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Interview: Herbie Sykes

An expat Brit now living in Turin, Herbie Sykes is a fan of Italian cycling and a card-carrying member of the tifosi. His previous book, The Eagle of the Canavese, gave English-speaking cycling fans the story of the last Italian to win back-to-back victories in the Giro d'Italia, Franco Balmamion. His current book, Maglia Rosa, tells a history of the Corsa Rosa that's built on the stories of the girinni themselves, the men - and, in the case of Alfonsina Strada, a woman - who have made the Italian Grand Tour the race it is today.

We caught up with Sykes recently and had a brief chat about the two books, about the problems besetting the Giro d'Italia today and his take on this year's race.

Podium Café: Let's begin with a bit about you - from Lincoln to Turin via the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign and selling Danish electrical equipment to Lincolnshire farmers. Pretty much the standard path to writing about the sexiest of the Grand Tours then, no?

Herbie Sykes: I guess it was a pretty circuitous route. I first came here in 1991, to watch a football match. I was a fan of Torino (that's the crap team in Turin) and made a few friends. I always loved the place, and became a regular visitor.

I wasn't much into cycling at the time, excepting watching it on TV, but the Giro always fascinated me and so I started coming to watch the race.

PdC: You're forty-something - what era was cycling in when you fell in love with it? Around about the time of the Foreign Legion?

HS: I'd say later, really. Like everyone I remember them, but it wasn't what I'd call an active interest. It was the mid-90s when I started riding and began to understand the landscape and history of the sport.

Franco Balmamion PdC: Did you really learn Italian just so you could try and talk Franco Balmamion out of one of his jerseys?

HS: Essentially yes. I had a smattering, though not nearly enough to do an interview.

I was fascinated by him, largely because he was completely unknown. It struck me that if you wanted to know about pretty much any Giro or Tour winner you could dig about and find stuff on them in English. Given that he won the Giro twice in succession it seemed odd that there was nothing out there about him. I found that fascinating and, given that I seem to have a predilection for the underdog, I wanted to find out why. I guess it's not very dissimilar to wanting to find a really great film, or a fabulous undiscovered band.

Anyway I was collecting jerseys and I thought his would be a great one to have, simply because nobody knew who he was. Through some mutual friends in Turin I was able to organize a meeting with him, but I needed a pretext and so I said I was going to write a book about bike racing. In the event when I met him he told me about the 1962 Giro. It was a sensational story and so I thought I'd give it a go.

I'm into finding stuff out, and so thereafter it became an obsession to find out precisely what went on back then. Given that there's nothing in English I was compelled to spend countless hours with a dictionary and with contemporary reports of the race. It was a bloody stupid thing to have done really, but there you go...

The Eagle of the CanavesePdC: Let's talk a little bit about Balmamion. As you say, not a name known much beyond the tifosi. I haven't had a chance to read your book about him, The Eagle of The Canavese, so why don't you tell us a bit about the book and why a book about him.

HS: All of the above. I'd always enjoyed writing, but hitherto it was just marketing stuff for work. When I started the book I knew the story itself was great, but I didn't for one minute think anybody would publish. Adrian Bell at Mousehold agreed to have a look but he published because he liked the manuscript, not because it was a winner commercially. I'm very grateful for that.

That's the essential paradox of it. Those who have read it have generally been very complimentary, but the reality is that a book about an unknown cyclist from the 1960s is never going to sell in huge quantities.

I think as an Anglo-Saxon cycling person you often get the same Tour de France based stories rehashed over and over again. I didn't have anything new to say about Coppi or Anquetil, because it's done to death. My feeling was always that the great champions aren't by definition more interesting characters, rather they just won more bike races.

Balmamion's giri, and also the social context of post-war Italy, fascinated me, and I was lucky in the sense that I wasn't doing it to put food on the table back then. It was my passion, and I was very fortunate that Adrian was kind enough to give it a go.

As regards Franco himself; he was a fabulous rider (probably at the wrong time in history), hard as nails, genuinely lovely man.

Maglia RosaPdC: Three years on from The Eagle of The Canavese you're back with Maglia Rosa. There's not much in English about the Giro - there's stories of specific races but generally English-speaking fans have had to forage through biographies and autobiographies to assemble the Giro's story. Maglia Rosa must then have been a project mixed with fear and excitement - the delight at telling a story that's new to English-speaking fans of the race, but also somewhat daunting, knowing that you'd be setting the standard for those who will (hopefully) follow you.

HS: When you start a book it's always pretty terrifying, regardless.

When I moved here three years ago I didn't have a job, and so like an idiot I decided to try to make a living writing about bike racing. I knew I had to write a more ‘commercial' book, and so it was either this or a biography of a famous rider. I love the Giro, and so I felt best qualified to do this.

Hopefully it works, though very obviously you're never going to get remotely close to telling even half of the story. I could write ten books about the history of the race, and not get even close...

1958 - Tino Coletto in maglia rosa, during TTPdC: In telling the story of the race, you do something I really enjoyed, you tell the stories of nearly men, one hit wonders and heroes who never were. You humanise the story. Whenever the riders get too big for the race, the organisers like to remind them that it's the Giro that makes the rider, not the rider who makes the Giro. These stories you tell, in a way they give the lie to that. Some of these stories, I've not come across them before - was that one of the pleasures of writing Maglia Rosa for you?

HS: People said they were pleasantly surprised by that stuff in the Balmamion book, but it really isn't rocket science. The overwhelming majority of cyclists don't win bike races, and so I have a responsibility to try to reflect the fact in what I do.

Moreover, the great joy in doing what I do is in spending time with people, winners or otherwise. Everyone has a story to tell, and I feel genuinely privileged to be given the chance to do inform people about Brunero, Ponzin and the like.

My starting position as a writer is that I have to be bothered on a human level, because for me bike racing is the most human of all sports. With any luck that's apparent through the work.

1969 Giro, Gimondi and Zillioli PdC: The book is lavishly illustrated with some really gorgeous photographs, some amazing images. And they are illustrations, they add to the text, they don't turn Maglia Rosa into just another coffee table cycling photo album. Tell us a bit about picking the images used in the book.

HS: We were very conscious of the fact that there needed to be a dialogue between the words and the images, and I think that by and large it works well. It would have been easy to fill the book with beautiful, irrelevant photography, but we were pretty clear from the outset that we weren't going to do that.

In theory it's an easy balance to strike, but of course it's contingent on having the photos available, and on everybody singing from the same hymn sheet in a creative sense. Working with Rouleur was great in that respect, because they wanted to make the book the best it could be, as distinct to making it as cheaply as we could. It was an expensive way to do it, but hopefully the result is something which feels valuable.

As regards the process, initially I got as many of the photos as I could from the riders and their families, particularly of the lesser known guys. Thereafter Guy Andrews, Taz Darling and myself went to an incredible agency in Milan with a very long list of what we wanted. The designer, Jonathan Briggs, actually read the manuscript before he started working on it. That was fundamental, as was his sensitivity and intelligence.

We started with about 700 photos and got it down, somehow, to about 150. There's a mountain of wonderful stuff that didn't make it into the book, some of which is much better on a purely aesthetic level....

Passo Rrolle, 1939 Giro, Valettie and BizziPdC: Weather plays an important role in the Giro, and by weather I guess I really mean bad weather - hail and rain and blizzards. The Bondone in '56, the Gavia in '88 - days like these, they've gone down in legend, they help to set the Giro apart.

HS: Yes. I guess that's the virtue of it being in the early summer - you get freakish days.

It's curious that some days acquire mythical status and others not, but nobody outside of Italy knows much about the blizzards of 1962 and 1965, for example.

PdC: 1984. Laurent Fignon and Francesco Moser. The Stelvio. Alleged skulduggery from the direttore corsa, Vincenzo Torriani. I guess with that story - and the Stephen Roche story - I grew to think of the Giro as being a very parochial race, an Italian race for Italians. Stranieri welcomed, but only to make up the numbers, not to win. It took me a long time to realise the importance of the Giro for Italians in general, how important having an Italian in rosa was - still is - for Italians. Even more so than the Tour de France, it's more than a bike race for the home fans.

HS: Quite right. Whether we like it or not, the Giro is infinitely better when an Italian wins. It has nothing to do with jingoism, they're just extremely patriotic, extremely Italian.

The Tour is different in that it's learned to live without a French contender. Protracted periods without an Italian maglia rosa are really damaging for the Giro both as a spectacle and as a business, and it's never been big enough to indemnify itself against that.

That's why Torriani always tried to engineer a home winner, and why the Merckx years nearly crippled it.

PdC: Something that made me realise that the Italians aren't as parochial as I used to think was Andy Hampsten. His victory in '88, Italians don't hold that against him, even today they respect him for the achievement. I've read numerous interviews with him where he talks about how he's still welcomed warmly in Italy for what he did in the Corsa Rosa. Italians can be rabidly jingoistic - all nations can - but once the curtain comes down, they can be amazingly respectful of a worthy winner of their race.

HS: Hampsten was a worthy (though by no means great) Giro winner, but fundamentally he was a very nice, very courageous young man. People warmed to him because of the way he conducted himself, because he was basically a nice kid and a proper, humble cyclist.

Giro winners, at least those who behave themselves, are hugely revered here, regardless of their nationality. Italians are very parochial, but in my experience pretty fair-minded. They understand the values which underpin the sport, and that you can't win the Giro without being a remarkable human being.

PdC: Jonathan Vaughters and the AIGCP want us to hitch our allegiances to teams. The Giro actually started out as a race for teams, disavowing Henri Desgrange's desire to make cycling an individual sport. The teams even convinced the Gazzetta to run the 1912 race as a team affair, with no individual winner. Always though, the Giro has been about individuals. The tifosi wanted a Girardengo, a Binda, a Bartali, a Coppi. They could be fans of teams like Bianchi, wear the jersey, but it was the rider, not the team, they followed. Can you ever see yourself hitching your allegiance to one single team, finding a Manchester City of cycling?

HS: No. The notion that you might support a team is deluded claptrap and it has nothing to do with bike racing. Cycling is a complex, textured sport, and the people who support it aren't in the main zealots. That's entirely as it should be, and the whole argument is laughable, totally fatuous. Next question...

PdC: Ok, another take on the team question. The Giro was born partly out of business rivalry between Atala and Bianchi, and that 1912 race was supposed to be a team effort (though you credit the achievement of the real winner, Carlo Galetti, over the team). But the teams overplayed their hand in 1924, demanding appearance fees. The Giro responded by telling them to sod off and then pulled off a publicity coup - Alfonsina Strada, the only woman to have raced one of the three Grand Tours. How well known is her story in Italy? Yours is only the second reference to it I've come across  in English.

HS: Alfonsina was recently the subject of a good book by Paolo Facchinetti, and a film is being made about her now.

I'm surprised it's only the second mention in English. I'd always assumed most cycling people would know something of her story, which is why I didn't write so much about it in the book.

She's very well known here.

PdC: An issue that stood out for me in the book - for its topicality - was the waxing and waning of the Giro as a TV spectacular. ASO, through executives at France Télévision, seems to have convinced Pat McQuaid and the UCI that race radios are killing viewing figures. The Giro's been there, done that, becoming a TV star and then being dropped unceremoniously by RAI. The difference between the current debate and this though is that this happened in the sixties. The Giro recovered and returned to live TV. When the 2009 Giro had the lowest viewing figures in twenty-five years, RCS responded not by blaming the riders but by putting right the race. Do you think this is a lesson ASO and the UCI might be advised to learn?

HS: I'm not qualified to speculate on ASO, and it seems the Tour is doing very well for itself.

The race radio thing is lost on me. It's just a Trojan horse as far as I can see, and it has nothing to do with cycling as a spectacle. I don't care either way (excepting to say that without them breaks won't stay away nearly as long as they do) but cycling has much bigger issues to deal with.

Bartali leading Valetti at 1939 Giro PdC: Italians developed a reputation for riding tempo - I think Benjo Maso said they were adopting Italian football's catenaccio system, defensive cycling. Nostalgia is great in these things and it's easy to look back at the days of yore when winners attacked and attackers won and lament their passing. But you make an interesting point about those days, about why we need to be careful in the way we see them, that for a scalatore to win he had to attack on a hill, and if the hills came early in a stage, that meant he'd have to go for long one.

HS: People had no access to transport, and so the stages had to finish in town. You wouldn't get a stage finish atop Rolle or Pordoi, because nobody could get there. I think it's fair to say that bike races used to be much longer and harder, but the instincts which govern them don't really change. I'm not making a point as such, excepting that cyclists' characters don't really change. The sport lends itself to romanticism, but we need to be careful sometimes.

The reason it's struggling to rid itself of a hundred years of doping culture is that it's endemic; it's been part of bike racing for a century. The cyclists themselves were always of a certain mindset, and the nature of cycle racing is such that people always tried to take metaphorical and literal shortcuts. Coppi was a massive 'doper', Merckx was a doper, Gerbi was a cheat and a wrong 'un who set off with his pockets full of nails (which he would liberally sprinkle behind him as he rode along). Cycling was always about stealth as well as guts, and that's one of the things which made it so fascinating.

So yes, it's true they did extraordinary things, but not because they were in themselves more 'heroic'. It was because they were cyclists and if they wanted to put food on the table they had to. There's a whole discussion to be had about the huge impact of Coppi's 1954 strike on cycling, but that's another story altogether...

PdC: Angelo Zomegnan. Agreeable. Far sighted. Faithful to the Giro's history. Tough on doping. I can't imagine you using any of these terms to describe the Giro's current chief architect. In recent years, CONI stopped being part of the problem, became part of the solution. Do you think Zomegnan can ever make that change?

HS: Zomegnan's problem is that he's seen as being ambivalent about doping. He says he has no power to stop Contador defiling the Giro this year, because he ‘signed a contract' with Saxo Bank. I'd like to see that contract, and I'd like to know why it can't be rescinded in light of what it's going to do to the race. What actually needs to happen is for Zomegnan to stand before the Italian public and say the Giro isn't prepared to tolerate this shit any longer.

Italian cycling has a huge image problem right now, and the whole Pantani circus convinced people here that all cyclists are doped. That's why Italian riders earn crap money, why the likes of Mapei pulled the plug, and why the professional sport is in a trough right now. You have guys like Squinzi, wealthy and in love with the sport, who simply daren't invest, and that's a catastrophe for the sport here.

Zomegnan's not a bad bloke, but his inertia is terribly, terribly damaging. It's a vicious circle in the sense that there is this idea that the Giro needs the riders whilst the riders need the Tour, but somehow they have to find a way to reclaim the race. You can't invite the likes of Contador, Di Luca and Riccò, because ultimately the race appears ridiculous in the eyes of the public.  

PdC: This year's Giro - you've seen the percorso, too soon to ask you for your favourites for it?

HS: Contador from Menchov, then Nibali then Scarponi. I'd love to see a clean Italian win, but I suspect it's not gonna happen just yet.

I've always been in favour of a really hard race, so this is right up my street.

PdC: You're obviously busy promoting Maglia Rosa at the moment, but have you thought about what comes next? Would you consider looking at a race like the Giro di Lombardia, or Milan-Sanremo - you tell part of their stories in Maglia Rosa, but there's still so much more to be said about them. Or do you want to turn again to telling one man's story?

HS: Don't know yet. I need a bit of a break from it, but there will be another one at some point. I guarantee it won't be about MSR or Lombardy, but there are a couple I'd love to do. A book about the Worlds would be fascinating to write, but it's a tough sell to Brits and Americans, understandably.

The one that most appeals is a year in the life of one of the three Grand Tours. It would begin the day after it concludes, and end on the eve of the race, but here again I'm probably deluding myself.

As for a biography, I'd love to do Nencini but it probably wouldn't get published. I really ought to do something that's not bike racing, but I know I bloody well won't...

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Images courtesy of Rouleur.

Herbie Sykes is the author is The Eagle of the Canavese (Mousehold) and Maglia Rosaa (Rouleur).

You'll find him on Twitter @HerbieSykes.

You'll find reviews of The Eagle of the Canavese and Maglia Rosa and the two previous interviews (Part 2, Part 3) on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Herbie Sykes for taking the time to participate in this interview.