Title: Domestique: The True Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Pro
Author: Charly Wegelius (with Tom Southam)
What it is: An autobiography from one of the peloton's spear-carriers
Strengths: A brutal honesty that is as refreshing as it is rewarding
Weaknesses: Perhaps a tad too evasive on the topic du jour
If there is one story most people know about Charly Wegelius it is how he ended up with a lifetime ban from the British cycling squad, how he and Tom Southam helped the Italian squad control the 2005 World Championships road race and how this upset those in control at British Cycling to such an extent that they handed down a lifetime ban, something they weren't even prepared to give out to those convicted of doping offences.
The World Championships, historically, have long had cross-national alliances, riders from the lesser nations working for rivals-on-the-day who are team-mates during the rest of the season. Perhaps had the British not been so po-faced about such things they might have found the support to close down the break during the Olympics road race in London. But the British are po-faced about such things and, for many people, Wegelius's act of treachery received the punishment it deserved.
But why the life-time ban? Why such a harsh punishment for such a petty offence which surely merited no more than a monetary fine and a short time on the naughty step, or in the purgatory of races no one else wanted to do? That's an answer Wegelius is in no position to answer. As he notes in Domestique, the federation which he knew was changing, "had become big business and there was an air of people scrapping and plotting to move up in the organisation."
Perhaps the answer to that question can be found two years earlier, at the 2003 Giro di Lombardia, where Wegelius was pulled from the race just before its start, having fallen foul of the vampires and delivered a blood sample that put him over the haematocrit threshold. Wegelius had to spend a lot of time - and a lot of money - demonstrating to the UCI that this was not unusual for him, that it had been identified as early as 1999 when he joined Aldo Sassi's Mapei development squad. "The foulest pill I had to swallow," Wegelius says, "came when I met the doctor in charge of my case. He told me straight away that he knew the haematocrit test wasn't ideal, but that it was simply the best that they could do at the rime, even if it meant a few people a year were wrongly stopped from racing." And not just stopped from racing for the statutory stand-down period: as soon as the blood test result came through Wegelius was fired from his team, only getting his job back when the UCI, belatedly, agreed that his haematocrit level naturally exceeded the limit.
It is one of the oddities of the last couple of decades of cycling's history, the level of suspicion that hangs around riders, and the factors which influence that suspicion. An untold number of riders effectively lost their careers to a doped peloton, and another untold number of riders actually lost their careers paying the price for the sins of those who doped. Where the blame lies for this latter state of affairs is no easy thing to judge. The fans share a proportion of , I know we do. The media, they are not without guilt. The teams and the riders themselves, they could have done more to help solve the problem. And at the top of the dung heap, of course, are the national federations and the UCI, the architects of a system that protected the guilty. We're all responsible.
All of us being responsible, maybe that explains the attitude Wegelius takes to doping in the pages of Domestique. By and large it's a non-subject. Throughout the book Wegelius paints a picture of a rider who rode clean in a peloton - and alongside team-mates - of whom the same could not be said. He made his choices, they made theirs. "This book, the one that I wanted to write, focuses on something else," Wegelius tells us. That focus is "an entire cycling career. Yes, doping makes an appearance or two, there is no way it couldn't, but I would like to feel that its small appearances in this book reflect just how minor a part it really played in my life as a cyclist. There was simply much more to be getting in with, so much more to the job and so much other stuff for me to be worrying about."
That career was as one of the sport's domestiques, or équipier as I guess they are more properly called now, Henri Desgrange's insult-that-became-a-badge-of-honour now being consigned to history's dustbin. So much of what is written about cycling is about what happens at the top of the sport. Books about the Tour de France abound, books about men who have won the Tour are legion. Of the other races, of the other men, little is ever said. For this reason, perhaps, the books by and about those men have often seemed more informative than books about the stars.
Look at Matt Rendell's A Significant Other, about Victor Hugo Peña's 2003 Tour de France ride as one of Lance Armstrong's domestiques. There you have a wonderfully written account - if one that is, obviously, somewhat lacking in certain pieces of vital information - that paints a picture of what life is like in the less noticed part of the peloton. A story you will also find told in the autobiographies of riders like Vin Denson and Allan Peiper. Of the three, it is the former Garmin directeur sportif's autobiography, A Peiper's Tale, that Domestique has most in common with. Not in the way they are written - Domestique is a far, far better book - but in the story they both tell.
Much of that story is how the life of a professional athlete is somewhat cosseted, somewhat selfish, made bearable by being so cosseted. But then, once the realisation that there is a life outside of sport hits home, life inside the sport becomes hard to sustain. This latter point is one well made by Laurent Fignon in his autobiography. It took marriage to help Wegelius come to the realisation that there was more to life than burying himself on the bike: "Marriage had changed me. After I had come home from the disastrous Vuelta I realised that I had spent the better part of my adult life with my head buried in the sand, simply doing what I was told. Meeting Camilla had made my life so much fuller and made me adopt a more objective view - of myself, and of my career choices."
In one way, it is possible to read Domestique and see it as a book that is against cycling, against professional sport, highly critical of that world. That would be unfair. In another way, it is possible to read Domestique and dismiss its story as being only of relevance to riders like Wegelius whose careers are spent wholly in the service of others, who lack the will to win for themselves. Again, that would be unfair. The best way, I think, of reading Domestique is as a universal story about cycling's bubble world and the sacrifices people will make to stay a part of it. Not everyone makes the same sacrifice, some sacrifice more, some less, but everyone does sacrifice something. Sometimes that sacrifice is rewarded by victory and we applaud the dedication and devotion of the champion. Sometimes that sacrifice has no visible reward and we question the wisdom of why it was made. The outcome is all important in this warped equation of sacrifice.
I earlier compared Domestique to A Peiper's Tale but noted that Wegelius's is a far better book. The reason for this is in the writing - aided by Tom Southam - in which a natural voice rings out. And even while you sense a certain evasiveness on the part of Wegelius on the issue of doping - some of which is credited to the lawyers and their blue pencils - overall you sense a story which has an unusual degree of honesty to it. Here's Wegelius on what drove his career:
"I seemed to go through most of my career just thinking, 'If I can just save myself now ...' to the next lap, or to the next stage, to the next year; a constant negative motivation. People on the outside might think that cyclists are these sort of ultra-motivated beings who plan everything to the nth degree - this 'ultimate human performance' bullshit, but, in reality, it's often just the really shitty stuff that motivates you, like the fact that you'd be ashamed to stop at the showers because you know you haven't done a good job. A lot of what would end up pushing me was simply to have a good conscience."
That honesty is what makes Domestique a fantastic read. And an important one. And whets the appetite for what I hope will be its sequel, Directeur. If you really want to understand what life in cycling is really about, it is the stories of the little guys in the peloton you need to pay attention to, not just those of les géants de la route.