Title: Dear Hugo
Author: Herbie Sykes
Publisher: Rapha Editions in association with Bluetrain Publishing
What it is: A cycling novel, about Hugo Koblet, and being a cycling fan
Strengths: Elegantly captures an aspect of what it means to be a fan while offering one take on the life and career of Hugo Koblet
Weaknesses: It’s not your conventional cycling story
The text that follows tells us that the novel’s narrator – unnamed throughout – is one of the three children in the picture:
“Most people assume the three of us were together because we were in the same place and we were more or less the same age. However I’d never met the other 2 and still today I have no idea who they were. I assume they lived nearby, but maybe not. All I can tell you about them is they didn’t seem to know anything about bike racing. I found that disappointing at the time because for me it wasn’t like that at all. I knew quite a lot about bike racing and I was there because it was important.”
We may not be able to name the author but we are immediately able to identify him. He is a cycling fan. A committed cycling fan. And on one level, Dear Hugo is a novel about being a cycling fan.
Despite the bazillion or so fanboys and fangirls breathlessly gushing about the sport across multiple media platforms – online, print, podcasts, TV – cycling’s fandom feels underexplored to me, especially when you consider how the wider world of fandoms have been explored in TV shows, documentaries, novels etc. I can really only think of two books I’ve read that come at the sport from the point of view of the cycling fan: Charlie Woods’ Bikie and – to a lesser extent – Tim Hilton’s One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers. While Nick bleedin’ Hornby’s calorie-free knock-off of Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes – Fever Pitch – spawned an avalanche of books about being a football fan, cycling has stuck with regurgitating the hits and the myths and avoided any real self-examination.
Cycling’s fandom, however, is just a subtext in Dear Hugo – an important subtext but still beneath the surface – and the novel itself is a way of exploring the life and career of Hugo Koblet, one of two Swiss cyclists who rose to fame in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War – Ferdi Kübler being the other – and who, along with Fausto Coppi and Louison Bobet, brought a touch of Hollywood glamour to a working class sport that was about to explode in popularity as it entered its Golden Age.
There used to be three things cycling books had to say about Hugo Koblet.
The first was about the comb he always carried in his jersey pocket and how he’d take it out and run it through his hair at the end of a race (combing your hair then not only being ‘a thing’ but also somehow a virile kind of thing – just look at all the pictures of Elvis perfecting his pompadour). During the 1951 Tour the music hall artist Jacques Grello dubbed him the pédaleur de charme and that’s how we know Koblet today. This charming man.
The second thing told about Koblet was his death following a car crash which was pretty obviously suicide but some need to insist was just a tragic accident (death by your own hand is fine when you’re Luis Ocaña (where it’s noble) or René Pottier (where it’s romantic) but is otherwise not to be admitted to in cycling – see also the friends of Shay Elliott).
The third thing? Brive-Agen.
Brive-Agen was a legendary Tour de France stage during which Koblet clipped off the front of the peloton after just 37 kilometres of racing and – having swiftly disposed of his breakaway companion – single-handedly held the chasing bunch off for another 120 kms and took the win with the rest of the pre-race favourites two and half minutes in arrears.
Brive-Agen was an exploit, there is no other word for it. In Benjo Maso’s The Sweat of the Gods its legend is deconstructed but still left with its power intact. In Tim Krabbé’s The Rider we’re told that “nothing like Brive-Agen had ever happened before, and it never happened again.” It had and has, of course: Fausto Coppi on the road to Sestrières the following year must count in comparison, to name but once. But Brive-Agen is still a cut above.
For Dear Hugo’s narrator, the stage has extra power, having happened on his birthday:
“I hardly sleaped at all during the 1951 Tour because there was so much going on and I found it all abit ovwerwhelming. I had my birthday in the middle of it, on 15 July! In the morning we went to Amberg’s shop and I got a real racing bike of my own. I’d been saving for the deposit and he said I could pay a bit each week just so long as I paid on time and didn’t try any funny business. [...] The birthday stage was Brive to Agen and it’s very important if you want to know what I think. Sugar Ray Robinson was there meeting the riders.. He was a famous boxer, and of course my dad knew all about him. There was a big photo of him in the news-papaer meeting Koblet and Schär, and that was quite funny because Schär was a tiny guy who could shoot up mountains fatsrer than Robic. I spent the afternoon listening to the radio and when Hugo attacked they said they didn’t understand him. They said he was crazy to do that with 135 kilo-metres still to race on a flat stage. Theyk kept saying he was too impulsive and it was a waste of energy but it turned out they were wrong and he wasn’t crazy at all. The commentator was crazy and the Italians and FREnch went crazy, because they couldn’t catch him and they never saw him again. There were 100 of them and 1 of him, and he still put3 minutes into them! The Weilenmann brothers were in the group which trying to catch him (they didn’t contribute obviously because they were his friends and Swiss and they knew that the better he did the more they would earn – that was how it worked), Anyway Leo Weilenmann said the last 40 kilometres was furyous. They said Coppi, Lazarides, Magni, Ockers and Gemigniani were doing big turns and still they couldn’t bring him back.. They said it should have been impossible to stay away with the Italians and the French pulling like that but somehow he did it. They said it was the greatest thing they ever witnessed in a bike race and think that’s why its become so famous.it was as if Hugo was cycling in a different dimension or something. I’d say it was as if he was a prince and the rest were paupers, or as if he was floating and they were plodding along because they were just normal human beings and he was a God.”
He wasn’t, of course, a God. He may have been an angel, with wingèd ankles – they all were in those days, they only came to be seen as angels with dirty faces in later years – but even that didn’t save him from the fall that was to come. Having won the Giro d’Italia the previous year and having used Brive-Agen as the springboard to success in the 1951 Tour – his first time of trying – there were no more Grand Tour victories in his future.
Koblet did have other successes. He was a track star – he’d started out as a pursuiter – and amassed multiple victories in Sixes in the years before and after his Grand Tour successes. A few months after his Tour victory he added the GP des Nations – the unofficial time trial World Championships – to his palmarès. The Tour de Suisse he won three times, the first immediately after his Giro win and then again in 1953 and 1955. The second of those, 1953, was doubled with victory in Switzerland’s other national tour, the Tour de Romandie.
But after having burned so bright at the Giro and the Tour, it was his failures thereafter that seemed to define him. Twice he was beaten into second at the Giro, some say cheated out of victory by Fausto Coppi in 1953 and then after helping his team-mate Carlo Clerici trounce Coppi the following year. He came within a bike length of winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen, beaten by Bobet in 1955. Twice he failed to finish the Tour, crashing out on a descent in 1953 and abandoning the next year after a crash in the Pyrénées saw him lose enough time to make victory highly unlikely.
But still he was Hugo Koblet, still he was adored.
Dear Hugo’s story is told through a letter typed by its narrator over the course of several weeks in 2021. Now in his eighties and with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge he feels the need to unburden himself of something:
“I can’t go to my grave without explaining everything, but if it’s all the same I won’t write my name. Technicly what I did was wrong, and I suppose you could even say it was criminal. I’ve had to live with that for nearly over 50 years but I know, in my heart, that I did it for the right reasons. You can be the judge of that if you want but my conscience is clear.”
The tpyos in the bits quoted, I should point out, are not down to me being unable to find my glasses again, they’re part of the storytelling, as Sykes explains in his introduction:
“The book is littered with typing, spelling and syntax errors. Apologies in advance, but I wanted to be faithful to the imaginary letters, and the imaginary people who wrote.”
The letters and people referred to by Sykes, they make up Dear Hugo’s other narrators: littered throughout the book are assorted business correspondence and letters from family, friends and fans adding detail our unnamed narrator could not be expected to know. Some offer clues as to Koblet’s libertine leanings (Anquetil alone was not the totality of cycling champions who failed to live up to the mythical monk-like existence fans like to think athletes endure), others his profligacy when it came to money. Some hint at a perhaps too close relationship with his mother and the difficulties that added to his marriage.
The detritus of a life, these letters are the raw material from which a conventional biography would construct the skeletal structure upon which the biographer hangs flesh and muscle. There, they’d largely be hidden from view. Here they require the reader to join up different strands of the narrative.
Our letter writing narrator, for example, elliptically refers to “whatever Coppi did at the Giro” and that is expanded upon in some of the other correspondence, including one letter from Coppi himself offering as explanation for why he double-crossed Koblet the claim that he did it for his Lady in White, Giulia Occhini, who had a particular ability to please il campionissimo.
What we don’t get is the detail of what happened, the conventional story about events on the Stelvio in the 1953 Giro. You don’t need that detail to appreciate what is being said in Dear Hugo but at the same time if you are aware of it – it’s been told in many books, including Sykes’ Maglia Rosa – you will probably appreciate what is being said in Dear Hugo all the more.
These other letters also allow Sykes to explore an aspect of fandom that is older than we imagine – trolling:
Dear Hugo is not a BOATS book – based on a true story – rather it is based on a legend, or series of legends, that may or may not contain truth:
“It’s based on a story which is commonly ‘believed’ to be true, but which is itself half the story at best.”
Absent entirely from the story told is anything offering Koblet’s own take on the stories told about him. It isn’t quite the story of the legendary Hugo Koblet, for our letter writing narrator doesn’t quite believe in such things, sees through performance and seeks what lies beneath. In his mind, Koblet was trapped by the man he briefly was, trapped by his own legend and the expectations of others:
“His whole life was a performance and that stopped him from moving forward and being something else. [...] H e couldn’t go back to being the normal Hugo Koblet from Aussersihl because he was like an actor and he only had one role which he couldnt get out of it. He had to play Hugo Koblet the great tour de Farnce winner so that’s what he did. It seemed that the 22 years old cyclist I’d run alongside when I was a boy had become the unhappiest person be in the world and nobody had nozticed or they chose not to care. They just carried on and so he did as well. It upset me.”
Cycling novels come in a variety of forms. Many are at the fan-fiction, self-published end of the scale and offer new spins on old tales, some better than others. Some, like Freya North’s Cat sell very well, some like Tim Krabbé’s The Rider develop a cult status.
Ilona Kamps in Alfonsina and Carlos Arribas in Ocaña have used the form to explore the lives of individual riders in ways a standard biography would not be able to do. Herbie Sykes achieves something similar here, capturing the essence of what made Hugo Koblet so popular during his lifetime and an enigma in the years since his death. In adding an extra layer that touches upon aspects of fandom Dear Hugo goes to underexplored places.
Sykes examines the tragedy of Koblet’s life – his rise and fall as a rider, his broken marriage, his financial problems, his death – without the tabloid level mawkishness some biographers of other riders have turned to. The real tragedy of its tale, though, is not that of Koblet’s life, it is that of being a fan of such a rider. And that’s what makes Dear Hugo such a wonderful read. It’s a story we can all understand and relate to.