Title: On Tour
Author: Bradley Wiggins (with Brendan Gallagher, photographs by Scott Mitchell)
Publisher: Orion Books
Order: Orion Books
What it is: Part diary, part photo-essay on Bradley Wiggins' 2010 Tour de France - the first outing for the highly anticipated and much hyped Sky Pro Cycling team.
Strengths: Some good photographs and a strong design ethic.
Weaknesses: It's hard to know whether Wiggins is just being guarded or the whole thing is just a bland PR exercise.
As the 2010 Tour progressed, Bradley Wiggins, Sky Pro Cycling's team-leader and the man upon whom all hopes were resting, went from being "Bradley Wiggins, podium prospect" to "Bradley Wiggins, GC contender" to "Bradley Wiggins, time trial specialist." After the final time trial, when he came within a whisker of being beaten by his own team-mate, Geraint Thomas, he became just Bradley Wiggins.
It kind of summed up Team Sky's first year of playing with the big boys. Thirty-million pounds, thirteen vehicles, twenty-three staff, nine-riders, one GC contender ... and when it was all over what was there to show for it all? Well there's always Wiggins' follow-up to In Pursuit of Glory. He won't always have Paris - not this time round at least - but he'll always have On Tour.
Now there's a bit more to On Tour that just Bradley Wiggins. Let's begin then with Scott Mitchell's photography. Here's Wiggins on this topic:
"I love reading old Tour books and leafing through all the cycling mags, and one of the aspects that appeals to me is that nostalgic retro, timeless look that black and white pictures give you [...] and with that in mind I asked my friend Scott Mitchell, a professional photographer and fellow Mod, whose take on life I enjoy, simply to tag along with us at Team Sky and snap what he saw on the Tour de France in black and white. Scott is not a cycling fan and, most importantly to my mind, not a specialist sports photographer. He arrived on the Tour completely fresh, although, like the rest of us, he left Paris completely bollixed. That's the essence of this book."
Now I could try to describe the piccies - there's some Timm Kölln-like portraits of Wiggins and Seat Yates, pulling off the highly chic concentration camp look, there's crowd scenes, there's some scenery shot, there's some lovingly photographed bike-porn, thre's even some racing shots - but why waste words when a few examples will say so much more? Mitchell has most of the pics on his blog, where he notes he met Wiggins while photographing the Vuelta a Murcia.
I should also give over space to mention Richard Norgate's design. On Tour is an elegant little thing, something you can enjoy simply leafing through without having to engage with the text. Certainly I've enjoyed leaving through it more than I've enjoyed reading it. There are quibbles with the design though.
Somewhere along the way in the design process, the overall context of the race was lost. We know where the individual diary entries are written. Chapters are headed up with things like "Rotterdam. Hotel Carlton Oasis - Spijkenisse. Also in residence: Cervélo and BBox Bouygues Telecom." Or "High Mountains. Hotel Astoria, Place des Thermes, Aix-les-Bains. Also in residence: Cofidis." But Wiggins' diary isn't day-by-day and where the individual days fit within the overall race is lost: a simple route map and stage listing would have helped. And - given that Wiggins is part reporting the actual race for the maillot jaune - some stage and GC standings would have helped. Hell, even sticking the dates on the diary entries would have helped.
This defect though may actually be deliberate. Wiggins makes this point about life in the Grand Tours:
"It's akin to a travelling circus and the sensation is of being constantly on the move and on tour. [...] It's a little bit rock and roll and, if we are honest, that's a part of the appeal. You do your stuff and move on to the next gig, the next venue. Dates and times aren't really how you measure your progress through a long tour and, indeed, the season; they all tend to merge. What you remember are the hotels, good or bad and occasionally the names of the towns and cities where something significant happened."
So what's On Tour all about then? A look at a rough table of contents I cobbled together - which helped me retrace my route back through the book after the fact - may give you a good idea of what's in store for you should you be tempted to try this one for yourself.
The Tour diary itself covers Rotterdam (the prologue), Liège (stage 2), Pavé (stage 3), Montargis (stage 5), the Alps (stage 6 and the first rest day), High Mountains (stage 9), Bastille Day (stages 10 and 11), Mende (stage 12), Revel (stage 13), Port de Balès (stage 15), Pau (stage 16), Rest Day # 2, the Col du Tourmalet (stage 17), Bordeaux (stage 18) and finally the Champs-Élysées (stage 20).
As well offering his Tour diary entries, Wiggins takes time out to muse on things like days off (he still doesn't like them) and the team's bus. We get Wiggins' take on the Schlecklette's slipped chain, on Tour climbs and the Pyrénées, on rooming alone and dieting, and on his best and worst Tour days ever.
There's Bradley on Cath, his wife, and Cath on Bradley. Chapters are given over to Lance Armstrong, Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings and Michael Barry, plus there's shorter comments about Unsung Heroes (Stuart O'Grady, Andreas Klöden, Chris Anker Sørensen, Nicki Sørensen, Stéphan Augé, Bert Grabsch and Christian Vande Velde). Team personnel - Sean Yates and Txema Gonzalez - get chapters to themselves, and there's also a chapter for the team's wrench monkeys. And, of course, there's a chapter for Paul Smith, suit designer and celebrity cycling fan. They are all, almost to a word, gushing love-ins.
That's one way of looking at On Tour. A rather functional way of looking at it but a fair indicator of what it contains. Even if you're not a Team Sky fan, there may be something in there to whet your appetite.
As always though, there is another way of looking at things. We could look at what the back-of-book blurb tells us. Try this for size:
"Breaking the mould of cycling books, this is a searingly honest, controversial but thoughtful and entertaining blast from the heart of the peloton."
What a load of bollocks. Do blurb writers even read the books they write about?
Look, the only thing controversial about On Tour is the publisher's claim that it is controversial. There is nothing mould-breaking about it - Wiggins himself all but admits it's a knock-off of Michael Barry's Le Métier. As for being honest - how can the diary entries be honest when Wiggins was lying to himself, geeing himself up to believe that things would come good in the Alps, then come good in the Pyrénées, then come good in the final time trial?
Now just because the publisher's blurb is a load of old tripe doesn't necessarily mean you should dismiss On Tour out of hand. It's got some pretty piccies and is nicely designed. And while it would be fair to say that most of what Wiggins says is inoffensive to the point of being soporific it should also be noted that this isn't unique to On Tour. One of the big problems with reading books about the current cycling scene is that, the closer the authors are to the scene, the more guarded they are in what they say. The more anodyne the books are. This has always been a problem with such books. Wiggins isn't unique in being guarded in what he says.
Another problem intrinsic to books like On Tour is that that daily diary entries don't actually leave the author much time to think about what they're saying. There's not much time in them for reflective thought. Wiggins himself touches briefly on this point, though in a different context:
"Months later - years later - you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself suddenly reliving a particular moment from a past Tour as your long damned-up memories start to come flooding through. Your brain can't take it all in at the time, there is too much going on to assimilate everything. But it is there for you to hit the recall button in later years."
You might argue that the upside of this is that you get a sense of the immediacy of it all., what you lose on the roundabouts you gain on the swings. But consider this comment:
"I've stopped tweeting for now by the way, and I'm glad. For a while I really enjoyed it but it's dangerous territory when you're feeling vulnerable. You bash out a comment or a reaction to something in the heat of the moment and live to regret it, with people giving you grief for ages. It all ends in tears. Heaven knows what I would have put out into cyberspace today. Best left unsaid and let's try to rectify it over the coming days."
Me, I don't think it's best left unsaid. I don't want the same-old same-old anodyne shite. I can read that in the interviews in the magazines and on the web-sites. I want the unguarded comment, regrets bedamned.
Sieve through the same-old same-old anodyne shite and there are some nuggets in On Tour. Some insight into where it all went wrong and the lessons there to be learned from Team Sky's 2010 Tour de France, some comments about modern racing.
There's some guarded criticism of things at Team Sky leading up to the Tour - gone, Wiggins notes, was the relaxed feel he had in the 2009 Tour (funnily, he doesn't seem to be able to bring himself to naming Garmin and Jonathan Vaughters here). Performance anxiety seems to have hit not just him, but other team personnel too, with the upshot being there were too many voices chipping in their tuppence-worth.
Things overall were unnecessarily over complicated. Of the decision to go with the F1 weather-boffins' predictions of rain in Rotterdam for the prologue ITT, Wiggins says that Team Sky tried "to box clever, too clever" and that the decision to take an early start time, well ahead of his GC rivals was "an old fashioned cock-up really."
One of the big things about Team Sky's first Tour was their team bus. Here's Wiggins on it:
"Our coach on this Tour was state-of-the-art, although not quite so space-age as some reports made out. DaveB loves talking things up a little because it keeps the opposition guessing as to what might be. It's like our track programme and our famous 'Secret Squirrel' club headed by Chris Boardman, looking into technological innovations. Yes, they are always on the case and have made some very good contributions to the cause, but if you build up a little mystery about it opposition imaginations can run wild and they can be left thinking they definitely have inferior bikes and kit, which is rarely the case."
But good and all as the bus was at distracting the media, it also brought with it some problems:
"If I'm absolutely honest I don't think we quite got it right on the Sky Bus on the Tour this year, through nobody's fault. Don't get me wrong, it could hardly have been more comfortable and better appointed, but there were times when it lacked a little soul."
The real problem was that the bus created little bubbles around each rider, which they were able to reinforce with their iPods and laptops. The interaction needed to bind a group of individuals into a team was lost.
That interaction doesn't extend to the way hotel rooms are allocated:
"One of the advantages of being the Team Sky leader is being granted my own room on the Tour this year. [...] There are a few reasons why things have not gone so well this year at the tour but my having my own room is not one of them. Time on your own is so important because there is so little of it."
What is there of life beyond Team Sky? Well, the Treaty of Spa - when a halt was called to racing because so many GC contenders had skittled themselves on the descents in the Ardennes - left Wiggins with mixed feelings. On the one hand it allowed him to get back on but, but on the other hand if offered an unwelcome reminder of his own experiences at the Giro. There he'd been in the maglia rosa (having won the prologue) when he crashed an no one waited for him:
"Nobody showed the leader's jersey any courtesy then. Where were the racing traditions and racing courtesies that day?"
So waiting for fallers at the Tour didn't feel right to him:
"for me top-level bike racing is all about taking risks and riding your luck, almost every minute of every racing day, and if occasionally it all comes tumbling down for you, well that's tough. Stuff happens. [...] We shouldn't try to control and manipulate the racing. If you are unlucky and take a beating, take it like a man."
At the same time though, the peloton choosing to take a day off is perfectly acceptable. Take the stage to Gap, over the Col de Laffrey:
"The Bastille Day crowd wanted to see us racing flat out but the peloton, except for the six-man break, were having none of it and were looking for an easy day. Well - as easy as you can get in this heat. No patron needed on this occasion, it was just a collective decision."
The idea that cycling is tough and you have to take the crunchy with the smooth is something Wiggins comes back to when discussing the Schlecklette's fluffed gear change on the Port de Balès:
"Who says it's a convention that the yellow jersey can't be attacked when he messes up on a gear change or encounters an everyday problem? [...] It's just the fortunes of war and we shouldn't be trying to overly protect the big names by unwritten conventions and traditions which seem to be used by all and sundry for their own purpose. [...] Just get on with it guys, it's road racing."
They're interesting views, all the more so in light of recent events. But, sadly, that, more or less, really is it. So what about what Wiggins doesn't say? Things you don't get include Alberto Contador's Clenbuterol bust (news of which came too late for the book, which had a swift turn-around time, as the numerous typos attest). Nor do you learn much about how Michael Barry dealt with being at the centre of the Floyd Landis shit-storm, or the bollocking Wiggins has recently acknowledged he received after the Tour was over.
Maybe these were all just too controversial for the mould-breaking Wiggins to deal with? Or maybe they're just not the type of things Wiggins feels we dumb schmucks in the cheap seats need to be told about? Answers on the back of a twenty-euro note to the usual address please.