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Chain Reaction, by Ross E Goldstein

Chain Reaction, a cycling novel

Title: Chain Reaction
Author: Ross E Goldstein
Publisher: 2011
Year: 2011
Pages: 400
What it is: A father-son boy-meets-girl American-in-Italy cycling novel.
Strengths: An enjoyable if unchallenging read. Italy ends being its real star. If you liked Breaking Away, you'll like this.
Weaknesses: Some dialogue that's so wooden it's got wood worm and characters that are a little bit too thinly sketched.

In bicycle racing, pain is inevitable. But suffering is optional.
Gianni di Salvo

Cal Scott is a twenty-five-year-old former top level cyclist. From the heights of a neo-pro contract with T Mobile on the continent he's fallen to pulling espressi down Peet's in downtown Mill Valley, Cali, down San Francisco way. As a barista he's a Beethoven on a Pavoni. As a cyclist, he could have been a contender.

Paul is Cal's father. Fifty-something. Drives a Porsche Cayenne and rides a $14,000 bike. Chicago born, from the wrong side of the tracks, he's parlayed a football scholarship into a career in the legal profession. Marathon running and cycling provide the endorphin rush that balances a testosterone-driven court-room career.

Paul doesn't understand how he raised a quitter and Cal hasn't explained to him the real reason he threw it all away.

Life at T Mobile went tits up for Cal when he was made an offer he couldn't refuse. A good ride in the Ronde and a strong performance in Paris-Roubaix pushed him to the upper heights of the greasy pole. The T Mobile management - sponsor, directeur and doctor - wanted him to go that extra mile: nutrition, periodization, a lot of other things. Enhancement type other things. Pharmaceutical type enhancements. Cal just said no. T Mobile just said auf wiedersehen.

That was then. Three years ago. This is now. Three years later. The muscle memory is still there but the fire that burned is down to embers. All it needs is someone to add fuel to it.

Bassano del Grappo. Italy. The Veneto. In the shadow of the Dolomites. Home of Le Scale di Monte Grappa. A big bike race up the bad ass Monte Grappa. Cal and Paul have gone to Bassano for a cycling holiday, a little father-son bonding time. Le Scale di Monte Grappa is meant to be some additional eye candy, a day out at the races, the vicarious thrill of other people suffering.

Gianni di Salvo runs a bike boutique - 'shop' just doesn't do the place justice - in Asolo, nearby to Bassano. He's an old friend of Paul's. Di Salvo won the maglia rosa in '83, here not the year of Beppe Saronni. Three decades on he's a fifty-something silver fox, still riding after all these years. Now the direttore sportivo of his own development team, Squadra Diavolo. Paul has asked Di Salvo to see if he can't sort out whatever's wrong with Cal and get him back on the pro circuit.

Dani is a wrench monkey. Olive skinned. Azzurri-blue eyes. Pert tits. Dani is Danniella. Di Salvo. Daughter of Gianni. Dani likes a bit of rough, she's a champion off road rider. Dani gets Cal's testosterone soaring quicker than any gel or patch. She's also got Rocco's testosterone flying.

Rocco is the Squadra Diavolo Dudley Studly. An alpha male with a beta brain, IQ and VO2-max intersecting when graphed. Rocco's the hometown hero. Rocco's going to win La Scale di Monte Grappa. Rocco's going to land a pro contract on the back of the win. Rocco's going to become bigger than Marco Pantani. He's probably also going to ask Dani to marry him.

Cal and Paul and Gianni and Dani and Rocco and La Scale di Monte Grappa, them is the basic ingredients of Ross Goldstein's Chain Reaction. The cooking instructions you'll have to read the novel to find out.

How does the whole concoction fair in the taste test? For the most part it's a fun and unchallenging read.Okay, so some of the dialogue is a bit wooden (would Gianni really need to tell Cal that Alpe d'Huez is a major climb in the Tour de France?) and the characters are cardboard thin, but that's the kind of novel this is. If you're a fan of those cult classic cycling films Breaking Away and American Flyers (both of which had dialogue so wooden it had wood worm and characters so thin you could see right through them), you'll easily enjoy Chain Reaction.

Despite all the Cal and Paul and Gianni and Dani and Rocco stuff going on, the real star of Chain Attraction is Italy. Breaking Away made love to Italy from a distance. Goldstein's novel does it from up close. The British might think that they invented cycling. The French might think that they gave it its epic dimension. But the Italians gave it its soul. The Italian setting of Ross Goldstein's novel, that really is the best thing about Chain Reaction.

Okay, so the Italy here is somewhat stereotyped, the outsider's view of what Italy should be, with a typically Nonna-ish Nonna and all the trappings like that, but this is fluff fiction, up there on a level with Freya North's Cat. You're not exactly being asked to tether your belief to a weather balloon, but Chain Reaction does call for its willing suspension.

So, does Dani help Cal get his mojo back? Does Rocco make it to the big league? Who wins La Scale di Monte Grappa? Ah, that'd be telling ...