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Cat, by Freya North

Cat Freya NorthIt's Valentine's Day on Monday. Stuck for a last-minute gift idea and know you'll get slaughtered if you bring home another bunch of forecourt flowers or suggest going to see Never Let Me Go? Do we have the gift for you!

Title: Cat
Author: Freya North
Publisher: William Heinemann
Year: 1999
Pages: 427
Order: Random House
What it is: A Tour de France bonk-buster.
Strengths: Lashings of lycra! Silky smooth shaven legs! Biiiiig silky smooth shaven legs! Did I mention the silky smooth shaven legs yet?
Weaknesses: Should only be taken as part of a properly balanced reading diet.

Catriona McCabe's mother once ran off with a cowboy from Denver. She only had to do it the once as she never came back. It was an important event in the life of young Cat, for it led to her and her two sisters, Pip and Fen, being raised by their uncle Django. (Crazy name? Crazy guy. Don't try his damson and ouzo jam. Or his pizza, which may contain damson and ouzo jam). Now aged twenty-eight, Cat's landed a freelance gig with the Guardian, covering the Tour de France. She's not just a fan with a typewriter, she's officially a cycling journaliste ("please emphasise the eeste - jounaliste sounds so much more delicious, much more prestigious than journalist"). At the end of this gig is the hope of a full-time editorial spot with Maillot magazine.

Cat's trip to the Tour is also her chance to join the Foreign Legion and learn to forget. Forget what? The reason she fell in love with cycling in the first place: she fell in love with a cyclist. Some people collect football scarves by which they can remember their exes. Cat probably has a collection of back issues of The Comic. Five years of em. But now her Mr-d'Arcy-in-lycra has ridden off into the sunset. He's out of her life. But always on her mind. The Tour is a chance to wash that man right out of her head. Three weeks may not be enough to find Mr Right but surely there's a pretty good chance of finding a Mr Right Now?

Most of the novel then is your bog-standard story of girl meets boy, boy rams his tongue down girl's throat, girl wants to show boy that she too has a tongue like an electric eel and can do more than tickle his tonsils with it. They go at it like wild animals. Only for a cycle of misunderstandings to ensue. Girl thinks boy is a promiscuous slut doing a George Hincapie with a podium girl. Break up. Girl realises boy is not a wanton tramp after all and there's an innocent explanation for his interest in podium girls (no, he's not a closet cross-dresser with a penchant for frou-frou skirts). Make up. They go at it like wild animals. Boy gets the hump when he thinks girl is two-timing him with a boyfriend back home. Break up. Resolution. Make up. They go at it like wild animals. Ah, the dialectics of love.

It's not just our heroine and her beau who are engaged in vigorous exchanges of bodily fluids. North's is a testosterone-fuelled peloton. That peloton is one of the cute things about Cat, in that it mixes an imagined bunch of riders with real ones. You have stars of the calibre of Mario Cipollini and Stu O'Grady and (pre-sainthood) David Millar and Tyler Hamilton (not the real Tyler Hamilton as he seems to complete the race without nearly dying of sun-stroke or breaking any bones or eating his own teeth) all putting in appearances alongside North's own creations. Let's have a look at those synthetic cyclists.

There's the Système Vipère boys, ruled over by the most aptly named directeur sportif in the history of cycling, Jules le Grand. He has hopes for all three jerseys being won by his riders. They're lead by GC contender Fabian Ducasse, winner of the Dauphiné,  twenty-nine, six-foot and oozing hottitude: "swarthy, handsome, smelling of Calvin Klein scent and looking very much like someone who might advertise their wares if he weren't a professional cyclist." He should have won the last Tour but for a tragic défaillance. He's joined by team-mate and KOM candidate, Carlos Jesu Valasquez, aka the Pocket Rocket, the Cicada, the Little Lion. Rounding the team out is their star sprinter, MSR winner and maillot vert contender, Jesper Lomers, aka the Blond Bomb, the Rotterdam Rocket.

Système Vipère's main rivals are the boys from Zucca MV, lead by defending champ Vasily Jawlesnsky (that's Jaw with a with a y and a v, or Yav for short). He's joined by two-time winner of the polka-dot jersey and Donna magazine's 'Sexiest Man on Two Wheels,' Massimo Lipari, and the team's flamboyant sprinter, Stefano Sassetta. Their soigneur, Rachel McEwen, rules over them like a mother hen.

And then there's the wildcard underdogs, the boys from Megapac, a US team with a Brit doctor, Ben York, and an Anglo-Italian starlet and Giro d'Italia stage-winner, Luca Jones (think Max Sciandri, only without Luigi Cecchini hanging around in the background), supported by the perfectly toothed and impossibly earnest Hunter Dean and Travis Stanton.

Jones has a great line in double entendres but seems to be all bark and no bite when it comes to bedroom shenanigans during the Tour. Jawlensky is a real strange one. In a book full of manly men and girlie girls he's a bit of a mouse who suddenly lobs the gob on his soigneur but doesn't seem to know what to do next. The soigneur I should point out is female. There are some things cycling just isn't ready for yet. (Cat does have a couple of GBFs but sadly they disappear from the story before things really get going.)

The real star - in the sex stakes at least - is Ducasse, a real wham-bam-thank-you-mam type for whom sex is an expression of power ("He needed to reassert his strength, his supremacy") or a little non-manual stress relief. Actually, Ducasse comes across a bit like Blackadder's Flashheart, particularly when he summons a hotel receptionist to his room, she meekly submits to his charms and they engage in a bout of rumpy-pumpy which is more of a frenzied sprint than an attempt on the Hour record, all jangling elbows and trembling knees and no finesse. Definitely a rider with a high T count. It's no wonder he had a jour sans in the previous Tour.

You might be wondering where all this testosterone is coming from. Rest easy, most of it seems to be endogenous. North though does not dodge the bullet on the doping issue. Cat was researched during the 1998 Tour de France, the one that started in Dublin and ended in turmoil.

We first get a whiff of doping during an exchange between Cat and one of her journalist colleagues, in which each statement about drugs is followed by 'but let's not talk about it.' The basic view of doping here - as offered by one veteran journo and Cat herself - seems to be that it's purely medicinal: low testosterone causes osteoporosis, the UCI's limits are arbitrary and you're only looking after yourself if you top yourself up to those limits. The veteran journo does say that it's hard to quantify the level of doping in the peloton, "what with sophisticated masking agents and the fateful turning of blind eyes - which I would rank as being more criminal than substance abuse itself," A powerful statement, that. Made funny by another cry of "let's not talk about it." Which just about sums up the attitude at the time in much of the Anglosphere media.

Doping makes a more forceful appearance late in the novel, when one of the members of Megapac is thought to be considering recourse to pharmaceutical enhancement. His doctor - the dashing and handsome Ben York, a real Dr McDreamy - turns for assistance to rivals Zucca MV, whose star rider is a reformed doper. Some years earlier, Jawlesnsky had doubled the Giro and the Tour only now he doesn't recognise the rider he was back then, seeing as that feat was achieved with the aid of EPO. Somewhere along the line since then he's voluntarily cleaned up his act, apparently without the intervention of the cycling authorities.

Yav takes the Megapac rider aside and tells him his own story and how he now values riding clean more than he did winning dirty. The best thing about this scene - which admittedly feels fake the way it's shoe-horned into the story, but hey, that's fiction for you, it ain't always pretty - is that North doesn't shirk from hammering home the real cost of doping: "When I first took [EPO], my kidneys felt like balloons full of water bashing the base of my back. My vision went queer, my joints hurt, I'd get nosebleeds. The migraines - terrible. [...] I beat dope control, won through cheating and the only price I'll pay is probably to die prematurely." He then goes on to detail another physical cost of EPO: "The iron level in my blood was so high - and for such an extended period. If I'm lucky I might avoid kidney failure. If I'm truly blessed I just might not contract cancer."

(It's a curious fact that, between 1994 and 1999, the UCI went from worrying about iron deficiency in riders - which lead to anaemia and, consequently, the use of iron supplements - to wondering why so many riders on certain teams were showing excessive levels of iron reserves. Given the presence of Francesco Conconi on the Medical Commission you wouldn't have thought the matter needed much studying to find out its cause. But let's not talk about that.)

Real life of course doesn't mirror fiction. If it had, the real versions of Yav might not have been laughed off the stage by the press and the rest of the peloton. But hey, did we really want cry-babies like Christophe Bassons in the peloton in 1999? When we had a hero straight from central casting? (Oops, I'm supposed to be not talking about that, amn't I?)

Now I wouldn't expect you to want to read a novel - any novel - just because of a couple of scenes which bang on about doping. I may be obsessed with the subject but I don't expect you to be too. Our glorious leader, Phat Pat, could actually be right, the past is the past and we really need to build a bridge and get over it. (Pink fluffy thoughts, that's what I need to be thinking. Nice, big, pink, fluffy thoughts. Oh look, that one's shaped just like a syringe.)

Nor I do expect the novel's love story to float a lot of boats around here. Unless of course there's a secret cohort of Cosmo readers lurking out there. Though with all the fashion and hottitude around this place why any of them would still be lurking beats me. What you might want to read Cat for is the passion North brings to the sport. She clearly loves cycling, and loves the idea of sharing her enjoyment of this sport.

North crams in the cycling lore, Cat either showing off her inner statto as a way of winning the respect of her journo peers (what is it with cycling nerds that the only way you can impress them is by donning your anorak and reciting the most obscure stats about stage speeds or how many left-handed Geminis have doubled the Het Volk and the Tour de Suisse?) or explaining the history of the sport to her sisters who are hooked on Phil 'n' Paul's C4 coverage (the sisters are actually rather annoying, a bit too giddy and Enid Blyton for my tastes. That's probably just me - I never did get The Famous Five. I much preferred the Moomintrolls).

A lot of the sport North doesn't bother explaining, she just gets on with the business of describing the racing (in between all the breaking up and making up and the going at it like wild animals). This is done through a mix of Cat's daily pieces for the Gruan and descriptions of some of the on the road action from your typical omnipresent narrator who, atypically, has a nice tendency to suddenly start interrogating the characters on what they're really thinking, or occasionally warning the reader of an up-coming plot development.

Having embedded herself in the Tour's press corps you might expect North to have gone native and bigged up all the Tour journos as a wonderful bunch of chaps (and, even in 1998, they were, almost to a man, all chaps, with few chapesses in their midst). This she does not do. The salle de presse is a smoke-filled fug with a mix of pungent and hirsute fashion victims. These saddos love to demonstrate their status by wearing previous years' branded freebies instead of this year's booty. This year's branded freebies they save for future Tours. Add in their predilection for shorts - it's hard to take seriously any man who wears shorts, unless he's actually engaged in athletic activity - and they sound like the sort of weirdoes you'd cross the street to avoid. And yet we hang on their every word come Tour time. Go figure.

In his recent Cyclopedia (no cycling bookshelf is complete without a copy of it - honest) William Fotheringham claims that Cat has achieved cult status among veterans of the '98 Tour, who "are known to scrutinise the book closely trying to figure out who is who." One real life journo to make an appearance in Cat is Jeremy Whittle, whose Yellow Fever is a pretty good account of the '98 Tour (up there with Sam Abt's account of the race, In Pursuit Of The Yellow Jersey) and whose Bad Blood is a strange tale of a journo torn between the Force and the Dark Side (one of which is represented by Lance Armstrong and the other by Paul Kimmage. And I'm not saying which is Obi-Wan and which is Darth Vader). Sadly, I can't recall whether Whittle mentioned North in either of his books. He should have, because she gives him a deus ex machina rôle in Cat. (Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you ...)

As well as looking at the journos, North casts a cold eye on other aspects of life on Planet Tour. By picking three riders and a member of team personnel from three imagined teams, she's able to explore different aspects the sport. We get glimpses into the lives of directeurs sportifs and soigneurs. We get to experience the highs and the lows of life in the saddle, from the joy of victory to the pain of just trying to beat the broom wagon. And we get glimpses of life off the bike too.

For sure these glimpses can seem somewhat superficial and you sometimes get to feeling that too much is happening to too small a cast of characters in too tight a timeframe, but for what it is - a chick-lit novel set in the world of cycling - Cat is a fun introduction to the sport. Where you might get most use out of Cat is in giving it to someone who just doesn't get your obsession with bike racing. North's passion really is infectious. If they don't get cycling after reading Cat then just accept defeat and give up trying to convert them.

So to the big question then: should you read Cat yourself? If you like chick-lit, definitely go for it. If you've never tried chick-lit, here's as good an excuse as you'll get to dip your toes into the genre. If you're a jaded cynic ... well hell, I actually kind of enjoyed it. But that's me and I like cauliflower. You don't have to.

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You'll find an interview with Freya North on the Cafe Bookshelf.