Title: Shadows on the Road - Life at the Heart of the Peloton, From US Postal to Team Sky
Author: Michael Barry
Publisher: Faber & Faber
What it is: Volume three of the autobiographies of Michael Barry, author of Inside the Postal Bus and Le Métier
Strengths: Barry's stylistic flourishes will find favour with the sort of people who read Rouleur
Weaknesses: It's volume three of Michael Barry's autobiographies and he's only now telling us of the doping he participated in and witnessed while a member of the US Postal squad
There has never been a time when everyone has been happy with the demands cycling makes of its participants. Back at the end of the nineteenth century, when Six Day racing was popular, there were complaints about what riders had to endure, riding the boards hour after hour for six days straight. The French called it inhuman and eventually American lawmakers tried to legislate the races out of existence. When the Tour de France came around - itself modelled on Six Day racing - Henri Desgrange trumpeted the harshness of the sport. And while riders like Lucien Petit-Breton and Octave Lapize may have voiced concerns from time to time about this harshness, their words were rarely backed up with actions and so were not taken seriously.
It took an outsider, Albert Londres, to say what many were thinking, and say it in a manner that it would be hard to ignore. Reporting on the 1924 Tour for Le Petit Parisien Londres shone a light on the harsh conditions endured by the riders. But hard as it was to ignore what Londres wrote, many tried. And in this they were aided by the fact that, of the dozen articles Londres wrote for Le Petit Parisien (all of which were later republished in a collection called Tour de France, Tour de Souffrance), one overshadowed all the others, the one he filed from a café in Coutances on the day defending champion Henri Pélissier abandoned the race.
For some, shooting down that one article meant that everything else Londres wrote of that race could be ignored. And shooting down that one article was easy, all you had to do was point to Pélissier's character and say he played Londres like a violin. Presto! and nothing Londres wrote in that article stood up to scrutiny and hence, by extension, the whole series of stories could be dismissed, none of his criticisms of the way the riders were treated nor of the way the riders treated themselves were considered valid. Attack the motive for telling the story and the story goes away. It's the oldest trick in the book.
* * * *
Michael Barry's Shadows on the Road is the third volume of his autobiographies, following on from Inside the Postal Bus - My Ride with Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Cycling Team and Le Métier - The Seasons of a Professional Cyclist. Given that this is the third volume of Barry's autobiographies you might perhaps imagine - hope - that the Canuck domestique has little need to return to the days of his youth (the days of a rider's youth generally being as much a sufferance for the reader as they were for the child) or recycle stories already told in his previous books and will instead talk of things that have happened since Le Métier was written (he joined Team Sky and his doping past caught up with him). Well you'd be wrong. For in the school of writing-as-psychoanalysis-you-get-paid-for you are never finished with the days of your youth and so you constantly excavate them. And, of course, having lied by omission in the previous two volumes of his autobiographies, there is need to correct the record. Consequently much of Shadows on the Road is Inside the Postal Bus II: The Stuff I Forgot to Tell You About First Time Round.
Here I should confess to not having read Inside the Postal Bus. Ditto Le Métier. No one asked me to and neither struck me as a book I might actually want to spend time or money on. As I understand it, Barry dodged the D-word back then - denied having witnessed any doping - and spent his time talking about other things. This time round, however, the D-word is writ large when Barry talks about his time with the Posties. It's also writ large when Barry talks about his time before and after the Posties.
What you get from Shadows on the Road is a very well drawn picture of Gen-EPO and its culture in which it was hard not to come into contact with doping and in which it was hard to not dope yourself. It's a picture that fits with the pictures painted by many other veterans of that era. Arriving in the pro-am ranks in the second half of the 1990s, Barry's experience was comparable to riders of a previous generation - Fignon, Kimmage, Peiper - who have all spoken of the sport's culture of the pill and the potion. In Barry's case, the Canadian team manager (Denis Roux) rattled off a list of medicines he should take, his local team doctor conducted blood tests and prescribed iron, calcium, magnesium and multivitamins:
"Leaning back on the pillow, I dug out Denis's instructions, the training and medical advice. The compressor from the auto-body shop across the parking lot from the apartment revved, a noise I became deaf to with time. I put the scraps of paper on the bedside table, trading them for a crossword puzzle. Twirling the pencil in my hand, I felt content, yet concerned. I knew I could race with the best, but had no idea what it would take to continue the pursuit of my dreams.
"Staring at the crossword my mind was elsewhere. The words weren't falling into place. But I had the time to figure it out."
In time, Barry moves from multivitamins to EPO, a move elegantly justified by his elegiac prose in which meaning dances between the lines. And then, in time, Barry moves on and gives up doping and learns to live with the guilt of what he had done. I may have blinked and missed the pages where he actively talked about the big bit inbetween, his own doping, but I don't think so. I even went back and checked. It's barely covered. Barry goes from excuses for why he doped to telling us about the post-doping guilt he lived with without wasting an awful lot of time telling us much about his own doping ("I had doped during a period of my career and used the substances Mr Brock listed."). Because his own doping isn't important here: what you, the reader, have to understand is that Barry got sucked into the black hole of Gen-EPO, had no choice but to join. What he did was wrong, but it was fully justified.
And what you, the reader, have to understand is that having escaped that black hole the guilt Barry carried quietly in his heart means he can now become Simon Pure, pontificating upon the use of painkillers in the professional peloton and pointing to his own post-EPO abstemiousness in this regard. And this, sadly, is the great tragedy of Shadows on the Road: Barry does actually have something useful to say, something important about professional cycling and its addiction to pharmaceutical products. But because this seems so self-serving - a shield deployed to deflect attention away from his own doping, and his own lies about his doping - it is hard to hear.
The drugs in use today that Barry is talking about have been in use in the professional peloton for decades: caffeine tablets and painkillers to keep you up during the day, sleeping tablets to put you down at night. In talking about them you're back to the 1950s when Pierre Dumas first joined the Tour's entourage and realised that drug use in the peloton was, quite literally, spiralling out of control. Riders took a painkiller - an opiate like palfium or morphine - to deaden pain in the muscles. To counteract the effect of that on the rest of the system, which had slowed down, they needed a stimulant, amphetamines. Then, to sleep at night - to avoid the St Vitus dance described to Londres all those years ago - they had to take a sleeping pill, gardenal. The names of the products may have changed, but the picture painted by Barry - a picture that has also been painted by several other riders over the last couple of years, most notably Taylor Phinney - is the same as it ever was:
"On the start line, pills float around in the bottom of jersey pockets or under the elastic cuffs that hold the rider's shorts tight against his thighs. Some riders wrap them in foil to protect them from disintegrating in the moisture of sweat and rain. Others use small canisters to hold the cocktail of pills so they are ready to be taken quickly, in one gulp, before the battle to the finish begins. Through my career, I have seen many riders go back to the team car for caffeine pills, paracetamol or, on occasion, ibuprofen, both to kill the pain of an injury and to improve performance. [...] At night, the doctors would hand out sleeping pills to counter the effects of caffeine and to ensure a good night's sleep so their riders could perform the next day."
As the ability of those who police sport's anti-doping rules improves, the nature of doping changes. And we realise that sport's anti-doping rules have many loopholes. The use of Xenon gas to stimulate the production of EPO does not appear to be in contravention of any of WADA's rules, yet most of us would say it is clearly against the spirit of sport, as clearly as the blood transfusions banned in the mid 1980s were against the spirit of sport in the 1970s. The use of painkillers - many of which would have you off work if you had to use them in the real world - is, though, more complex, not as black and white as a product like Xenon. We fetishise those who persevere beyond the pain barrier, make heroes of Tyler Hamilton and Geraint Thomas for riding the Tour with broken bones. We are confused on where we really stand on such products.
That there needs to be debate on this subject - on the use of drugs that are unethical but not illegal - ought, at this stage, go without saying. That we are edging closer and closer to actually having that debate ought be acknowledged as a sign that things have improved elsewhere in the fight against doping. That Michael Barry is the wrong man calling on us to have that debate shouldn't stop it from happening. But, as long as Barry is hiding his own past behind things like this, it will make it difficult. Very difficult.
Barry states toward the end Shadows on the Road that:
"The only way to change the culture is to talk about it, to make amends and rebuild. If we continue to hide, the cycle of drug use will continue."
Only an idiot would fail to agree with that. But you would have to be an idiot not to recall that Barry himself only decided to really talk about the sport's culture after being called before USADA and fired by Team Sky. And you would have to be an idiot not to see how much Barry is still hiding in Shadows on the Road, pointing at others in order to stop anyone pointing at him.
More style than substance, Shadows on the Road - which may or may not take its title from a paranoia-fuelled rap song ("Hip-hop braggadocio infiltrated the peloton; as contrasting as that culture is, riders tried to find motivation and confidence in its lyrics and images") - is an autobiography for Rouleur fans, to be read while sipping an espresso and wearing an overpriced retro-chic jersey. It's a book for the sort of person who likes to be told that things were a lot better away back when, before mobile phones and laptops: "But perhaps we have become too connected. There's less sense of community in the peloton and less solidarity amongst team-mates and riders." The problem with a comment like that isn't its veracity, it's the fact that in the hands of Barry it's just a pithy throwaway, Hallmarked philosophy, there's no exploration of what a sense of community in sport really means - omertà at one extreme, fair-play at the other - or how it has really changed during Barry's time in the professional ranks. The surface is all that matters: "Self-aware narcissism," the man who is now up to the third volume of his autobiographies tells us, "is the unhealthy side effect."
Those of you have already read Inside the Postal Bus and Le Métier and don't care about the omissions there won't really care about the way Barry is here excusing his own doping and using the problems of the present to paint a better picture of his past: you will be swept along by his elegiac prose and won't care that Barry is playing you like a violin. Others, though, I'm not sure they'll like the way he is trying to pull their strings.