Interview: William Fotheringham

William Fotheringham's cycling books include biographies of Fausto Coppi and Tom Simpson and translations of Willy Voet's Massacre Á La Chaîne and Laurent Fignon's Nous Étions Jeunes Et Insouciants, along with a history of the British riders in the Tour de France.

With the Fausto Coppi biography (Fallen Angel) now available in paperback and the Laurent Fignon autobiography (We Were Young And Carefree) just published we caught up with the Guardian's cycling correspondent and put a few questions to him.

Podium Cafe: Your own background in cycling - could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the sport and your own time in the racing ranks?

William Fotheringham: I had a hysterical moment a few weeks ago when one of the juniors in my club asked me how long I'd been racing and I said this was my thirtieth season. The poor kid nearly fell over. It sounds like a lot but I'm only 45.

Basically my dad nudged me into it, I was a huge fan of the Foreign Legion - Paul Sherwen, Graham Jones, Robert Millar, Yates and co - and I became one of those racers who can't keep away but never gets very far up the ladder. I did a season in France in 1984 and wasn't bad at a low level. It was a very different world - 200-up fields in the rockbottom amateur races, fast, fast races, lots of crashes, crits every night even for the low categories, a fair bit of cash to be made.

I've never really stopped just had years when I don't do much, I got to first cat in England one year in the 1990s, got to ride the Rás which was the best thing ever. Now I do local races but I've got into the whole track thing, because it's more manageable with a family and work. I was riding the national masters track at the weekend at Newport and fell off, but I'll be back. Sums the 30 years up really.

And that led me into the work because I can write, I'm fluent in French and I was obsessed with bike racing.

Btc_medium PdC: You've translated two books now. There are special difficulties that come with rendering someone else's words into English, it's obviously not as simple as just chucking the text into Babelfish and tidying up the mess that spews out. With the Willy Voet book, Breaking The Chain, I seem to recall that you were faced with issues of what to leave out. With the Fignon book, was the biggest difficulty capturing the tone of the original French, the almost casual, idiomatic French Fignon used?

WF: Fignon didn't use casual idiomatic French, or maybe he had a ghostwriter. It was a very hard book to translate because it's a mishmash of styles. There are bits that are written in the casual, idiomatic style you describe, which was roughly what I aimed to reproduce in English for the book, but particularly at the start of the chapters there is the odd paragraph or two of highfaluting artistically written bits of French which veer off into imagery that would mean nothing to an English fan even if you can get a handle on what he's trying to say. I had to rejig those bits, figure out what he meant and whether it would mean anything to an English-speaking cycling fan and if not leave it out. The best bits of the book are where it sounds like Fignon talking, which is the bulk of it.

It's a very difficult job translating French books to English because the French tend to be stronger on images than on facts so you have to paraphrase and rejig sentence order to make it into English sportese. An English sportswriter will tell you how it feels, looks and is, as he sees it, but won't try to be DH Lawrence. A French one will get delusions of grandeur which probably goes back to Henri Desgrange trying to be Emile Zola.

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PdC: In We Were Young And Carefree Fignon is very open about his cycling life, both in and out of the peloton - but he still seems very guarded of his private life. You've met him a few times now, is that your own experience of the man, that there's always another Laurent Fignon hiding behind those glasses?

WF: Together with Robert Millar, Fignon is about my favourite character in the whole of pro cycling. They are very similar guys, guys with a bit of an edge and a lot of intelligence, with a wider view of the world than just cycling. When I met them for the first time both of them seemed to be testing me, responding in certain ways to see how I reacted. I think I passed the test whatever it was. I went to interview him in the 1990s for Cycling Weekly and Cycle Sport and it wasn't really like work.

I think you're right though, he's a hard man to get really close to. That came through in the book to a surprising extent. I think in Britain we can't imagine the scrutiny that the big stars get over there, and in those days there were no team press officers, no buses, and no internet. That meant the guys weren't protected, and with the media being less diffuse, if some guy slagged a big star off it happened in print, it happened in l'Equipe, he read it the next day in black and white, and so did absolutely everyone else.

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PdC: Fallen Angel is your second biography, after Put Me Back On My Bike. So much has been written about Fausto Coppi and Tom Simpson - claim and counter-claim made about nearly every aspect of their lives - that it must be quite a challenge to strip away the myths created about them to get at the truth underneath.

WF: With Tom it wasn't so difficult. Basically everyone had a story to tell about him, most of them had lots of stories because he was a larger-than-life Mark Cavendish-type of guy, and most of them hadn't told anyone so it was all waiting to come out. All I had to do was go along with a tape recorder. And most of the writing about him was in English so there were stories and facts there that I could bounce off the people I spoke to ‘do you remember this' and so on, and they would respond. I spent a whole afternoon doing that with Helen and I think I surprised her with how much I knew about her late husband.

With Coppi it was far tougher, because all the core guys were older and had been asked the same questions time after time so they had a set of stock responses. For some there were things they didn't want to talk about, mostly the White Lady. A lot of them must have hated her but didn't want to offend Faustino by saying so or by telling any bad stories. Another problem was that the story has been told zillions of times in Italian, with a lot of people dressing the basic facts up in the same way but never looking any further. The best material came from a couple of old gregari who had been largely forgotten, and Raphael Geminiani was a good source. But I had to keep at it.

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PdC: Coppi seems to be someone you've wanted to write about for quite some time - the interviews you conducted for the book span at least three or four years. Of all the greats, of all the giants of the road, what is it that attracted you so strongly to the Coppi story?

WF: The Coppi story followed naturally from Tom as the bones are the same - national icon with feet of clay (or not depending how you see it) and an untimely death. Like Tom there is just far more depth to the story than a lot of them. Plus I felt that a lot of the old gregari might not be around much longer. So I got into it early on and kept plugging away. The problem was that because of work and family I couldn't go to Italy more than a couple of times a year for a week at a time, so it just took ages. I could have kept going as well, there were still people I wanted to interview, stuff to be dug at.

PdC: Cycling's law of omertà hasn't gone away yet - the UCI's chief, Pat McQuaid, has been pretty consistent in his criticism of books like Paul Kimmage's A Rough Ride and Fignon's We Were Young And Carefree - but we do seem to be going through a period of glasnost, a period of openness, at least in some teams and among some riders. Is this making it easier for you to do your job as a journalist, to ask the hard questions that need to be asked?

WF: Not really to be honest because the guys who I feel I can ask the questions to tend to be the clean ones so you don't need to ask them.

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It's very British, but personally I am shy about asking those hard questions. I wrote in Roule Britannia that in 2004 I had doubts about David Millar - because as a journalist with a few years behind you you know the things that drug-takers say and do so you get a feel for who is suspicious - but I couldn't ask him straight out, even though I knew him as well as any journalist knows a bike rider.

As a journalist, I feel I have the same relationship with most of the athletes and coaches I work with that I would have with someone I meet on a very occasional basis through work. There has to be a distance and I don't believe being a journalist gives me any right to lose that distance for a good while. For me, to ask a rider I have seen at a few press conferences if he takes drugs is like asking a female athlete if she pays too much attention to her looks. It's too personal. It would be like saying to an accountant ‘I think you are a liar and a cheat, am I right?'

PdC: British cycling - cycling in general in Britain - is definitely on an upswing. Lottery money has bought national pride at the Olympics and cycling will be coming home in 2012. You've got a newly elected PM who rides a bike. London has a cycling mad mayor and is about to get its own vélib' scheme. And you've got Team Sky following in the tyre tracks of Hercules, ANC-Halfords and the Linda McCartney Racing Team. And yet on the sports' pages of the British press there still seems to be something of a reluctance to cover the whole of the racing calendar - there's still something of a sing-when-you're-winning approach to the sport, only reporting races when British riders are on top. Is that frustrating for you as a journalist?

WF: I sincerely hope that Sky aren't following those other three, as they all went bust!

There's a two-pronged problem in British journalism at the moment: football and money. At the Guardian, where I have been the cycling correspondent since 1996, there is now a culture on the sports desk that cycling is one of the biggest sports, up there with rugby, cricket and formula one. The problem is that there is less money across all the papers now, fewer pages to play with, so all the sports apart from soccer have a problem getting in the paper. Soccer has created its own massive celebrity culture and the sports pages all feel they have to buy into that.

Having said that, coverage of the Tour has expanded massively since I covered my first Tour for the Guardian in 1994, and it's not just about winning Brits. I wrote screeds about the Tour in 2004 and 2005 when there was not a Brit in it. It's going to change with Sky though. By the end of this Tour Geraint Thomas could be on the same level as Wiggo or Cav, and there are Peter Kennaugh and Ben Swift to come.

The more British stars there are, the more races they will do well in, and the more the papers will be forced to look outside the Tour if guys like Gee start getting up there in races like Paris-Nice. When Kelly and Roche were winning, that was a can't miss race. But you can't go there and hope to get decent space writing about Contador or Pierrick Fedrigo.

PdC: There's a lot of polemica in the Coppi story, especially his rivalry with Bartali. British cycling has its own polemica-driven rivalry, between Cavendish and Wiggins. Did you ever dream you'd live to see the day when British cycling fans would be spoiled for choice, and could even be divided over which rider they preferred?

WF: No. Never, not when I was a fan in the early 80s, not when I was a journalist struggling to make the Tour interesting in the Indurain years.

Again, I'll hark back to Roule Britannia. I wrote that book first time round in 2004, and that year and 2005 there wasn't a single Brit in the Tour. There were little stirrings but no stars. David Millar's career was over and Jeremy Hunt was going nowhere. I thought then that there would be new guys like Charly Wegelius coming through, but nothing on the Cav scale. Even in 2007, I reckoned Cav might win the odd stage later on - say by 2009, 2010 if he kept progressing - and that was why the Guardian started running his column.

As for Wiggins, that was a big surprise. Very few riders have ever transferred their talents from one area of cycling to another at such a late stage. Even Cadel Evans came over from mountain biking relatively early. That's why Roule Britannia needed a massive update this year.

* * * * *

You'll find reviews of Fallen Angel and We Were Young And Carefree on the Cafe Bookshelf.

An updated version of Roule Britania has just been released, bringing the history of British riders in the Tour de France up to the advent of Team Sky. It and the biographies of Fausto Coppi (Fallen Angel) and Tom Simpson (Put Me Back On My Bike), and the translations of Willy Voet's Festina confessional (Breaking The Chain) and Laurent Fignon's autobiography (We Were Young And Carefree), are all available from Yellow Jersey Press.

Thanks to William Fotheringham for his time and to the people at Yellow Jersey Press for facilitating this interview.

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