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The Yellow Jersey Club, by Edward Pickering

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The Race Against Time author Edward Pickering looks at one of sports most exclusive clubs: the winners of the Tour de France's maillot jaune.

Edward Pickering's The Yellow Jersey Club
Edward Pickering's The Yellow Jersey Club

Edward Pickering - The Yellow Jersey Club Title: The Yellow Jersey Club - Inside the Minds of the Tour de France Winners
Author: Edward Pickering
Publisher: Bantam Press
Year: 2015
Pages: 307
Order: Random House
What it is: Profiles of each of the Tour de France winners since the end of the Merckx era
Strengths: Insightful profiles that offer a fresh view of the modern Tour de France
Weaknesses: The dark places of these champions are not really explored

History remembers the winner and forgets the circumstances.
~ Laurent Fignon

Edward Pickering's The Yellow Jersey Club is about some of the men who have won the Tour de France, specifically those champions of the post-Merckx era, the Tour winners from Bernard Thévenet through to Vincenzo Nibali. Conveniently, that's 40 years of the Tour's history - definitively, the modern era, from the Tour's first finish on the Champs Élysées forward - and 21 men, one for each stage of a modern Tour. Pickering's profiles of these men focus on their Tour successes, the circumstances of their entry into the yellow jersey club analysed as the author sifts for clues as to just what it is that marks these men out from the rest of the professional peloton, sets them apart from those they raced with and against.

How apart these men are bears consideration. In the century and whatever it is since the Tour was born, something in the region of 300 men have led the race at one stage or another. But only 60 have actually won the Tour outright. Since the maillot jaune did not appear until 1919, on a technicality you might want to exclude some of those who have honorary membership of the yellow jersey club: something in the region of 270 riders have worn yellow, with 51 of them winning it outright. If we restrict ourselves to just the post-Merckx era, 1975 forward, there's about 125 wearers of the yellow jersey and these 21 winners profiled by Pickering. Whatever way you slice them, the numbers are clear: for every man who has gained entry into the yellow jersey club, five have knocked loudly on the door (while some - like Raymond Poulidor - have rung the bell without realising it had been disconnected). The yellow jersey club, it's one of the most elite gentlemen's clubs out there.

Surprisingly - or, perhaps, not - the yellow jersey club does not meet all that often. In 1953 - when the Tour turned 50 and by which time 28 men had been inducted into the club - 15 of the 19 living members were in attendance in the Parc des Princes for the finale of that year's Tour. Half a century later - well, just short, in the Autumn of 2002, for the announcement of the centennial Tour - the members of the yellow jersey club were once again called together in a celebration of the race and their achievements. By then another 25 members had been inducted into the club and 22 more had passed on. All bar one member gathered in the Palais de Congrès in Paris and accepted the applause of their audience. Just think about that for a moment: 21 of the 22 members of the yellow jersey club, gathered together in the one place, from the winner of the 1950 Tour, Ferdi Kübler - who had been there at the 1953 gathering - through to the winner of the 2002 Tour, Lance Armstrong.

Former Tour de France winners gathered
(c) Lars Ronbog / Getty Images

Those two occasions are the only formal gatherings of the yellow jersey club that I'm aware of. In 2013 the Tour issued an open invitation to all veterans of the race and they gathered together in the somewhat informal setting of the Place de la Concorde on the final day of the Tour. But there was no conclave for the club itself. If the form book is any guide, they won't be called together again until 2053.

Today, there are 26 living members of the club, Kübler still leading them as the Father of the House. In the years since the announcement of that centennial Tour in 2002 another eight members were admitted to the club - five of them in the last five years - while a further three died. And, for the first time in the club's storied existence, two members were kicked out, with only one of them being replaced by a substitute member.

The black sheep of the yellow jersey club are a good place to start talking about its members. Lance Armstrong and Floyd Landis are the two members who've been expelled. Two others have been censured over events after their admittance to the club: Maurice Garin and Alberto Contador. Landis was replaced in the club by a surrogate, Óscar Pereiro, while Garin and Contador's warnings opened the door for Henri Cornet and Andy Schleck to gain entry. But Armstrong, when he was thrown out the door was closed so quickly behind him that no one was able to slip in in his place. In time, it may be possible for the Texan to regain admission, become the Tour's prodigal son. Certainly, the Tour can be very forgiving. At the 1953 gathering of the yellow jersey club, among the attendees was Maurice Garin, winner of the inaugural Tour and the man stripped of victory - and handed a lifetime ban - following his win in the 1904 race.

Armstrong's status within the yellow jersey club is, for me, an important point, for when it comes to doping, he is not the only member to have confessed to having had his hand in the cookie jar. Bjarne Riis did the same in 2007. Bernard Thévenet did likewise in 1978. And Laurent Fignon 'fessed up in 2009. Riis, Fignon and Thévenet are still full members of the yellow jersey club. As is Joop Zoetemelk, who tested positive at the Tour in 1977. And again in 1978. And again in 1983. (I know of no other rider - let alone Tour winner - who managed to test positive more often at the Tour.) And what of Marco Pantani, of whom there can be few with doubts? Or Jan Ullrich and Miguel Indurain? What is it that sets Lance Armstrong apart from all the other club members who doped their way to victory?

It's not the bullying. Marco Pantani could bully his fellow riders (recall his treatment of Andrea Tafi during the 1999 Giro d'Italia). And William Fotheringham's recent biography of Bernard Hinault only just stops short of calling le blaireau a bully. Some of it - possibly - is to do with why we can like Miguel Indurain and not like Bjarne Riis: Indurain was cast in the role of the last of the hardy sons of the soil to find an escape in cycling, and fulfilled that role, even returning to the family farm to help out. Riis, he rejected the role given to him by his fellow Danes, Pickering noting how Riis's extra-marital affair changed the public perception of him in his native Denmark: "The fairytale of the quiet, shy country boy who'd been married to his childhood sweetheart Mette had been changed into the modern morality tale of the celebrity sportsman acting scandalously." Armstrong - like Riis - publicly rejected the role set aside for him: from the off the cycling world wanted him to be the next Greg LeMond, while he wanted to be the first Lance Armstrong. To explain the difference between those two roles, here's Kent Gordis talking to Pickering:

"Lance and Greg are very much products of their generations. Greg was part of that last generation of Americans to have the naïve optimism and belief that good would triumph. We think of Armstrong as a doping scandal focused in Europe. But really, at its root, what the Lance scandal is about is using the same kind of ruthless tactics that are used in American high finance. Not coincidently, Lance's first patron and boss was Thom Weisel, who worked in high finance. It was that culture of win at all costs: nothing matters except winning."

Maybe that's what really sets Armstrong apart and makes him the embodiment of Gen-EPO and all its excesses and thus the scapegoat for a whole era: he's cycling's Gordon Gekko, its own Wolf of Wall Street.

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Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Pedro Delgado are three members of the yellow jersey club linked by something unusual in the way we think of Tour winners: they are today best remembered for Tours they lost more than for Tours they won. With Hinault, the 1986 Tour he lost trumps all five he won. With Fignon, famously he is more famous for the one Tour he lost narrowly than the two Tours he won with consummate ease. And Delgado, his one Tour victory is bookended by two losses for which he is most remembered. Delgado, Pickering argues, "holds up a mirror to us as fans of cycling, helping us to answer the question of ourselves. Which do we prefer? Winning ugly, or losing pretty?"

Pickering doesn't provide an easy answer to that question, it's for you to come up with that. You can't try to dodge that question by saying we would prefer winning pretty: Delgado's 1988 victory may have been pretty ugly but both Hinault and Fignon won with panache. You could try to dodge the question entirely and ask whether the manner of the victory should matter. To solve that, consider this question posed by Pickering when looking at the 2012 Tour: "Bradley Wiggins's Tour win was, depending on your outlook on life, either a masterpiece or a dud; an answer to the question of whether winning ugly has any less value or meaning than winning pretty."

If we are to talk of the manner of victory and defeat - pretty or ugly - we must return to the topic of doping. Pickering offers this question when considering Marco Pantani's victory on Les Deux Alpes in the 1998 Tour, but it is a question that could also be asked of many of the other performances we celebrate, not just within the years of Gen-EPO: "Without EPO there would be no Deux Alpes. We don't want EPO in the sport, so what does that say about our enjoyment of Les Deux Alpes?"

Throughout The Yellow Jersey Club Pickering asks plenty of pertinent questions which he leaves up to the reader to resolve, which is something I like. It makes reading the book slower - Pickering's actively engaging you with the text - but ultimately more rewarding: by the end of The Yellow Jersey Club I think I finally could justify in my own mind why doped performances can be celebrated. Sometimes, though, there are questions which aren't just left up to the reader to resolve. Take this one, posed to Pickering by Brian Holm: "Everybody who's won the Tour is quite complex. You have to be slightly different. Take them one by one, none are normal, are they?" Rhetorical that question may have been meant to be but Walter Godefroot gives it a negative answer anyway, when discussing Jan Ullrich: "All the great champions of cycling have special characters. Jan is not a special man, he's a normal man." Maybe it was Ullrich's normality which made him abnormal.

* * * * *

While Pickering (like many of us) believes the 1980s to have been cycling's belle époque ("an era of optimism, technological progress, innovation and growth - innocent times before darker, more cynical events made us less idealistic") he has a lot of time for some of the more recent champions and can still see the romance in the sport, even today. Pickering has more time than you might expect for Óscar Pereiro, whose Tour victory is as under-appreciated as Roger Walkowiak's. And he has - I think - a lot of affection for Andy Schleck, whose prodigious talent promised so much but who, one day, simply stopped enjoying being a cyclist. In Schleck, I think, you might even find an answer to the winning ugly/losing pretty question: it really is neither, it's a question of what might have been for those who deserved more.

Drawing on interviews with some of the men profiled and people who know them, across the 21 profiles Pickering serves up in The Yellow Jersey Club you get some insight into what it was that made each Tour winner tick as well as how they achieved their victories. For all that they have in common - their mix of mental and physical attributes - each is very much an individual, each was driven by their own demons and desires. For those who argue that it is the Tour that makes the legends of its champions, The Yellow Jersey Club offers the counter argument: it is the champions who make the legend of the Tour. As Pickering notes, the Tour's winners are "in their own way interesting and complex individuals. The race has always attracted extreme characters and unusual personalities, and the yellow jersey club includes some of the best examples."

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You'll find an interview with Edward Pickering on the Café Bookshelf.