Heroes, Villains & Velodromes – Chris Hoy and Britain’s Track Cycling Revolution, by Richard Moore

Heroes, Villains & VelodromesHaving looked at Chris Hoy's autobiography, how about we look at the other version of the story Hoy's ghost-writer Richard Moore crafted, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes. Another book I'm not sure I know how to write about. The first half of it I loved, the second half of it just got on my tits. Do I sing the praises of the first half or just pick away at what's wrong with the second half? Oh decisions, decisions, decisions.

Title: Heroes, Villains & Velodromes - Chris Hoy and Britain's Track Cycling Revolution
Author: Richard Moore
Publisher: HarperSport
Year: 2008
Pages: 328
Order: HERE
What it is: Partly a biography of Chris Hoy, partly a history of Team GB's track programme and partly a year in the life of the two as they prepare for the Beijing Olympics.
Strengths: Moore conducted numerous interviews with the key players, meaning the book offers a variety of voices and viewpoints. The benefit of this is particularly obvious when you compare Moore's version of Hoy's story with the one presented in the official autobiography (ghosted by Moore).
Weaknesses: Critical insight into the British Cycling set-up seems to stop with the departure of Peter Keen. On the other side of the story, Moore gets a tad too close to his subject - Hoy - and starts spouting some serious bullshit. And he really doesn't need to do down road cycling and Mark Cavendish in order to make Hoy and the British Cycling track programme look good.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5)

Once upon a time, British cyclists ruled the world. Not just on the track. They were kings of the road too. Seriously. I'm not making this shit up. Ok, so it was away back in the time of Victoria, but the point is it happened. Brits like James Moore, Arthur Linton, Jimmy Michael, they were heroes in their day. Hell, the Brits were so good they even had one of the sport's first real villains, Choppy Warburton, the Michele Ferrari of his day. Britons were also innovators. Six Day racing may have risen to fame in Madison Square Gardens and the vélodromes of Paris but its foundation myth has it that it was born in the London borough of Islington, in the Agricultural Hall. Go UK!

But then ... well it all just stopped. Britain fell in love with the motorcar and the football. Cycling fell out of favour. Heroes came and went, but they were mavericks, succeeding despite the lack of support from the system. Then, in the nineties, the system changed. And in the past dozen years Britain has gone from being a make-weight to one of the top dogs in international cycling. Well, on the track at least. How that change came about is part of the story of Heroes, Villains & Velodromes, with the story of British Cycling's recent successes being seen through the prism of Chris Hoy's four Olympic gold medals.

Moore, the author of the rather good In Search Of Robert Millar, ought make for a good choice of storyteller here. A cyclist himself, he knows the system from the inside, and knows Hoy personally from their days representing Scotland at the Commonwealth Games: "Chris and I were team-mates once. We were in the same Scotland team at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lampur in 1998, but in many ways we belonged to different eras. For him, the Commonwealth Games were the start - they provided a springboard. For me, they were the end, the Commonwealth Games being as high as the bar of my ambition - I use the word advisedly - was set."

And certainly for the first half of the book Moore fulfils the role perfectly. He talks to the people who know Hoy - his parents, team-mates, former coaches and the like, and from them builds up a picture of the man, and (partly) of Scottish and British cycling in the nineties. To put together the post-Lottery history of British Cycling he talks to Peter Keen and others. The story is told economically, efficiently. The book breezes along and you think you're onto a real winner.

But somewhere around halfway through the book, Moore hits a speed wobble. (Then again, it could be me. But it's happened more or less in the same place each time I've read the book. So I'm blaming the author.) I think it's that Moore gets closer to Hoy - too close - and the early, almost matter-of-fact distance gives over to some out and out cheerleading.

It begins with the axing of the kilo from the Olympic schedule, when Moore stops reporting what actually happened and starts arguing for what he wished had happened. Moore suggests that, rather than surrendering any track disciplines to make room for BMX, the UCI should have axed the road time trial. Because, Moore says, Tyler Hamilton tested positive at the Athens Olympics (Moore doesn't seem to know the difference between an AAF and a positive. Or maybe he just doesn't care). It's funny - Moore would say ironic - that this kilo rant comes after talking to Steve Peters, whose whole argument is about separating emotional responses from logical ones. Here Moore's all emotion and no logic.

Moore's whole save the kilo spiel is based on the fact that it was Hoy's event. Well, Hoy's for the previous four or five years anyway, the Scot having only taken it up after the Sydney Olympics. But the arguments that Moore makes in favour of the kilo - he falls just a little short of calling it cycling's blue riband event - simply don't hold any water. Consider Hoy's attempt to raise £100,000 corporate sponsorship to fund his attempt on the altitude kilo world record (to me, a niche within a niche within a niche, to Moore "the ultimate world record"). Despite Hoy's profile and despite spending nearly a year writing begging letters to corporate marketing departments, the total raised barely covered the £40,000 the record attempt cost. And that was after the BBC had got involved with the project.

Then comes the serious pom-pom waving, which involves Moore suggesting of Hoy's altitude flying five-hundred metre record that "it is difficult to imagine it ever being beaten." Ask me, either Moore was suffering from altitude sickness when he wrote that or he's totally lacking in imagination. Or how about, after Hoy's altitude record attempts, talking of a speech Hoy gave "which must go down as one of his finest achievements - it was heartfelt and generous." Moore seems to disappear further and further up his own fundament the longer this section of the book goes on, even telling us that "few people do small talk" better than Chris Hoy.

Just as quick as it started, the wobble is briefly brought under control and Moore interviews Shane Sutton, who, next to Peter Keen, is probably the stand-out interviewee in the book. I like Sutton. He's ... fuck it, he's Australian, and all that that entails. Brash. Uninhibited. Willing to call it like it is. He's one of the few guys who could say of Hoy that he has "that C-U-N-T element" and you know he means it as a compliment. The Hoy Sutton describes has edges, a rough surface. He's not the bland, perfect human he's presented as in the autobiography. He's not the charisma-free zone, the pedestal-mounted plaster saint depicted elsewhere. And that elsewhere includes elsewhere in Heroes, Villains & Velodromes. Sutton's Hoy is selfish, manipulative, a bit of a cunt. But nice with it.

Annoying as Moore's objectivity-free hero worshipping of Hoy can be - he's most annoying at the book's end when his adoration of Hoy necessitates a cheap dig at Mark Cavendish - what really pisses me off about Heroes, Villains & Velodromes is Moore's take on the topic of doping.

Let's start with something simple, a comment from Dave Brailsford that I find quite telling: "Some people are very quiet on doping, but I've always been open about it. I introduced blood testing a long time ago, and I said to the riders, ‘We're going to take your blood and if there's anything suspicious I‘m not going to send you to the police, or the anti-doping guys. We're gong to do it in-house, and if I see anything dodgy, I'm just going to phone you up and say, "Look, we know what you're doing. You can tell me about it if you want. But you ain't riding, that's for sure."' And there have been three or four riders, Great Britain riders, who didn't get selected, where I‘ve had to say: ‘No, you're not riding, because we know what you're doing.' And they just said: ‘Oh, alright then.'"

Now, to me, what's most important about that comment is that Brailsford doesn't seem to give a fiddlers about getting rid of doping. He just wants to avoid possible scandal. He's happy to cover up for dopers, leave them to continue doing what they're doing - so long as he's washed his hands of them - and not help the authorities kick them out of the sport.

For Moore though, what's important is pointing out that those riders Brailsford allowed to continue doping, just not in Team GB colours, were road riders with continental professional teams. Remember the important lesson kiddies: track cycling clean, road cycling dirty. Keep saying that to yourself and who knows, you might even convince yourself it's true. Moore seems to have.

But just remember this: Moore himself quotes Hoy saying "There are about two or three [dopers] left in the world of sprinting." (And this comment is coming from a man who, elsewhere, pleads ignorance as to what others may or may not be putting into their bodies.) Moore also has Keen saying that "definitely, without a doubt" Hoy has beaten athletes on drugs. And Moore himself, for all he tries to suggest that the only doping problem in cycling is happening in men's road racing, can't avoid referring to some of the dopers who've ridden on the track. Some of whom even got to wear GB colours.

Take the case of Gary Edwards who, in 1998, tested positive for testosterone at the national track championships, where he won silver in the team sprint. After his ban - one year - Edwards again tested positive, for nandrolone. This time he got a two year ban. But before that was landed on him, Edwards won two gold medals at the World Masters Championships (he had continued racing, having not been handed a provisional suspension), only to test positive yet again, this time for Stanazolol, which finally prompted a lifetime ban under the three-strikes-and-you-really-should-just-fuck-off rule.

(Trackies, based on the examples Moore offers, seem to have recidivist tendencies. Another case Moore mentions is the American Stephen Alfred, who rode for Trinidad at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. There he got busted for nandrosterone and got banned. In May 2006 he tested positive for testosterone and in November the same year for human chorionic gonadotrophin (HCG). For whatever reason, those last two offences were treated as one and Alfred landed an eight year ban. Alfred stayed in the registered testing pool, rather than retiring. But when the testers came a calling in 2007, asking for an out of competition sample, Alfred refused to entertain their request. A refusal being the same as a positive, Alfred was hit with a lifetime ban.)

As serious as Edwards' case was to British Cycling - it has always argued that even one doping case could endanger all of the federation's Lottery funding - there was an even more serious case, that of Neil Campbell. Campbell was selected to ride the team sprint at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 but five weeks before the games left the squad, having tested positive for HCG at a World Cup race in July and again at the British championships a couple of weeks later. Because he was British the immediate assumption was that he was suffering from testicular cancer (HCG being an early indicator of that disease). So when he went home he was treated as a plucky Brit with true grit who would, like Lance Armstrong before him, battle his testicular cancer, defeat it and return reborn. Except of course that when he got home and the cancer doctors pricked and prodded him, they declared him fit and healthy. Which only left one conclusion: Campbell had doped. But by then the media had forgotten all about him and no doping scandal ensued. 

What's interesting about the Campbell case is how it highlights the difference between a doping incident and a doping scandal. Doping incidents - if you can bury them - are no problem. Doping scandals on the other hand are a problem. You have little or no control over them. Thus it was that, for Brailsford, the Rob Hayles episode - which technically wasn't even doping - was "one of the worst days I've had in this job."

What was important about the Hayles episode was that it happened to a British rider at a major event being held in Britain (in most of the ‘did he / didn't he' speculation surrounding Hayles, few people seemed to care a whit about Pim Ligthart, who also tripped the fifty percent haematocrit rule that day). But that's the point about doping scandals. They're not rational. How rational Brailsford's response was - "For twenty-four hours I was going to quit." - is for you to decide. But I find it weird that he'd consider quitting over a non-doping story while the three or four doping cases he's swept under the carpet don't seem to have cost him a moment's thought. They, to me, are far more serious that the media-management the Hayles incident required.

I guess that much of the problem with Moore's take on doping is that he's just - naturally, and you might even say admirably - biased toward his own side of the sport, the track. And, to be fair to him, Moore is right when he says that "the reputation of the sport of cycling has had terrible damage inflicted upon it by the endemic drug culture of road cycling." But saying that road cycling is inflicting all the damage misses the point somewhat. What actually inflicts the damage is doping at the Tour de France. You can have arrests and drug busts at races like the Tour de l'Avenir and the world won't bat an eye-lid. You can have track cyclists dumped out of the Olympics and no one will even notice. But the Tour, for most people, is cycling. What happens there happens in the full view of the media.

The real point, for me, is that the drug culture is endemic across the whole sport. It's an historical fact of this sport's history. It's not just a problem for road cycling. Pick a British track star of the past and you can find a doping story about him. Reg Harris (who Moore hyperbolically says "is arguably the most famous cyclist Britain has ever produced.") and Tony Doyle, probably the two most famous British trackies before Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree came along, both had reputations for dabbling in the dark arts. Even today Moore can't hide the fact that trackies dope too.

What's saddest about this aspect of the book is that Moore doesn't need to do down road cycling in order to make the track look good. It's hard to argue against the achievements of British Cycling and Chris Hoy over the past dozen or so years. It is an impressive story, and you don't have to be a trackie at heart to acknowledge that fact. Perhaps had Moore had more belief in the true worth of that story he wouldn't have needed to take so many snide swipes at road cycling. And perhaps then one of the major flaws within Heroes, Villains & Velodromes wouldn't have manifested itself.

As it is then, Heroes, Villains & Velodromes is a flawed book. Remove Moore's road-envy and Hoy hero-worshipping and you have the potential for a fantastic story, as glimpsed in the book's first half. Leave them in though and you get yet another missed opportunity.

* * * * *

You'll find an interview with Richard Moore on the Cafe Bookshelf.

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