Book Review: Argyle Armada

Embedded. It’s a funny term. We used to use it to refer to things inserted, usually accidentally, into something else.

I’ve got a stick embedded in my calf.

But with our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it came to stand for journalists tethered to military units with all the freedom of a dog on a leash. We even came to distrust that variety of journalism because the reporters and photographers were so controlled in their movements the news came to be what the military wanted us to see and no more.

Yet embedded is a strangely appropriate word to describe Mark Johnson’s book “Argyle Armada: Behind the scenes of the pro cycling life.” I use that term with no pejorative connotation, no irony, no malice. It describes very well his relationship to the Garmin team as he worked on this book. Now, I should mention that the book’s subtitle is not meant to convey that this is in any way a broad look at pro cycling with examinations of many teams. No, it digests the moves and dramas of a single team, but in going deep within that one team it serves up Jonathan Vaughters’ creation as a synechdoche for the whole of the peloton—one operation that represents all of pro cycling.

Johnson’s achievement in this book is two-fold. First, he’s a fine photographer and yet is also a good enough writer that he can provide the whole of a book that stands equally on its photos and the story it tells. Second, as a single guy, rather than a writer/photographer team, he was able to gain the trust of seemingly everyone within the Slipstream organization and shares with the reader looks inside the machinations of a pro team that previously have been either largely imagined or left opaque.

The book is a look at a single year, an arc that covers the 2011 season, beginning with training camp and ends with the team gearing up for another season. There’s not an aspect of running a team that’s left unexamined. There are the races, the failures, the ingredients of the win, the win itself, the preparation, the backstage politics. Believe me, if it’s a piece of news that got mentioned on Cyclingnews at some point during the year, it wasn’t left out of this book, and usually the picture here is filled in with richer detail.

It’s unlikely that Johnson had absolutely free reign to go and see anything he wanted, so in that regard, embedded remains an accurate term. However, because looks this deep within the inner-workings of pro teams are essentially unknown, to the degree that Johnson was tethered and guided as he collected his stories, the reader suffers no disservice.

This book could easily have been just collection of episodes, race journalism in a hard cover. If that were the case, there would be little reason for anyone but die-hardened Argylites to purchase this book. But Johnson has been around the cycling world for long enough that he understands the larger concerns, the great themes that will define the sport for years to come. From the irritating treatment that riders can receive at the hands of doping testers to the financial backflips necessary to keep the program operating at the level of other better-funded teams, Johnson gives the reader a perspective on just how hard it is to be a pro cyclist and what a true believer you have to be to want to run a pro team.

Given the talk (here and elsewhere) of just how difficult the sponsorship situation will be in the near-term, this is an especially apropos read right now because it gives readers a clearer picture of the financial challenges a big team faces than any other book I’ve encountered.

Johnson’s writing style is present-tense, bringing the reader into the events and imparting a breathless anticipation that can build even when a conclusion—Johan Summeren’s Paris-Roubaix win, for instance—is known from memory. I really can’t stress how rare a package a guy like Johnson is. Jered Gruber may be the only other guy working in cycling right now who has the same writing chops, the same eye for action photography and the same sense for intimate portraits and sweeping landscapes—it’s that unusual.

A book like this won’t be in print forever. Do yourself a favor and pick this thing up. Alternatively, send this URL to your sweetie with the subject line: Christmas.

For more info: VeloPress

Top image: Mark Johnson


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