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Interview: Edward Pickering

The Tour de France's yellow jersey club is one of the most exclusive and iconographic champions' clubs in sport, up there with Augusta's fabled green jackets. From the outside it is egalitarian - anyone can enter, all they have to do is to win the Tour - but once inside members find it has its own pecking order, based on qualities tangible (number of wins and the rest of your palmarès) and intangible (panache and the respect of your peers). Edward Pickering's The Yellow Jersey Club takes a look at the men who have gained admission in the Tour's modern era, the post-Merckx years that began with the arrival of the race on the Champs-Élysées and the first of two wins for Bernard Thévenet. Here, he talks about the book and some of the men he wrote about.

Palais de Congrès, 2002, The Tour de France's yellow jersey club
Palais de Congrès, 2002, The Tour de France's yellow jersey club
Lars Ronbog/Getty Images

Edward Pickering - The Yellow Jersey Club Podium Café: To begin at the beginning: the Palais de Congrès, 2002, the announcement of the centennial Tour. Twenty-one of the twenty-two living Tour winners gathered on the stage. That must have been an electric moment, especially considering how rarely it happens.

Edward Pickering: It was. I was transfixed when I saw them all - I was pretty new to cycling journalism at the time, so I don't think I'd seen a Tour winner in person since watching the race at the roadside in 1989 and 1994. Suddenly, they were all there, lined up on stage, right in front of me.

I'd been reading about them since I started following the sport in the mid-1980s, though, so I knew the names well, and I'd seen many pics of them as riders. But I'd lacked any contemporary reference. Ferdi Kübler had won the Tour in 1950, and he was right there on stage in front of me, looking pretty chipper (he's still going now, aged 96). Charly Gaul, Greg LeMond, Merckx. They all had a real aura, or at least the sense of occasion gave them one.

I had a practice run at the book for a chapter in the second Cycling Anthology, called The Tour Winners' Club, and there were a few things I mentioned there that I didn't put in the book. First, that the hierarchy was interesting - they ordered them according to number of wins, then chronologically. It reminded me of the difference in perception between one-term presidents of the USA, and two-termers. All the old boys who'd won the race once came on, then the younger ones, right up to Marco Pantani. Next came the two-time winners, Thévenet and Fignon, then LeMond, Armstrong, and finally Merckx, Hinault and Indurain. The applause just got louder and louder each time - Merckx's round of applause reminded me of a story I heard about speeches by Josef Stalin, where nobody wanted to be the first to stop clapping. I got a real sense of the esteem in which the history of the sport is held - I think cycling has a deep and important relationship with its past, which anybody seeking to really understand the sport needs to get to grips with. We certainly have more retro features in cycling mags than in most other sports.

I didn't realise at the time how rare the get-togethers were, but the winners did look like an exclusive club up there on the stage, and the idea of getting them all together in a book one day was formed there, even if I didn't know it at the time.

PdC: You take a good cut-off point in deciding what members of the yellow jersey club to look at - the arrival of the race on the Champs-Élysées, the birth of the modern Tour - and that means you begin with Bernard Thévenet and Lucien van Impe, who, like Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani two decades later, fill the gap between two eras, Merckx and Hinault in the 1970s, Indurain and Armstrong in the 1990s. It's fair to say that both Thévenet and Van Impe are somewhat underrated by history, caught as they were between two long shadows?

EP: Van Impe and Thévenet were sandwiched between the two most complete Tour de France riders of all time (Hinault, the best, and Merckx, the second-best), which obviously has an effect on the perception we have of them, but it's worth examining the three Tour wins they have. Thévenet took Merckx apart in 1975, then won an even more impressive Tour in 1977, while Van Impe's 1976 win was a tactical masterpiece (although as you've read in the book, it's arguable over whose idea his tactics were, his or his manager Cyrille Guimard's). I'd also add Joop Zoetemelk to that list - he was more famous for getting beaten by Merckx and Hinault than he was for finally winning the Tour in 1980. I guess it's unfair but inevitable, however, that we have a hierarchy - the Tour organisation did much the same at the Palais des Congrès when they brought the one-time winners out before the main event - the multiple winners.

You sometimes hear media or fans comparing Tour wins, saying that if Contador had been riding, Wiggins would never have won in 2012, or that Pereiro should never have been gifted those 30 minutes in 2006, or, going back to the original flukey winner, that Roger Walkowiak was lucky to win in 1956. To my mind, a Tour winner is a Tour winner, and is the person who has best harnessed strength, tactics and circumstance to ride the course the fastest that year. No, Pereiro wasn't the strongest rider in 2006 (notwithstanding the Landis stuff), but bike racing is not about who's strongest, it's about who wins, and anybody who thinks otherwise has missed the point.

PdC: You've pulled some daft stunts to get interviews in the past, like setting up a chess game with Mark Cavendish. You got Laurent Fignon to agree to an interview by playing a round of golf with him (long before cycling was the new golf, I should note): how was that for you, was your handicap up to his?

EP: All part of my shameful youth as a cycling journalist, although when I was trying to get Armstrong to talk to me for the book, I did try to butter him up a bit about the shared hobby we have of running, although I stopped short of asking him for a race.

Fignon was way better than me at golf, because I'm a pitch-and-putt hacker who gets bored after 12 or 13 holes, and he took it a lot more seriously - Lionel Birnie, one of our quartet, tried to start a conversation about cycling at one point and it was made clear in no uncertain terms that we weren't to ruin the important matter of a game of golf by talking about trivialities. Simon Richardson, one of my colleagues at Cycling Weekly at the time, disobeyed orders and beat Fignon, however. Luckily the interview was in the can by then, so it didn't spoil the mag feature.

The Cavendish chess match was fun. Probably more fun for me than for Cav - my brother was/is a pretty handy player, who once beat me blindfold in two simultaneous games, and I learned a lot by spending almost my entire childhood getting thrashed by him. At Cycle Sport, one of the other writers took Filippo Pozzato and Geraint Thomas to our local pub in Croydon on the eve of the 2007 Tour prologue and tucked them away in a darts match. Things like this are becoming harder to do these days, however, because press officers don't have a sense of humour. (Only kidding, press officers.)

PdC: Doping has always been part of the sport and has probably played a bigger role in more victories than most would care to acknowledge. But from about Miguel Indurain through to Alberto Contador, encompassing Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong and Óscar Pereiro, we were clearly in the years of Gen-EPO. It's almost impossible to consider events on the road during any of those Tours (1991 through 2007) without considering what was coursing through the veins of the riders. we make too much of the crimes of Gen-EPO, when you consider the ease with which we give guys like Bernard Thévenet (who confessed to doping) and Joop Zoetemelk (who must surely hold the record for having been busted more times than anyone else at the Tour) a free pass, talk up their achievements on the road while talking down their doping?

EP: When you look at it, there isn't really an ideal way to deal with this problem, which is one of the legacies of the dark history of the sport. I didn't want to spend the book going on and on about doping, nor did I want to ignore what was evidently a big part of the sport.

But without wishing to give the riders of the 1970s and 1980s a free pass, anecdotally it does appear that the effect of EPO and blood doping on riders was far more disruptive to any normal hierarchy than things like speed or cortisone. (I'm not saying that speed and cortisone are OK to take).

I made sure to mention Thévenet's confession in the book, however. I thought it was important, less for the fact that it might or might not have made a difference to him winning the Tour than because he blamed the cortisone for shortening his career and seriously compromising his health.

I think the problem with EPO was that it de-humanised the sport to a huge degree. I remember speaking to David Walsh on the phone back in '02 or '03, and I could hear the outrage in his voice as he talked about how fast riders were climbing mountains. He had a point - you don't have to necessarily approve of amphetamines to see that EPO made a mockery of normal human limits.

PdC: I'd like to raise a question you ask in the book in respect of doping: "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?" I think it's an important question, equally applicable to, say, Anquetil and Poulidor on the Puy de Dôme as to anything in the Gen-EPO years. Would you accept that it is possible to admire these performances not so much for their physical elements as their mental, thus by-passing somewhat the role of doping, or is that a bit of a cop out? Deux Alps, for instance, is as much about Pantani's will to win - combined with the fundamental errors made by Jan Ullrich once he'd been put under pressure - as it is about doping, no?

EP: It's complex, and I don't pretend to have the answers. Aesthetically, Deux-Alpes was pretty compelling, and at the time I only had one eye on the race, so I was still pretty green about the doping, and I really enjoyed it at the time. But you have to follow the rules in sport, and Pantani was breaking them pretty flagrantly. So were Ullrich and most of the others, so I guess you could say it was still a meaningful sporting competition of sorts, but to my mind, the lie turned out to be as significant as the excitement and drama of the stage. It was a compelling and dramatic day's cycling, in a stunning setting, in apocalyptic conditions. And by the way, they were all on EPO, so it wasn't quite sport.

What I think we shouldn't have done is elevate Pantani to the god-like status he seems to have with a certain demographic of cycling fans. Where were we when he was killing himself with an overdose?

PdC: There are a few members of the yellow jersey club who dominated their era: Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong. But - and this perhaps has something to do with preferring beautiful losers to ugly winners - there's a couple or three who seem to stand out more for having failed to achieve what we thought they would. Laurent Fignon shone like a star but burned out like a meteor. Jan Ullrich, he was going to dominate the Tour through to the new millennium. And then there was Andy Schleck. He seems to stand out in particular for you, would that be true to say?

EP: I tend to find dominance boring, or at least one-dimensional. I dreaded the prospect of Ullrich going on to win multiple Tours after his first win in 1997 - at the time I couldn't see how he wasn't going to win the next five, or more. But we all know what happened next, and as his win rate went down, my interest in him grew. Daniel Friebe's doing a book about him at the moment, and I can't wait to read it.

What struck me about Ullrich and Schleck was that they turned out not to be perfect, elite athletes. They were too much like you and me to dominate their sport, and it's no coincidence that they seem like two of the more likeable characters in the club. There's really something quite extreme about being able to sustain the discipline and focus to get to the level of being able to win the Tour de France, especially multiple times, but it's about winning bike races, not winning friends.

andy schleck tour de france 2011

I think I caught Schleck at a good moment when I interviewed him. He was over the disappointment of ending his career, and I sensed he was quite enjoying being in the real world. I always liked him as a rider, and I also sensed that a lot of people got him wrong, with all the Bambi Schleck stuff and mockery on Twitter. I wanted to communicate that whatever the politics and controversy of the situation, you won't see many more cyclists as impressive in full cry as Schleck was in the few short minutes after Chaingate on the Port de Balès, and also that he's far more complex than the caricature.

PdC: What of the riders who never gained entry to the yellow jersey club, has there been any real latter day Raymond Poulidor - a guy who never won the Tour but really should have - during the era you write about?

EP: Funnily enough I've just done a piece of nerdy research for Procycling which attempts to answer the question of who the best Tour rider not to have won the Tour is by counting up the top four finishes they've achieved. Basically, it's Raymond Poulidor, by a long stretch. Next comes Jean Alavoine, then Claudio Chiappucci, Hector Heusghem and Hennie Kuiper. In the period of the book, 1975 onwards, it'd be Chiappucci and Kuiper - each came second twice. Chiappucci also got a third, while Kuiper got a fourth, but you could argue Kuiper came closer - he only lost by 48 seconds to Thévenet in 1977. Of riders around now, Quintana's a bit of an eternal second, having done it twice, although I don't think he'll go his career without winning the Tour.

Want me to extrapolate out and tell you who the best Grand Tour rider never to have won a Grand Tour is? Depends on the metric you use, but Chiappucci's up there in that classification as well with four seconds and two thirds. So's Joaquim Rodríguez - he's been in the top four of eight Grand Tours without winning one, which is a record.

PdC: Tactically, Hinault, Indurain, Armstrong, even Wiggins and Froome, all took a rather brute force approach to victory, steam rolling the opposition into submission. Effective, but not very pretty. In terms of tactical finesse, Greg LeMond has surely got to be up there, having delivered three victories that never really seemed like foregone conclusions?

EP: LeMond was a pretty extraordinary specimen physically, but he was very tactically astute as well, although he tended to ride conservatively because of his superior endurance. In 1986 he had to beat somebody who was far mentally stronger - Hinault. In 1989 he had to beat somebody who was physically stronger - Fignon. And in 1990 he had to beat somebody who he'd given a 10-minute head start to - Chiappucci. 1986 and 1989 get all the love, but when you look at his 1990 win, it was a masterpiece of patience, control and turning the race to his advantage. There's an old Cycle Sport feature which Lionel Birnie wrote about that race and I'd recommend anybody go and dig it out, because it's a superb piece of writing and research - for a boring Tour, it was actually incredibly interesting and absorbing.

But if you want a real demonstration of the dark art of cycling tactics, it's Roche's 1987 win that stands out. He had three formidable opponents in that race, each of whom had significant physical or other advantages on him - Charly Mottet, Jeff Bernard and Pedro Delgado. One by one, he identified their vulnerability and eliminated them from the running, using pure race craft, and playing them off against each other.

PdC: If you could borrow Dr Who's Tardis and pop back to any one of the Tours won by the riders you write about, and get to spend time with the winner during the race, whose victory would you go back and watch?

EP: 1989. No doubt. I don't think there'll ever be another Tour like it. You could have a Tour decided by fewer seconds than eight, but the closeness was only one part of the story. It was a real ding-dong battle between LeMond and Fignon, a proper fight of heavyweights each taking it in turns to work the other over. I enjoyed Aru vs Dumoulin at the Vuelta this year, but it wasn't a patch on the '89 Tour.

The Race Against Time (Small) PdC: Still travelling in time, your last book, The Race Against Time - about the Hour record and the rivalry between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree - has been given new relevance after the UCI took the Hour record out of the museum it seemed set to have been consigned to and once again pressed the reset button on cycling's real blue riband record. Have you been enjoying the attempts that have been made on the record so far?

EP: It's been an interesting period, although the excitement and relevance is compromised, I feel, because of the way the rules were reset, although it's still probably the best the UCI could do with a very unsatisfactory situation. I was at the Grenchen velodrome for the Voigt attempt, and while it was a fantastic piece of theatre, and a good ride, you could stand back from the situation and ask, why are we getting so excited about a guy riding 51 kilometres, when they were doing further than that back in the day? I was in London for Wiggins' record, too, and that had a bit more about it - tremendous atmosphere, but also a feeling that a very strong Hour benchmark had been set. He might not have ridden as far as Rominger, but there were good reasons for that.

Now that Wiggins has set a strong mark, I imagine there will be fewer attempts, and the progress is going to be incremental, but we're back into a situation where the record isn't invincible, just very tough, as it has been for much of its history.

PdC: Is Boardman's record attainable in the near future?

EP: I don't think so, for a while anyway. Wiggins' 54.5km gives us a good idea of what's possible, because he was the reigning world TT champ, has a superb track pedigree and specialises in one-off targets. At the moment, what's possible is probably slightly north of 55 kilometres, given the right rider, the right preparation and the right day. 56.3km must be at least a generation away.

A Brief History of the Hour Record

PdC: Back to The Yellow Jersey Club - you got lucky with this year's Tour, Froome's victory means you haven't had to rush to update the book, to add in a new chapter for a new member of the club. Who do you think is the man most likely to be the next to gain admission, do you follow the wisdom of the crowd and place your money on Nairo Quintana, or is there a dark horse out there you think could upset the odds?

EP: I still think Quintana's the most likely next member of the club, although he didn't come on as much this year as I thought he would. The problem with Quintana at the moment is that his main strength is that he's a superb climber, which is exactly what Froome is, only Froome's been slightly better. Perhaps the biggest challenge to Froome would be someone from left field, with a different skill-set - Tom Dumoulin, with a couple or more years experience or Geraint Thomas, if he could focus on one thing, rather than racing from January to October. And ride for a different team, obviously. I don't get to choose, but I'd love to see another French rider win the Tour.

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Edward Pickering is the author of The Yellow Jersey Club (Bantam, 2015) and The Race Against Time (Bantam, 2013) and is the ghostwriter of Robbie McEwan's One Way Road (Ebury, 2011).

You can find him on Twitter @EdwardPickering

You'll find reviews of The Yellow Jersey Club, The Race Against Time and One Way Road - along with an earlier interview - on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Edward Pickering for taking part in this interview.