Author and journalist Richard Moore once more pops into the Café to chat books and cycling. We talk about the three books he has on bookshop shelves in updated form this year - Slaying the Badger, Heroes, Villains and Velodromes and Sky's the Limit - as well as his recent The Dirtiest Race In History and the newly released Bike! which he has co-edited with Daniel Benson of Cycling News (and contains contributions from a few names regulars hereabouts might recognise).
Podium Café: This is your fourth time to pop into the Café Richard, so I guess that's a vote of confidence in the coffee we serve. Before getting into the individual books we're going to talk about this time out, let's start more or less where we left of last time around, when I was asking you to look forward to 2012. Here I have to throw my hands up and admit I got it wrong: all the talk of a possible conflict between Team Sky and Team GB was bunkum. In a pithy little sound bite, what's the secret of Dave Brailsford's success?
Richard Moore: I would say your ‘concern' about the potential for conflict was legitimate, so I wouldn't be too hard on yourself. I've just read Victoria Pendleton's book, and she makes an interesting point about Team Sky being set up on the back of their success on the track; she and some of her fellow trackies may have been justified in thinking that they'd done the hard work, and provided the key for the Sky riches, only to then be locked out the room. I think there may have been some resentment about that, but the lure of the London Olympics perhaps outweighed that and was to Brailsford's advantage.
It might have gone disastrously wrong -- or not quite so spectacularly right. Pendleton almost retired in 2010; Chris Hoy had a back injury that meant he couldn't train about six weeks before London; Jason Kenny is an enigma who seems, somehow, to pull a rabbit out the hat at the Olympics; the Aussies might have won the team pursuit if they hadn't become... distracted. All these ifs, buts and maybes.
However, the fact that it did all go right, that they won the Tour as well, and that we see good British riders popping up all over the place, suggests that this has less to do with chance, and more to do with a system. Brailsford has built that system, more or less, and he manages it very well, partly by having very good people, and keeping them happy (most of the time). The secrets to his success, I think, are the following: obsessive attention to detail, and I mean obsessive; good management and delegation; ruthless decision making; enthusiasm; huge fear of failure, and I mean huge; and luck.
PdC: Let's talk about Heroes, Villains and Velodromes, which is where the story of British Cycling's renaissance begins. That was partly a biography of post-Lottery funding British Cycling and partly a biography of Chris Hoy. You've now updated that book to bring the story up to London 2012. What's new in it for track fans?
RM: The original version ended after Beijing, so it fills in some gaps in the four years since, and ends with London 2012. Again Chris Hoy is the main player, but there's quite a lot about the formation of Team Sky, how that took attention away from the track, and whether that affected those, like Chris, who were in the track team. The answer, perhaps surprisingly, was not a lot, partly because there was such continuity. Brailsford was never there supervising training on a day-to-day basis, and didn't need to be. Updating the book, in fact, I was struck by how long some have been involved -- Shane Sutton, Iain Dyer, Jan van Eijden: Jan is the new guy, and he joined in 2006. That says something, I think.
What always strikes me with Hoy is how driven he is towards the next goal. Here's a guy who won three gold medals in Beijing, and was assured of his place in history, but who clearly would not rest easy unless he did it again, or close to it, in London. Even after winning his two golds in London, he will bristle if you mention his embarrassing defeat to Felix English in the first round of the sprint at the European championships a couple of years ago. That also says something.
PdC: Sky's The Limit is a continuation of sorts of Heroes, Villains and Velodromes, the translation of track success onto the road. One of the themes I took from that book first time around was how Brailsford really wanted Mark Cavendish in the team. You talked of him almost wooing Cav, courting him by having Sky strut their stuff with a lead-out train to rival Columbia's. All of that set up an interesting love-triangle between Brailsford, Cav and Bradley Wiggins. Does the update cover how the marriage has worked out?
RM: Yes, there's a lot of Cavendish in the update, and about his move and how it worked out, or didn't. There's a lot about him in the original book, too, because it was his emergence in 2007/08 that was really the catalyst for Team Sky. So he was involved from the start, even if he wasn't.
Brailsford is coming in for some criticism for signing him, but why would he not have signed him? Think about it: in early 2011 you have a team with a big budget and no obvious leader -- it did not look at that stage that Wiggins would grow into that role. And then you have Cavendish, brilliant leader, winner and British: a safe bet. So you make him an offer in spring 2011, and he accepts it in May.
The next month, Wiggins wins the Critérium du Dauphiné. Ah. But then, to illustrate how fickle it can all be, and how dangerous it is to put all your money on a relatively unproven GC rider, he crashes out of the Tour and breaks his collarbone. Meanwhile, Cavendish wins five stages, and then the world title. Then, in 2012, Wiggins emerges as this stage racing machine -- but I bet even Brailsford didn't see that coming.
Cavendish was not happy at the Tour, and you can understand why. Yet he still won three stages -- and two of them were up there with his most impressive, ever. But he could have won more, so he has to leave. And yet, I could understand if Brailsford was reluctant to let him go -- it's back to the original scenario: Cavendish is a safe bet. If Wiggins and Froome don't repeat in 2013, and Cavendish is off winning with another team, people will say: "You should have kept him!"
PdC: The 2012 Tour. I'm old enough to remember Stephen Roche winning in 1987 and the fillip that win gave not just to Irish cycling but to the Irish nation as well. It does kinda feel special when one of your own wins the Tour, doesn't it?
RM: Yes, I'll not lie. I did the Tour in the Cycle Sport car with Lionel Birnie and Ed Pickering and I think we all felt quite privileged to be witnesses to history. We've all been following the Tour for a long time, so we certainly appreciated the significance of a first British win.
Speaking for myself, I enjoyed it and was happy for Wiggins, because I thought he deserved it; I knew how hard he had worked for it. As he grew in confidence, a side of his personality also emerged that many of us had not seen before, and which was very appealing. And yet there were sour moments, too... Which I think leads into your next question...
PdC: And so to that next question ... we need to talk about doping. Not so much doping itself as attitudes to doping and to the subject of doping. Back in 2006, when Floyd Landis won the Tour, I remember hearing his press conference on (I think) the penultimate Saturday, when he was asked about the impact of Operación Puerto, and he tried to brush the question aside. That set off alarm bells, it wasn't what we wanted to hear. Last year, Cadel Evans fluffed a similar question, a point you drew attention to at the time. I think Alberto Contador has similarly fluffed the question when faced with it. Carlos Sastre kind of got the answer right, acknowledging there were issues in his past with Manolo Saíz. Wiggins got asked the equivalent question quite early this year - this time more about gossip on Twitter than about doping itself. You having marked Evans' card last year, what grade would you give Wiggins for the way he handled the question?
RM: Initially he didn't handle the question well. I thought the Twitter-rant was funny, and you could appreciate where he was coming from, but it was counter-productive. It only gave fodder to his critics. I think he turned it around over the next few days with his column in the Guardian, and his more considered responses to questions. Maybe we're guilty of overstating the significance of a rider writing a column in which he says he hasn't used drugs, and outlines his reasons why, but consider this: what other Tour contender in the last 20 years has put his name to such an article? Has anyone since LeMond been as coherent on the subject?
The point is that it is not only legitimate that the guy in yellow is asked about doping, it is necessary. Wiggins understood that, a few days after his Twitter-rant, when he said he realised the questions weren't necessarily personal: "It's because of the history and the guys who've been sat here before me." Exactly.
But how much more powerful would it have been if, rather than reacting to the questions, Wiggins had pre-empted them? If he had written his column in the Guardian before, rather than during, the Tour? I don't blame Wiggins alone for this -- his main job is to train and race. But somebody should be advising him, and any rider with designs on winning the Tour, that they have to be convincing, consistent and coherent on the topic of doping. To come to the Tour without being prepared to answer questions about doping is as daft as coming without a time trial bike.
The sour moments I mentioned in the previous answer were all doping-related, or should I say doping suspicion-related. Knowing the team and the people around Wiggins, and being as confident as I could be that they were clean, I was baffled that they weren't getting that message across. When the Geert Leinders story, which had been floating around for a few months, became a ‘live' issue with Wiggins in yellow, it was a disaster for them -- but one that should have been foreseen, and dealt with before the Tour (not hiring Leinders in the first place would have been an even better idea).
For a team that is so focused on the details, it was surprising. It began to look as though they were trying to hide something, when they had nothing to hide. I wrote about the failure in this regard on the Cycle Sport website during the Tour.
PdC: Where do you think we are with doping today, as a sport? All the metrics do seem to suggest we've stepped back from Gen-EPO and are in a ... well not yet a clean age, but certainly a cleaner one. There's obviously guys still looking for a competitive advantage in the medicine cabinet but the drugs themselves, well all of the gossip - and some of the evidence - seems to be about drugs that are being used for weight loss, or weight management. Cycling's size zero obsession has moved from the bikes to the engines that drive them.
RM: Well, as I said in the previous answer, I am as confident as I could be that Wiggins and Sky are clean, and, given that he's just won the Tour, I am optimistic that the sport is cleaner, because it wouldn't have been possible for a non-doping rider to do that a few years ago. So I think the sport has changed, but of course there is still, and always will be, doping.
However, here's a novel idea. If the influence of what I think Sky are doing spreads, could that take the sport in a different direction? I am pretty sure that cyclists are less interested in methods than in outcomes. Which is why, when certain Italian doctors began to be involved in the sport in the 1980s, and enjoyed spectacular success with certain riders, it became the accepted wisdom that you had to link up with one of these ‘gurus.' Thus, their influence spread like cancer.
But say the guru isn't a dodgy doctor but a sports scientist. Will other teams and riders now be on the hunt for a Tim Kerrison? Could marginal gains be the new EPO? Am I being idealistic?
PdC: Stepping back in time with doping and we've got your new book this year, The Dirtiest Race In History. I've tended to resist when cyclists try to distract from the problems with our sport by pointing to the failures in others but it has always been a true claim. And The Dirtiest Race In History demonstrates that: really, after that race, the IOC shouldn't have had to wait until Festina came along to give them a wake-up call. I don't know if doping was the key to your wanting to tell that story, but it's also about the personalities as well as the PEDs, yes?
RM: Yes, definitely. The rivalry between Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis was as great a sporting rivalry as I could think of, and was one of the main reasons for wanting to write the book. It had everything. The drugs angle made it even more interesting for me, but the book is not all about drugs: it's about great athletes, fascinating people, shady characters and anti-doping pioneers (Don Catlin will be a familiar name to cycling fans, and features heavily) operating in a sport that's in a state of flux between amateurism (or shamateurism) and professionalism.
But, you know, I don't think the fact of drugs renders any story, or athlete, irrelevant or uninteresting. It doesn't, strangely, make the 100 metres in Seoul any less dramatic -- if anything, the opposite. Lance Armstrong will not cease to fascinate if/when he is stripped of his seven Tours. If anything, his story will become more interesting. Sorry, folks.
PdC: Back to Team Sky. The cuckoo in the nest. Chris Froome. There was a lot of talk - polemica - of dissent in the ranks, a lot of it sounding like manufactured dissent, but it did lead to a nice chance to compare Tour 2012 with Tour 1985 and Tour 1986. We even had the WAGs chucking their handbags into the ring. It was a pleasant distraction from a Tour that - for non-Brits - was a bit ... lacking. Do you think there was any substance to it?
RM: I think there was some substance to it, but maybe not as much as we would have liked. Perhaps we did stir it up a bit, as Brailsford accused us of doing, but we had to, because by the third week the only tension and potential drama concerned the Froome/Wiggins dynamic. Brailsford got quite tetchy when asked about how they were getting on, which might have suggested there was some truth to it, or simply been a sign of the pressure he was feeling under.
The intervention of the WAGs was brilliant. It was as though, whatever Wiggins and Froome were telling us, their actual thoughts were being conveyed by their better halves. Twitter is great for that: a little window that sometimes opens briefly before snapping shut. But in that moment you can see quite a lot.
PdC: The notion of Froome as Greg LeMond to Wiggins' Bernard Hinault allows us to segue shamelessly into to the updated edition of Slaying the Badger. I wasn't expecting an update to that but the one you offered I thought was interesting, particularly Urs Zimmermann's comment about the perception of the Foreign Legion within the peloton in the eighties. Did that surprise you greatly?
RM: It was something I'd never really thought about: what did the continentals think of the rise of the English-speakers from the 1980s onwards? So to get Zimmermann's perspective on that was really interesting.
PdC: You and Daniel Benson have a new book out this month, Bike! which is being described by some as 'seriously hardcore gear fetishist porn.' I've got to step back a bit from this one as I contributed a couple of pieces to it - as did Sarah Connolly, also of this parish - but I think it's fair of me to say that it isn't just for the techs mechs gear heads: you've got some great history and stories in it as well as all the lovingly photographed kit.
RM: I don't think either Daniel or I are particularly techy, so we didn't want to -- and we didn't really feel qualified to -- produce a book that was too techy. We encouraged contributors to focus on the human stories behind the brands -- the inventers and innovators, the people who founded the companies, and the riders who made particular bikes and bits of equipment famous, from Coppi on his Bianchi to Hinault with his Look pedals. I found the stories really interesting, so hopefully it works as a package -- there are some great pictures, too.
PdC: Back to Team Sky before we wrap this up. Crystal ball time. Three years into their five year plan Sky's objective has been attained: they've successfully landed a Briton on the top step of the Tour's podium and safely brought him home again. Even if Murdoch were to stand up tomorrow, declare 'mission accomplished' and take his money to invest in, I don't know, pigeon racing or whatever, I'd guess there's sponsors aplenty queuing up to take his place. What do you think the team's objective is now?
RM: It was interesting that, on the morning of the final day of the Tour, as we sat with Brailsford in a crap hotel on the outskirts of Chartres, that he had to be encouraged, almost forced, to reflect on the Tour they were about to win. His mind kept wandering to next year, and what they would do to follow the Tour they hadn't yet officially won... He talked about trying to win more Grand Tours, and he definitely has a bee in his bonnet about the Classics. "We were shit in the Classics this year," he said -- and he sounded genuinely annoyed. I think there are lots of other challenges that motivate him. Whether Wiggins will win the Tour again -- does he need to? I'm not sure. I don't know if he'll be able to subject himself to the same extreme way of living between now and then -- but I could be wrong.
PdC: And on the boards - is the future of track cycling still red, white and blue?
RM: I really thought the gap would be closed between Beijing and London, but it wasn't. They're losing their talisman and woman in Hoy and Pendleton, and you wonder how important Hoy, in particular, is to someone like Jason Kenny. But there are all these indoor velodromes in Britain now -- London, Glasgow, Manchester, Newport. They will surely produce some more Laura Trotts -- and what an incredible bike rider she is. She doesn't seem interested in the road, unfortunately, but she is a huge talent: great turn of speed, outstanding bike handling and silky smooth.
PdC: To close. I usually like to end these interviews asking what's next in store from authors. But we've just covered five books you've authored, which must be a record for the Café for one interview. And with you having spent a month following the Tour and then immediately leaping into the Olympics and then going off and getting married, well I'd guess the next few months are evenings by the fire recovering from a long Summer with a lot of writing in it. No more books in the near future?
RM: I am working on a photographic book called Tour de France 100, to be published by Bloomsbury next June. It's a combination of pictures and essays, arranged chronologically. It's been really good fun, actually. I've used the Getty and L'Equipe archives (Getty own lots of smaller archives, which I've also had access to) and have dug out some pictures that are very unusual, I think -- though there are some familiar ones, too.
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Richard Moore is the author of In Search of Robert Millar (HarperSport), Heroes, Villains and Velodromes (HarperSport), Slaying the Badger (Yellow Jersey Press), Sky's The Limit (HarperSport) and The Dirtiest Race In History (Bloomsbury). He has co-edited Bike! (Aurum) with Daniel Benson. He also ghost-wrote Chris Hoy - The Autobiography (HarperSport).
Tour de France 100 (Bloomsbury) will be published in 2013.
You'll find reviews of In Search of Robert Millar, Heroes Villains and Velodromes, Chris Hoy - The Autobiography, Slaying the Badger and Sky's The Limit - along with three earlier interviews (June 2010, June 2011 and July 2011) - on the Café Bookshelf.
Our thanks to Richard Moore for taking the time to participate in this interview.