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PANTANI: THE ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF A CYCLIST – REVIEW

Published February 28, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

MPAbout 20 years ago, Marco Pantani, the Italian cyclist, was the most captivating sports star on the planet, a force of nature who would seize the moment and, with a passion that crossed frictionlessly to his huge fanbase, deliver superhuman feats. I was a fan – a big fan. In July 1998, at my parents’ house, with my one year old son toddling and playing with bright plastic things in front of me, I watched all six hours of Eurosport’s coverage of his evisceration of Jan Ullrich in stormy weather en route to Les Deux Alpes. I was there in Paris a week or so later, to see him in yellow on the Champs Elysees too.

But that Tour is not remembered for that most epic of all epic stages, nor for Pantani’s GC victory just three years after a head-on collision (in which he was blameless) threatened his life, never mind his career. It will be remembered for The Festina Affair – the moment cycling (and its fans) had to acknowledge its endemic, systemic doping problem, the endgame (of sorts) coming nearly 15 years later with Lance Armstrong’s 2013 TV confession.

Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist (available on Netflix) tells the tale of the man through highlights, interviews and reconstructions. There’s Marco as the bike-bonkers boy, washing his machine in the bath and furtively tinkering with the derailleur in the middle of the night (echoed later in scenes showing cyclists training in hotel rooms at 3.00am to thin blood thickened to heart attack danger levels by EPO). There’s the amateur successes – Marco with hair – and a fierce will to win emerging from the short, slight, shy kid. Then, after metal pins held his leg together in hospital and the learning to walk again, there’s his re-invention as Il Pirata, and with it the adulation, the girls and the girlfriend and the Giro and the Tour.

But Marco’s eyes never really change. There’s a melancholy there, a window on to a soul that was most at home pounding out the training miles, flying uphill past, and not with, team mates, a man who both longed to be alone yet could barely cope when left to his own devices. He could endure physical pain – that’s pretty much the first line of the pro cyclist’s job description – but he couldn’t deal with the mental pain of defeat, but also, perhaps,  the burden of the pervasive doping deceit. Cycling, with its curious combination of an emphasis on individual endeavour within a strong team framework, its weeks on the road in grim cheap hotels with the aircon blocked for fear of catching a cold and its routine monastic lifestyle punctuated by wild celebratory blowouts, does not lend itself to preparing its heroes for retirement. Like cricketers (who have to cope with many of the challenges listed above) too many cyclists find the adjustment to the outside world too disorienting after they hang up  their cleats.

He’s been gone 12 years, but would only be 46 now and, in that way that those who look 40 when 20, would almost certain look exactly the same if he were around today. Cycling, sport in general, hell even I, miss him, because the likes of Il Pirata don’t come round very often and they leave huge gaps when they go.

And yet, cycling, sport and I have plenty of culpability in his demise at his own hand in a dingy hotel room on a cold dull day in February 2004. Cycling didn’t (and maybe hasn’t) grasped the nettle of doping and rooted it out from top to bottom – or at least as far as it can. Sport demands more and more of its heroes, especially those who transcend mere winning and losing and become icons, their every move photographed, filmed, dissected. And I, and millions of fans like me, bought the magazines (I subscribed to Cycle Sport and Procycling so as not to miss anything Marco) and looked on amazed, but knowing that what looks too good to be true probably is too good to be true. But we still thought of the Marcos and the Frankies and the Jose Marias as winners (in the game of cycling) and not losers (in the game of life). The film’s title may nod in the direction of Dario Fo’s play, but there was nothing accidental about this death.

That said, Marco bears some responsibility for his fate, but there’s plenty of faceless men with money and a vicious amorality who constructed a culture in professional cycling that destroyed many of its brightest stars and countless others down the ladder of success. The film Pantani shows much of the beauty of this most beautiful of sports – and plenty of the ugliness of this most ugly of sports too.

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Slaying The Badger by Richard Moore – revisited and reviewed

Published August 20, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
The greatest kit in sports history

The greatest kit in sports history

Bernard Hinault was The Patron of the peloton, the four-time winner, the force of nature – in the unwritten, but understood and fiercely enforced rules of the Tour de France, that gave him rights, rights he was very happy to exercise. In 1985, he had used this throwback to a version of droit de seigneur (and his team leadership, though that seemed almost incidental) to stifle the opportunity of his young team mate, Greg LeMond, to ride for the maillot jaune. Though injured and riding as much on reputation and that ferocious will as physical power, Hinault’s record equalling fifth jersey was secured in Paris: in return, LeMond secured a promise (well, a sort of promise) that Hinault would ride for him come 1986.

Richard Moore’s Slaying The Badger is the story of that unforgettable Tour, a story that holds its mysteries to this day. It speaks of a race that is now gone forever – not just because it was written prior to Lance Armstrong’s confession that sliced cycling history into a “Before and After”, but also because the 1986 Tour is so very French, the domain of radio-free riders grabbing information and instructions on the fly and still rooted in cycling’s long gone culture of riding hard and playing hard. There are no marginal gains here, no diet sheets and no hypodermics either..

The book sets up – aided by long and (mainly) frank interviews with its key personalities – the men whose actions decide the 1986 Tour. What seemed at the time like madness (I watched the nightly Channel 4’s coverage avidly, bewitched by even bit-part players like the great Colombian climber, the wildly attacking Lucho Herrera, never mind the two main men) becomes, if not quite explained, then certainly explicable, as a set of characters who surely could have been invented by Anton Chekhov, emerge to duel in the sun.

Hinault’s force of will is illustrated with the already legendary deeds of winning in the snow of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the mud of Paris-Roubaix; in his ascent from a ravine into which he and bike had tumbled, rising to use the spare machine to win 1977’s Criterium du Dauphine Libere; in his leadership of a riders’ strike in his first Tour and his willingness, even today, to take the direct physical action French farmers such as he employ to deal with those invading their space. Though a brawler in both the metaphorical and literal senses, Hinault emerges as a man who knows his obligations as much as his rights, not so much a monster as a man who could be monstrous when required.

LeMond is, of course, his opposite. Prone to self-doubt, American and so, so keen to be seen to be doing the right thing, only his extraordinary physical attributes give him anything in common with the Hero of France. Hinault knew that LeMond would win the Tour – as proud a champion as he would only assert that he could handle LeMond so forcefully, so frequently if he felt it needed to be said – but he didn’t want him to win in 1985 and, when the combat went mano-a-mano in 1986, he didn’t really want him to win then either.

Managing these two most alpha of alpha males in the same team was Dr Paul Kochli, a technocrat who logged riders’ data on 80s era computers and preferred to focus on the team rather than the rider – it was not a recipe for harmony at La Vie Claire. Behind him lurked a man for whom harmony was anathema and victory was expected, the larger than life team owner, Bernard Tapie – industrialist, singer, jailbird. Tapie loved the limelight and the Hinault-LeMond saga gave him plenty of that.

1986’s Tour was a combustible mix and it caught fire when Hinault decided to “stir things up” with a series of random attacks to which his team-mate LeMond was not privy (nor was the anglophone half of La Vie Clair). Was Hinault reneging on his promise of a year earlier? Was it really ever made? Was he riding to reduce the field to himself and LeMond to ensure a La Vie Claire man on the top step of the podium supported by another just one rung down? Or did he glimpse a sixth Tour and immortality with just a Yankee kid in the way?

As the book follows the stages of 1986’s Tour, Hinault’s mind games get to LeMond and they get to the reader too. Is Hinault bold and brave, tilting one last time at one of sport’s greatest prizes with the panache of his youth? Or is he cruelly playing every card in his hand against a team-mate to whom he owes, at the very least, a moral obligation to support? In an astute afterword, David Millar’s nuanced interpretation rings most true – but we’ll never really know.

It’s no surprise to learn that the book has been adapted into one of ESPN’s series of sports documentaries as it’s a page-turner full of suspense, humour and no little pathos. It’s also a reminder of why my generation fell in love with the sport, despite its flaws which were to metastasise in the two decades to follow into the obscenity of Armstrong’s bullying, lies and the culture that supported them. Richard Moore’s research, his love of the race and his respect for its riders rekindled memories undimmed by the passage of time (that iconic La Vie Claire jersey hardly fades does it) but also the joy of discovering a sport with so vast a canvas, a sport that so brutally revealed human character and, yes, a sport that was such fun to watch. Hinault may have stirred the race, but the Tour stirred our souls.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – La Course en Tete

Published February 22, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

EddyThe man who was so often The Leader of the Pack (La Course en Tete) was Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist in history and, it must be said, an astonishingly beautiful human being. Joel Santoni’s film tells us that and much else, but leaves the enigma of the man as impenetrable as ever.

Starting with the pain of defeat – much the greatest pain shown on Merckx’s notoriously impassive face over the next two hours – in the controversial 1973 World Championship (causing a rift with Freddy Maertens that has never really healed), the film traces the contrasts of joy and pain in Merckx’s life on the road and at home. There’s the joy of family life with Claudine and kids and the pain of crashes on the track and road; there’s the joy of reflection on victories and the pain of the muscles being brought back to life by his loyal soigneur; there’s the pain of doping allegations (ever so briefly raised and dropped) and the joy of the jerseys and trophies accumulated by the man who could bear pain better than any other.

It’s in the details that the film excels. Bikes are perfect triangles of thinnest steel tubing, obviously designed on graph paper with a ruler and pencil. Team jerseys are of lightweight wool, with sponsor’s names etched in such continental calligraphy. Riders are free of helmets and sunglasses, their sacrifices on climbs and in sprints lain bare before our eyes. Crowds crowd the riders, on the roads and at the finishes. Everyone wants a piece of Merckx, many literally swiping his hat and anything else as he is consumed by an adoring public and jealous Italians.

We learn little of Merckx the man. That he hated losing is hardly a revelation nor that he obsessed over his bikes, fetishising the components, fiddling with saddle heights and cassettes, watching mechanics like a hawk, partly to make sure they did their jobs with the same single-mindedness as he did his and partly (one suspects) in envy for their shelter from the public and their long hours in the sole company of bicycles.

Of the rider, there’s ample evidence for his nickname, “The Cannibal”. He pushes big gears up mountains riding tempo until there is nobody left on his wheel and then rides tempo to the finish to win with a momentary smile. His style is reminiscent of Jan Ullrich in his glory days. At other times, he looks ugly on the bike, out of the saddle and over the handlebars, fighting against the gradient – like Cadel Evans trying to suck a wheel. In time trials, he attacks the course, showing it no respect, dismissing it from under his wheels – like Fabian Cancellara at his best. We see Merckx winning sprints, but there’s no evidence of a real jump, more the relentless ability to go faster than anyone else, no matter what the circumstances.

As ever when a camera is pointed at the Giro or the Tour, there are breathtaking landscapes through which the cyclists ride and some fantastic shots of the kind of medieval towns through which the Giro passes every year. The best shots have the more terrible beauty of the mountains, especially descents in rain, even full storms, in which Merckx shows that he may have gone uphill like Ullrich, but he descends like Pantani – Merckx was a bike handler nonpareil.

There’s a lot wrong with the film – the music is ill-judged and intrusive and the cuts from massage to the day’s climb are too cliched – but it is a remarkable chronicle of a remarkable man at a time when cycling, with its grands tours and monuments, was undeniably foreign, untouched by the familiarity that comes with global sponsors, live television and cheap air travel. The footage is but forty years or so old and Merckx himself isn’t yet 70, but one is looking in on a world gone forever. It is to M. Santoni’s credit that he brings so much of that world to the screen.

You can see La Course en Tete by clicking here.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – Pour un Maillot Jaune

Published February 10, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

Pour_un_maillot_jaune_VHs_coverWith the discourse of sport on television so settled – linear narrative, repeats of key moments, a focus on stars, endless expert analysis, real-time on-screen information graphics – and the few attempts to step outside such confines usually producing something that might just get a 2.2 at a mid-range film school, Pour un Maillot Jaune stands as not merely the best documentary about cycling, but the best documentary about sport. It is an astonishing piece of work that improves on every viewing – from my first sighting of it on Channel Four in the mid-80s to its DVD giveaway with a Cycle Sport subscription in the 90s, to its posting on youtube in 2009.

Filmed (and the film is so obvious the slippery brown stuff and not even video, never mind digital recording – at times, you can almost hear it clicking through the camera) in black and white and colour, with music, noises and silence as its soundtrack, the 1965 Tour is captured in a series of short sequences, packed with detail. Here’s a puffed-up local maire, cutting the ribbon to start a stage, milking his moment in the limelight while the riders lean on their bikes, bored. There’s a priest blessing the peloton in a scene, like so many others, that is so very, very French. And here’s a Johnny Hallyday wannabe entertaining the locals late at night with the town en fete after the arrival of the Tour.

These colour scenes are so densely populated and come at the viewer at such a pace, that the film grows into a mosaic of images, each complete in and of itself, but also forming a synthetic whole. One feels inside the chaos of the Tour, carried away in its carnivalesque caravan, catching a cough as Gitane smoke curls on the breeze.

As if that wasn’t enough, the film also captures the lot of the men on the road. On motorbikes, photographers balance precariously to get their shots while others drift off to sleep, heads resting on the backs of their drivers. Under a fierce sun, an official leaps from his car to immerse himself in the cool, cool water of a roadside canal, before racing back behind his huge 60s steering wheel as the peloton cruises past. Journalists interview riders and babble into mics for the benefit of radio listeners – noise everywhere.

The riders are almost incidental in this circus, but not quite. They tick over on the flat roads along the seaside near Cannes, suffer on what looks like an ascent of the Galibier, stop to fill bidons at village square fountains and fall from the top of a mountain pass to the valley at terrifying speeds. Unhelmeted, gaunt and with haircuts that Elvis would recognise from his days as a GI, they look more like James Dean style film stars than sportsmen. None are identified, but it’s easy to spot the likes of Tom Simpson, Raymond Poulidor and race winner, Felice Gimondi and those timeless team jerseys – Peugeot, Pelforth, Kas, Mercier, Ford and Molteni.

Ultimately, the real stars of the show are director Claude Lelouch and editor Claude Barrois. Lelouch finds unique angles to reveal the terrible beauty of the Tour. He contrasts the speed of the race with the heavy, heated air of high summer in rural France. He portrays the intimacy of the relationship of rider and soigneur. He shows us the great physical pain of a rider on the limit and the greater mental pain of the rider past the limit and in the broom wagon.

More than any other sport, cycling has the character of performance art, a rolling exhibition in praise of man’s capacity to tame his environment and the environment’s capacity to hit back. Pour un Maillot Jaune shows more of the Tour in 30 minutes than you will see in three weeks this summer – despite television’s superb coverage. It really is that good.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage

Published February 3, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

RRIt’s sat on my shelf for over a decade. Unlike the back copies of Procycling and Cycle Sport in the loft and under the bed, it didn’t grow so distant so quickly, as chronicles of the near past so often do. It had no photos of fallen heroes, no photos of those heroes not yet fallen, no photos of those who may be heroes yet (Boardman, Obree and Lemond and…). But I hadn’t read it, hadn’t wanted to break the spell woven by the voices of David Duffield and Phil Liggett (“IT’S ROCHE!”), hadn’t wanted to know what I merely believed. After reading David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins last weekend, the time had come to pick up its precursor.

For a while, it’s rather an ordinary, almost apologetic, read. Kimmage wants to emulate his father and win bike races – he soon does, and joins three other Irishmen, giants of 80s cycling Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly and fellow domestique Martin Earley on the continental pro circuit. There’s some laddish banter, some old bastard managers with hearts of gold (and plenty without) and some minor successes. The only unusual aspect of this rise to the middle is the author, a spiky young man, quick to judge (but usually right) with a gift for observation and recording that marked a talent for writing that had much more potential than his talent for bike racing. (Though he was no loser on the bike – he did his job and he did it well)

Then suddenly, the curtain is drawn and we’re ushered into the murky enclaves of professional cycling. It’s a looking glass world in which those not taking a “charge” are the immoral ones, letting down their mates. There’s the vicious weeding out of the “weak” of body and mind by the managers’, by the fan’s, by the sport’s insatiable desire to win. And there’s the brutality of the races: long miles in the cold, up and down mountains, day after day in which the losers are not those placed behind the winner, but those who get off – it’s as close to gladiatorial combat as is legal, and, boy, did we love it for that. People, as they do, learn to cope – the riders ran for the shelter of the pro cyclists’ little helper.

Kimmage didn’t want that. He remained as true as he could to his romantic image of what cycling could be. He weakened as far as the strong stuff three times in the narrative, but not to win – to survive. Even as clean as he was, hs story is an unedifying tale of needles in bums, suppositories up bums and of dodging the Keystone Kops of the doping controls. Don’t put your daughter (or son) in a stage Mrs Worthington.

Eventually he has had enough of the whole thing and swaps sitting behind the handlebars for sitting behind a computer – and, to his genuine surprise, discovers that he’s a better writer than rider. The diary pieces after stages of the Tour and the Giro are vivid portraits of life on the road, made all the more powerful by being headed by that day’s stage winner and maillot jaune – men never referred to in each day’s account. They might as well have been on another planet – often they were.

23 years after its first publication, the book has little to reveal to the cycling fan who has had eyes to see – cycling’s stars have often been treated like Chuck Connors in Branded. Through those 23 long years, Kimmage (like David Walsh) has been ostracised for “spitting in the soup”, speaking truth to power and challenge the alliances of sponsors, cyclists, managers, doctors and administrators who needed the show to go on, despite all that they knew. He lost friendships and found himself sued by his heroes for talking about a hit of amphetamine on the road, the setting up of a few criteriums and the occasional oiling of inter-team alliances with money – all stuff every cycling fan knew about and largely accepted. I know I did.

Now a journalist, he and Walsh began to find out about stuff stronger than that taken at most nightclubs in Europe. Hormone supplements are only hinted at in Rough Ride, but the genie was already out of bottle. EPO was allowing the riders to fly ever closer to the sun and to fall ever further if they got it wrong, as the blood thickened and the heart just couldn’t pump it. Kimmage’s book was a warning to the future and it was largely ignored by those with the power to do anything about it. And we know where that story ended last month.

Today David Walsh has revealed that he will live with Team Sky this season – the troll no longer under the bridge, but at the heart of cycling’s Number One team. His insider’s tale will be quite different from Kimmage’s – but did there have to be so many casualties laid out on the road between them? The UCI may have to answer that question very soon – and I hope Paul Kimmage is among the inquisitors.

(This review will also be published at Made Good.)

Seven Deadly Sins My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh

Published January 27, 2013 by tootingtrumpet
The author, standing, with Pierre Ballester, Emma O'Reilly and Betsy Andreu in the boat.

The author, standing, with Pierre Ballester, Emma O’Reilly and Betsy Andreu in the boat.

From the moment David Walsh watched Lance Armstrong riding the Tour de France 1999 prologue and thought (no, not thought, knew) something wasn’t right, his life became consumed with an Ahabish obsession to slay the biggest fish in cycling’s, perhaps even sport’s, waters. Seven Deadly Sins is his account of how he played his part in Lance’s eventual evisceration and of why he so doggedly pursued the man who had cut him away from his innocent love of professional cycling – a sport the external terrible beauty of which hid an internal terrible horror.

In the early 80s, Walsh was smitten by the sport and its stars – especially fellow Irishmen, the sprinter-turned-Classics-hardman Sean Kelly, the softly spoken Dubliner Stephen Roche and the kid trying to make it, Paul Kimmage. He was soon travelling with the circus, reporting Le Tour and other big races for the Sunday Times and getting his first glimpse of cycling’s unseen world, with the rattle of the pill box in the back pocket, the contempt with which those that rode on “bread and water” were held by the “committed” and cancerous effect of doping on the souls of those that did not dope (and thus lost) and those that did dope (and thus lied). The love faded and the journalist’s instinct for a story took over. David Walsh was no longer in the cycling game, he was in the doping game and he was going to tell that story, come hell or high water. From 1999, it was not about the bike.

The book captures much of the loneliness of the life Walsh chose. Who wanted this journalist to spit in the soup? Not the cyclists, the vast majority of whom knew what was required, and did what was required, without breaking the omerta. Not his fellow journalists, most of whom were as besotted as Walsh had been before the scales fell from his eyes – anyway, their jobs depended on access to riders and such access could be denied. And not the administrators either, whose monuments tottered on piles of used syringes, too plentiful to deal with – take one too many of those riders’ little helpers away and the whole lot might come crashing down.

Walsh’s moral compass never faltered and he began to find allies, find men and women who would talk, each disgusted in their own way about how cycling had been hollowed out by cynics and charlatans. Men and women as spiky and fearless as Walsh, found a confessor and scribe in the Irishman, a man who would listen and believe and, unlike so many others, act. In turn, Walsh got support from his editor over years when readers’ letters stacked up telling him that the punters didn’t want to know.

And there was good reason for so many who suspected (and the few that knew) to keep their heads down. There wasn’t just the carrot of money, glory and glamour for those who went along with the spectacle, but the stick of banishment for those who associated with “the troll” Walsh. Journalists were sued (Walsh and colleague Pierre Ballester’s book LA Confidentiel is not available in the UK for fear of libel), whistleblowers like Christophe Bassons were forced out of the peloton and many veiled and unveiled threats were issued by men with the power to make good on them.

Slowly Walsh found more like Kimmage – those who had been on the inside and knew what went on behind the closed doors of anonymous hotels at races and training camps. Honest men like Italian coach Sandro Donati led him to Professor Francesco Conconi, a man very interested in the impact of blood composition on athletic performance, and on further to Conconi’s protege, Michele Ferrari, Lance Armstrong’s long-time adviser, and doctor to many successful cyclists – and believer in EPO’s danger being equivalent to that of orange juice. Walsh’s contempt for the medics with their “training programmes”, their lists with the code names, is greater than that he bears towards the cyclists – except Lance.

If contempt runs through the book as the grotesque freakshow’s scale grows and grows, there’s love too. Donati is praised, but that is as nothing compared to Walsh’s platonic love of two women – Betsy Andreu and Emma Reilly. Betsy, wife of ex-Armstrong team-mate and friend Frankie Andreu, was fired by a zealous sense of right and wrong as it affected her and her husband. She would not stand for Frankie doing drugs and she would not lie for Lance – she told Walsh that Lance had admitted to using PEDs in hospital during his cancer treatment. She also lent Walsh some of her indomitable spirit just when he needed it. Emma Reilly was Lance’s soigneur and confidante – she was on the inside and happy to tell anyone who would listen and sod the consequences. (Both women clearly liked Lance – a man who could be monstrous, especially when threatened, but who could be charming, decent and good company in a world where the testosterone didn’t just come in hypodermics).

The feeling that something wasn’t right in 1999 had grown into a case against Lance that resided in that space that eats at the soul of the journalist – strong enough to convince any reasonable editor, but not strong enough to stand up in a court. Walsh’s evidence had been compiled over years, but still Lance could, and did, say that he had never failed a test (at least not one he couldn’t make disappear). And for all the rickety worthlessness of so many of the drug protocols, plenty did fail tests – that, and the fact that Lance only really rode to win on five days of the year, made me believe in the Armstrong cult for too long. Roll in the despicable bullying of those who suggested that cycling’s Emperor had no clothes and it becomes easy to see how this big lie lasted so long and why it took a state-backed agency and Floyd Landis’ ethical crisis and flatly damning confession, to provide the smoking gun and see the seven jerseys lowered at long last.

Seven Deadly Sins shows signs of being a somewhat hurried in its publishing (it really should have an index) and there are occasional stylistic ticks that grate a little – I just can’t abide the one sentence paragraph – but what it loses in polish, it more than compensates in its fiery righteousness. Walsh had the energy of a lover scorned – cycling had done that to him – and he had his small coterie of believers which took on the characteristics of a terrorist cell, plotting and planning to explode truths in a sprawling landscape of deceit. I’ve written of my own feelings about Armstrong here, and, 400+ pages later, little has changed on that score. But I have a newly revived respect for those that dare to stand up for their beliefs, for those that won’t be browbeaten nor warned off, for those who refuse the easy option in full knowledge that the harder option will be very hard indeed. And, not for the first time and not for the last, I am reminded that – even in these media saturated days (perhaps because of these media saturated days) – the best place to hide is in the full glare of the spotlight.

(This review will also be published at Made Good. Thanks to Michael Beattie for the gift of the book).

Sport, decency and Lance Armstrong

Published January 20, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

LA JUIs it possible to divorce the man (or woman) from the work? In the arts, does it diminish the work of Amedeo Modigliani, of Phil Spector, of Alfred Hitchcock to know that these men were, shall we say, dysfunctional? What links the creator with their work – specifically with the public’s reception of their work –  has long been a subject that has fascinated me and remains one of the Ph.Ds I’ll never write.

There’s a parallel in sport of course – any field of endeavour will throw up idols with feet of clay – but what will the fans, will the sport, will I, accept? The torrent of “wise after the event” pieces on Lance Armstrong has provoked me to consider questions I’d rather avoid.

I loved cycling, really, really loved it. The terrible beauty of the lands to be conquered , the history honoured in words and images, the vast canvases of the sport’s monuments – Grands Tours, Classics and the pursuit of the Rainbow Jersey. And it was not (as I heard claimed earlier this week) peopled by men who had turned their bodies into machines, the better to engine their bikes to the finish line. Cycling, like cricket, could go hours with little of note and then an attack, a section of pavé, a turn of a corner into the face of the Mur de Huy, and ten seconds of lapsed concentration could cost a day’s race, a month’s Tour, a year’s preparation. The mind, and an iron will, counted more than the physical powers of these superhuman sportsmen.

But I knew there was something wrong, something that was of an order of wrongness that placed cycling beyond what I tolerated elsewhere. It wasn’t just the physical impact of the drugs – like fans of many sports, I’d accepted “in competition” tragedies like Tommy Simpson’s horrific demise on  the brutal Ventoux and Fabio Casartelli’s accident as part of the game, mourned though The Fallen are) – increasingly, insistently, the mental impact of cycling’s deceitful culture was worrying me. The death of Jose Maria Jimenez shook me and then, just a few weeks later, the appalling fate of my hero for so long, Marco Pantani, cut me to the quick. It was no surprise, a few years later, to  read that another hero was gone – mad Frank Vandenbroucke, whose victory in the 1999 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was the most sensational in all those years of watching Eurosport in the company of David Duffield and Sean Kelly.

And every July, there was Le Tour, the centrepiece of every summer with its shimmering sunlight, its swaying sunflowers and its shootouts in the mountain stages. My fascination with it had started in about 1984 with Lucho Herrera and the Cafe de Colombia boys attack, attack, attack in the mountains and gone through, undiminished, into the Armstrong era. I read Cycle Sport and Procycling every month and eschewed the highlights programmes – I was hardcore and watched from Depart to Fin, if Eurosport allowed.

And I believed in Lance Armstrong. I’d seen him win the Rainbow Jersey at 21 in appalling conditions in Oslo; I’d read the cancer book; I knew about his weighing of his food, his recces of the key stages; his sole focus on Le Tour to the exclusion of the classics. The question was not, “How could this man win Le Tour?”, it was “How could this man not win Le Tour?” And there was the competitor too: the winner’s ability to see the moment and take it (“The Look”); the fierce pride in performance (the charge back from sprawling on the tarmac to win the stage into Luz Ardiden); and the bike handling (the detour through the field after Beloki’s crash). Sure there were the doubters – journalists with stories to sell, competitors with names to make, and, much harder to ignore, Number Two in my list of cycling heroes, Greg Lemond, who did not believe at all.

But I did believe – even after I gave up my emotional investment in cycling (and my financial investment in the magazine subscriptions) when Tyler Hamilton was caught (another in the list of heroes). It was probably only a couple of years ago that I was able to say out loud that I did not believe in Lance – it just couldn’t be that the only unjuiced cyclist in those youtube clips of a decade or so ago was the man who kept winning could it? No it couldn’t.

Now the truth I was late to accept is admitted, I have more troubling, more general thoughts to consider. I’ve always accepted that sports’ stars are different to the rest of us – on so many parameters, they have to be at the end of the bell curve. Sitting out there on the edge of the distribution is not a recipe for an easygoing personality, for the kind of person who makes a great boss or perfect company over a pint, but when does the understanding stop and the condemnation begin? If I can shrug my shoulders at Lance Armstrong’s drug abuse – though I feel an undiminished anger on behalf of every sportsman or sportswoman robbed of victory by cheats – I can’t shrug away the bullying, the vindictiveness, the hypocrisy. I know that living a lie eats at the soul, but Armstrong’s bullying of journalists, ex-colleagues and competitors was of an order beyond what even that torment can forgive. The apologies and the court cases will follow and truth and reconciliation is the only way to deal with such pain for those involved, but what of me, what of us cheering on the heroes, buying the merchandise, making sport what it is?

Can we accept that Armstrong’s bullying is just part of the game and that his victims should, as the empty phrase has it, “man up”? If we say No, what does that mean for free speech, for media regulation, for the PR that creates and destroys the heroes and villains in turn? I’ve been ridiculed for saying that I would not have wanted Sir Alex Ferguson as manager of Everton as I find his bullying unacceptable – and I would say the same about Jose Mourinho. And what of someone I would have wanted at Everton: Brian Clough? His treatment of Justin Fashanu was monstrous. The list could go on and on and on.

Sport sorts winners from losers and we demand that everything be done in service of victory (most of us, but not all, adding a caveat of “within the rules” and some of us adding “within the spirit of the game too”). The scope for bullies to use the ruthlessness we demand in execution of their skills for ends much more destructive is vast and judgments about such behaviour will always be subjective and tinged with a self-righteousness that grates. Post-Lance, I shall feel more comfortable occupying the high moral ground – and I suspect I shan’t be alone in that. Being a decent loser isn’t such a bad thing after all.