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Interview: Benjo Maso

Sweat Of The Gods author Benjo Maso recently gave up some of his time to answer a few of our questions. Among the things he spoke to us about were the genesis of his love for cycling, his plans to update The Sweat Of The Gods, a new book he's writing about the Giro d'Italia and just why it is that no English-language publisher has yet seen fit to publish his book about the 1948 Tour de France, We Were All Gods (two extracts from which you'll find on the Cafe Bookshelf).

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Tourdeslegends_medium Podium Cafe: Let's begin with some background information. You're a sociology professor and the author of two books on cycling, Het Zweet Der Goden (The Sweat of the Gods) and Wij Waren Allemaal Goden (We Were All Gods). You've also done some cycling-related TV work, programmes like Tour des Légendes. How did your interest in cycling take root?

Benjo Maso: My father was a great cycling fan. For instance, my brother and I were not allowed to phone him at his office, except when a Dutchman won a stage in the Tour de France!

My brother and I also invented a Tour de France game. It was so complicated that it took us at least three days to finish a single stage.

Later, we often went to France on holiday and with a little bit of luck we could see the Tour passing by. Being in France, I always bought l'Équipe, even when I could hardly read French, and later also a lot of books on the history of cycling.

I was just a fan, but becoming a sociologist I started to see it in another way. I wrote a few articles about the Tour for Vrij Nederland, a Dutch magazine, and one day an editor asked me to write a book on cycling, which became The Sweat of the Gods. And by the way, it doesn't pretend to be a history of cycling, but only a different point of view.

Sweat-of-gods_medium PdC: The Sweat of the Gods combines two of your interests, it's a sociological look at cycling and how competing power groups within the sport have shaped the cycling world. Something that struck me about it is that, although published in 2003 (and translated into English in 2005), it really seems to end with the eighties. When did you actually write the book?

The first edition was published in 1990. Thirteen years later, the rights were bought by another editor, who asked me to update it. So I discussed Induráin, Cipollini, Armstrong, etc, hoping the transition to the years after 1990 would be so smooth that nobody noticed. Obviously I failed!

PdC: You say something in The Sweat of the Gods about Jacques Anquetil that I thought was interesting, about how he was rebelling against the media's representation of cycling, the romanticised version of the sport that cycling journalists presented and how this was often a fiction that didn't accord with reality, was just loosely based on reality. You say that Anquetil wanted cycling journalists to take the sport more seriously and report it more truthfully. Was this part of your own motivation in writing The Sweat of the Gods, a desire to see more truth brought to writing about cycling?

Not really. Of course, I think that ‘my' version is in several respects closer to the truth than many books on the history of cycling, but I don't think I was driven by some missionary zeal. If I really wanted to show something, it was to indicate that there is a way of seeing cycling which is more complicated but often much more interesting than the way it's presented on TV or in newspapers.

By the way, Jacques Anquetil might have wanted cycling journalists to take the sport more seriously and report it more truthfully, as you say, but at the same time he tried to create an image of himself which was very far from the truth. He presented himself as a rider who didn't train too much (in fact, he trained more than anybody), who drank whisky or champagne (true, but only when there were enough people seeing him doing it), who was a cold calculator, knowing he would win the ITTs anyway, and was making a minimum of effort in the mountains (in fact, he bitterly regretted he wasn't climber enough to crush his adversaries).

PdC: Do you think that cycling in general has been well served by its media? Or has the media - particularly in more recent years and where doping is concerned - done more harm than good to the sport?

Of course, without the media, cycling wouldn't exist. After all, every important race, the Tour, the Giro, Paris-Roubaix, etc, etc, has been created by newspapers. For a long time cycling and media have been almost completely interdependent. L'Auto, La Gazetta dello Sport, Sportwereld, these would have gone bankrupt without cycling races.

However, in the last decade the power balance between cycling and the media has been shifting. For a long time, in several Western European countries cycling has been sport number one. But not any more. If cycling vanished, newspapers and TV wouldn't mind: there is always tennis, golf, athletics, auto racing and above all soccer.

That's one of the main reasons why cycling is hardly defended by the press where doping is concerned. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of journalists are showing a completely uncritical attitude to the doping control system and its results, even when there are clear incongruities.

PdC: What criticisms would you make of the present doping control system? Pat McQuaid in particular is determined to convince us that the bio-passport will save cycling.

Yes, according to McQuaid the promised doping-free land is near. The way journalists are reporting it is one example of their uncritical attitude to the doping system. Only two years ago, Bernhard Kohl described how his manager bribed employees of the anti-doping laboratories so they could help him to manipulate his biological passport. But there are other cases.

For instance, I’m just writing a chapter about the Giro of 2002 (which started in Groningen). There was a big scandal: Stefano Garzelli, winner in 2000, wearer of the pink jersey and favourite number one, tested positive for probenecid. Very, very strange. In the 1980s probenecid was widely used to mask the presence of steroids, but nobody in his right mind was using it anymore – it was too easy to detect. And now, suddenly, a very experienced rider, a member of the most sophisticated team of the cycling world, had some traces of it in his urine, so little that it couldn’t mask anything.

What happened? The team leader of Mapei suggested Garzelli must have been framed or something like that, which wasn’t quite unlikely. But what were journalists writing about the affair? I read about twenty newspapers and only one took the trouble to find out what probenecid really was. Almost all the others simply reported that is was ’a diuretic’ (which it is not), used to mask steroids (without mentioning that in that respect it was quite useless). Only one newspaper reported that Leon Schattenberg, president of the medical commission of the UCI, had said he was convinced of Garzelli’s innocence. A few quoted the team manager of Mapei [Alvaro Crespi], usually making fun of him. Almost none of the journalists even suggested the idea that the anti-doping system might be less perfect than it claimed to be and was probably about to condemn an innocent man (Garzelli was sent home and suspended for nine months).

When at the end of the season Mapei decided to stop sponsoring a team, just because of the affair, some of the newspapers reported this, slightly surprised: ‘in spite of their conviction that Garzelli was innocent.’ If they had done their job, they would have known that it wasn’t ‘in spite of', but ‘because of.’ But no, it was so much easier to write about ‘Garzelli, the doper’.

PdC: The UCI itself is a power group you don't cover in The Sweat of the Gods. Though it's been around since, I think, 1900 - or 1893 if you count its predecessor, the International Cycling Association - would it be right to say that, until Hein Verbruggen came to power in the eighties and nineties, the UCI was pretty much a toothless tiger, that it didn't have much influence on the development of cycling? That it's really only become a major influence on the sport in the last two decades?

The UCI was indeed pretty much a toothless tiger, for a simple reason. After all, all the important races were organized by l'Équipe, La Gazetta dello Sport, Sportwereld and Les Sports. The UCI had only the World Championship.

The UCI board couldn't dream of doing something which might bring them it into conflict with Tour directors, Lévitan and Goddet.

The reason why the UCI has become more powerful than two decades ago, is very interesting, it's one of the points I'm going to elaborate for the German translation of The Sweat of the Gods, which will be published next year.

PdC: Going back to the eighties and the changes wrought on cycling in that decade. Cycling has been continuously changing, ever since the first bicycle races. But the eighties seems to have been a decade of major upheaval, even more so than the decade after World War II. After decades of neglect, the English-speaking world suddenly rediscovered cycling. More money flowed into the sport, initially from traditional cycling countries, like Italy, and then from the new world. Star riders became more selective in their choice of races. Support riders had to race harder in order to protect their own value, via the FICP points system. The sport became more medicalised, with trained doctors replacing the witch doctors of old. Cycling technology itself went through a period of rapid change. Would it be wrong to see the eighties as the key decade in the sport's development? Or am I just being sentimental about the era in which I first discovered cycling?

I quite agree with you. The major upheaval you indicate has two keywords.

The first is globalization. Until the 1980's professional road cycling was a Western European affair. For instance, in the Tour of 1980, 118 of the 130 riders were from France, Belgium, Holland and Spain, and the other 12 from Portugal, Norway, Germany, Great Brittan, Ireland, Austria and Switzerland. In 1990 there were seven riders from the USA, 10 from Colombia, 10 from the USSR, and some others from Canada, Mexico and Australia. One of the consequences of this development was that the Tour, the only race seen all over the world, became all important. Competing with so many popular international sports there just wasn't much room for other major races.

The second keyword, closely connected to globalization is of course money (thanks to TV). It would have been impossible in the 1970s to build a team like Armstrong's US Postal and Discovery or Cipo's Acqua & Sapone, paying a small fortune to first class riders, strong enough to win important races themselves, like Heras, Salvoldelli, Lombardi, etc. Of course, I don't begrudge them the money, but it doesn't make cycling more interesting. Cycling is an individual sport practised by teams and there has always been a tension between these two aspects. Right now, the accent is laying too much on teams, one of the main reasons why so many races have become so dull.

Wewereallgods_medium PdC: English-language readers know you through The Sweat of the Gods but you've also written a book about the 1948 Tour de France, Wij Waren Allemaal Goden (We Were All Gods). That was the year Gino Bartali won the Tour and ‘saved' Italy from Civil War. Why did you want to write about that Tour above all others? And who do we have to hound in Mousehold Press to get it translated into English?

First of all, it was one of the most sensational Tours ever. At the foot of the Alps, the old Bartali, 34 years old, seemed to be beaten and was more than 21 minutes behind the wearer of the yellow jersey, the future three times winner Louison Bobet. After two mountain stages, he had a lead of eight minutes, an achievement which is supposed to have averted a civil war in Italy.

Second, it was a watershed between the ‘heroic age' and modern cycling. Team tactics were almost non-existent, riders had to make their own repairs, many of the climbs were unpaved, riders who were too far behind could only hope that spectators gave them something to eat, etc. A few years later it would all be changed.

A third reason why I choose 1948 was that it wasn't too far in the past. Several riders and even some of the journalists were still alive, which gave me the opportunity to interview them.

Of course, it's a pity the book has not been translated into English (or French, or Italian), but only into German. Perhaps they are waiting to Bartali's one hundreth birthday in 2014. I was told that an American editor had shown some interest, but when he heard that The Sweat of Gods had already been published by a British house [Mousehold], he opted out.

You can find two extracts from We Were All Gods - A Phone Call From Rome and Unbelievable News From France - on the Cafe Bookshelf. Both extracts are available for download as a single PDF document. Our thanks to Benjo Maso for granting us permission to use these extracts.

PdC: What keeps you enthusiastic about cycling today? Do today's races and riders excite you as much as the races and riders of years gone by?

Exciting races still exist, although they have become rare. Most races are pretty dull, especially the Tour. A mass sprint can be spectacular, but only for one of two minutes. Usually I look occasionally to the live report on cyclingnews and switch on the TV when the peloton is at five kilometres from the finish. Even mountain stages have become largely predictable, although I'm still hoping for races like Pantani's win in Les Deux Alpes in 1998 or Landis' victory in 2006.

Fortunately, the Tour de Flandres and Paris-Roubaix are still pretty exciting. So is the Giro, perhaps because there is less at stake. Anyway, I'm still much interested in cycling in general. So much that when I saw the Giro in Amsterdam it gave me the idea to write a book on the many times the Giro crossed the Italian borders (the first time was in 1920), which is much more interesting than it may seem (besides it gives me the opportunity to write about Coppi, Bartali, Koblet, Magni, Anquetil, Bitossi, Merckx, Pantani, Cipo, etc., etc.). If nothing goes wrong, it will come out next year.

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You'll find a review of The Sweat Of The Gods along with two extracts from We Were All Gods - A Phone Call From Rome and Unbelievable News From France - on the Cafe Bookshelf (both extracts are also available for download as a single PDF document).

Our thanks to Benjo Maso for taking the time to participate in this interview.