Check out any list of cycling novels and Ralph Hurne's The Yellow Jersey will probably be on the podium, up there with Tim Krabbé's The Rider. As with Krabbé's novel, I've been shying away from writing about it. However, whereas I avoided The Rider because I like it, I've avoided this one for the opposite reason.
Title: The Yellow Jersey
Author: Ralph Hurne
Publisher: Breakaway Books
Year: 1973 (revised 1996)
What it is: Aging ex-pro Terry Davenport has a complicated love life and a star rider who could possibly win the Tour de France. The love of a good woman and the pleading of said future star coax Davenport out of retirement and into one last tilt at the Tour.
Strengths: Can I get back to you on that?
Weaknesses: Where do I begin?
An aging ex-pro comes out of retirement to ride one last Tour de France. That's the basic plot of Ralph Hurne's The Yellow Jersey. It's as clichéd a plot as you can get but, well, sometimes life is clichéd. But the story of Terry Davenport's return to the pro ranks should not be confused with the story of an unretiring American. I have in my mind that it is prophetic of events to come in the life of a certain Danish DS. More on that anon. First, a bit more about Hurne's novel.
The aging ex-pro of The Yellow Jersey is Terry Davenport, a thirty-seven-year-old Brit. A year or two out of the sport, Davenport is living in Ghent, where Paula, the woman he plans to marry, is running an antiques shop. Making Davenport's life that little bit more complicated is the fact that he is screwing Paula's daughter, Susan. And has a tendency to screw as many of the shop's customers as he can make fall for his charm. Enter, stage left, Bobbie, a nineteen-year-old Kiwi who he quickly deflowers and then falls head over heels in love with.
As improbable as Davenport's later adventures in the Tour are, what I find even more fantastic is his success with women. If your idea of a compliment is to be found in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road, you'll love Davenport. Take this line, delivered to Bobbie: "while you might not be the photogenic sort, you've got one of the loveliest grow-on-you faces I've ever seen."
Having at least three women on the go might seem complicated enough, especially when one of them is the daughter of the woman he intends to marry. But Davenport is now working for the team he once rode for, TBH-Aigle, in some sort of directeur sportif rôle. And the team's star rider, Romain Hendrickx, who Davenport is personally coaching, is sort-of engaged to Susan, the step-daughter-to-be Davenport's been screwing. Morally, which would you say is worse, cheating on your fiancée with her daughter or cheating on your fiancée with the fiancée of your star rider?
Screwing, I should point out, is Hurne's choice of word. Davenport's a Brit and the novel is chock full of Britishisms. Particularly where women are concerned. They're birds. Bits. Occasionally even it. It may work for Alfie but - for me - it wears thin here. Misogyny itself is not the real problem. Heroes don't have to be likable. Film and fiction are chock-a-block with lovable anti-heroes. Why do we like them? Because they're complex characters. Unfortunately, there's nothing complex about Terry Davenport.
The real problem with The Yellow Jersey is Hurne's writing. His characters are wooden. The novel's exposition is so clunky even Jeffrey Archer would shudder in embarrassment reading it. The dialogue is unreal - no one talks the way Hurne's characters talk. Hell, if you're to believe in them, they especially wouldn't talk the way Hurne makes them talk.
Even when it comes to talking cycling, the novel doesn't work for me. What's odd about this is that Hurne was himself a cyclist, albeit one for whom Britain's Milk Race seems to have been the limit of his ambition. Yet there's no real sense of verisimilitude to the cycling in the book.
Hurne's take on the Tour is just melodrama. You have five dopers - all of them at the top of the GC - chucked off the race. You have the death of a rider. You have snowstorms in the Alps. And you have a most unlikely act of défaillance. Talk about turning it up to eleven.
As for the rest of the cycling in the book ... At the novel's start, the closest Hendrickx has ever come to a three-week stage race is the Tour de l'Avenir, which he didn't finish, and the "five day" Paris-Nice, which he didn't win. While "anybody who is anybody is out on the roads getting ready for Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo" the young star - who is a climbing sensation - is training in a vélodrome in Ghent. And riding local kermesses.
The previous month - February? January? - Hendrickx and Davenport spent ten days in the Alps and Pyrenees, riding all the Tour's major climbs. The only proper race Davenport and Hendrickx ride in prep for the Tour is an eight-day stage-race in France, probably the Dauphiné Libéré. Hendrickx's Tour preparation also encompasses an attempt on the Hour Record instead of riding the Giro d'Italia but even Hurne points out the absurdity of that.
Nor is the novel helped by Hurne's attempts to update the book in the mid nineties. I've no problem with a novel about a late sixties or early seventies' Tour. But for some reason, in his revisions to the novel, Hurne has tried to suggest the race is actually happening in more recent times (as have the publishers of the edition I have, with a piccie of a 1990's peloton on the cover). This updating throws up all sorts of anachronisms. And, because most everything else in the novel is so dreadful, you can't help but notice them.
You have Davenport's mother taking him to see the newly-released What's New Pussycat, which would have been 1965. You have a reference to "old Iron Knickers," which is presumably Margaret Thatcher. And you have an official from British cycling asking Davenport to ride in the International team to "keep the flag flying with some honour until another Simpson or Kelly comes along." (That Kelly was not a Brit is something I'll ignore ... ooops, I didn't.)
What's wrong with all that, you might ask? Well, for me at least, those details jar when set against things like Davenport's presence for Rivière's first Hour Record, which was 1957. Or that in his first post-retirement race, he rides with a five-speed block. And that, throughout the Tour, he rides with his bidons in handlebar-mounted cages. And - most incongruous of all - during a bout of jersey-pulling and general argy-bargey on one stage, Davenport uses his pump to fight off his rivals. Maybe Hurne is imagining some sort of post-modern steam-punk Tour?
Possibly I could find answers to some or all of these questions were I to be courageous enough to read the next instalment of Terry Davenport's life, They'll Never Catch You Now, published in 2007. But you know what they say, once bitten, twice shy. Frankly, I'd rather have to read Freya North's Cat - or even one of those Dave Shields novels Amazon keeps trying to con me into buying - than ever have to read another novel by Ralph Hurne.
If - as I contest - Hurne is such a bad writer then why does this novel feature so prominently in so many cycling book lists? Well, for a long time, it was the only cycling novel of any note. It was first published in 1973 and resurrected in 1996. James Waddington's Bad To The Bone didn't arrive until 1998. Cat the following year. It was 2002 before Tim Krabbé's The Rider first appeared in English. In other words, The Yellow Jersey was the leader in a field of, er, one.
There is another explanation for the book's longevity. It's had an amazing afterlife in Hollywood. Carl Foreman (High Noon, The Bridge On The River Kwai) acquired the film rights in the seventies and the project went through various stages of pre-production. Michael Cimino - The Deer Hunter - was attached to the project from early on, even claims to have visited the 1975 Tour to broaden his knowledge of the subject. Various plans were made to shoot racing footage at the Tour, but it was 1984 before this eventually happened, with a film crew showing up in France. By that stage Colin Welland - Chariots Of Fire - was on board as the scriptwriter. Jørgen Leth - A Sunday In Hell - was also attached to the project. Dustin Hoffman - Kramer Vs Kramer - was down to star.
Wait a minute, Tootsie on a bike? Surely that would be the most improbable cycling hero since Kevin Costner and his aerodynamics-challenging moustache in American Flyers? You'd like to believe that with Leth and Cimino on board it would have been brilliant but you know in your heart of hearts it would probably have ended up being cycling's Escape To Victory. Remember, Hoffman followed Tootsie with Ishtar. And after the debacle that was Heaven's Gate, Michael Cimino never made anything worth remembering.
If you think my calling Hurne a lousy writer is just me being unnecessarily cruel, consider what Hoffman had to say of the novel: "They say, the better the book, the worse the film; the worse the novel, the better the film." Welland was even more blunt: "I cannot say I am impressed by the book but we won't know what we have until I finish the first draft." Not exactly an overwhelming vote of confidence in their source material. You imagine all anyone in Hollywood saw in the novel was a title and the basic plot idea. And they'd probably have changed the plot. And the title.
So why was Hollywood so interested in such a shit novel? There are various possible reasons. Breaking Away (1979) had shown some modest success at the box office and proved there was an audience for films about such an apparently effete sport. Meanwhile, in the real world, the Foreign Legion was cracking open continental cycling, expanding its audience to the English-speaking world. The American contingent was led by Jock Boyer but he was quickly eclipsed by Greg LeMond. There was also Marianne Martin, who Cimino and Hoffman might have bumped into on the roads of France, what with her winning the inaugural Tour Féminin that year. And there was Robin Morton, who took a team of Americans to the Giro d'Italia in 1984. And - with the Communists boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics later in the year - it looked like US cyclists were ready to sweep the boards and bag their first bangles and baubles in Olympic cycling since 1912.
As it was, The Yellow Jersey never got made. American Flyers (1985) beat it to the screen. Maybe the LA blood-doping scandal helped put the kibosh on the project. Probably Carl Foreman's death ended any real hope of it getting made. Or maybe having a real-life American hero in the shape of Greg LeMond meant there was no need for a fantasy one like Terry Davenport.
Surprisingly - until recent months at least - you could still find the project being hawked around Hollywood. But after the ill-fated Tyler Hamilton IMAX experience you have to wonder who'd be dumb enough to sink a pile of cash into a big budget cycling feature. If even Lance Armstrong can't get his own story filmed, what hope is there for something like The Yellow Jersey?
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So, I guess, to the possible prescience of Hurne's novel. Since re-reading it to write this, I've been having an odd dream. Normally I wouldn't bore you with such like, but hey, I've suffered re-reading this book: it's time for you to share my pain. Before telling you about the dream I need to add in some extra information from the novel. A quick character sketch of Davenport's protégé Hendrickx, who is a class grimpeur but a crap rouleur: "He's a nice enough kid, a Luxembourger, and he could be a great racing cyclist, except that pro cycle racing is no place for the timid." Can you see what my dream is yet?
In the dream, Fränk Schleck wipes out in the Classics and can't make the Tour. I think he missed a turn descending the Muur, put his foot down to brake and his leg fell off. Or something like that. The rest of Team Leopard isn't having much luck either. I can't recall all the deets but there was an incident between Cance and the Energiser Bunny, while Benna fell victim to some dodgy hair-care products and refused to come out of his room. All this means that the Schlecklet grows worried about his Tour chances. In desperation, he turns to his directeur sportif: "Please Kim, for me, one last Tour. You must. Only you can guide me to the hills." And the great Dane thinks back to the Tours he rode and his own days in the maillot jaune and figures a return to the peloton is a perfect way to show that his multiple doping infractions and his lifetime ban shouldn't be allowed to detract from his innate talent. The next thing you know Kim Andersen is donning a leopard-skin thong, throwing his leg over a bike and riding the Tour to help wee Andy.
It's at this stage in my dream that the Tour really begins to start copying Hurne's novel. No, silly, it's not revealed that Andersen is secretly shagging the Schlecklet's other half. The only riding Andersen is doing in my dream involves a bike. As with the novel, everything goes hunky-dory through the Pyrenees, the Schlecklet in a strong position and Andersen a good twenty minutes off the pace. Then, on a transition stage coming up to the Alps, Andersen slips away from the peloton in a break that opens a massive lead. He suddenly finds himself donning the maillot jaune when the five riders in front of him get turfed off the race for doping. His lead gets chipped away at through the Alps, but with the team owners ordering the Schlecklet to forego his own Tour dreams and pace Andersen through the mountains, he arrives at the final contre la montre with time in hand. Trois. Deux. Un. Partez! At which point I keep waking. Does Andersen make it to Paris a winner or does the curse of the yellow jersey strike him down? Maybe I'll have a lie-in one morning this week and try to find out.
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Note: Ralph Hurne, the author of The Yellow Jersey, has asked us to point out that the updates done to his original novel and which created the anachronistic discordance referred to in the review above were carried out without his knowledge or participation.
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For the story of the attempts to film Hurne's novel, see The Curse of the Yellow Jersey - The Cycling Film Hollywood Loved But Could Never Make