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My Year in Top Gear, by Philippe Gilbert

Philippe Gilber, My Year in Top Gear

Title: My Year in Top Gear
Author: Philippe Gilbert, with Marc van Staten, Gino Laureyssen and Stéphane Thirion (trans by Martin Lambert)
Publisher: Lannoo
Year: 2011
Pages: 218
Order: Lannoo
What it is: A very personal account of Philippe Gilbert's 2011 cycling season.
Strengths: Getting a book-length account of a single season for a single rider is rare. Most of the time the true gems here aren't from the races themselves but the little things in between that add up to a more complete picture of a modern Belgian hero.
Weaknesses: The translation to English is dreadful. Charming, but dreadful. The book itself is somewhat fluffy, a bit gushing, but about what you would expect from and about a serving pro.

The highlight of Philippe Gilbert's 2011 season was, undoubtedly, those eight days that shook the cycling world: from the Amstel Gold on the Sunday before Easter, through the mid-week Flèche Wallonne and on to Easter Sunday and the Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Eight days in which Philippe Gilbert really earned the right to be called a Classics' King. Eight days which he then topped off with more wins across the rest of the season.

Gilbert's overnight success was, it goes without saying, a long time coming. The man from Remouchamps, who in his youth rode up and down La Redoute and inscribed the route and the psychogeography of Liège-Bastogne-Liège into his soul, declared his champion status in the Giro di Lombardia in 2009, which followed hot on the heels of his second win in the sprinters' classic, Paris-Tours, and victory in the Italian demi-semi-whatever-Classic, the Giro del Piemonte.

How often has Lombardia been a revealer of true talent? It's not something you expect of an end of season race but I suppose you could go back to Alfredo Binda in the 1924 Lombardia for one of the most memorable occasions a new champion has emerged at the fag end of a season. Me, being a parochial Paddy, well naturally I go back to 1983 and Sean Kelly's blossoming on the roads of Lombardy, a win which prefigured a Classics' season in 1984 in which Kelly became the King of the Classics and the nouvelle Cannibal. Which he then followed with what looked a piss-poor 1985 but was actually a year turned around by some end of season fireworks.

Gilbert, of course, didn't immediately follow up the his 2009 Giro di Lombardia success with great glory. But, for Thirion, that is still where the story begins. In Paris-Tours, where Gilbert had knocked Tom Boonen off his pedestal on the Avenue de Grammont, Thirion dined with him and was told he wouldn't be disappointed if he made the trip to Lombardy:

"It was the first time he spoke to me like that with such self-assurance at the approach of an objective. [...] Gilbert's moult concretely occurred in October 2009."

Gilbert did add the Amstel Gold to his palmarès in 2010. In Lombardia that Autumn, where "the trees, hastily deprived of their foliage, were taking advantage of the mist to make themselves scarves from it," Gilbert broke free on the final rise of San Fermo della Battaglia and, escorted by the headlights of the direttore di corsa's car, soloed into Como in torrential rain, his sodden jersey a second skin, to claim his second victory in the most beautiful and the most poetic of the Classics. That day the pink 'un, La Gazzetta dello Sport, declared the Belgian the new King of the Classics. And then the floodgates opened.

I'm not going to run through the races of 2011, the lead up to those eight days and that week itself, or the wins which followed. Read the book. What I want to pluck from it instead are a couple or three little things. While books such as My Year in Top Gear can be fun for what they say of races we've watched, or read about in detail, for me one of the more interesting things about them is the little details. Take this tale about events after that 2010 Giro di Lombardia win.

After completing the post-race protocols in Como - the media, the podium, more media, the doping control, yet more media - Gilbert returned to his team bus where the recently crowned World Champion, Cervélo's Thor Hushovd, was waiting for him. As the bus whisked them off to Lugano, where a private plane was awaiting them, Gilbert showered and changed into a suit. He was Brussels-bound, due in the studios of VRT to receive some trophy or other and where Hushovd was due to show off his rainbow stripes. Disembarking their plane in Zaventen Gilbert and Hushovd were escorted at speed by police outriders to the TV studios in Reyers:

"There, I suddenly felt important but it only lasted a couple of hours, which was probably just as well. Hushovd had bought a magnum of Champagne which cost him an arm and a leg in a little bar in Lugano. A few of us drank it together before entering the wings of the VRT programme, which had already started!"

After the TV duties were done there was time for a drink in town with Jürgen Roelandts and Dirk de Wolf, before Gilbert was whisked off by car to Paris. A few hours sleep in an Ibis and then a train to Nantes, where another car met him and whisked him off to the Chrono des Herbiers, the low-key successor to the GP des Nations:

"I was not obliged to impose this marathon on myself, I grant you, but I have always been loyal to this event because I like the organisers."

Gilbert was wasted, physically and mentally, and David Millar stuffed two minutes into him in just ten kilometres ("Just imagine!"). The following afternoon, around about three, the Belgian finally arrived back on the Boulevard de Jardin Exotique in Monaco, via Nantes, Lyon and Nice, where crates packed with furniture, ready for the removal men, awaited him. As did his pregnant wife:

"On seeing Patricia's well-rounded tummy, I said to myself, at that precise moment, that the true, ultimate happiness was only just beginning."

Three weeks later the Gilberts were delivered a son, Alan, a week early. A year to the day later, Pat McQuaid crowned Gilbert the winner of the World Tour. The number one rider in the pro peloton of 2011. Made it ma, top of the world!

* * * * *

Or consider this tale: the Tour de France started on July 2. Four Sundays later, when the race reached Paris and the whole thing was over, Gilbert celebrated with his team-mates and others by getting a little legless. The next evening he rode the first of the post-Tour critériums, in Alost. The next day, the next crit, this time in Roulers. On the Wednesday it was off to Norway with his training partner and future team-mate, Thor Hushovd, for another crit. Then back to Belgium for Thursday's crit in Herentals. Friday brought the fifth crit in as many days, in Saint-Nicolas. From there, it was a private plane to the Basque Country for the Clásica de San Sebastián and the resumption of World Tour hostilities. Sunday was a day of rest - Gilbert's third since the Tour began - followed the next day by another crit, back up in Lommel.

Only then did Gilbert finally take some time off and return home to Monaco to his wife and infant son. That's thirty-one days straight of racing with just three rest days. Yes, compared to the good old, bad old days, today's riders are a pampered and preened lot who don't know how to suffer. But really, do you think that sort of schedule is easy?

* * * * *

Along the way, My Year in Top Gear talks about many things on top of the races themselves that made up that magical season for the twenty-nine-year-old Walloon. Particularly the season-long soap-opera that was the divorce of Omega Pharma and Lotto and the subsequent speculation about Gilbert's own future. Having read last year a book about another Lotto rider, whose impending midnight flit from the team was totally overlooked, it was refreshing to see so much said about Gilbert's change of team.

Gilbert talks of how, on the Monday after his win in La Doyenne, the Lotto side of the split tried to railroad him into signing with them, there and then. Of how, even by then, he had been approached by every World Tour team bar two with offers of contracts (the two were Lampre and Euskaltel). Vincent Lavenu at AG2R and Eric Boyer at Cofidis were particularly interested in signing the Belgian, as was Sky's Dave Brailsford, who called to try and sweet talk Gilbert into joining the British squad of Tour de France hopefuls. Gilbert talks of how he met the managers of all the teams who made offers and set aside those that didn't correspond with his philosophy. By the end the choice was whittled down to Astana, BMC, Lotto and Quick Step. Right down to the end it was a choice between Quick Step and BMC. And then Quick Step seemed to blow the whole jig by unexpectedly merging with Omega Pharma, without anyone bothering to tell him. The man who single-handedly invented American cycling, Jim Ochowitz, finally won the hand of the Belgian for his super-team of aging stars and rising studs.

* * * * *

My Year in Top Gear is made up of accounts of his own season by Gilbert himself joined together by Stéphane Thirion's prose. Gilbert's contributions read like a mix of contemporaneous diary entries or interviews conducted before or after key events (some of them may be familiar to readers of Le Soir), with the occasional more reflective recollection of events once distance has made them a bit more clear. As with Bradley Wiggins and Nicolas Roche's diaries (On Tour and Inside the Peloton) - or even, going back in time, Stephen Roche's My Road to Victory - what you get here is a sense of immediacy. You also get an awful lot of gushing praise for friends, fans, family and fellow pros. So far, then, so par for the course.

Where My Year in Top Gear is different is in the contribution of Thirion, a journalist with Le Soir, who was inspired in his youth by the likes of Luc Varenne, who recounted the exploits of Eddy Merckx in the days of his reign of terror:

"Merckx brought sunshine into my childhood by a relationship that was close to fanaticism, and he also inevitably led me towards other heroes of the pen or microphone."

In time Thirion himself became a reporter, one imprisoned between a passion for the sport and a duty to do the journalists'' job. He pined for the Merckxitude of his youth as he tried to be like Antoine Blondin and Pierre Chany and enchant verbs. But Thirion had to tell the tales of events that were "devoid of life, relief, star or suspense." Tales that were, in their essence, "excruciatingly banal." Then came Festina and the doping revelations, battering down the wall of naïveté Thirion had erected in his youth. The passion was spent.

And then one day Philippe Gilbert entered his life. It was in Hamilton, Canada, in 2003. In the years since - particularly during 2011 - Thirion has finally been able to stop feeling envious of the giants of the pen who had written the story of his youth and the history of the sport before then. Thirion was able to begin feeling sorry for his journalistic heroes, that they didn't get a chance to weave words around the life and times of le petit Cannibal. Like Lance Armstrong with Bill Strickland, Philippe Gilbert turned Thirion once more into a fanboy. And, like with Strickland's Tour de Lance, the quality of Thirion's writing more than makes up for the weaknesses of another fanboy's tale.

The quality of Thirion's writing is, though, challenged more than somewhat by Martin Lambert's translation of it into English. Lambert really puts Thirion's words through the mangler. To be frank My Year in Top Gear reads like the original book must have been tossed into Google Translate and the gnomish output tidied up, barely. Lambert's most obvious failing is that he seems to know sod all about the peculiar pigeon English that is Anglo cycle speak. In Lambert's clod-like hands a time trial bike is a stopwatch bike. The Ronde becomes the Round. The Flèche the Arrow. Critériums become rallies, the Critérium du Dauphiné becomes the Dauphiné Rally, the Critérium International the international Rally. The Tour Down Under becomes the Down Under Tour. Grand Tours become great Tours. Climbers are uphillers, descenders are downhillers. Reading My Life in Top Gear I constantly found myself trying to re-imagine the text - not just minor things like those petty annoyances above but also parts of Thirion's prose which just don't seem to make sense in Lambert's translation - and rework it into the language we're used to in cycling writing.

The task handed to Lambert, it should fairly be noted, was far from easy. Not only has the book clearly had a quick turnaround time but continental Europeans have a different way of seeing, a different way of telling. When William Fotheringham was interviewed about his translation of Laurent Fignon's We Were Young and Carefree, he noted how (typical of many French cycling books) some of the original text contained highfalutin' artistically written bits of French which veered off into imagery that would mean nothing to an English-speaking fan, even if you could get a handle on what was originally being said. Fotheringham went on to note a key difference between French and English cycling books (and, even though Thirion is a Belgian, here we'll lump him in with the French, they've stolen enough Belgians in the past for that to be allowed):

"The French tend to be stronger on images than on facts so you have to paraphrase and rejig sentence order to make it into English sportese. An English sportswriter will tell you how it feels, looks and is, as he sees it, but won't try to be DH Lawrence. A French one will get delusions of grandeur which probably goes back to Henri Desgrange trying to be Emile Zola."

Thirion - a fan of Blondin, of Chany, of men of that ilk - is wonderfully highfalautin' and artistic and perfectly in tune with Desgrange's Zola-tinged purple prose. And, consequently, often barley comprehensible in Lambert's mangled mis-translation which doesn't seem to paraphrase or rejig but, rather, delivers a literal translation that is probably true in word but is totally false in feeling.

At the same time there is something perversely charming about the whole thing. If reading My Year in Top Gear is a labour - albeit not a particularly hard one, it's a short book that moves along at a fair clip - it's a labour of love. Yes, for sure, you want to beat Lambert upside the head with a rolled up copy of Le Soir and tell the guy to go buy a cycling dictionary (is there such a thing?) but the essence of Thirion's tale - and even some of the poetry - is still there, buried beneath the surface. If you feel like putting a little bit of effort into a light and fluffy tale of a special season, you really should take My Year in Top Gear out for a spin. It's well worth the rough ride.