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Interview: Herbie Sykes (Part the Third)

The Eagle of the CanaveseRegulars round here might be wondering what we're doing interviewing Herbie Sykes again, having already put up two interviews (Part 1, Part 2) with him barely a month ago after reviewing his new book about the history of the Giro d'Italia, Maglia Rosa. But at the time of doing those interviews, I hadn't read Sykes' first book about Italian cycling, The Eagle of the Canavese (so much for me and research). Adrian Bell in Mousehold Press kindly sent me over a copy of the book and, having read it, I thought it would be worth putting a few more questions to Sykes. It's a book that deserves more publicity than it's received to date.

Podium Café: After The Eagle of the Canavese came out, how was it with Franco Balmamion? It brought him new respect, introduced him to a new generation. I know you say he has that whole Piedmontese thing going on, but it must have made him smile to know his feats could still be respected.

Herbie Sykes: Franco was great in the sense that he not only greatly enjoyed talking about his career, but also that he's incapable of bullshit. He's utterly without conceit, which is simultaneously refreshing and slightly disarming for such a superb athlete. I think he agreed to meet me in the first instance because he's too nice a man to have said no, because he's such a good, decent human being. Thereafter we became friends, and I think the fact that I was essentially writing about a single Giro appealed to him. He understood the struggle implicit in doing it (bearing in mind I'd very limited Italian) and I think that, though he speaks no English, he liked the way I decided to structure the narrative.

Over the years I've spoken to a great many of the riders from his generation, and the fact is that if you scratch the surface you realise that a lot of the jealousies and rivalries are still present even today. What's unusual about Franco is that every one of them is unequivocal; Balmamion was absolutely, one hundred percent straight, absolutely correct. That may seem banal to the modern cycling fan, but cycle racing back then was very, very different. It was parochial, Italians racing in Italy against other Italians. Essentially you'd the same dozen or so guys at the front every week, all wanting the same thing. It was a jungle, but Franco ultimately won through. The likes of Motta, Dancelli and Bitossi were very charismatic, but ultimately Balmamion, the so-called ‘anti-personality', prevailed  because people recognised that he was a good man. 

So I'd say that yes, he's pleased there's a book in English about him, but he doesn't live there and can't read it and so in a material sense he's not affected by it aside from signing the odd autograph for people who have read it. For a number of reasons he wasn't greatly appreciated when he was winning the Giro, but rather later in his career when he was losing it. Therefore even today, in an age when people recognise the value of what he did, he's not about to have his head turned. I think that, in his humility and his modesty, he's one of the more remarkable human beings I've met. I know a lot of great Italian cyclists, but he's the one I most admire, without question.

PdC: The crushing weight of expectation in those post-Coppi years ... were Italians really hoping for a new Coppi, or were they just trying to get back to the atmosphere of those days? There's something in the post-Coppi years that reminds me of Irish football and the Jack Charlton years. We've got Trap now, and probably we're playing better football. Certainly we're not just kicking it up the field and chasing after it. But we want the Charlton years back, because of ... well I guess because of the way it made us feel. It's not really about the football. Was it really about the cycling for Italians?

HS: You're absolutely right. The first thing to remember is that Italy is essentially a regressive country, and it's forever bemoaning some ill-defined lost innocence. Coppi and Bartali are potent because cycling was so popular, and because they stood up at a time of great hardship, a time when Italians needed heroes. That's why there is so much symbolism (most of it invented by Gianni Brera) associated with them.

As regards performance Ercole Baldini was the new Coppi. In 1958 he won the Giro and Worlds, and if he'd gone to the Tour he'd have won there as well, without question. The reality, though, was that 1958 was 1958 and that 1949 was... 1949. So yes, a new Coppi would have been great, and again when Zilioli came along in 1963 it was expedient to promote the idea. The fact is, though, that regardless of how good they were they could never have generated the electricity that Fausto did. By the mid-fifties Italy was a very different place, the sporting milieu was being re-ordered, and cycling was haemorrhaging fans. What's astonishing is the rate at which it declined. If we assume that 1949 was the apogee of its popularity, you're essentially talking about a decade because by 1960 they were writing the sport off as anachronistic and irrelevant. And of course it wasn't...

PdC: You're part of the story in The Eagle of the Canavese, a little bit. So a little more about you. You told us last time about your love of the underdog, and that's clear from both Maglia Rosa and The Eagle of the Canavese. Is that just down to having been a Man City fan or is that itself just symptomatic of loving the underdog?

HS: Don't know really, but I'm probably just an awkward, reactionary little shit. It seems to me that whoever I ought to want to win is the person I want to lose. It's almost a curse but I guess it's just human nature. In that sense stage race cycling is great because, fundamentally, you've over a century of winners, ergo thousands of ‘losers'. All of them are out there fighting their own physical and psychological battles, with varying degrees of success. The guy who wins, or the famous one who's good with the media, isn't by definition a more interesting human being, rather he just crosses the line sooner.

PdC: I want to understand a bit more about how you came to write The Eagle of the Canavese. You said last time that you've always enjoyed writing, but that mostly it had been marketing stuff before you started writing about cycling. Had you done any cycling writing or was it straight in at the deep end?

HS: Having told Balmamion I was writing a book, I thought I'd best try, and so I just waded in. I didn't have a clue at the outset, and I'd no idea about what kind of book I was trying to write. I put it down for six months, just gave up on it as deluded nonsense. Then somebody gave me a ‘Top ten tips for aspiring writers'. Number ten on the list was ‘Finish your book.' It reasoned that not finishing is far, far worse than finishing and not being published. So I arranged some more interviews with the riders of the 1962 Giro, and set to again. That was the point at which I figured out the narrative, and thereafter I just let it consume me. To be honest everything else was probably collapsing, but I couldn't have cared less.

I know full well that The Eagle is small book about an unknown cyclist from the sixties. I know that it's rough and ready in patches and that it's destined never to sell in huge quantities, but I also think that it's unique and that in a very small way it's important. I'm immensely proud of it.

PdC: Let me get poncey a bit and talk about writing style. You know how to handle a narrative. When to pile on the power. When to pull back. When to say what the reader too is thinking. When to punch the reader in the solar plexus. Actually, you're a bit of a bastard for the well-timed punch in the solar plexus, in The Eagle of the Canavese, in Maglia Rosa, and, from what I can tell, in your magazine articles. When you're not buried in cycling magazines and the archives of the Gazzetta and the like, what do you read to unwind? Who are the writers who colour the way you write?

HS: I can't begin to tell you who may have ‘coloured' the way I write, because in truth I still don't think of myself as a proper writer. I'm just a cycling nerd who's lucky enough to have a chance to tell other people's stories. In answer to your question though, I'm not reading nearly as much as I ought these days, which is really bad for somebody who writes for a living. With me it was always really good contemporary novelists, people like Philip Roth, John McGahern and Rick Moody. Roth is incomparable, a genius. Oh and William Boyd - I love William Boyd.

PdC: Your own cycling - what bike do you ride yourself? What sort of riding have you done? Your knowledge isn't just from listening to race commentaries, reading books and magazines, and listening to riders.

HS: I'd say that ten years ago I was a ‘real' cyclist in the sense that it was everything to me. A group of us would ride hard all year, do the Dolomites in the Summer etc. I was never all that as regards talent, but I'd say that I know what it is to be fully immersed and to go deep on a bike. When I came here [to Tourin] I pretty much stopped because I was working on a book and on getting established professionally. I try to convince myself it's because I don't have time, but the reality is that I do and I'm just out of the habit.

I just a pootle up the hill of a Saturday morning with all the other old giffers, and pootle back down again. I have a very posh BMC with Record, but I'm genuinely not interested and genuinely not worthy. Mind you, someone's told me I've to do Galibier and Izoard in July, so I reckon I need to be making a start...

PdC: This year's Giro. Obviously a difficult race, with Wouter Weylandt's death. Obviously not a very satisfactory race, with Contador's victory. One specific incident though. Monte Crostis. Was cutting it the right thing to do?

HS: No. It was a disgrace and they ought to be ashamed. That community worked its arse off - and spent a fortune - to have the race. They were shafted by people who ought to know better, and that was absolutely appalling.  It had nothing to do with safety, and nothing to do with the tam cars being able to get up. It was a just the usual wankers scoring puerile political points, and UCI caved in. The whole incident was disgraceful, and it wasn't the fault of the Giro.

Magliarosacover_mediumPdC: How's Maglia Rosa doing? You've been tear-arsing up and down Italy getting the likes of Moser et al to autograph copies of the book, and now you seem to be tear-arsing up and down the UK telling people about the book - you were even in Look Mum, No Hands recently, no?

HS: Looks pretty good as far as I can tell. Obviously it's a very seasonal kind of book, and so we'll have a much clearer idea when we see the figures to the end of May. People seem to like it though, which is heartening, and I think it's a bit of a bargain at £29. We did the LMNH thing, and we had a nice dinner with Merckx and Zilioli on the South Bank. I've another event at Nonna's in Sheffield on 5 July, with Vin Denson. I'm looking forward to that, and looking forward to seeing Vin again.

PdC: The day job, ProCycling, Rouleur, what have these magazine readers got in store from you in the coming months?

HS: For ProCycling I do the monthly retro thing, which I enjoy greatly. I kind of challenge myself to find stuff that's not been written before in English. That's hard because my French is abject and I don't have German, Spanish or Flemish, but I do my best. In addition I get to do quite a lot of the contemporary Italian stuff for them, interviews and such like, so I was extremely busy in advance of the Giro.

Rouleur pretty much give me a free hand, and so the stories there tend to be bigger and often a bit more esoteric. The new edition has a piece in it which I consider hugely important. I can't reveal what it is here but essentially it's a 1960s cycling story which has never been told before in any language, and I'm really proud to have been able to publish it. It's important principally for the family of the rider involved, but also because it should have had huge ramifications for the sport at the time and didn't. It was something I really got stuck into emotionally, and hopefully that's apparent in the work.

Beyond that there are a few projects I'm interested in. One is to try to understand where cycling is, and where it's headed. I don't really care who wins Tirreno or the Tour of the Med', but I do care that they carry on, and that cycling carries on here, in Europe. What you have now is a sport that has a much smaller share of a much bigger global market, but waning interest in its heartlands. It wants to reach out to a global audience, which is as it should be, but this is a European sport. I think that what Japanese and American people actually buy is the idea of cycling in Italy and France, in Europe. Therefore for me it's very important that cycling is protected here, as distinct to promoting races which, for all that they're very nice, ultimately damage the foundations of the sport.

It's complicated, but I think we're in a very interesting period right now. We can continue to flatulate about how sexy cycling is, but the reality is that the people who run the sport have effectively decided to artificially bolster some races by creating the Pro Tour. The obvious result of that, that those left out are massively disadvantaged, seems lost on many of those who don't see beyond the TDF, Giro, Roubaix and Liege. Those races are bomb-proof for now, but who, twenty years ago, would have thought that there'd be no Championship of Zurich or Midi Libre? Look at the state of the Tour de Suisse, and Tirreno, look at how few Italian and French races there are now.  We need to be careful what we wish for...

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Herbie Sykes is the author is The Eagle of the Canavese (Mousehold) and Maglia Rosa (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 1, Part 2) on the Café Bookshelf.

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