Title: The Long Race to Glory: How the British Came to Rule the Cycling World
Author: Chris Sidwells
Publisher: Andre Deutsche
Order: Carlton Books
What it is: The Great British Bike Story - a brief history of British cycling's paths to glory.
Strengths: For those who don't know the story it's a good introduction.
Weaknesses: Sidwells is, as always, a bit fast and loose with his fact checking.
The story of the transformation in British cycling's fortunes in recent years is, at this stage, one that has been well told in book form. William Fotheringham might be credited with starting it, with his on-going history of the British riders at the Tour de France, Roule Britannia. Richard Moore can be credited with offering the earliest insights into recent British Olympic success, with his Heroes, Villains & Velodromes and his ghost-written Chris Hoy autobiography. We can add in autobiographies from Mark Cavendish (Boy Racer and the forthcoming At Speed) and Bradley Wiggins (In Pursuit of Glory, On Tour, My Time and 101 - The Official Bradley Wiggins Opus), from Victoria Pendleton (Between the Lines), from David Millar (Racing Through the Dark), from Charlie Wegelius (Domestique), from Rob Hayles (Easy Rider). We can add in Richard Moore's look at the launch of Team Sky, Sky's the Limit and his Dave Brailsford profile Mastermind. We can add in Edward Pickering's The Race Against Time which is only partly about the Obree-Boardman rivalry in the Hour years but also about British cycling then and now. We can add in William Fotheringham's recent collection of newspaper columns, Racing Hard. We can add in David Sharp's biography of Chris Froome, Va Va Froome. We can add in the ninety-four insta-books that appeared in 2012 following Bradley Wiggins's Tour win. We can add in the forthcoming books from Rod Ellingworth (Project Rainbow), from Sean Yates (It's All About the Bike), from David Walsh (Inside Team Sky), from Nicole Cooke (The Breakaway), from Dave Brailsford (What it Takes) and from Chris Boardman.
We can, as you can see, find the story of the transformation in British cycling's fortunes in recent years being told in many, many books. Even beyond the recent successes the volume of books looking at the role played by Britons in cycling's history is truly impressive. There's books about Choppy Warburton and his riders Arthur Linton and Jimmy Michael (The Little Black Bottle), Charlie Holland (Dancing Uphill), Tommy Godwin (Unsurpassed), Reg Harris, Brian Robinson (Pioneer), Tom Simpson (Cycling Is My Life, Mr Tom, Put Me Back on My Bike), Vin Denson (The Full Cycle), Beryl Burton (Personal Best), the ANC Halfords team (Wide-Eyed and Legless and Field of Fire), Malcolm Elliott (Sprinter), Tony Doyle (Six-day Rider), Robert Millar (In Search of Robert Millar), the Linda McCartney team (Team on the Run), Graeme Obree (The Flying Scotsman) and many many more. There's still a lot of the past yet to be excavated, still many untold tales. But for a nation that once turned its back on cycling, and was once shunned by the cycling world, the British have done a pretty good job of recording the history of their involvement with this sport.
Chris Sidwells' The Long Race to Glory is, then, joining an already creaking bookshelf when it comes to telling the history of British cycling. In claiming to be "the definitive story of the fascinating and largely unexplored world of British cycling" Sidwells may be forgiven a dash of hyperbole - he has, perhaps, drunk too long at the inkwell of Henri Desgrange, a man for whom facts were only of minor consequence (as they are for Sidwells, who is an author given to frequent factual infelicities). Rather than this being the definitive telling of an unexplored story, it is the condensed version of a story already very well reported. As such this is a book that has value for those unfamiliar with the story and in need of a Bluffer's Guide to it. The Long Race to Glory can properly be considered a solid introductory guide.
The story of the current British success, as we all know by now, dates back to the coming together of Peter Keen and Chris Boardman, they laying the foundation stones for the era of success Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton have built upon. The story of the current British success is also, as we all know by now, a repeat of the way British riders once ruled the sport, back in glory days at the end of the nineteenth century, when James Moore and George Pilkington Mills were setting the roads alight, when Teddy Hale was the king of Madison Square Garden and when Choppy Warburton was turning Arthur Linton and Jimmy Michael into world champions.
Somewhere in between those two eras of success came various Olympians and World Champions, came the Pioneers and the Foreign Legion, the successes of whom are all worthy of note but never really set the public imagination alight quite like their modern counterparts. These men - and the occasional woman among them - came along at a time when Britain had turned its back on massed-start road racing or during the years when Britain was kicked out of the international cycling family or during the years of schism when the roadsters reasserted themselves or even the years of post-schism score-settling, petty-politicking and crony-capitalism. They were men - and the occasional woman - who succeeded in spite of the system, not because of it. And then, of course, the system changed and the opposite is now true: success is a product of the programme, not the person.
What Sidwells serves up is stories of the stars of each of those eras. There are Moore, Mills, Warburton, Linton and Michael. There are those now forgotten Olympians and World Champions who, in the first half of the twentieth century, brought home a tidy haul of bangles and baubles for King and Empire. There are those stars of later years whose names are by now familiar to all (even to non-Britons like me): Reg Harris, Brian Robinson, Tom Simpson, Barry Hoban, Beryl Burton, Robert Millar, Sean Yates, Chris Boardman, Graeme Obree, Yvonne McGregor and David Millar. And then there are the products of the Manchester Olympic factory's production line, from Chris Hoy to Mark Cavendish and Victoria Pendleton to Bradley Wiggins. And there's even time within The Long Race to Glory's three hundred pages to also cover a few of Britain's mountain biking and BMX stars and the odd extra with a walk-on part in the other stories.
Some of the stories missing are, perhaps, unfortunate. I for one would like someone to talk a bit about Ernie Payne, who was a member of the 1908 gold-winning team pursuit squad and who quickly followed his Olympic success by signing to play for Manchester United. Or there's the story behind Freddy Grubb, who scored a couple of silver baubles at the 1912 Olympics (a fact mentioned by Sidwells) but then went and did something really important: he became the first Briton to start a Grand Tour, turning up at the 1914 Giro d'Italia.
There is also absent any degree of distance, any degree of questioning by the author. This is a clap-happy cheerleader's story (as Sidwells points out, he too played a minor role in Rod Ellingworth's Project Rainbow Jersey, so maybe he feels like he's part of the team, the official ra-ra man). This is a happy story of British success piled upon British success piled upon yet more British success. It's the Great British Bike Story, a sugary concoction with lots of icing ("Sky's extensive use of altitude training provides even more evidence that they race clean"). The individual potted histories Sidwells serves up are quite filling but there are, perhaps, too many of them, one story just blurring into another without any fibre - other than that of the flag - to bind them all together.
Sidwells' failure to consider what was happening behind the stage - both at home and abroad - to enable or encourage each of his chosen stars to come along is The Long Race to Glory's biggest failing. The failure to situate British cycling history within a wider context produces a book that tends toward us-against-the-world tub-thumping flag-waving jingoism, with stories of battling Brits overcoming all Johnny Foreigner could throw at them ("It was as though Brits were a commodity to be used by European pro cycling, and that attitude lasted for a long time.") and still come out on top (the number of times Sidwells reminds the reader that a Brit won the 2012 Tour - and then the 2013 one too! - is well into double figures and if it isn't really veering toward treble it certainly feels that way). And - to top the lot - the battling bulldogs now see Johnny Foreigner trying to play catch-cup by copying British innovation ("British Cycling were the first to bring in the idea of using skinsuits in some road races").
The wider history is important. As well as being able to ask why this success is happening now, you should also be able to ask - and answer - why it didn't happen earlier. The 1980s were a boom time for cycling and, given that they produced American and Irish Tour winners, it seemed obvious at the time that a British rider of the right calibre would come along very quickly and do the job too. Only it didn't work out like that and the English-speaking riders seemed to wither on the vine. Sean Kelly attributes part of the reason our two countries (Ireland and Great Britian) failed to profit from the eighties dividend to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which saw an influx of new riders - the other, forgotten, Foreign Legion - which pushed the English-speakers aside. Others claim that the failure to cash-in was simply down to incompetence within the national federations. Some even believe that British riders failed to prosper because of the rise of EPO (Brits, don't you know, don't dope).
Whatever the reason, the external factors - geo-political, sports governance or attitudes to doping - deserve some consideration, otherwise all of this is simply a story about a lot of stuff just happening for no reason at all. You need to ask how did a track suddenly materialise in Manchester. You need to ask why did the Tory government of John Major decide to use Lottery money to fund, of all things, sport. You need to ask what was the real reason the British cycling federation transitioned from a bunch of amateurs - in the correct sense of the word - to the professionals they are today. You need to ask why it is that nationalism is today the rage for not just the British but also the Kazakhs, the Russians, the Australians and even the Basques.
One also needs to consider the role played by the UCI in this history. In the early days national federations were allowed impose quotas on their teams limiting the number of foreign riders they employed, which closed off opportunities to many and can be used as an excuse for a lack of British success. By the 1980s it was a different game and the UCI - largely through the efforts of Hein Verbruggen in the professional arm, the FICP - was hell-bent on globalisation (here following on the coattails of Félix Lévitan and Jacques Goddet) and the UK was awarded a race in the precursor of today's World Tour, the World Cup. The UCI wanted the UK in the game, even to the extent of trying to get the national federation to sort its act out. Yet when it comes to the version of history told here the only role played by the UCI is to hold Brits back by banning Graeme Obree's revolutionary riding positions, stealing away Olympic disciplines to stymie British success, or putting a quota on the number of riders a nation can send to the Games, again to stymie British success.
The wider history is the glue that holds together a book like this. Without it all you have is a series of potted histories and capsule biographies, one blurring into the next, a book to be dipped in and out of, not read in one go. Such a book is not without merit. Capsule biographies have some value, to some. The Long Race to Glory can and I'm sure it will serve as a good introduction to the subject for many, name-checking most of the characters those who'll want to know more should look out for. But it could - and, given the many books already produced on the subject, should - be doing more than merely that.