A Few Good Cycling Reads

I’ve read a bunch of good books lately. Reading is a great way to switch off – it absorbs all of your attention. You can’t tweet and read. You can’t talk and read. You can’t drive and read. It’s all consuming. Which is something we don’t have enough of these days, with constant distractions of smartphones, computers and screens everywhere. Here are two cycling books I’ve read recently: Sean Kelly’s autobiography Hunger and David Walsh’s Inside Team Sky.

Inside Team Sky, David Walsh

I love reading or listening to David Walsh, as he always gives considered, insightful thought to a variety of sports, from golf to horse racing to football. But he’s best known for his long running battle for the truth in cycling, and the key role he played in documenting Lance Armstrong’s career as a drugs cheat.

So now that cycling has entered the post-Lance era, the sport is trying to say how “we’re all clean” now but the message is diluted by continuing drug test failures by cyclists, as well as the fact that so many of the top names over recent years have failed drugs tests (Contador, Nibali, etc).

For Walsh to jump over to the leading team and “embed” himself seemed like he’d suspended his views. I was a bit sceptical before reading this book – but trust Walsh’s judgement and thought I might learn something about how this very professional team work.

The book tracks Team Sky, the British based team, through the 2013 season, culminating in the Tour de France. The context is that Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour (and Olympics in London) but his team leadership has been overtaken by Chris Froome, the up and coming Kenyan. So team harmony is threatened but Walsh goes beyond that and shows you how a professional cycling team works.

How do you transport 30 people, plus bikes (min. 2 per rider) from stage to stage? What do the soigneurs (or carers as Sky call them) do? Well a lot, from organising hotel rooms to massages to food snacks. Team Sky go the extra mile – some stuff sounds neurotic – they transport their own bed mattresses and sheets from hotel to hotel, so as the riders don’t pick up infection. They bring their own cook to prepare meals in the hotels.

Perhaps most interesting is how Walsh learns from the team manager, Dave Brailsford, as well as many other people in the team: doctors, mechanics, carers and riders. Team Sky is living a 100% clean ethos. Zero tolerance on drug cheats: no supplements, nobody employed who’s ever worked in a previous team noted for cheating, no doctors from within the sport, etc.

This book is definitely interesting – my scepticism was partly addressed, but still I suffer from the fatigue and pessimism of drug cheating in cycling – my trust has been broken so many times before in cycling, athletics and other sports, that you think “if it walks like a duck…”, i.e. fast cyclist wins stage/Tour = he took drugs; sprinter wins 100m = he took drugs.

Especially when you see supernatural feats being accomplished by athletes in all sports -the bar keeps getting higher. Froome’s climb up Mont Ventoux was described by Paul Kimmage at the time as “unbelievable”. Yet Walsh thinks he’s clean. The evidence suggests he’s capable of things that previous drug cheats couldn’t even do.

So without a smoking gun, we still harbour doubts. It’s sad that we still can’t believe in all sporting achievements. I want to believe they’re riding clean, like I want to believe Usain Bolt, David Rudisha, Geoffrey Mutai are all clean. But for every Froome there’s an Armstrong. For every Bolt there’s a Powell. For every truth, there’s a lie.

Hunger, Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly was voted Waterford’s Sportman of the 20th Century. He’s a proud legend across the county and in Irish sporting circles, for his world beating achievements in the 70s & 80s. He’s mentioned in the same breath as Hinault, LeMond, Roche, Fignon – all great champions of his era in the golden age of cycling when it was a headline sport in Ireland.

Yet while we all know Sean Kelly, he still has a lot of mystery surrounding him. He’s still a public figure through his commentary on Eurosport, and he still lives on a farm near Carrick-on-Suir, regularly seen on the roads going for a spin around the Comeraghs or along the Suir Valley. However he’s also a private man, unassuming and quiet, not a “celebrity” or someone who loves the limelight. And he has a dark cloud over his head for his position on drugs in cycling. “Hear no evil, see no evil” seems to be the mantra.

I was looking forward to this book for two reasons: one to be inspired by how a Waterfordman rose from humble beginnings to be a world beater for over 10 years; secondly to gain some insight on his thoughts on drugs & cheating in the sport when he was competing. While Hunger is a great read, especially if you imagine Kelly reading aloud the narrative in his unique style, he avoids the black hole that is drugs like Bertie Ahern looking back on his Celtic Tiger years. He doesn’t glamorise the sport, but he frankly avoids the topic of drugs. There are about 2 pages where he mentions the drug tests he failed – his excuses are weak. One relates to a tampered urine test and the second to a failure in the test process.

This book does read very well – it’s his voice telling the story. Hunger is a good title – he succeeded not because he was athletically stronger or naturally more talented on a bike. He got to the top because he wouldn’t give up, he had huge hunger. That desire started when he was young. He left school, worked, then made a big move into the unknown by moving to France and racing. Those years were tough under Gribaldy – food deprived, trained to breaking point, scraping ends meat by going from criterium to criterium, all squeezed into a tiny car. Definitely not a comfortable lifestyle of luxury coaches, flights or hotels that you may see cycling as.

So this book left me asking questions – how could I be so against any form of cheating in sport and hate everything Armstrong and all that stood for, yet I still admire someone who also has questions to answer and even more so has remained silent, rather than clearly condemn any cheats? This ambivalence is difficult to deal with, my heart overruling my head – because he’s Irish, because we’re Waterfordmen, because his name hasn’t been pinned to the wall by WADA, journalists like Kimmage or Walsh in the same way that Stephen Roche and all the others have.q

Maybe Kelly was unfortunate to race at a time when the sport was tainted and he largely did the right thing. Maybe that’s why he avoids the subject, as he wants people to see the bigger picture – it was still bloody hard and the level of drug taking was different to what emerged in the 90s and 00s with EPO and blood transfusions. All I know is that he’s hard not to like, so I’ll still be rolling up for the Sean Kelly Tour of Waterford next August. I’m also waiting for the audiobook version of Hunger to be released – imagine Sean narrating his life story – that Carrick accent would keep anybody listening.

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