When I read Rik Vanwalleghen’s biography of Eddy Merckx following its translation into English in 1996, my reaction split between simultaneous disappointment and relief. I felt relief to have finally enjoyed a book-length examination of the greatest cyclist the world will ever know. It was a study containing considerable insight into a man who was enigmatic even at his best. But the book was no chronologic biography, it undertook no traditional survey of the man’s career, life. It may be that the book’s particular genius was to leave much unsaid, unplumbed. Vanwalleghem undertook an impressionistic form of reportage, painting portrait after portrait of Merckx, none of them more powerful than his account of the Cannibal’s assault on the hour record in 1972. What stayed with me from that account was less the ride than what Vanwalleghem shared of the events subsequent to it.
Merckx, he wrote, suffered terrible saddle sores from the hour ride, sores that were so bad he laid in bed for days following the record. Merckx is said never to have complained.
Vanwalleghem’s “Eddy Merckx” left me wanting. Wanting more, wanting different, wanting. In that, he did me a service.
It is into this hunger that “Merckx 525″ arrived. Published, like Vanwalleghem’s Eddy Merckx” by VeloPress, this 224-page Belgian tome was written by Frederik Backelandt and translated by the ever-skilled Ted Costantino (the original editor of Bicycle Guide). For those who sneeze at relatively high prices, the $60 price tag for a coffee-table volume will elicit outraged cries—why it’s 50 percent higher than my Graham Watson book! But as a memento to a career we won’t see again, it’s worth every stinkin’ penny. For those of you among our readers who are American (it’s a sizable majority, but by no means everyone), we deserve to be reminded that we frequently miss out on the best images shot in cycling because they are only printed in European magazines. For this book, the editors drew upon images from Het Laatste Nieuws,Olycom, Photonews, Omega, Presse Sports (from which the bulk are drawn) and the private collections of several other photographers. Merckx 525 undertakes to share with us the best of those photos, and it should, for this work is nothing so much as a picture book.
However, the book is not only a collection of images. There are brief portraits in text as well, here the 1966 Milan-San Remo, the event that set the world on notice, there the 1970 Paris-Roubaix, and near the end, the 1976 Milan-San Remo. Each of the portraits are written present-tense, still harboring the wonder bound up in the world’s curiosity of whether He could do it yet again. Arranged chronologically, one can imagine the book as the ultimate family photo album of the star-shined favorite son.
For my part, the real joy of this book was a chance to feast on images from the early part of Merckx’ career. There are roughly a dozen images of Merckx that I’ve seen over and over and over. This was a chance to break the die and see the Belgian not as the Cannibal, but the man who would become the Cannibal, a young rider whose greatest ambitions were not only unrealized, but as yet unknown, even to him.
This isn’t the be-all-end-all book that will slake a thirst for Merckx’ life on the bike. In that regard, we are still waiting for the definitive study of his career. This is the palate-cleansing sorbet that is its own delight.
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
Pornography gets a bad rap. Pictures meant to excite and titillate really aren’t such bad things, unless you happen to behave badly afterward.
The Spring Classics, published in English by VeloPress, is one such book that may cause readers to behave badly after a thorough reading. You could call it racing porn. It is essentially a pictorial history of one-day races. Yes, the title is a bit misleading, as it includes all of the Monuments, including the Tour of Lombardy, as well as Paris-Tours and other non-Spring races such as the Classica San Sebastian.
The inaccurate title is truly the book’s only fault, and as faults go, the inclusion of more races than the title promises is to be celebrated. Where else in our lives does anyone over-deliver?
The Spring Classics was written by Philippe Bouvet, Philippe Brunel, Pierre Callewaert, Jean-Luc Gatellier and Serge Laget, the same team behind the recent Paris-Roubaix book. Translated expertly by Sam Abt, the book’s great achievement is to bring a lifetime of photographic work to an audience that doesn’t routinely read l’Equipe and other European papers, which is to say the book isn’t yet another retrospective of Graham Watson’s archives.
The Spring Classics is more than 200 pages of images you’ve never seen. Were the writing and translation terrible, I could still recommend this book without reservation—the photos are that good. The histories detailed are truly fascinating, but the images … the images gave me chills.
By presenting the work of so many different photographers in a single volume the reader is rewarded with perspectives and compositions that aren’t the carbon copies one inevitably sees when one photographer stands next to another at the finish line. The scenics are breathtaking and the portraits of riders like Eddy Merckx (clad in the black and white of Peugeot) and Rik Van Looy (with the sinew of a lean, young rider still in his ascendancy) are better than a time machine.
After reading it, you’ll be inspired to ride from your heart, ignoring the pleas from your legs and friends alike. Just remember, though: Bad behavior is defined by those closest to you.
VeloPress has emerged as the preeminent publisher of books about cycling. That the publisher is doing stellar work isn’t surprising, but the fact that they have so little competition from other publishers is.
Matt Fitzgerald’s new book Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance is the only title I’ve ever encountered that addresses weight loss for endurance athletes. Rather than just a manual on how to shave pounds from your frame, it addresses the larger issue of how to right-size your body.
It’s a question I’ve considered many times over the years. After all, there’s more to being fit than just have a single-digit body fat composition. So just what is a right-sized endurance athlete? More pointedly, what is right-sized you? It’s an intriguing question and one I never really found an answer to for me, personally, in all the different training manuals I’ve read over the years. Yet, in Fitzgerald’s book, finding an answer is easy.
The book weaves a very big-picture, integrated perspective on not just weight loss, but sport-specific considerations, diet evaluation, when you eat, dealing with hunger pangs, fuel sources and dietary supplements. Think of all the facets of fitness that relate to your weight and your performance and Fitzgerald has covered it. The title is nearly overwhelming in its thoroughness.
Even more impressive is Fitzgerald’s mastery of the underpinnings of the science. He cites study after published study showing how the human body behaves in response to any number of conditions. The sheer number of studies he cites is staggering. His mastery of the science involved allowed him to weave a sort of scientific narrative, where each new study is brought to bear upon the story of achieving a proper weight the way a bricklayer selects bricks according to the composition at hand.
At best, I would have imagined you might devote two, maybe three, chapters to weight and weight loss in a book on training. I’d never have believed anyone could compose a thought-provoking volume of more than 280 pages on the subject. Every now and then someone writes the giant-killer text, the volume that becomes the bible of a subject. Ten years from now most of us will be wondering how we managed before this book came along.
For my part, in the last 18 months I picked up more than 15 pounds thanks to a honeymoon and an injury that kept me off the bike for longer than I thought possible, like holding my breath for a day. All the old tricks didn’t work through the summer. And if a cyclist can’t lose weight during the summer … clearly new strategies are necessary. Nine pounds later, I’m on my way and can say this book taught me some important lessons.
I know what the French call “jacque merde” about racing in the pro peloton. My last race was a Sunday town line sprint that I lost by about five bike lengths, because I was busy trying to see if the ice cream truck was coming up behind us. Also, I’m an American, which means that, for me, cycling is a decidedly middle class affair, popular only among my Europhile and immigrant friends, a thing with its roots in working class factories and the hard man lifestyle we in this country associate most often with lumberjacks or commercial fishermen.
How I came to love European racing, a thing both distant and alien, is anyone’s guess, but fall in love I did. A ’70s childhood of BMX and then ten-speeding spilled out into a two-wheeled adulthood, spandex clad, tappy shoe shod and my eyes strained toward the East and the velocepedic cults of France, Belgium, Holland, Italy and Spain.
Having never properly raced, even domestically, I had yeoman’s job to understand what was happening up the Ventoux, down the Champs-Élyseés, over the cobbles and through the Ardennes. This was a process not only of internalizing the tactics of bicycle racing, but drinking deep from the sloppy and chaotic cup of this odd Euro sport.
No one, I mean no one, has done more to help me see into the world of pro bike racing than Samuel Abt, the legendary cycling correspondent for The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. In books such as: Off to the Races – 25 Years of Cycling Journalism; Up the Road – Cycling’s Modern Era from LeMond to Armstrong; A Season in Turmoil and Tour de France – Three Weeks to Glory, Abt collects his daily newspaper missives into wild and nuanced pastiches of the Euro racing life.
He gives voice to directeurs sportif, soigneurs, race organizers, the mayors of towns dying to have the major races grace them with their spiritual and monetary beneficence, as well as the riders, both legendary and journeymen, who animate the races. He describes the weather, the food, the farms and mountains. He is a writer, like John McPhee or Studs Terkel, who tells a story through the accumulation of minutely observed detail.
From an article called “When Autumn Comes” in Up the Road, Abt writes:
“Out in the countryside of France, the fields are brown and barren, their corn long harvested and the stalks chopped down for fodder. Until the stubble is plowed under when winter wheat is planted, the landscape is bleak and the air full of despair.
“For professional bicycle riders, April is not the cruelest month. Far from it. In April, hopes for a successful season are as green as the shoots just then starting to push through the fields that the riders pass in their early races. The cruelest month is really October, when the nine-month racing season ends and the riders finally know what they have failed to accomplish.”
From the introduction to Off to the Races:
“Far up the road, spectators had already jammed the switchback curves of Alpe d’Huez. The police finally gave up trying to estimate the size of the crowd and could only say it was more than the usual 300,000 to 400,000 who waited each year for the bicycle riders in the Tour de France to climb the peak. This Sunday morning in July, while the sun burned off traces of fog in the valley and melted a bit of the glaciers permanently atop the French Alps, the crowd was waiting for one rider. “Allez, Simon,” the banners said. But by then it was over.”
I have read the biographies, Anquetil, Merckx, Pantani, et. al., and I have read the various histories, and almost without exception I have enjoyed them, but no books have brought me to Europe to smell the dust of the hot French summer or feel the ice cold Belgian rain quite like Abt’s have.
These collections of his writings also serve as charming reminders of how the superstars saw the world before they were superstars. Here we find one Lance Armstrong, in 1993, talking about Miguel Indurain, from Up the Road:
‘“He’s got a super attitude,” he said. “He’s not obnoxious, he’s quiet, he respects the other riders, he never fusses. He’s so mild-mannered. I really like him.”
“So much so that the 29-year-old Spaniard seems to have become a role model for the likeable and sensitive Armstrong, who has occasionally been considered brash. “I still have a temper and an attitude sometimes,” he confessed.
“I wouldn’t mind molding myself into his sort of character,” he said. “Really quiet, just goes about his business.”’
You may watch Versus on your American television. You may steal a Eurosport feed from some Internet backwater. You may stand by the early season roadside in California, waiting for the peloton to streak by, but short of spending a season in Europe (a luxury I’ve never been able to indulge) it’s very hard to get the flavor of the sport. In this sense, if Paris Roubaix is a dish, Sam Abt is an able chef, translating that uniquely Franco-Belgian treat for an American palette.
Thanks to Da Robot of the Bottom Bracket Blog for this appreciation.