And so another Tour de France draws to a close. The excitement of three weeks of racing gives way to reflection. Old myths are already being reappraised. New myths have already been defined. Some traditions have been defied. Some traditions have been reasserted. But how do the sport's myths and traditions take hold? And how do they hold on for so long? Benjo Maso's The Sweat of the Gods goes back to the earliest bike races in an attempt to answer those questions.
Title: The Sweat of the Gods: Myths and Legends of Bicycle Racing
Author: Benjo Maso (trans Michiel Horn)
Publisher: Mousehold Press
Year: 2003 (trans 2005)
What it is: An alternative history of bike racing, focusing mostly on the Tour de France
Strengths: Maso is strong on the early years of the sport, particularly the pre-Tour years so often over-looked by others. He's equally strong on the massive changes the sport went through in the eighties.
Weaknesses: Maso is perhaps a tad too Tour-centric for this to be considered a real history of bike racing in general.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
The chief model for every sports journalist ought be Homer: a poet who knew how to turn a fight between two bands of robbers over a slut into an immortal epic.
If you're ever in Paris, pop along to the Parc St Cloud. There the Touring Club of France raised a plaque, celebrating the achievement of James Moore who, on 31st May 1868 "became the winner of the first race for vélocipèdes in France." There are, as Benjo Masso points out in The Sweat of the Gods, just two flaws with this plaque. The St Cloud races were not the first in France, merely the first widely reported. And the race won by Moore was the second to be held that May day, the first being won by some now-forgotten rider.. As Maso points out: "In the history of cycle sport, fabrications crowded out the facts from the very outset. What should have been a monument to the birth of bicycle racing is in reality a monument to its first myth."
Where do cycling's myths come from? How do they survive? These questions are central to The Sweat of the Gods but don't let that lead you to believe that this is a dry, dull academic tome. It isn't. Yes, it doesn't dwell on an awful lot of on-the-bike action, and in those instances where it does it does so only to point out why what we think we know is wrong. But Maso is by no means a killjoy, determined to destroy the sport's myths. He is well aware of the positive power they exert. "What has made bicycle road racing so unique [...] has never been its actual history but always its mythical portrait. That is the reason, too, why it continues to renew itself today without losing its special character. In scarcely any other sport does tradition seem to play a more important role." Maso clearly loves this sport and his behind the scenes poking into its history is lively and enlightening.
Maso's view is based on seeing cycling as a constant struggle between three different interest groups: newspapers and television which organises the races and reports them; industry which sponsors the teams of riders; and the riders themselves. The way these three groups operate together is easily illustrated with reference to the 1869 Paris-Rouen, generally accepted to have been the first proper point-to-point road race.
Organised by the Paris-based Le Vélocipède Illustré this 135km race became the model for everything that followed. The organising journal saw its circulation rise in the run up to the race and immediately afterwards. The bicycle manufacturers who put up the prize money and, in some cases, sponsored participants, were able to piggyback on the popularity of the event to publicise themselves. And the riders had the chance to win in one day a sum of money it would have taken a school-teacher a year to earn. Immediately it was clear that, working together, all three groups would gain. But the issue of who would gain the most soon saw them trying to assert their authority over one and other. Something they continue to do to this day.
When Véloce Sport set about organising the 575km Bordeaux-Paris race in 1891, it was agreed that British riders were, by and large, the best and so had to be invited. The British riders were amateurs and as a condition of entry they insisted that professional riders be excluded. While the Corinthian spirit ruled in Britain - it was the best way of keeping working class oikes out of sport - in France, if you were any good you turned pro and earned a living from sport. By refusing to race against pros, the British riders were not defending the Corinthian spirit, they were simply making sure that the best French riders of the day wouldn't have the chance to upstage them. Excluding the French pros also left them free to be picked up to act as pacers for the British riders, with the sponsors underwriting this cost. Those sponsors didn't want to see British-made bikes being beaten by French-made ones.
Pierre Giffard, then editor of Le Petit Journal, was one man impressed with the Bordeaux-Paris race. So shortly after he set about organising the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris. Unlike the people at Véloce Sport Giffard wasn't going to bend to riders' demands and - in an appeal to patriotism - decreed that his race would be open only to French riders. Giffard was nonplussed by the fact that this would leave him only a handful of French pros who could truly be considered potential winners: "Giffard actually wrote that it was altogether possible that victory would go to a complete unknown, a Sunday cyclist with better understanding and more stamina than the trained athletes."
This notion of creating heroes where heretofore heroes had not existed was picked up by the writers at l'Auto, when they came to organise the Tour de France. Faced with a race in which most of the competitors would be unknown to l'Auto's readers, Géo Lefèvre decided to create new stars. The sponsors had no problem with this - it was cheaper to sign-up some unknown than a reigning champion. For the riders, either you were one of the new heroes and so saw only an upside, or you were one of the older heroes who saw no threat from an endeavour as crazy as the Tour.
L'Auto's success in creating giants of the road demonstrated the power of the written word. But it wasn't just the written word that created cycling's myths and legends. Without the photograph of a cyclist sitting on a low wall, sobbing, his bike - minus its front wheel - beside him, the myth of René Vietto would never have taken hold. But that photo helped see Vietto declared the moral winner of the 1934 Tour. No matter how much even Henri Desgrange tried to make nonsense of this notion, the myth endured. As George Briquet noted: "A legend is born and no one will dare to attack it. It is too effecting."
Even film can generate new myths, as Maso points out when he considers an exploit from the 1951 Tour. The clip Maso looks at is of Hugo Koblet. On a relatively easy flat stage, the Swiss champion, a clear contender for overall victory, took two-and-a-half minutes out of the chasing peloton, an exploit Tim Krabbé refers to in his novel, The Rider: "That kind of thing just doesn't happen. Nothing like Brive-Agen had ever happened before, and it has never happened again." The film clip shows the pédaleur de charme with his hands on his bar tops, riding smoothly. This image is cut with "chaotic images of the pursuing group." The commentary notes that "because of the high speed of the chase, the peloton breaks into pieces."
What Maso finds when he digs beneath the surface is a peloton completing the stage not broken up by a high-speed chase but in close formation. Still photographs show Koblet's Swiss team-mates at the front of the peloton, controlling the pace, slowing things down. He finds that Louison Bobet lost three minutes to a mechanical fault yet was still able to regain the chasing peloton. "The notion that Koblet held out by himself for three hours against an all-out chase by the peloton is a fable."
So why didn't the other riders protest at this false portrait? Because it flattered them as much as it flattered Koblet. If you are going to be beaten, it is better that you be seen to be beaten by a supreme, super-human effort rather than to have lost because you took your eye off the ball and failed to chase when you should have. As long as all sides can benefit from a myth, then that myth will endure.
TV images have, in some ways, robbed the sport of its myths. Why is Eddy Merckx considered inferior to Fausto Coppi? Because Coppi had Dino Buzzati comparing his exploits to Homer's Iliad while Merckx was a child of the TV age. With him, what you got was what you saw. Even so, the TV age can still misrepresent reality. Here's Maso quoting a Dutch commentator during the 1986 Tour, when Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault summitted l'Alpe d'Huez hand-in-hand: "What a gesture! What a gesture! Fantastic! That was fantastic! LeMond putting his arm on that shoulder! That smile! Oh, how beautiful this is! How beautiful sport can be! Oh! How splendid this is! It's fantastic to be seeing this! Oh! It's magnificent! It's fantastic!" It's bullshit is what it is. The only reason Hinault and LeMond were holding hands that day was to stop them stabbing each other in the back.
Beyond the role of the media, Maso has a lot to say on other subjects. He is particularly strong on the early struggles between sponsors and race organisers, particularly in the Tour but also in the Giro d'Italia. Of more recent years, he argues that the arrival of big money - which he dates to Francesco Moser's hour record in 1984 - reduced the importance of the post-Tour criterium circuit. This in turn has resulted in Tours in which riders undertake fewer exploits, no longer needing to gain the attention of the criterium organisers. Consequently, the Italian catenaccio system has been able to take hold: "The hope of a victory is often completely overshadowed by the fear of a loss. All risks are to be avoided. Every unnecessary exertion is forbidden, especially because the differences in strength are so small."
As much as I love The Sweat of the Gods and think it ought rate as a must read, I can't help think that there's a better book waiting to be built on its bones, in the same way as it itself is loosely built on the bones of Jacques Calvet's Le Mythe Des Géants De La Route. Cycling's power structures have changed and the role of the sport's governing bodies needs to be added into the mix. The roles of sponsors and race organisers have evolved, the one lessening in import the other growing. Maso's take on doping in the sport ("Riders didn't want to talk about it, journalists didn't want to write about it and fans didn't want to know about it.") was fine in the depression of the post-Festina and pre-Puerto years but needs to reflect the changes made in more recent years. But until someone comes along and writes that book, then Maso's book is the next best thing.
* * * * *