Interview: Graeme Fife

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Known to cycling fans for books like Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders and Inside The Peloton Graeme Fife has also had plays, stories and features broadcast on BBC radio. We caught up with him recently and got his opinion on things like Lance Armstrong's legacy and Team Sky's debut season.

Podium Cafe: You're a teacher - Classics - and you've written radio plays for the BBC. The passion for cycling and its history ... how did that come about?

Graeme Fife: I was a teacher, but aeons ago. Left (in 1978) and went into building, then small business management but there was always writing at the back of my mind so, one day, I sent a dramatic monologue to the BBC, it was bought and, since then, I have written plays, stories, documentaries, features for radio, stage plays, opera (and directed, sung and acted) and, latterly books - about King Arthur, three biographies, French Revolutionary Terror, autobiography, novel, film scripts, articles on a diverse range of subjects.

I rode a bike as a kid, was a racing oarsmen at university, contracted sarcoidosis on my lungs in my early twenties and, having been told that my health and fitness would gradually deteriorate from then on, I thought ‘to hell with that' and started riding a bike seriously.

A French girlfriend introduced me to the Tour de France and I started reading about the race and, finally, wrote my own account of it. And, I had learnt much from the way the French wrote about la Grande Boucle. By and large, the English can't fit writing - the craft, the lifelong devotion to making words work - with sport, which still has rather low connotations ... trade, don't you know. The French intellectual tradition is very different.

I'm not greatly interested in results, frankly but the metaphysics and aesthetics of cycle racing excite me enormously. If I'd said that even ten years ago there'd have been howls of ‘pretentious nonsense' but times and taste are moving on, partly, I do believe, because of the approach I have adopted in my writing about the sport.

9781845965631_medium PdC: You've written quite a bit about the Tour de France, across a number of books, but let's talk specifically about Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders. That was first published in 1999, after that year's Tour, and has been updated annually ever since. The original idea for the book was a cyclotourist's travelogue covering some of the mountains of the Tour crossed with an anecdotal history of the race. You spent the summer of 1997 doing the rides necessary for that part of the book, yes?

GF: Yes, I first rode the Alpine cols - in 1995, actually - but with no thought of writing any sort of book about the experience.

However, my reasons for going to the Alps were specific: I wanted to see the mountains for myself, the battleground of the Tour, if you like, to experience riding them. I wrote up the account of those rides later, on a whim. Then, having ridden in the Dolomites and my first trip to the Pyrenees in subsequent years, I expanded the original text gradually with stories about the Tour, and, in the course of several recensions of the book, stripped out the narrative of my own riding and turned to a fuller delve into the mystique of the Tour, the reasons for its longevity, its powerful traditions, what makes it unique. The final rewriting was done in the Bas-Pyrenees, when I was living in the Ariège in 1998.

PdC: Where did the idea for the inclusion of the annual updates come from? Was that a consequence of events overtaking the publisher's schedule, of l'affaire Festina having to be incorporated into the story somehow?

GF: The publisher asked for the first update - the book's first three editions sold out in as many months.

It's worth saying, too (although I would say it, wouldn't I?) that Mainstream turned it down to begin with, unseen and only decided to publish when I wrote a strong letter to the director, a year later. At the time, there were, if I recall, only two books about cycling on the UK market. Now ... ?

PdC: Looking at those annual updates, there's two stories that stand out across them:  Lance Armstrong's seven-in-a-row and doping. Let's start with the Texan. Seven Tours on the trot is no mean achievement. They can't have been easy to write about though. Every year, you had more or less the same story, with a different supporting cast. Were you relieved when he finally hung up his wheels and you could look forward to a Tour with a new narrative?

GF: It's the Chaucer fix, The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales: any writer has to find ways of varying narrative, of new approaches and entrées to a story, avoiding cliché, seeing off any drift into dullness, a colourless repetition of stock conjunctive phrases such as ‘And then there was ...' over and over again. Each year a different race, each year a different narrative. It's unprofessional to blame the material for a failure of imagination.

I was relieved when Armstrong hung up his wheels but only because, although I respect his athletic qualities and acknowledge his exceptional gifts as a rider, I think his influence was a bane, his attitude arrogant and self-serving, his narrow breadth of understanding unattractive.

As to finding a new narrative: no rider is bigger than the Tour ... the race itself is the true centre of the narrative, succeeding generations of riders, great and small, strut their stuff on its stage awhile and then go, or don't go.

PdC: Looking back, do you think Armstrong's domination was good for the sport? Like Greg LeMond before him he brought a new audience to cycling but - as with LeMond too - that came at a price.

GF: I think not so much his domination but his total, fanatical obsession with the Tour was bad for the sport as a whole. Sure, he won the Tour seven times but he didn't do a whole lot else, either to honour or grace the sport by a more varied palmarès. To call him the greatest Tour rider ever (as some skittish souls do) is absurd: he is without doubt the most successful, same thing year after year.

As Guimard said, bike racing has changed and specialising is the norm, now, but I also think it remains incumbent on riders to honour the sport by more than mere lip service, to go out and ride other races, to put themselves through more of its demands than just the Tour de France.

This may be what might be called a very continental approach, rooted in a long (and noble, in my view) tradition, but it's one I hold and hold very dear. Range, richness, the panache of the jusqu'au-boutiste.

PdC: Doping is the other story that stands out across the book's updates - l'affaire Festina, the Giro raids, the Armstrong / Michele Ferrari imbroglio, the death of Marco Pantani, David Millar and l'affaire Cofidis, l'Equipe's ‘Mensonge Armstrong' exposé, Operaçion Puerto, Floyd Landis' positive, the Telekom confessions, Men in Black, CERA. I get the impression that you don't like the way the media have reported these doping stories over the past dozen or so years, possibly even that their discussion of doping has been a bigger problem than doping itself. Would that be a fair interpretation of your views?

GF: The media do what they do to sell papers and I have no strident opinion on the subject. For example, there is little point in complaining about Le Monde journalists, ignorant of cycling, latching onto a cycling story because it's about doping. Their ignorance is radical. That's not to say that one can't express an opinion, objectively, about their tedious, tub-thumping irrelevance.

The doping problem is more general and needs a more concerted effort from authorities, not gutter hacks or even knowledgeable journos. When I spoke to the then drugs tsar in France (in 2000, I think) and heard what he and the minister for Sport and Youth, Mme Buffet, were doing - seeking to root out the real villains, not only the athletes, in some cases hapless, in other cases criminal - I was impressed with their more intelligent, balanced, all-embracing assessment of the deeper problem which was that the perception of youngsters going into sport was that if taking dope would enhance their prospects of a gold medal at no matter what risk to their health they would take the dope. This is appalling.

Cycling has always been an easy hit because it's such a hard endurance sport. Riders took dope to combat fatigue, largely, although boosting stamina was on the menu, too. But, the advent of performance-enhancing drugs changed much - riders who were only ever second tier became winners. Virenque's seven mountains jerseys? Pah.

I always believed that the reaction would have to come from the riders, for the men who risked and suffered the bans - albeit justly, by regulation - to cry "Enough". And, I believe Hinault (whom I interviewed recently) is right: the overarching responsibility lies with the Olympics Committee, the single body which has jurisdiction over every sport and every sport is infected.

It has become almost a simple truism to say that cycling is more tested and almost certainly more clean, as a result, than any other sport. It is, nevertheless, worth saying as an encouragement, as a lead across the board.

PdC: Two years without a doping story at the Tour but a lot of doping stories elsewhere in the sport. Do you think the sport can it ever be fully clean or is some level of doping necessarily tolerable?

GF: There was a medical jurist (I think he was) in Oxford who said that a certain level of doping ought to be allowed, if monitored and, amazingly, there was a piece in the Guardian about the American in one of his early Tours - the day before he quit with extreme fatigue. He'd won a stage in the north but, after one day in the Alps, could barely move. Was it not permissible to allow a rider in such a state of collapse through over-exertion to take some kind of restorative medication?

The sport will almost certainly never be completely clean because there will always be weak-spirited men who resort to cheating. In that context, an ancient athlete was banned from competing in the first Olympics because he'd been caught eating dried figs ... boosting fruit out of season.

Someone asked me a while ago if the Tour wasn't too hard, if that wasn't what made doping necessary. I said that the Tour was always and remains bloody hard but these men take dope to win, not just to ride. I prefer to retain rules against doping.

PdC: Have you already written the 2010 update for the book? There's a lot to cover this year - Team Sky, Armstrong's Tour Défaillance, Alberto Contador joining Bobet and LeMond and the like on three Tour wins and of course the arguments over the Treaty of Spa and Andy Schleck's chain problems.

GF: Well, no, I haven't and Mainstream, for reasons best known to themselves, did not schedule it in their selling programme. No final decision has been taken and I am, therefore, on hold.

At once a disappointment, if it doesn't happen - and a foolish omission, of course - and relieved not to have to address what is always very hard labour. I caught a viral infection out in France, in the Pyrenees, with the Tour, and am still a bit under the weather. Perhaps a call to arms - ‘10,000 words by next Monday, ya bum' - will do the trick ... it usually does.

(Since conducting this interview Mainstream have been in touch with Graeme and asked for a 2010 update.)

PdC: You're British and I guess the biggest story in British cycling media this year has been the arrival of Team Sky. How would you rate their début season? Do you think Dave Brailsford can achieve on the road what he's achieved on the track with Team GB?

GF: Tricky one. I think what Brailsford has achieved in his time in charge of British Cycling has been superlative and simply getting a quasi-British team into the Tour is something admirable.

However, success on the track ain't success on the road. I don't think Wiggins, for instance, has made the necessary psychological leap from his astonishing dominance in the Pursuit to racing on the road, despite his performance in the 2009 Tour. (Just shows how anodyne that race was, beset by the unsavoury and cynical machinations of Armstrong and Bruyneel.)

I saw the Sky second string at work in the Tour de Picardie and was mightily impressed: strong, astute, intelligent riding. In the Tour? As with Hercules in 1955, they rather thought that they could throw a heap of money (and not a little vapid moralistic apophthegm - ‘Ride the Line ... Passion, Power, Commitment') - at a race which, like Mont Ventoux ‘does not take orders from anyone'. Sean Yates himself hinted as much.

But, they will have learnt much and that is what Brailsford has been so very good at: working out the obstacles and plotting the strategies. The strategies for the vagaries of road racing are very different, however, from a discipline which can be measured to centimetres and split seconds.

I believe that Brailsford is a fine manager but quite wrong for the job of directeur sportif. Yates is vital and they should bring in Neil Stephens, too, forget that he rode for Festina. So what? He's a brilliant directeur and he and Yates could apply less of the bromide homiletic approach - I mean, Wiggins, get seriously pissed off that you rode badly, not spout the psycho-babble about ‘moving on from setback' blah blah  - and exert more of the tougher down-to-earth basis of true racing grit, what O'Grady is putting about with the black wristbands: "Toughen the fuck up."

PdC: Your other cycling books. Most recently I think you've had a couple of books put out by Rapha, about the Alps and the Pyrenees. Tell us a bit about them.

Aota_medium GF: I've written other books, you know - my novel Angel of the Assassination won the Pinnacle Literary Award in USA this year and will, next year, be published in Turkey.

It was a privilege to write first the Pyrenees book and volume one of what will be a two-volume study of the Alps. After I rode Ventoux for the first time, I wrote a piece for clarinet, narrator and wind band called Mountain For Winds and in it, there is a line: "Mountains are rarely, if ever, finished with you." It's true and the books, as with my riding, are testament to the truth.

The books are not guides to riding the cols - no one can ride a mountain for you - but they do brim over with passion for a glorious experience. Riding a long col can open up some interesting mental landscapes and whoever said (says) that getting to the top, say, of the Tourmalet is better than sex is not concentrating hard enough on either activity. Tbm_medium (Read about that, and much, much more in my The Beautiful Machine - "Wise, funny, honest, The Beautiful Machine is more than a paean to just cycling but to life itself." Stewart O'Nan.)

When Simon Mottram, the publisher, read the manuscript of the Pyrenees book, he said: ‘Well, Graeme, this isn't the book we discussed.' Not a guide. ‘Do you have a problem with that?' I asked. ‘No, it's more like one of those classic nineteenth century traveller narratives.'

What more can I say? Go sample.

PdC: The mountains do seem to keep calling you back - if you had to pick one climb over and above all others, which would it be?

GF: Col de Port, in the Lower Pyrenees, east of Saint-Girons. Not the longest, the steepest, the most famous, the most spectacular, but I've ridden it many, many times - last time in June of this year - and it speaks home to me, the welcome of what's familiar and a reminder of all the elements about riding mountains that thrill, scare, startle, delight, move and, ultimately, satisfy me.

* * * * *

You'll find a review of Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders on the Cafe Bookshelf.

Bc_medium Brian-robinson-pioneer_medium Graeme Fife's cycling books include: Bob Chicken - A Passion For The Bike; Tour De France: The History, The Legend, The Riders (Mainstream);  Inside The Peloton (Mainstream); The Beautiful Machine (Mainstream); Great Road Climbs Of The Pyrenees (Rapha); Great Road Climbs Of The Southern Alps (Rapha). He has also published a translation of Albert Londres' despatches from the 1924 Tour, Tour De France, Tour De Souffrance (Cycle Sport). Brian Robinson - Pioneer, a biography of the first Briton to finish the Tour (and the first to win a stage too), will be published later this year by Mousehold.

Our thanks to Graeme Fife for taking the time to participate in this interview.  

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