Title: Bad To The Bone
Author: James Waddington
Order: Try Abe Books or other secondhand resources.
What it is: Faust as retold by Alfred Jarry - a cycling novel about doping and death and the lengths some will go to in order to achieve sporting immortality.
Strengths: Waddington's writing is a curious mix of the earthy and the lyrical which sucks you along and through his surreal story. And after reading it you'll never view crocuses in the same way, I promise
Weaknesses: It's all rather mono-dimensional, story-driven without much exploration of motive or character.
Patrul Azafrán can remember the days of his youth, days when his grandfather took him to watch bike races. He remembers one Summer in particular when a meteor blazed through the peloton, almost winning Paris-Nice, almost winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, actually winning the Giro d'Italia, the Tour de France and the World Championships. That was the era of Azafrán's childhood, that interregnum between the fall of one patron and the rise of another. A few brief years in which lesser riders, no longer held back by a domineering force, got their chance to rise up and became géants de la route.
Patrul Azafrán is no giant of the road. Some would call him a domestique, a gregario, a campeñero, but really he is more then a mere water-carrier: Patrul Azafrán is fidèle équipier to the latest champion of champions, Akil Sáenz. Where Sáenz goes so goes Azafrán, until that moment when Sáenz ceases to be as other men and rides away from rivals and team-mates with an insouciant ease that is almost embarrassing.
For five years Akil Sáenz ruled the Tour de France, raising himself above the André Leducqs and the Bernard Thévenets, past the Louison Bobets and the Greg LeMonds, until he stood shoulder to shoulder with the greatest of the greats: Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. The push to the final summit of five Tour victories had not been easy, Sáenz's fifth victory was no armchair ride, no coronation ramble round the roads of France. Sáenz was made to work for his fifth victory, made to work by a rider who had heretofore seemed beneath Sáenz's class but suddenly was reborn. That rider was Jan Potocki.
"Something has got into Potocki, literally it seems - something sent to unsettle Sáenz. Potocki is not the man he was. He speaks more than the usual rubbish, is lost so deep in himself that he blunders into fixed objects, cannot remember what day it is, what mountain we are climbing. Fuck, who cares about the mind of Potocki. But the strange thing is, this confusion of mind seems to have given his body gratuitous strength. An extraordinary strength. [...] The realisation dropped on Sáenz like a small hawk of failure that suddenly blots out the sky. I was, it seemed, no longer about to join the four greatest bike riders in history. Victory in my fifth Tour de France was being stolen from me by a man who was ascending about ten seconds a minute faster than it was possible for any human to climb."
Potocki, of course, did not defeat Sáenz, did not halt the Spaniard's progress to the highest step of the pantheon's podium. But it was not Sáenz who overcame Potocki: nature - or, if you believe in them, the Gods - broke Potocki, sent a frog scurrying in his path, caused Potocki to flick to avoid running it over and, in the process, to collide with an oak tree. Head first. Three weeks later Jan Potocki was dead. And - to add mystery to mayhem - his body had disappeared from the clinic in which he had spent his dying days.
A year later - the mystery of the disappearance of a cyclist's cadaver still unsolved - and Sáenz attempted to vault himself above the greatest of the greats, to Anquetil and Merckx and Hinault and Indurain behind him. Sáenz's progress, though, was halted by the unstoppable force of Ernesto Sarpedón, who in that one season won four Spring classics, five minor stage races and looked set to add the arc en ciel to his maglia rosa and maillot jaune. Until, that is, he lost his mind and was spirited away from the watching world to the sleepy village of Venta Quemada. The village of his forefathers and the village where, a week after his arrival, he was found dead, murdered. Murdered, local legend has it, by the ghosts of three bandit brothers who descended from the mountains one night and brought final and permanent peace to Sarpedón's restless and wandering mind.
The following season it was the turn of Ettore Baris to blaze a trail through the peloton and again deny Akil Sáenz the chance to carve out his own step of the podium of greatness. Baris won Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo, the Flèche Wallonne, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro d'Italia. The best Akil Sáenz could manage was seconds, sometimes being beaten by minutes. The Tour he lost by one and one quarter seconds, beaten by Baris.
In that triumphal season, when all fell before him with ease, Ettore Baris caught religion. It's a common complaint in the pro peloton, cycling is a curiously Catholic sport, where even Popes number among the tifosi. One of the symptoms of Baris's religious disorder was the presence at his side of a priest, Fr Bernard Blériot. And it was with the aid of Fr Blériot that Ettore Baris, newly crowned cycling champion of the world, raised himself onto a cross fixed into the side of the Ventoux, in a patch of sun-baked Provençal scree that will forever English be, and allowed himself to be crucified. Failing to rise again on the third day it was accepted that Baris was mortal after all. And mad as a hatter to boot.
Three dead cyclists: Jan Potocki; Ernesto Sarpedón; and Ettore Baris. All performing extraordinary feats prior to their death, feats out of character with the preceding years of their careers. All members of the Cosimo Pharmaceuticals cycling squad. All protégés of Cosimo's charismatic directeur sportif Mikkel Fleischman:
"Mikkel Fleischman was one of those mildly extrovert Swedes who speak English with a perfect Seattle accent, and fluent Emilia-Romagnan Italian. He was of average height, had thick wavy hair, blue eyes and wore gold rimmed glasses. He smiled a lot, but always a degree and seven minutes to the left of where you were.
"Sports medicine had not been his first calling. Mikkel was a clever man. His initial degree from Lund University had been in molecular biology. From Lund he had gone to Bologna where he had been an assistant in research into the cerebral damage caused by Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker and iatrogenic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Italian scientists were leaders in these areas of protein abnormality."
From Italy Fleischman migrated west, washing up in Seattle, where he acquired his accent and the acquaintanceship of Dr Taggart Loehengrino-Kung, a plastic surgeon of some fame and great fortune:
"What Taggart did went beyond cosmetics, ethically and practically. He made his name in techniques for getting supportive tissues - bone, muscle, fat - to build on minimal biodegradable scaffolding, like they could make a human arm grown on a few strands of stuff in a glass tank that if you found that arm subsequently in a lay-by or a garbage container and you took it to the police station, they would sit you down and they would talk to you seriously and with respect. Some of the things he and his various teams had done for car smash and burns victims had been right at the forefront of this type of body building."
And then one day Fleischmann met a cyclist with a broken leg and all the pieces came together. He became directeur sportif of the Cosimo squad, and Potocki, Sarpedón and Baris were all men transformed after having worked with him. Dead too, but there's a price for everything and science can only move forward through trial and error.
It was during that second Tour in which Akil Sáenz failed to vault above Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain that Fleischman and Sáenz met and discussed the future. The day was a rest day in the Tour, the day before a time trial up the Ventoux, and it was on the Ventoux, where months hence Ettore Baris would crucify himself, that Fleischman and Sáenz talked:
- I am supping with the enemy.
- Do you mean Cosimo's directeur sportif, or do you mean the devil? For the first, we could be discussing contracts. It is time you were deciding your plans for next year.
- And for the second?
- All this can be thine.
- It already is.
- There is the added complication ...
- It happens. I'm not one of those guys who gets violent about it. On the other hand I wouldn't let it cloud your judgement.
- I'll do my best.
- So what's the deal?
- I want your soul.
- No, I mean the other thing, the contract for next year.
- It is a contract, and for a year. Don't you know? Mephistopheles gave Faustus everything he wanted for a year, and then he came for his soul. Of course, we don't have souls any more. But I shall come for you after a year.
A rider meeting a rival directeur sportif on a rest day in the Tour ... a modern reader might be excused for imagining Bradley Wiggins slipping from away the Garmin hotel to sup with Dave Brailsford and discuss how many of Murdoch's millions it would take to lure him away from Jonathan Vaughters' lost boys and into the loving embrace of Sky's very British Foreign Legion. A modern reader is allowed to do such things, for we all bring our own luggage to the table when we read a novel, add extra to the story crafted by the author. But the modern reader should remember this: James Waddington's Bad To The Bone was first published in the Spring of 1998 when - allegedly - the cycling world was innocent and had yet to be shocked, stunned and staggered by the revelations of l'affaire Festina.
Around the same time that Bad To The Bone was published an out-of-print cycling classic was republished: Paul Kimmage's A Rough Ride (stripped of its indefinite article for its reappearance on bookshop shelves). More than a decade on and Rough Ride is still in print, while Bad To The Bone is a book known only to those of a particular generation. With the cycling world the way it has been, we hardly needed fiction to paint a dystopian future for us, we could see all to clearly the path the sport was on for ourselves.
Times have changed. Independent testing and the biological passport have saved us, laboratories can find the tiniest traces of clenbuterol in samples put before them, champions are laid low and no one is above the rule of law. Cycling has cleaned itself up and we no longer need worry about the damage being done by doping, we can now worry about the damage being done by those who run our sport, or those who wish they could run this sport. Doping has become of such little consequence that even teams who once traded on their cleanliness can no longer generate the column inches by talking about testing. Now they have to talk about finances.
Waddington's Bad To The Bone then has become a nostalgic look at the future we might have had. Except it hasn't. For the kind of doping imagined by Waddington is still in sport's future. There are still athletes today who would leap at the chance to put themselves into the care of a man like Mikkel Fleischman and the Mephistophelean magic he could perform on them. Bad To The Bone may be somewhat outdated, but it is still futuristic.
The story told in Bad To The Bone is that of Akil Sáenz and his progress toward that faithful meeting on the Ventoux - which comes at about the book's midpoint - and of the choice he makes and the consequences that unfold. Waddington's story is told in language that is both earthy and lyrical, his is an ambitious attempt to craft a cycling novel that is a novel first, and about cycling second. Does it compare with Tim Krabbé's The Rider or Uwe Johnson's The Third Book About Achim? Hardly. But it is superior to Ralph Hurne's The Yellow Jersey. Put it, perhaps, on the same shelf as Freya North's Cat. If you come across a copy one day you could do worse than spend a few hours with it and see for yourself how some viewed cycling even before Willy Voet was busted.