Title: Gironimo! - Riding the Very Terrible 1914 Tour of Italy
Author: Tim Moore
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Order: Random House
What it is: French Revolutions author Tim Moore takes on the route of the 1914 Giro on a bike made with wood and wine corks
Strengths: Moore's mix of history and gentle humour has seen him described as a British Bill Bryson
Weaknesses: I had been calling this book Giro Nimo - because of the way the title is drawn on the book's cover - until someone pointed out my faux pas. Thank you for that, Yellow Jersey Press
Tim Moore is a professional naïf. He is the quintessential plucky Brit, willing to have a go at anything and turn every bad experience into a good anecdote. The need for there to be enough of those good anecdotes to turn into a book is where being naïve is a job requirement: things have to go wrong for Moore. But seriously, what the hell could go wrong riding the route of the 1914 Giro d'Italia - Milan to Bari and back - on a bike made with wood and wine corks?
Many of you will know Moore from French Revolutions, his account of riding the route of the 2000 Tour de France. His preparation for that involved putting a lot of faith in his genetic inheritance, in the belief that great athletes are born and not bred. That trip around France was actually Moore's second Grand Tour, he having already followed in the footsteps of Thomas Coryate, the originator of the European Grand Tour, those trips by upper class twits through the hotspots of the Continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
For that journey - told in The Grand Tour: The European Adventure of a Continental Drifter - Moore used a clapped-out Rolls Royce as his means of transport. For his third Grand Tour he's using a clapped out bicycle, a 1914 Hirondelle No 7 Course sur Route picked up at the Anjou Vélo Vintage festival in France - "a magnet for those with an interest in old bicycles and pillbox-hatted 'Allo! 'Allo! extras in seamed stockings" - for the princely sum of €350:
"It was self-evidently ancient: filthy, liberally pocked with rust and unburdened with brakes. The tyreless wooden wheels were horribly warped and delaminated, and half their spokes had rusted clean through. But it was a racer, and of appropriate vintage. The head-tube was pitched less rakishly than a Garin-era machine, but more so than the 1920s bikes in the AVV display zone. The chrome drop bars were finished off with copper-trimmed wooden grips. Most conspicuously, the distressed Brooks racing saddle was supported by one of those funny V-shaped seat posts that the less ignorant, more dull new me was aware had fallen from favour after the First World War. [...] Serendipity had brought us together, here in this sun-dappled riverside avenue full of twits in trilbies and shonky old tat. My Hirondelle was The One; this was meant to be. I'd gone on holiday to France and fallen in love with the ropey old village bike."
Now the reason Moore was particularly interested in a vintage bicycle wasn't just a forty-something's fetish for a little bit of eroica (an increasingly common complaint among a generation wearied by years of hardcore techs-mechs porn filling every other page of their favourite cycling magazine and who can now rise to no more than a little bit of eroica). It's that Lance Armstrong made him do it. Him and Ray Mears.
Around the same time that USADA stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour titles - including that one Moore shadow rode - survival expert and renowned insect eater Mears announced he was hanging up his hat, at 47 becoming an ex-adventurer (though he can probably be found of an evening down the back of his garden chowing down on some freshly dug worms). Mears was, by chance, the same age as Moore:
"I set my jaw, and scratched the grizzled stubble that lined it. OK, so maybe at my age I wouldn't be Raying it up in the woods, living off bark and making a tent out of cuckoos. But surely I still had some big bike miles in my legs, enough for a proper ride. Something epic, a challenge from the old school [...], two fingers up at Lance and a salute in tribute of cycling's whey-faced, lion-hearted heroes of old."
A quick Google search later and Moore discovered that "the 1914 Giro was without a doubt the hardest-ever Grand Tour. Only eight riders were able to finish this staggeringly difficult race." After that he found out that "terrible weather conditions, appalling roads and 400km stages proved too much for even the greatest champions of 'il ciclismo eroica'...". Which last phrase is explained by Moore thusly:
"Il ciclismo eroica, as I was to discover, succinctly embodied the spirit I hoped to recapture. In recent years, Italians have developed a powerful affection for their 'heroic age of cycling', when the sport ruled supreme in Italy, and Italian riders won almost as many Tours de France as did the French, while maintaining a monopoly on their own national tour, the Giro, which had cemented itself as cycling's most-prestigious race, and first-most gruelling."
There is, of course, more to eroica than just the heroic age of Italian cycling, the era of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. The whole eroica thing is actually something Moore has touched upon in one of his other books, he embracing retromania for I Believe in Yesterday: My Adventures in Living History, joining up with the sort of people who like to recreate life as it was lived in bye-gone days, from the Iron Age through to the Age of Steam. And for Giroimo! Moore goes the whole hog in search of eroica, searching out the sort of authentic hipster chic which shows that your average Raphanista just isn't trying hard enough. Woollen socks, shorts and jersey. Stupid hat and stupider goggles. Metal bidons. And wheels with wooden rims.
These wooden rims, the more Moore tells his story the more they take on a life of their own in the hands of others and the more the whole of the Hirondelle becomes made of wood. On the BBC you'll read that Moore set "his sights on Italy by cycling the course of the 1914 Giro d'Italia on a mainly wooden bike that he built himself. " In the bumph for his appearance at the Dublin Writers' Festival you're told that Gironimo! "finds him tackling the route of the 1914 Giro d'Italia on a wooden bike." Now if you think that I'm about to chastise these people for their error, then think again. No! My problem with them is that they're not going far enough. Why stop at turning wooden rims into a wooden bike? Let's have it as a bike made from wood and held together with string. Let's have the tyres made from rubbers and the spokes from spaghetti. Spaghetti spokes in Italy, wouldn't that be just practically perfect? If you're going to exaggerate, then please, make an effort, make it big.
Anyhow, Moore can't be blamed for the errors of others. Though if he could mine a laugh from them I'd hazard a guess he'd be happy to lay claim to them. That is after all a lot of what Moore is about, laughing at things. For others who write up their cycling holidays and package them as books, the things that go wrong are played for pathos, a plea for pity. With Moore, life's a laugh, especially so the closer to death it becomes. Here he is discovering the delights of Chianti's strade bianche:
"At times the track all but disappeared, leaching seamlessly into the rocky undergrowth. It hadn't been bianca; now it wasn't even a strada.
"Down we went. Whee - look at me go! Woah - look at me fail to stop going! Flap-bollocking-arse-funnels no no no no OK I've got it no I haven't skeeeeeeesshhhh OW.
"I looked up at the oak trees through a cloud of beige dust. This time I'd managed to wrench my shoes out of the toe-clips, and had even improvised a speedway-style foot-slide, which took off a few kmh before I lost it and hit the deck."
Maybe it's the crashes - of which the one above is actually a rare example - or maybe it's that Italy is more fun than France, but for one reason or another I found myself an awful lot more sympathetic to Moore's plight throughout Gironimo! than I recall feeling when reading French Revolutions. Or maybe not sympathetic, maybe what I mean is more respectful.
The route of the 1914 Giro alone is a hard thing to ride, travelling the length of Italy's spine doesn't offer you much time to rest, the road rising and falling like a down-at-heel rollercoaster. And doing it on a vintage bicycle, where you have to flip the back wheel to change gear and where you have to carve your own brake blocks out of wine corks because your rims are made of wood and rubber would just slide off them, well that deserves a doff of the cap. As does wearing a wool jersey. But, actually, what has me most offering Moore complimenti is that Gironimo! is not just about one man's journey reriding the route of the 1914 Giro. It's also about the 1914 Giro itself.
Most times, you will find Moore described a writer of comedy travel books. On the surface this is true: his books invariably involve journeys, which are recounted wryly. But on a deeper level Moore's actually doing something different: he's actually exploring history, by trying to get close to it in order to better understand it. In this regard French Revolutions is something of an exception among Moore's books, it was about recreating a contemporary event before that event had actually happened (precreating it?). Most of the rest of his books, though, seem to be about following an earlier journey, retracing someone else's footsteps. For Gironimo! what this means is that you have two parallel stories: Moore's own jaunt down and then up Italy's boot; and the course of the 1914 Giro, as recounted by Paolo Facchinetti in his book about the winner, Alfonso Calzolari.
You've already had a chance to read about the events of that race, which opened with a stage to equal Monte Bondone and the Gavia and closed with a farce that saw the final result not being confirmed until fourteen months after the race ended, and so have an idea of what the true attraction of the 1914 Giro is: it's not just that it set new standards in toughness, many of which have yet to be bettered, it's that it's a race full of stories. And Moore draws on his copy of Facchinetti throughout his journey, retelling those stories as he tells his own.
Gironimo! then is not just a comedy travelogue, an author gently poking fun at himself and the absurdity of riding the route of a century-gone race on a bike that was new then but is falling apart now. It's also a somewhat light-hearted history of an overlooked edition of a race that has lived its life in the shadow of its bigger French cousin, an edition of the Giro that can match - and even better - any of the too-well-reported shenanigans that have blighted the Tour, then and now (let there be no doubt, Moore's sense of history is not about donning rose-tinted spectacles and declaring it were all a lot better when me dad's dad's dad were a lad, he openly acknowledges that the roots of today's corruption were there even back then).
The two strands woven together make for a read that will have you smiling at Moore's pratfalls and admiring the obduracy of those who stuck with the 1914 Giro right to its muddy and bitter end. And they will have you silently mouthing a complimento to Moore when he arrives back in Milan and comes to the end of the book, when you fully realise the enormity of the journey he has completed, and the story he has expertly crafted from it. If French Revolutions captured the cynicism of turn-of-the-century cycling - with Moore looping off huge chunks of the route and dosing himself up with ephedrine to climb the Ventoux - then it is to be hoped that Gironimo! has captured something important about today's cycling by getting in touch with il ciclismo eroica.
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All photos copyright Tim Moore.