas Rumsas’s mother-in-law! Inserted neatly amidships, so to speak, are a collection of much needed rider reminiscences, all focused on what made their tour so special. From Roger Lapebie (1930’s) to Steve Bauer (1980’s), with a cast of greats sandwiched neatly between. It serves a gentle reminder about why we watch, and are fascinated, horrified and charmed by bicycle racing. Tyler Hamilton’s epic ride (2003) with a fractured collar bone now adds duality and shades of grey, blurring the edge of the moral, the ethical and the nature of sport as fair contest. Armstrong’s sixth victory (2204) and the abuse of Simeoni do tend to polarize things somewhat though. Dave Millar, Richard Vironque are amongst those we meet as we journey to and through the year. Underpinning all is the authors barely concealed longing for the retirement of Big Tex’. The diary returns with final words all Armstrong.
Chapter 5: Au Revoir Floyd, Bienvenue Mark. The post LA era, or so we thought. We journey on through 2006 and ‘Operation Puerto’ meeting Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Dick Pound & Floyd Lanids. Confusions & contradictions abound. But then we reach a real high point in the greatest Grand Depart of them all in 2007 and the arrival of a new, cleaner, generation. Enter Mark Cavendish & Geriant Thomas. A 2007 tour diary teases us with subtle insight but is followed by Vinokourov’s positive test and, it has to be said, astonishing tales of denial. The Chicken is plucked, and after forgetting where he had been all summer, excluded. Cofidis, with one Bradley Wiggins throwing his kit in a bin, exit stage left. 2008, however offers more optimism with the rise of a new, clean and very rapid, star. Cav’s first stage win is covered in style and Wiggo’s ambitions noted and analysed.
Chapter 6: Rise of the Brits, Fall of Lance. We enter 2009 and see Le Tour surge to center stage in the zeitgeist of British cycling fans and sporting media. Alberto Contador wins (then loses) in 2010, duels with Andy Schleck while the newly formed Team Sky ride, innovate, learn and plot. It is here where Fotheringham chooses to lay the Armstrong mystique to rest with a withering piece about ‘hitting the wall on the rock of hell’ (2010).In stark contrast the article that he selects to follow this is an uplifting report on Jean-Rene Bernaudeau and his “… upbeat approach and ethical philosophy” that produced great Vendee region riders such as Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland. I was fortunate enough to spend several days riding in the area as a guest of Essex cycling legend Alan Perkins (1960’s Holdsworth-Campangnolo Pro, Tour of Britain stage winner, London-Holyhead winner…) and treasured every pedal stroke of the club runs. They absolutely love their cycling in the Vendee and welcomed a chubby, slow Lancastrian with open arms, and the occasional pat on the tummy! The astonishing scene involving a complete lunatic driving a French TV car, Juan-Antonio Flecha and one Johnny Hoogerland (surely possessing one of the highest pain threshold levels around) is covered as is Wiggo’s master plan and Armstrong’s excruciating death-throe denials. We hear from David Millar, of whom Fotheringham speaks highly, Sean Yates and many more characters all vividly and honestly brought to (real) life.
Chapter 7: Great Britain – Atlanta to Athens, begins with the opening of the outstanding Manchester velodrome in 1994. A place I love. I took my Mum to a meet in 2010 and she is now an avid fan of track cycling. Such was the positive experience and welcoming atmosphere of staff, riders and fellow spectators… OK, the signed poster, which she has had framed and now hangs where my – her only sons – portrait used to hang and a cheeky peck on the cheek by Jamie Staff helped… the Tiger! It was good to see her so happy. So thank you Manchester. I really enjoyed this chapter as it brought back, and added vivid Technicolor to, so many great stories about hugely talented and dedicated cyclists, coaches and supporting staff. Chris Boardman, Yvonne McGregor, Peter Keen, Jason Queally, Craig MacLean and someone called Hoy. Herne Hill makes a deserved appearance and then we focus on Wiggo again and the dominant Nicole Cooke. There is a shocking telling of Graeme Obree’s depression and suicide attempts along with the recognition that seeing people solely in the context of their sport may no longer be good enough for the subtlety of the information age. All leads smoothly into chapter 8…Inside GB Cycling, which is an extended piece written post 2007 World Track Championships, and pre-Beijing… and we all know what happened in China! The Beijing Olympic Games of 2008 are covered in detail in their own chapter – 9. The emergent personalities, the performances and the background stories are all there. Heady, and inspiring stuff. But where did all these riders come from and how are we to keep producing more, and will a British Tour de France winner emerge? Chapter 10: The Academy devotes another extended piece, again from the Observer Sports Monthly (2009) to this and many more questions.
Chapter 11: Beijing to London brings us right up to date and gets us rolling with a piece on the then 40 year old sprinter, Jason Queally, and his brave attempt to make the 4000 m pursuit team. Victoria Pendleton & Jess Varnish are well met, Sir Chris Hoy’s progress, challenge – and challengers – are unambiguously presented. Onwards with Ben Swift, Dan Hunt, Mark Cavendish, David Millar, Rod Ellingworth, Jason Kenny, Anna Mears and Sir Bradley Wiggins. All are writ large. A memorable cycling writing, inspired by a truly memorable summer of sport.
The book closes movingly with an In Memoriam selection. The names and careers selected here whisper so much about nature cycling and the cyclist, both the inspiring and the tragic; Beryl Burton, Percey Stallard, Marco Pantani, Charly Gaul, Felix Levitan, Harry Hall, and Laurent Fignon,
Perhaps it is only fitting that the final word should go Robert Millar…
“Educated, well judged and honest writing … when was the last time you thought that about a journalist?”
I hope you enjoy this trip back through the recent past of this fine sport as much as I did. It is a book that I will pick up again and again, dipping into my memories and experiences with a truly talented and insightful scribe as my guide.
Neunkirchen-Selscheid, Germany (via Wigan and East London/Essex!)
*Best, the adjective, limitations and all, is clarified beautifully in the introduction.Sim Says: If like me you love reading the latest news about cycling, be it online, in the newspaper or in one of the many cycling magazines such as Cycling Weekly then this book will be right up your street. Actually if you love cycling and following the race scene this is a must read.
Racing Hard is packed full of the articles and news pieces that William has written over the last 20 years, as he worked as a journalist following the Team GB and European races. After each article William has added a current comment reflecting what happened in the cycling world following the original publication. His handling of the Armstrong years is very good and it is a great review of the articles published at the time with excellent reflective comments.
I totally echo the quote from Robert Millar “Educated, well judged and honest writing…. when was the last time you thought that about a journalist?” William’s writing is truly well judged, honest and is a real joy to read. The book is so engaging that I have barely managed to tear myself away from reading it. It is certainly a book that you will want to pick up and really get stuck into and I would highly recommend you buy a copy for the summer and get in the mood for this year’s Tour de France.
I have read two other books that William Fotheringham has been involved in and can highly recommend them both.
CyclingShorts Rating: Star Buy! – 99%: An anthology of finely crafted and well linked cycling journalism. Go on treat yourself you know you want to. This really is a must read book.
Hardback Price: RRP £12.99