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The Road to Glory, by Lawrence Brooks

Tour de France, 1985:  Phil Anderson, Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond, and Luis Herrera
Tour de France, 1985: Phil Anderson, Bernard Hinault, Greg Lemond, and Luis Herrera
Jean-Yves Ruszniewski / TempSport / Corbis / VCG / Getty Images

Title: The Road to Glory
Author: Lawrence Brooks
Publisher: Rush to Glory Publishing House
Year: 2017
Pages: 267
Order: Rush to Glory Publishing House
What it is: A modern cycling novel
Strengths: It’s cycling how we’d like to imagine it: black and white, good and evil
Weaknesses: It has one of the most ill-considered endings to a cycling novel I’ve come across, crass and offensive to the reader who has bothered investing time in this story

Frank Carney is the father of Nick Carney. He’s a charming man is Frank Carney, “electric and his smile produced dimples on each cheek”. Dimples. So sweet. He’s “the type of man that women adored. He was good-looking, influential and wealthy.” God but aren’t women shallow creatures?

Robert Saunders is a journalist, a man “driven to find the truth in action and meaning, report his findings to the world and do so animatedly and entertainingly.” He wrote something last year about Jack Bomber that brought legal letters and litigation. What, we don’t need to know, Legal Letters and Litigation says it all. As well as being a syndicated print journalist, Saunders joins the on-air commentary team taking Eurosport’s audiences through the Tour. What a guy, he’s more efficient at squeezing hours into a day than Japanese rail companies are at getting passengers into their trains.

Jack Bomber? He’s the the reigning two-time Tour winner. A champion. A legend. A right bastard. ‘Nuff said.

Allan Smith is one half of that on-air Eurosport commentary team Robert Saunders makes look good. Carl Thomson is the other half. The two make a pair of familiarly famous TV commentators. Sample dialogue:

- Did you see that, Carl?
- I most certainly did. I wonder what Jack Bomber thought when he peered at his teammate in yellow.
- I’ll tell you what he was thinking. He peered into Nick Carney’s eyes, and said, that’s my jersey. Thanks for keeping it warm, but at the end of the day I’ll be wearing it thank you very much.

Emma Blake is the fiancée of Nick Carney. She’s a dream girl too good to need to waste her energy being a manic pixie: “She was the type of woman people noticed; tall and blonde with beautiful, big emerald eyes; the picture of Hollywood.” Their meet cute was the stuff of a Guardian reader’s wet dreams: “They’d come across each other at Bridgehead, a free-trade, organic cafe located in Westboro — a hip neighborhood, with an abundant number of excellent eateries, quality java shops, yoga studios, and natural and environmentally responsible retail outlets.” God but I love her even more than I love the Paris 2024 Olympic logo.

Nick Carney, he’s the hero of our tale, the twenty-three-year-old rookie who, after the Tour’s prologue, finds himself in a yellow jersey that all the pundits think belongs to his teammate Jack Bomber. Only Carney can’t help himself from adding time, and more time, to his lead, a minute and a half here, a minute there, stage wins piling up along the way like the Sunday supplements on the floor at your feet in some organic cafe located in Westboro. Until ... well, let’s park the until for a moment. We open the novel on the Champs Élysées, the peloton’s gallop along the wide boulevard done and Nick feeling all “hollow, isolated and alone” as he crosses the line. His mind’s a whirl with the all important exposition needed to set up the next two hundred plus pages:

At one point during the Tour de France, physical and mental exhaustion had bullied him. He would never have imagined being part of the final, magical stage of the most significant annual sporting affair in the world, the mammoth competition that inspired hardened athletes to conquer the harshest external elements while battling one another. Like every cyclist, he had dreamt of growing up and winning the Tour de France, the pinnacle of the sport. He spent countless hours on and off his bike fantasizing of competing in the Tour, wearing the coveted Maillot Jaune, and standing on the top spot of the podium on the final day on the Champs Élysées. Had he prevailed?

For its first half, The Road to Glory is a fairly standard bit of fan fic writing, an imaginary Tour featuring thrills and spills familiar to all readers who know a little bit of recent cycling history. The author, Lawrence Brooks, says he’s a 30-year veteran of the sport who as a kid idolised Greg LeMond and Steve Bauer. Apparently the non-fiction representations of their era didn’t float his boat (being underwhelmed by Nige Tassell and Daniel de Visé I can well understand, but not rating Richard Moore? Not even Guy Andrews? Talk about high standards!) and he couldn’t find a novel offering a “riveting story that brought the reader into the fantastic world of cycling, into a race, and into the racer’s mind” (fair point, most cycling novels are crap at doing that). So we get offered this instead.

It’s hard not to read Nick Carney as an analog of Greg LeMond, with his rival and team-mate Jack Bomber three parts Bernard Hinault and six parts Lance Armstrong. Like Dave Chauner in High Road, you feel Brooks is taking history – those three classic Tours of 1985, 1986, and 1989 – and mixing their best bits together like a wholemeal Grandmaster Flash on the wheels of steel, only with cut and paste. An allegedly riveting story about the apparently fantastic world of cycling, albeit one that for some reason relies on telling the audience things rather than showing them:

Tom squirmed in the seat of the team’s car. He was watching Bomber build his lead, but questioning what his team leader was doing. They’d agreed to do as little work possible today. Going on the offensive was never part of the plan. Tom hesitated before replying to Nick. “Relax. Jack’s having some fun. We talked about it in our meeting this morning. Everything is going as discussed.”

Nick shook his head in disbelief, and mumbled to himself, yeah, I remember that fucking meeting. The one I didn’t know about and wasn’t invited to. Nick tried to calm himself down. Why am I freaking out? I am here for Bomber anyways. Why does it suddenly matter?

As Nick yelled into his mic and tried to contain his anger, the tone of the peloton transformed. Opposing teams’ came to the front and began to chase Bomber. There’d be no more playing around. Charlie Spitz rode up to Nick, bumping his shoulder to gain his attention, “Fucking amateurs.” Nick was embarrassed. He was the leader of the biggest race in the world, wearing the most prestigious jersey in the sport, and he didn’t know what his team was doing.

The Road to Glory’s problems come with Carney’s debt to LeMond. For it’s not just on the bike that Carney is a simulacrum of LeMond. He’s LeMond off the bike too. A man haunted by his past. And that past is more the story The Road to Glory than the Tour is. Half way through the novel, half way through the race, the narration takes a radical shift and we time-jump forward to many months after the Tour has ended. The demons that haunt Carney have come out to play and we have to try and get our heads around Carney’s daddy issues.

On the one hand, Brooks should be applauded for daring to explore the mental health issues associated with sport. But his handling of the subject is so inept, so shallow, so cheap and nasty, that to do so would be wrong. This isn’t an exploration, this is skating over the surface. To fully explain why would require telling you the ending, which I can’t. I can say that whereas in a sci-fi epic like Ad Astra Brad Pitt gets to cope with his daddy issues by going all Oedipus on his ass, Brooks offers Carney a different way out, an ending to the novel that is ill-considered, crass and hardly supports the claim that this is a novel about the “fantastic” world of cycling.

There is no glory to be found along this road.

The Road to Glory, by Lawrence Brooks
The Road to Glory, by Lawrence Brooks