Wide-Eyed And Legless, by Jeff Connor

7435_wide-eyed-and-legless_mediumWe've previously looked at John Deering's account of the rise and fall of the Linda McCartney Pro Cycling Team, in Team on the Run. Jeff Connor's Wide-Eyed and Legless is an account of the team the McCartneys ended up emulating, right down to their ending: ANC-Halfords. That team's ill-fated attempt to play with the big boys in the European peloton left a scar on British cycling that is only beginning to be healed today with the arrival of Team Sky, which has at least managed to survive its first year on the continent without leaving behind a trail of bad debts and broken dreams. Well, without leaving behind a trail of bad debts. The broken dreams I'll get around to soon enough, with Bradley Wiggins' On Tour and Richard Moore's Sky's The Limit.

Title: Wide-Eyed and Legless: Inside the Tour de France
Author: Jeff Connor
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
Year: 1988 (reissued 2011, with an intro by Richard Moore)
Pages: 192
Order: Random House
What it is: An insider's account of the ill-fated ANC-Halfords 1987 Tour de France team, from a journalist who was embedded with the squad for the duration of the race.
Strengths: Connor had privileged access to what was going on within ANC-Halfords and - not being a cycling journalist - has an outsider's eye for what's really going on.
Weaknesses: There's so much more I wanted to know, more about what happened after the race ended. For that we have to wait until next year and Connor's current project.

Thursday, July 1, 1987. West Berlin, East Germany. ANC-Halfords rider Shane Sutton was the first rider to set off on the prologue of the 1987 Tour de France. Six kilometres up and down West Berlin's Kurfürstendamm. Sutton rode them in eight minutes and eleven seconds. Until the next rider came home, Sutton was the virtual leader of the Tour de France, wearing an imaginary maillot jaune. Five seconds after Sutton crossed the finish line, that next rider arrived. Those five seconds ... they were the high point of ANC-Halfords' Tour de France.

* * * * *

The 1987 Giro d'Italia finished on Saturday June 11. Not three weeks later, its winner - Stephen Roche - rolled down the start ramp of the Tour de France's prologue time trial. Fausto Coppi. Jacques Anquetil. Eddy Merckx. Bernard Hinault. All these names were being tossed about whenever Roche's name came up. All winners of the Giro-Tour double. Could Roche really join that pantheon? In Ireland, it was time for us to dream.

In the UK, Tony Capper too was dreaming. Born in Stoke-in-Trent and then living on the Isle of Man, Capper's dream was to put a British team into the Tour de France and bring them home safely. Capper had made his money building and selling the ANC overnight delivery company. In doing that, he'd got involved with sponsoring first one cyclist, then a team, then multiple teams. Now he was hoping to lead a British team to the Tour de France. But he still had one hurdle to overcome: he'd provided the Société du Tour de France with a cheque for £25,000 but he still didn't know if the team had been accepted. While Stephen Roche was battling team-mates and tifosi in Italy, Capper was still waiting for the final nod from Jacques Goddet.

Jeff Connor was a forty-one-year-old sub-editor with the Daily Star, a British tabloid that had popularised the concept of newspaper bingo. From a standing start in 1978 The Star had grown to sales of nearly two million copies a day. In a market dominated by the Mirror and the Sun, that was no mean feat. Beyond bingo and 'Starbirds' its marketing stunts included the sponsorship of the Milk Race, a pro-am Tour of Britain. In England in the eighties, the Milk Race was as good as it got. And with ANC's Malcolm Elliott winning it in May, the idea of following him and his team-mates as they took on France's answer to the Tour of Britain must have seemed like a good idea to the people at the Star.

Connor's Star bosses set him some bloody hard tasks for the Tour. The most famous one is that they wanted him to ride a stage of the race. Like, really ride a stage of the Tour. With the pros. In the peloton. George Plimpton eat yer heart out. Compared to some of the other tasks they set him though, that one was a cake walk. You try interviewing Robert Millar. On his first night in Berlin, Connor explained this task to one of the ANC staff, the assistant directeur sportif, Ward Wouters. The obliging type, Wouters popped over to the Panasonic team to sort it out. He returned to Connor:

- Did you see Millar?
- Yes, I saw Peter Post, the Panasonics manager who is a friend of mine. They are eating but Post waved me to sit down. Millar is very angry and a sent a message to you.
- Yes?
- Millar said: 'Tell the journalist to fuck off.'

Welcome to the world of cycling Mr Connor, buckle up and enjoy the ride. I won't tell you how Connor's attempt to interview Sean Kelly worked out, let's not give away all of Connor's secrets. But just remember this: Kelly didn't suffer fools gladly. And, in Kelly's view, a tabloid hack on his first Tour was a ... civilian.

* * * * *

The opening weekend of the 1987 Tour was bloody tough, with six stages (including the prologue) packed into four days, including a 700-plus kilometre transfer from East Berlin to Stuttgart (by air for the riders, by road through communist East Germany for most everyone else). When you pay a million quid for the opening weekend of the Tour, you expect value for money, and the Germans got that in spades. Nobody seemed to care about the riders. And on the Saturday, three days in, ANC-Halfords lost its first rider, Bernard Chesneau missing the time cut as the race barrelled into Stuttgart. Even Stephen Roche complained about the pace of the peloton:

"If the race continues at this sort of pace we'll arrive on the Champs-Elysées in coffins."

Let's step out of this story a moment. Much is made of the increases in the speed of the Tour year to year. And the finger is always pointed at one single cause: doping. But consider what was actually happening in 1987. Two hundred and seven riders. Twenty-three teams. No team willing to ride at the front and control the race. No patron to put manners on the peloton. And everyone riding like they wanted to get the hell out of Germany and onto French soil as quick as they could. (In the case of one ANC-Halfords rider, Kvetoslav Palov, you could understand this. Palov had defected from communist Czechoslovakia the previous year and washed up in the UK in the Spring only to find himself starting the Tour back inside the Iron Curtain. Ouch.)

Wideyedandlegless1988_mediumSo speed doesn't always mean speed. But it's an easy segue into the topic of doping and one I'm cheap enough to use. David Walsh tells of watching Bjarne Riis on the Hautacam in 1996, and Lance Armstrong in 2001, and the members of the salle de presse laughing and joking about what they were witnessing, talking of doping before sitting down to tell the sanitised version of the story. It wasn't all that different in 1987. Here's Connor:

"Doping is a banned topic in cycling conversations and any journalist covering the Tour automatically becomes a part of the same conspiracy, but the rumours and the nudges and winks, the miming of a needle in the arm after some particularly bravura feat in the mountains or sprints, are hard to ignore. So are the physical signs of riders remaining jaunty, wide-eyed and full of life after seven hours of punishment in the saddle."

One team manager had this to say to Connor:

"We're one step ahead of the testers all the time. And the drugs are so easy to get. You just go around Europe and ask in chemists. Most will say 'no' but you'll always find one who will sell them eventually."

When Stephen Roche's Carrera team-mate, Guido Bontempi, got busted for testosterone, his directeur sportif, Davide Boifava, had this to say:

"What can I do, what can I say? They found in the analysis a small amount of testosterone, the natural hormone secreted by the body. Guido swears by God that he has taken nothing. To show everyone the injustice of it all Guido has decided to stay on the Tour and to win another stage."

Read that back and see just how much bullshit is in it.

By now you know that I'm down on the way many in the media chose (not) to report doping in cycling in those days. But what of the attitude of the riders themselves? As well as writing Wide-Eyed and Legless Jeff Connor also ghosted Malcolm Elliott's autobiography, Sprinter. In that, Elliott had this to say about Bontempi:

"Bontempi was declassified and lost the stage but it really didn't make any odds to me - it just meant I finished ninth instead of tenth. There were still eight others between me and him and I didn't feel cheated any way. Bontempi's a great sprinter and a real animal, with or without testosterone."

But at least Elliott had balls enough to mention the incident. Stephen Roche's autobiography, The Agony and the Ecstasy, somehow misses his own team-mate's disgrace. Nor does it merit a mention in Roche's other book, My Road to Victory. David Walsh ghosted both of them.

* * * * *

Back to the race. We're up to stage six, Strasbourg to Épinal. The Vosges. Time to meet a first cat col, the Col du Champ du Feu. The hill of the Field of Fire. Graham Jones, the former team-mate of Stephen Roche at Peugeot and part of that team in Roche's 1981 Paris-Nice victory, was the first to go out the back. Paul Watson - who had been the lanterne rouge since Stuttgart three stages ago - went next. Guy Gallopin scraped home just inside the cut-off limit and inherited Watson's last place overall. Five days into the race and already ANC-Halfords had lost a third of its team. They were getting massacried.

A week later and it was time for the Pyrénées. Shane Sutton - who for those five seconds on that first day had been the virtual leader of the Tour de France, resplendent in an imaginary maillot jaune - surrendered the lanterne rouge he'd claimed two days earlier when sailing past Guy Gallopin at the bottom end of the GC, and climbed off his bike and into the sag wagon. Come the Alps, it was Steve Swart's time to say good-bye. Five down. Four left.

All of this, Connor got to witness from the ANC-Halfords team car. He may not have seen much of what was going on at the pointy end of the race, but he got to see how cycling really works. Things like the bidon trick, the water bottle held out the car window, the rider holding on and the driver suddenly flooring the accelerator and sling-shotting the rider up the road. Or the more advanced version: the rider clinging to the car door as the driver speeds back up toward the peloton without a commissaire in sight to wag a finger and fine the rider (£11) and the DS (£80).

The best version of all though is bribing one of the Garde Republicaine motorcycle outriders to place his bike a few metres in front of a rider, allowing him to slipstream his way back into the race. Even a crappy cotton casquette could buy you a few klicks of that, so long as it had a team name or logo on it. Cops have kids too, even cops who are members of the elite Republican Guard.

* * * * *

Unlike most journos who cover the Tour from the salle de presse and roadside cafés, Connor was embedded within the ANC-Halfords team, and billeted in the same accommodation. At first he was an outsider on the inside, and there was the expected coldness toward him. As the race progressed though, the walls came down and Connor was able to draw a picture of life on the Tour from the inside. The guys - mechanics, soigneurs, riders and management - spoke to Connor. Candidly.

Connor writes with a lot of respect for the riders, for the sport, for the race itself. But he's not bigging things up, selling the lie. His is an honest picture of the Tour. There's a lot of Connor's honesty I like. Not everyone else necessarily will. Take something Connor said for William Fotheringham's Roule Britannia, an interview in which he talked of the Irish fans at the Tour in 1987. They were, Connor says:

"generic sports fans [who] just follow anything Irish, anywhere around the world, dressed in green. Apart from one guy, Oliver McQuaid, the ones I met at the end of the 1987 Tour had no idea about cycling: I found myself the expert. I've watched sport in Ireland - football at Lansdowne Road, Michelle de Bruin - and panning around the crowd I notice they are the same people. Even now [seventeen years on] I go to Lansdowne Road and see one or two familiar faces from that Tour."

Maybe there's a gene that should make me angry at comments like that, but how I can be, when they're true? Sport - all sport - in all countries attracts a lot of the 'sing when you're winning' crowd. And the Tour is one of the biggest sporting events on the planet. Let's face it, seeing fans who only cheer because of the colour of a rider's passport can be fucking annoying.

That Oliver McQuaid guy, by the way, is - in case you're wondering - one of the clan McQuaid. Son of Jim. Brother of our glorious leader, Pat. Former team-mate of Stephen Roche at that 1979 Rás. Here he is, from toward the end of Wide-Eyed and Legless:

"By the time the Tour arrived in Dijon [for the penultimate days' time trial] the Republic of Ireland had cottoned on to the fact that one of their most famous sons was about to win cycling's greatest prize. The ancient Burgundy city was awash with Tricolours and Irish accents. Most had arrived without accommodation and a large group, including Oliver McQuaid, a member of a famous Irish cycling family, had solved the problem by drinking all night in the bar of the ANC hotel close to the railway station in Dijon."

Connor is an equal-opportunities type of guy when it comes to casting a cold eye on things, even his own trade falls under his gaze. Connor is amazed - wide-eyed - about the level of access the media have to cyclists:

"It was alarming to see [Roche] finish a stage after seven hard hours of racing and the hordes descend on him, pushing, pulling and punching to get the first questions in, even though one was part of the same horde. [...] No other sport and no other professional athlete would tolerate this. At Wimbledon or Lord's, players are allowed to shower and change and quench their thirst before returning to properly organised press conferences. On the Tour, the leaders are expected to stand sweat-stained and hungry, grimy and weary and go through the tactical nuances of the day's racing. [...] Little wonder that the top men don't like the label of Tour favourite and will do their best to deflect the weighty title on to another's shoulders. The worst pressure doesn't come from their rivals."

At the same time, Connor is himself trying to do his job, write about cycling for a non-cycling audience. At one point he asks Malcolm Elliott a question about a sprint. What he wants to know is whether the guy who won led the sprint out or came from behind, but phrased the question awkwardly. Elliott snapped back: "Of course he came past, he finished first, didn't he?" Which was too much for Connor: "Malcolm, it's no wonder people back home don't understand cycling. Nobody ever explains to them what's going on. That's why I keep asking such bloody stupid questions." The upshot? The next day - the rest day - Elliott and Connor sat down together and the Sheffield sprinter gave a bloody good interview. one that, even today, is worth reading.

Now if Connor can be brutally honest about cycling, then I suppose I should at least try to be brutally honest about Wide-Eyed and Legless. There is an awful lot of affection for this book in the UK. It may be getting on for a quarter of a century since it first appeared, and - before being re-issued this year - it may have been one of the hardest cycling books to find second-hand, but the love for Connor's book has seen Cycle Sport declare it "the number one cycling book of all time." Which is as big a load of bollocks as Boifava's explanation of Bontempi's testosterone positive.

Anyone approaching Wide-Eyed and Legless expecting it to be as good as it's been bigged up to be is bound to be disappointed. Which is a pity. Because the book is a fun read, entertaining and offering an insight into life nearer the lower rungs of the sport's ladder. And there are some things in this sport that never change. But that expectation gap opened by those who have bigged the book up to epic proportions ... well all I can do is warn you to mind the gap.

* * * * *

Connor's conversations with people on the ANC-Halfords team are at the heart of the book. Wide-Eyed and Legless is about their Tour de France. And they open up to Connor. They acknowledge what's was going wrong in 1987 - everyone is quite frank about the things ANC-Halfords failed to get right - but they see their failures as being part of a learning process. Things not to do next year. Next year. That's what all of this was about. Next year. And the year after that. And the years after that. The future.

The future was a dream they had. Twenty years after Tom Simpson had died on the Ventoux a British team had returned to the Tour and Simpson's ghost had been exorcised. Now the British would finally embrace continental cycling. ANC would be back, bigger, brasher, better. An American had won the Tour, an Irishman was about to win the Tour ... it wouldn't be long now before a Briton would win the Tour. That was the dream anyway.

The dream didn't make it to Paris. The team's money disappeared - all spent before the Milk Race - and the bailiffs were seizing goods back home in Blighty. Salaries went unpaid. And then Capper went missing. The team - what was left of it - rode on and Adrian Timmis and Malcolm Elliott and Kvetoslav Palov and Guy Gallopin made it to Paris. It was to be another thirteen years before a British team again took on a Grand Tour, twenty-three years before another British team made it back to the Tour de France.

* * * * *

Stephen Roche won the 1987 Tour de France. The challenge from Jean-François Bernard was neutralised on the road to Villard de Lans. The challenge from Pedro Delgado was parried on La Plagne and then destroyed the next day on the descent into Morzine. As in Italy, Roche's wife Lydia joined the race two days out from home, this time accompanied by their two children, Nicolas and Christelle. Even though Roche didn't take the yellow jersey off Delgado until the Dijon time trial, those last few days of the race were a coronation. The double was done. And when Stephen Roche stood on that top step of the podium on the Champs Elysées that Sunday afternoon, we dreamed of a bright future. Another Roche victory in another Tour de France. We're still dreaming that dream.

* * * * *

You'll find an introduction to the ANC-Halfords story and an interview with Jeff Connor on the Café Bookshelf.

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