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Three Weeks Eight Seconds, by Nige Tassell

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The 1989 Tour - one of the best?

Three Weeks Eight Seconds, by Nige Tassell
Three Weeks Eight Seconds, by Nige Tassell
Three Weeks Eight Seconds, by Nige TassellTitle: Three Weeks Eight Seconds - The Epic Tour de France of 1989
Author: Nige Tassell
Publisher: Polaris Publishers
Year: 2017
Pages: 232
Order: Birlinn
What it is: A book about the 1989 Tour de France
Strengths: Who doesn't love the 1989 Tour?
Weaknesses: Does anybody actually read these books before they go to print?

Three Weeks Eight Seconds - The Epic Tour de France of 1989 is a glorified clippings-job take on the 1989 Tour de France that makes books like David Sharp's Va Va Froome - The Remarkable Rise of Chris Froome look almost good. It comes from the pen of Nige Tassell, who writes about music (Mr Gig - One Man's Search For The Soul Of Live Music) as well as sport (The Bottom Corner - A Season With The Dreamers Of Non-League Football). Among the books Tassell has clipped to produce this plodding, cliché-riddled, adjective-laden, vacuous waste of shelf space are:

* The Science of the Tour de France - Training Secrets of the World's Best Cyclists (James Witts, 2016)
* Greg LeMond - Yellow Jersey Racer (Guy Andrews, 2016),
* The Yellow Jersey Club - Inside the Minds of the Tour de France Winners (Edward Pickering, 2015)
* Selling the Yellow Jersey - The Tour de France in the Global Era (Eric Reed, 2015)
* The Cycling Anthology - Volume Six (various, 2015)
* Étape - The Untold Story of the Tour de France's Defining Stages (Richard Moore, 2014)
* The Cycling Anthology - Volume Five (various, 2014)
* The Cycling Anthology - Volume Two (various, 2013)
* Hunger - The Autobiography (Sean Kelly, 2013)
* It's All About the Bike - My Autobiography (Sean Yates, 2013)
* Riis - Stages of Light and Dark (Bjarne Riis, 2012)
* Born to Ride (Stephen Roche, 2012)
* The Tour de France ... To the Bitter End (edited by Richard Nelsson, 2012)

That's just the ones published within the last five years. Add in Slaying the Badger - LeMond, Hinault and the Greatest Tour de France (Richard Moore, 2011), Team 7-Eleven - How an Unlikely Band of American Cyclists Took on the World - And Won (Geoff Drake, 2011), and We Were Young and Carefree (Laurent Fignon, 2010)1 and then ask yourself a question: if you haven't already read those books, why would you want to waste your time on this? And another question: if you have already read those books, why would you want to waste your time on this? Answer to both: 1989.

Before 1989 became famous as an album by Taylor Swift it was famous for other things. It was the year Eurosport started broadcasting. It was the year of Foucault's Pendulum, A Year in Provence, and Guards! Guards!, the year of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Dead Poets Society, and Born on the Fourth of July, the year of Like a Prayer, Another Day in Paradise and Swing the Mood. It was the year of the Exxon Valdez and Hillsborough. It was the year the war in Afghanistan ended, the Berlin Wall fell, Czechoslovakia installed a poet in power, Romania overthrew and executed a tyrant, and students protested in Tiananmen Square. It was the year the French celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the year Americans celebrated Greg LeMond storming down the Champs-Élysées and over-turning a 50 second deficit to win the Tour de France by eight seconds.

The greatest Tour de France in the whole history of the ever ever? Probably not. But definitely up there.

LeMond had taken the maillot jaune at the end of the fifth stage, as the the first week's phoney war drew to a close, an individual time trial to Rennes putting him in yellow. Five days later, on the climb to Superbagnères Laurent Fignon relieved him of its weight. After another five days and another time trial, this time to Orcières-Merlette, LeMond was back in yellow. Three days later, after the ascent of l'Alpe d'Huez, it was Fignon who was back in yellow. Four days later and after three weeks and 3,285 kilometres of racing, the final time trial delivered victory for LeMond and the Tour enjoyed the greatest upset since David beat Goliath.

Fignon and LeMond had both been on the comeback trail: Fignon winning the Giro d'Italia and returning to the form that had seen him win the Tour in 1983 and 1984, LeMond returning to the form that had won him the Tour in 1986. But the Tour also saw another comeback story: reigning champion Pedro Delgado was late for the prologue time trial and became the race's first lanterne rouge, a status he enhanced the next day when he had a 'mare in the team time trial, ending the second day's racing almost ten minutes behind the race leader. How the defending Tour champion came to finish the race just three and a half minutes behind LeMond is perhaps the most famous of the 1989 Tour's many subplots.

The story of the 1989 Tour de France is one we are all familiar with at this stage, particularly in the years since Greg LeMond again became the only American to win the Tour, a story told and retold in interviews and profiles and thought pieces almost every other month. So how do you sell that story to an audience already overly familiar with it? Do you call on the reader to willingly suspend their knowledge and allow you to build the tension as you do a day-by-day telling of LeMond and Fignon neck and neck, with Delgado coming up the outside? Do you focus on one individual - LeMond, Fignon, or Delgado - and tell their story? Do you take a relatively minor character and do a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the story? Do you focus on the big picture and the fight for yellow or do you try and paint twenty-odd minor portraits that somehow merge into the perfect portrait of what some deem the perfect Tour? Do you tell just the story of the race, or do you expand the canvas and (as Richard Moore did in Slaying the Badger) paint portraits of the primary protagonists, or (as Geoffrey Nicholson did in The Great Bike Race and Le Tour) wrap the history of the Tour around one single edition?

Nige Tassel, sadly, doesn't seem to have a clue what story he wants to tell and so serves up a mishmash of whatever he can find in that big list of recently published books he's read. And, for the most part, he serves it all up with an excess of clichés, adjectives and vacuous commentary. Here he is on Bastille Day, having informed the reader that the French attacking on their national holiday is a myth:

"The fourteenth day of July 1989, however - exactly 200 years since the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and kick-started the downfall of the French monarchy - would see a home victory. It was surely preordained, a forgone conclusion, written in the stars."

Once the action gets underway, we get this:

"The PDM team, against the wishes of many of their number had been commanded by their bosses to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. They had instructed their charges to commit the cardinal sin of the peloton: to launch an attack as the field took on supplies at a feed station."

Which leads to this:

"Fignon and Mottet - team-mates at Super U the season before - made an excellent tandem. They relayed each other perfectly, barrelling along the flat, melting Côte d'Azur roads. Whether it was the still-simmering anger or simply the heat, Fignon appeared rather red in the face, squinting through those scholarly spectacles into the sun. Mottet, on the other hand, looked a little more at ease; his cap and ever-present shades ensured he rode with comfort."

When that move fails we get this:

"With fresh legs from sitting at the back of the chase group throughout in pursuit of their team captains, Barteau and Colotti wasted no time in establishing a decent advantage. Through the windy back streets of L'Estaque, on Marseille's northern fringes, they were off and away. After the lengthy, flat-out chase, there was little inclination within that front bunch to do so again, certainly not now all the GC contenders were back together. These two Frenchmen were largely left to it, a Bastille Day home victory looking increasingly likely."

And when Barteau takes the win, we get this:

"After a sharp, fast descent towards the Mediterranean and a circuit of the old port, Barteau was home and dry. A luminous, boisterous character who took up stand-up comedy in his post-racing days, he milked the adoration of the joyful Marseille crowd, blowing kisses and saluting them several hundred yards before the finish line. He knew how to enjoy it, how to soak it up, after some darker times. In a Tour that was studded with comebacks of all descriptions, Barteau's renaissance was another irresistible tale."

While Three Weeks Eights Seconds is primarily a clippings job - the books, the Channel 4 Tour coverage, and articles in British cycling magazines - it has been padded out with some new interviews. People who spoke to Tassell include those shrinking violets Stephen Roche and Andy Hampsten, as well as Sean Yates and Sean Kelly. And there's Pedro Delgado and Kathy LeMond. There are others - Bjarne Riis gets a few words in, Charly Mottet a couple, Raúl Alcalá - but no one seems to actually say anything you haven't heard dozens of times before. And none of the interviewees are used as skilfully as, say, they are in Richard Moore's Slaying the Badger, given voice and allowed talk: here, for the most part, everything is boiled down to crappy little sound-bites.

If Slaying the Badger was a choral symphony in the way it used its interviewees - skilfully giving the main speakers the room to let their voices (not just their words) be heard and using the supporting cast sparingly - then Three Weeks Eight Seconds is a sub-Stockhausen assault on your senses (the title does, I suppose, nod to John Cage). Across just a couple of pages in which Tassell is talking about LeMond, for instance, he assaults the reader with quotes from Edward Pickering, Procycling magazine, Sam Abt, Daniel Friebe, Harrie Jansen, L'Équipe, Andy Hampsten, Joe Parkin, Kathy LeMond and Len Pettyjohn. Trying to keep up is like trying to do 'Who's on First' while drunk.

There are some, I have no doubt, who will actually applaud what Tassell has done here - there are, after all, some who think Brendan Gallagher's Corsa Rosa is a great read. For some people, that it's a book about the 1989 Tour is all that will matter. Me, I'd like to think that, the bar having been raised in the last few years by the likes of Herbie Sykes, Richard Moore, Edward Pickering, Max Leonard, Daniel Friebe, Guy Andrews and others, we wouldn't now be settling for books which twenty or thirty years ago even the Kennedy Brothers would have thought twice about issuing. Me, I'd like to think that cycling has sufficiently matured and we can now demand of the books served to us that reading them should actually be an enjoyable experience and not the painful chore people like Tassell turn them into.

How accurate is Tassell's telling of the tale? Mostly, borrowing from the sources he's borrowing from, there's not much chance of getting things wrong. But once he goes off-piste and starts doing his own research things go a little awry. Tassell, for instance, tells us that the concept of a final day time trial in the Tour had been used before, offering the story of Jan Jansen's 1968 victory: "Yet, despite the cliff-hanging conclusion, the format was never adopted again for the last stage of a race. Not until 1989, that is." The format was in use continuously from 1964 through to 1971. Or there's the Tour and Luxembourg: Tassell tells the reader that 1989 was the only time the Tour visited the Grand Duchy between 1947 and 2002, for some reason over-looking 1967, 1968 and 1992. Or how about Tassell's claim that Laurent Fignon referred to the Renault team he joined in 1981 as "the Oxbridge of cycling"? He actually said it was "comme entrer à l'ENA ou à HEC." Which for English readers - being presumed to be unfamiliar with ENA and HEC - was turned by his translator into "the cycling equivalent of taking a degree at Oxford or Cambridge." Such pedantry, of course, doesn't matter: in a world of alternative facts why bother getting things right?

And what has Tassell got to say about doping?

"While it would be naïve to imagine that every single rider in the peloton was squeaky clean, it is fair to judge this race as one of the last classic encounters before EPO arrived and changed the game entirely. 'In the '80s and early '90s,' explains Stephen Roche, 'you'd feel a guy with natural talent could still come out and win, because whatever was on the market could increase performance by three to five percent. So somebody who had a lot of class could beat a guy who was taking something. In the late '90s and early 2000s, some of the products on the market at that particular time added 30-40 per cent increase in performance. So no matter how much class they had, it was impossible for someone who was trying to be clean to beat somebody who had taken something.'"

That is obviously nonsense. But not just for Roche's bullshit assessment of what happened in the nineties and noughties. It's nonsense for what Roche is trying to pretend was happening in the eighties. Through Mario Beccia, Roger de Vlaeminck and Roberto Visentini we have strong evidence showing blood transfusions were in use in 1982, 1984 and 1986. Through PDM's doping diaries we have strong evidence showing blood transfusions were in use in 1988. The notion of 1989 as some prelapsarian time is absurd.

Were Tassell to have something interesting to say about the 1989 Tour, some fresh angle from which to tell the story, some fresh revelations from those who did speak to him, the absurdities and the vacuities could be forgiven, the lousy writing lived with. But he has nothing: this is a simple, stage-by-stage telling of the story that fails to understand, let alone explain, quite what it is about 1989 that made the Tour so memorable. As with Alasdair Fotheringham's account of the Festina Tour, it's an opportunity squandered. As with the 1998 Tour - which celebrates it's twentieth anniversary next year - all we can do is hope that by the time the 1989 Tour's next major birthday comes around someone better equipped to tell this story will have taken a shot at it. It's an edition of the Tour that deserves better than this.

1 The rest of the bibliography runs to: Greg LeMond - The Incredible Comeback (Sam Abt, 1990); Rough Ride - Behind the Wheel with a Pro Cyclist (Paul Kimmage, 1990); Kings of the Mountains - How Colombia's Cycling Heroes Changed their Nation's History (Matt Rendell, 2002); Indurain - A Tempered Passion (Javier García Sanchez, 2002); The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France (edited by Les Woodland, 2003); Roule Britannia - A History of Britons in the Tour de France (William Fotheringham, 2005); Push Yourself Just a Little Bit More - Backstage at the Tour de France (Johnny Green, 2005); and In Search of Robert Millar - Unravelling the Mystery Surrounding Britain's Most Successful Tour de France Cyclist (Richard Moore, 2007).