The Bike Show returns for its winter season with guest in the studio Buffalo Bill reporting on this year’s Cycle Messenger World Championship in Dublin and Kieron Yates on taking part in the epic and grueling 1200 kilometer non-stop race from Paris to Brest and back.
As the Tour de France comes to Britain for the first time ever, what can three books tell us about the meaning of the world’s most demanding athletic contest?
First published in Prospect Magazine, July 2007.
The Beautiful Machine: A Life In Cycling from Tour De France to Cinder Hill by Graeme Fife (Mainstream, £16.99)
Push Yourself a Little Bit More: Backstage at the Tour De France by Johnny Green (Orion, £17.99)
Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France by Geoffrey Wheatcroft (Simon & Schuster, £8.99)
Kicking off on 7th July, this year’s Tour De France will be the first in the event’s 104-year history to start in Britain. Another first is that there will be no reigning champion. Just a week after the American rider Floyd Landis won last year’s yellow jersey, it was announced that he had failed a routine test for use of synthetic testosterone, a prohibited substance used to aid physical recovery (Landis continues to protest his innocence, and has spent close to $1m defending himself).
In the wake of the Landis case, the reputation of professional cycling has sunk to a new low. A series of German riders have made confessions, including 1996 Tour winner Bjarne Riis. The first Tour winner to admit to doping, this May, Riis told a press conference: “My jersey is at home in a cardboard box. They are welcome to come and get it. I have my memories for myself.” In what looks like a plea bargain, the leading Italian rider, Ivan Basso, has admitted “attempted doping.” The German Jan Ullrich, Tour winner in 1997 and five-time runner-up, retired rather than face questions. How does a competition scarred by cheating, lying and hypocrisy retain its huge following in France, in Britain and beyond?
Since the Tour began in 1903, riders have used drugs of one kind or another to dull the pain and to stay alert. However, everything changed with the emergence of red blood cell-boosting hormones and blood transfusion techniques. The main factor limiting a cyclist’s performance is not how much air the lungs can breathe in, nor how much oxygen the muscles in the legs can use; it is how fast the oxygen from the lungs can be transferred to the legs. The body uses red blood cells to do this, and so boosting red blood cell count directly tackles the bottleneck in the system. The effect on performance is pronounced; clean and doped-up riders simply do not compete on level terms. But blood doping is a risky business. Because the extra red cells thicken the blood, there is a danger that the heart will simply stop pumping. In the past few years, a number of young, fit racers have died suddenly in their sleep.
The anti-doping net never closed around Lance Armstrong, the Texan who won a record seven consecutive Tours. Yet suspicions abound. A test for the blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin was not introduced until 2004, but the French sports paper L’Équipe (part of the same media group that runs the Tour) claims to have retested Armstrong’s urine samples from the 1999 Tour and found traces of the drug. Yet the heroic narrative of Armstrong’s success—he won after recovering from life-threatening testicular cancer—has a human appeal far beyond cycling. It also opened the lucrative American market to the Tour and its sponsors.
The Tour’s centenary celebrations in 2003 were accompanied by a clutch of books about the race. This year, the arrival of the Tour in Britain brings several more titles. Unlike in Britain, a French journalist can make a name writing about cycling, and it was France’s stylish and literary sports journalism that first drew Graeme Fife to the Tour (having a French girlfriend also helped). Having previously written a history of the Tour, Fife has now published a memoir, The Beautiful Machine: A Life in Cycling from Tour de France to Cinder Hill. Fife finds the romance of the Tour bewitching, hearing echoes of the Greek epic poems he taught at a public school in Norfolk before turning to writing full-time in his early thirties. Just as the Tour’s organisers take pleasure in sending the riders over rough mountain passes, up into the clouds, the ice and the wind, so he relishes following the same punishing mountain climbs himself, at a fraction of the speed, but with much of the same suffering.
Those who argue it is the brutal demands of today’s Tour that force riders to turn to drugs forget that the Tour was at its most physically demanding in its early days. Its founder, Henri Desgrange, saw a link between physical effort and moral virtue. He wanted to see “a violent effort, prolonged, repeated, sometimes going as far as pain, demanding tenacity and even a certain stoicism.” For Desgrange, a perfect Tour would be so tough that only a single rider would survive to the finishing line. The 482km stage along the Atlantic seaboard from Les Sables to Bayonne began at 2am and the winning time was a shade over 18 hours. In his day, Desgrange turned a blind eye to the various pharmaceutical aids that riders used to prevent them from having to give up. But I suspect he would have seen the new, performance-boosting drugs as illegal outside assistance—like getting a push from a team car.
Desgrange’s successor, Jacques Goddet, was more tolerant of technological innovations. In 1937, Goddet allowed riders to use variable gears (Desgrange had always maintained gears were for the feeble and elderly). Yet Goddet cut an equally eccentric figure. When overseeing the race in the south of France, he wore khaki shorts and shirt, knee-length socks and a pith helmet, an unintentionally comic echo of French colonialism. Much of this entertaining history is recounted in Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s Le Tour: A History of the Tour De France (2003), published in updated form this year. Though Wheatcroft’s year-by-year chronicle can be relentless, he excels in drawing links between the Tour and various conceptions of Frenchness. Wheatcroft reminds us that, like most nation states in Europe, the modern French state was assembled from a patchwork of kingdoms and principalities whose people regarded Parisians as foreigners. La Grande Boucle (as the Tour is known) girdles France, reassuring her citizens and reminding her neighbours of her inviolable borders.
If Wheatcroft efficiently relates the Tour’s history, Johnny Green’s Push Yourself a Little Bit More (Backstage at the Tour De France) brings to life its soul. Green, the Clash’s former road manager, argues that professional cycling is the new rock and roll: the drugs are certainly in evidence, as are the showbiz and the trophy wives—and the scandals too. Green’s inner roadie is awed by the logistics required to stage the three-week race, executed with the Gallic efficiency normally reserved for more utilitarian projects such as high-speed trains and nuclear power stations. Ken Livingstone certainly sees the Tour as the biggest dress rehearsal London will have for the 2012 Olympics.
Unlike the Olympics, the Tour comes to the people. The stadium is an entire landscape. For three weeks each July we see why France is the most visited country in the world: châteaux, vineyards, poplar-lined avenues, high mountain passes and fields full of sunflowers, each turning its head as the peloton passes by, hot rubber hissing on hotter tarmac. The route of this year’s first stage, from London to Canterbury, offers history and legend to match, and the Tour’s organisers are sure to draw our attention to hop fields, cherry orchards and Kentish oast houses as the race passes through “the garden of England.” It is with a spirit of cultural celebration that millions line the roadsides, picnicking in fields as they wait.
With the doping problem running out of control, it seems strange that popular interest in the Tour is undiminished. Such is the determination of riders to win at all costs and so pervasive is their code of silence on doping that things will probably get worse before they get better. The recent trickle of confessions may yet turn into a flood. If the Tour is to clean up its act, it must combine a time-limited amnesty with a new requirement that any witness who fails to report doping can be charged with conspiracy. But even in these dark days, I cannot turn my back on the Tour. The spectacle, the history and the endeavour of the riders are irresistible.
The Bike Show is officially off air at the moment, but I couldn’t resist a podcast-only edition to discuss the Evening Standard’s Damscene conversion to the way of the bicycle. For years, London’s leading daily newspaper has been in thrall to unreconstructed petrolheads, but this week the paper has come out for cycling with a big front page splash on Monday and a series of double-page features during the rest of the week.
‘Buffalo’ Bill Chidley, a former London bicycle messenger who runs Moving Target Zine, tells it like it is, from trouble with heavy goods vehicles to running red lights. He is as bewildered as I am about the Standard’s volte face, and joins me for a look at the paper’s 12 point ‘charter’ for safer cycling in the capital. We a chat and spin a few 45s in the sunshine of my back garden.
(Normal Bike Show service will resume later in the month)
A look at London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s ambition for London to be the greenest major city in the world. Host Jack Thurston and Erica Jobson of Futerra, the London-based sustainable development communications consultancy discuss the role of government and the part that individual lifestyle choices can play in reducing the emission of climate change causing greenhouse gases.
Could 2007 be the best year yet for cycling in London? In the studio with Guy Andrews, editor of Rouleur magazine and Barry Mason of Southwark Cyclists. We discuss the coming of Le Tour de France to London, the 15th Dunwich Dynamo and other group rides organized by Southwark Cyclists and ask whether London cycling will continue to boom. We also preview the Rapha Roller Race on 10 February with Therese Bjorn.
The first ten Bike Show listeners to donate to Resonance fm’s survival fund will receive a free copy of the current edition of Rouleur magazine – newstand price Â£9 ($18). You can donate via Paypal or Credit Card and make sure to leave a note saying that you’d like a copy of Rouleur and give your postal address.
Women bike messengers might cut a better figure on the roads than their grungy, bearded and tattooed male counterparts, but are the girls better at their jobs than the boys? The answer is yes, if a handful of London’s women bike messengers are to be believed. For details on the upcoming Roller Races, look here.
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You can donate to our emergency fund quickly and painlessly here. Remember, all the programme-makers and engineers on Resonance are unpaid. We need to raise Â£60,000 now to pay for basic things like renting our studio (a damp and airless cave) and powering our antenna (a rusty coathanger tied to the top of a hospital). It’s not rocket science but without donations from listeners, it will all come to an end very soon.
In the second half of a ride with London cyclist Patrick Field, we cruise on the Woolwich Ferry, ride along the Thames Path through Greenwich before crossing in a tunnel under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs and from there onwards to old pumping station in Wapping converted into a arts space and cafe.
Along the way we discuss the revolutionary era of the bicycle, humanity and the march of progress and the challenges of global and local environmental imperatives. Heavy stuff, which might explain why Patrick suffers the Bike Show’s first ever live on air puncture.