Title: Racing Hard: 20 Tumultuous Years in Cycling
Author: William Fotheringham (with an introduction by David Millar)
Publisher: Faber and Faber / Guardian Books
What it is: A collection of Guardian and Observer newspaper columns from William Fotheringham
Strengths: A highlights reel from twenty years of cycling reporting
Weaknesses: Newspaper journalism - particularly daily sports reporting - comes with a number of caveats the buyer should be aware of.
Racing Hard is at least the third volume of newspaper columns to be collected in book form in the UK in recent years, with both the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian having put out Tour books (in addition, there have been a number of instant-publishing e-books cashing in on the fame of individual riders or incidents). All have a value, it's nice to be reminded of how the story was originally reported, but all rob from the book-form the primary advantages it has over the newspaper column: time and space. Here's Fotheringham in his introduction explaining the drawbacks of the newspaper column:
"The brief, you are asked, is to select your best stuff. [...] ‘Best' in a journalistic context is an adjective that needs qualifying. As a journalist, that ‘best' is not the ‘best you can possibly create', in the sense that a writer will craft a great piece of wordsmithery over a period of months, or years if you are Marcel Proust. It's the best within certain limitations, the best you can provide to your paper on a given day, by a given time, in a given amount of worlds, with a given amount of information to hand. You never have unlimited time and you never have the number of words you want to say what you want. At the back of your mind is the core journalistic principle: the paper needs to get out on time."
Generally speaking, the best pieces in Racing Hard are the stories originally commissioned for the Observer's Sport Monthly supplement, where Fotheringham had both time and space to actually develop ideas and not just report news. They're the pieces that aren't just bite-sized easily digested fact-based reporting. They're the pieces you'll remember when you put the book down.
As well as time and space there are other problems with the newspaper reporting, which Fotheringham also explains in his introduction:
"That ‘best' is also the best that the sub-editors can make of what you've written, after they've checked your facts, looked at the spellings, and ironed out infelicities, contradictions or sheer stupidities. If it's a piece that has the words Lance and Armstrong in it, it's been picked over by a lawyer who knows that if he or she gets it wrong, the cost could run into millions."
Given that the key story in the sport over the last fifteen years - since the Festina affaire exploded in 1998 - has been doping, the restrictions placed on journalists by lawsuit-averse editors are not an unimportant consideration.
The other point that needs to be considered is what's of interest to the Guardian's readers. Typically here you are talking about three factors: British success, the Tour de France, and the Olympics. Those three topics, more or less, account for most of the pieces collected in Racing Hard. Across the whole book, the most reported individuals are Lance Armstrong, Chris Boardman, Dave Brailsford, Mark Cavendish, Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins. The Tour and the Olympics take up the lion's share of the book, with just one piece about any of the Classics (the 2001 edition of Paris-Roubaix).
Of the two main sections, the Tour is - for me - the least interesting. Perhaps here I am a little jaded about the big buckle at this stage: the bookshop shelves are creaking under the weight of new books published about the race, and that is especially true of this year's crop of cycling books. The pieces themselves are snapshots of moments in time and do have value as such. But really it's just the highlights reel. And, really, to appreciate many of theses stories the reader could do with the context of some of the lowlights to show how they were really reported.
Take, as a good example, the Cofidis affaire. Fotheringham here selects his post-arrest interview with David Millar. What's missing, though, is anything from the previous six months, during which time the Guardian was to the fore in dismissing the whole story as being a just a minor problem with one or two riders which was being talked up by a manipulative nutter, Philippe Gaumont. Similar could be said of the manner in which other episodes are covered in the pieces collected in Racing Hard. (Millar's interview does offer an interesting contrast in perspective when compared with the manner in which Lance Armstrong's Oprah Winfrey interview was reported.)
Of the Tour pieces, it is the ones in which Fotheringham is able to break free of the editorial constraint of what's assumed to be of interest to Guardian readers which, for me, stand out the most, such as a 2011 piece about Jean-Rene Bernaudeau and his grassroots approach to building the Europcar squad:
"‘The goal was to create a philosophy of cycling which combined education and work and cycling,' Bernaudeau says. Among the centre's intake are cyclists from outside the sport's mainstream: France's Pacific and Atlantic islands. Three-quarters of the Europcar team have come though the structure, notably the team leader Voeckler [...] probably the most popular cyclist in France. ‘The advantage of the Pole Espoir is that you can combine study and sport and come away with a qualification,' Voeckler says. ‘It's important because in sport you don't always make it.'"
On the Olympics side of the book, Fotheringham has a broad range of material to choose from, the Guardian and Observer having been, like most of the British media, part of Team GB's cheer-leading squad. But rather than bury the reader under pieces about Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy - or even Chris Boardman's over exposed secret bloody squirrels club - Fotheringham here goes for the less well reported side of the story. There are several pieces about Jason Queally, who Fotheringham believes never received the acclaim he deserved. There's a good proportion of stories from the too often over-shadowed distaff side of Team GB, with Yvonne McGregor, Nicole Cooke, Emma Pooley, Rebecca Romero and Victoria Pendleton all being well represented. Outside of Britain's bangle and bauble baggers in the five-ring circus that is the Olympics it's Anna Meares who gets to represent the rest of the world.
This part of the story gives a good overview of how Britain's track stars went from zeroes to heroes over the course of a decade, from Atlanta to Athens. Here I'll again mention Yvonne McGregor. Typically, in coverage of the renaissance in British cycling's fortunes, she gets overlooked, even though Peter Keen - who started life with Tony Doyle before achieving success with Chris Boardman and then shepherding the British cycling federation into the post-Lottery promised land - was very much a part of her story too.
"Coping with pain is not a problem for McGregor, who regularly broke bones in her early years - she managed to smash collarbone, shoulder and cheekbone in 1995 alone. A wry sense of humour helped her cope with four major accidents in three years. Like Boardman, she has held the world distance record for one hour, the toughest feat, in terms of distilled agony, that cycling has to offer outside the Tour."
One of the curiosities in reading newspaper pieces from the past is that it is often difficult not to see in them something of the present. One of the reasons for taking an interest in cycling's history - recent or distant - is for the perspective it offers on the present. So, with a lot of cycling's current crop of aging stars nearing their sell-by dates, Fotheringham's report on Greg LeMond's 1994 retirement is worth a re-read:
"LeMond kept faith with the managers who had brought him to Z when the team was taken over by France's nationalised insurance company GAN, but his persistent inability to justify his salary with the necessary results, coupled with the rise this year of England's Chris Boardman, has inevitably embittered relations. Now he is threatening a lawsuit to regain money he says he is owed. ‘They suck,' is his verdict.
"‘Last year, when I had a year to run of a two-year contract, they dragged me to Paris. I had to take a pay cut or they would go to court. They dropped my salary $400,000. Then they stopped paying me as of September 1.' LeMond claims Boardman's victories this year, and his spell in the Tour's yellow jersey in July, have led to the rest of the team being ignored in favour of the Englishman. He said that, with Boardman, the team manager [Roger Legeay] is ‘like a puppy following his father.'"
Rounding out Racing Hard is a series of obituary columns which do allow for the normal restrictions of newspaper journalism to be overcome and stories that deserve to be told finally get the space they deserve. Fotheringham himself has this to say when introducing the selected pieces:
"It cannot be said that writing obituaries is a pleasure, but for a specialist writer on a daily newspaper the exercise is satisfying to say the least, offering as it does the chance to present to the readers some of the individuals who simply don't get into the pages, as the examples which follow should show."
Those examples include Beryl Burton - even today one of Great Britain's best ever cyclists - and Percy Stallard, representing aspects of British cycling's often overlooked past; Charly Gaul and Laurent Fignon, representing Tour champions, and the great Félix Lévitan, whose contributions to the sport don't just include turning the Tour into the force it is today (it was Lévitan who took to Tour's grand finale out of the vélodrome and onto the Champs Élysées) but also encompass the creation of the Tour de l'Avenir and the short-lived Tour Féminin. Lévitan's dream of cycling as a global sport - with the Tour at the top of the tree - saw talk of the Tour starting in New York. A realist who shot for the stars and was happy to hit the tree-tops, Lévitan would probably smile at the notion of the race he nurtured through some of its toughest times next year starting in old York.
All told Racing Hard is a book for dipping in and out of to be reminded of moments from the past and, despite all the drawbacks, is a worthwhile addition to any cycling bookshelf.