Homage to the Great Bike Race
It is one of the most evocative of opening sentences: “In my case I came upon the Tour de France by way of Whitley Bay and Morecambe.” To paraphrase the late Geoff Nicholson’s beginning to this book, in my personal case I came upon the Tour de France by way of The Great Bike Race. There are books that change your life and shape your life. This is one of those.
In my case, it is probably the one. I was 13 when the paperback appeared in 1978 and my mother – who happened to be copy-editing for Magnum, the publishers – brought home a copy for me and my late father, a former cyclist who kept a close eye on his old sport. I don’t know whether poor old dad even got to read it. He certainly never got hands on it again once it had found its way into my bedroom. That paperback is still with me 37 years on, albeit read to pieces, lacking the front cover, and kept in an envelope so that the pages don’t get lost.
The Great Bike Race arrived in my sweaty paws when I was at my most impressionable age – in the same way that Nicholson’s sports editor at the Observer ‘couldn’t have picked a more susceptible reporter’ to send to the Milk Race in 1959 – and it was after devouring his elegant, dryly witty phrases that I began hitting the Devon hills on a clunky old bike, COBs being what one had to ride as a teenager in the pre-Lapsarian days before carbon and aluminium. As I hauled the COB across Exmoor, it was Peter Post of Raleigh who I imagined driving up behind me waving a professional contract out of the window of his car. I knew just what he looked like thanks to Nicholson – “a long, slim, elegant man with a silver scarab hanging from a thong round his neck and small blue scars like a miner’s on his forehead.”
The Great Bike Race remains, in my eyes, the finest book ever written about the Tour de France. The blend of the four core elements of the Tour – travelogue, anecdote, dramatis personae and narrative – is perfectly balanced, presented with a perfect turn of phrase, the craftsmanship worn so lightly that a wry smile is ever present as you scan the page. Rightly, the book earned plaudits on publication in 1977 (£4.95, Hodder & Stoughton): compared to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones by Time Out magazine; “based on an honest eye and the careful assembly of pointilliste incident,” wrote David Leitch in The Observer, “as the French say, impeccably lucide.” Nowadays, there is less need to define peloton or ravitaillement, but in the 1970s – as remained largely the case until the advent of Team Sky in 2010 – there was a need to translate the Tour, to explain, to interpret, and one of the great strengths of The Great Bike Race was, “making a rather foreign event perfectly intelligible,” as the New Statesman’s reviewer put it.
A stage race, Nicholson tells us, is “a picaresque novel which each day introduced new characters in a different setting,” and his master-work is the tale of a Tour which “was not one of those races dominated by a single rider” – for the follower in the 1970s, this meant one man: Eddy Merckx – “it had a series of leaders… an elaborate web of sub-plots and a good deal more suspense than most.” The 1976 race was the first Tour of the post-Merckx era, won by his Belgian understudy Lucien Van Impe in a single Pyrenean attack which was the opening master-stroke in the distinguished career of his directeur sportif Cyrille Guimard, who would go on to direct Bernard Hinault, Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond. It was the second of three Tours – two won by Bernard Thévenet – in the inter-regnum between the Cannibal and the Badger; often such Tours are more dramatic than those dominated by one of the greats. In that sense, Nicholson was fortunate, but his writing could have made any Tour spring to life.
One of the peculiar spin-offs of turning a personal passion into a career is that you are bound to encounter your heroes along the way; they go from being distant figures to human presences, warts and all. When, nervously, I first encountered Geoff on my first Tour de France, with a mere two years in journalism behind me, he was welcoming, in his diffident way, albeit a mite sceptical of my attempts to retain a cyclist’s fitness in the face of France’s culinary delights. For a quiet man, he was a distinctive presence in the press room; as his travelling companion Stephen Bierley – my predecessor as The Guardian’s man on the Tour – put it, “the abiding image for many was of him sitting in front of his portable computer with a precarious curve of ash [from his Gauloise] poised to drop on the keyboard.”
By a quirk of good luck – a hotel booking agency shared by our respective publications, Cycling Weekly in my case, The Observer in Geoff’s – we spent evenings and mornings together. As Bierley wrote, “to share anything with Geoff was a delight,” and it is an eternal regret that because the “Comic” had me on a different schedule, I never took a seat in a car which had more than a hint of a journalistic High Table about it. Driven by the legendarily laconic ex-Tourman Graham Jones, with Bierley, Nicholson and Sam Abt of the Herald Tribune in the passenger seats, it is the English-speaking equivalent of the legendary vehicle that conveyed Antoine Blondin and Pierre Chany in the 1950s.
The time with that quartet on Tour sticks deep, and shows itself in present-day force of habit. The local presse has to be spied out on arrival at the evening’s staging point so that l’Equipe can be analysed over the breakfast croissant and coffee. Dinner should be savoured slowly as a way of winding down from the stage, with the issues of the day chewed as reflectively as the rare steak. One of the marks of the true Tour journalist is his ability to recall a good locale for a decent dinner from years back; this was one of Geoff’s fortes, be it the station buffet in Strasbourg or an obscure brasserie in the back streets of Grenoble. In his view, the entire experience of the race had to be savoured. If The Observer today features a Tour de France diary (now racily nicknamed The Backie), which takes a sideways look at the race and all that goes around with it, that format is entirely a personal homage to Geoff, who gave it his own erudite edge in the 1980s and early 1990s.
On Tour, certain books travel well, offering a gold standard to aim for, in the hope that a chapter or two in the evening will percolate down into your writing the following tea-time as you rush to hit the day’s deadline. My original copy of The Great Bike Race has many Tours in its pages, with good reason. Geoff is English cycling writing’s master, a Welsh wizard of the well-turned image. “Relaxed but rivetting,” to quote another great, Peter Corrigan; the similes leap from the page and stick in the mind. Freddy Maertens hoards points towards the green jersey – “like a shopper saving trading stamps”; Paris-Plage in Le Touquet is “a typically French high-production tannery”. My eternal favourite is the Col de l’Izoard – “a rocky wilderness at 7,743ft which needs only a few bleached skulls at the roadside to complete its image of desolation.” Like Gimondi contemplating yet another defeat by Merckx (who has “the high-cheeked, graven image of a totem pole”), we fellow writers can only look on in admiration, tinged with a little frustration. The mark of the great in any field is that they make what they do seem simple; try as we might, writing with this consummate ease is so hard to match.
The Great Bike Race was one of 10 books Geoff wrote during a distinguished, 40-years in sportswriting, hailed by his obituarists on his untimely death in 1999: “one of a small team who transformed the character of sports journalisms by introducing a quality of writing that matched, and was sometimes superior to, that on the foreign and arts pages,” wrote the former Observer editor Donald Trelford. He was born on April 4 1929 in Surrey, and brought up in Mumbles, near Swansea, where he attended university; his first lecturer was the novellist Kingsley Amis. After an initial career in advertising, freelance work brought him to The Guardian and The Observer – then separate publications – where he became deputy to another legend, Chris Brasher, on the sports desk.
Rugby was an early mainstay, so too book reviews, but one early assignment for The Observer was the pivotal day when he was sent to cover the stage of the Milk Race – 125 miles from Whitley Bay to Morecambe, won by Bill Bradley from Brian Haskell – and he subsequently moved on to covering the race for The Times. In 1976, at the time of writing The Great Bike Race, he was appointed Sports Editor of The Observer; he filled the same role at the short-lived Sunday Correspondent although front-line reporting was his first love. By the 80s he was combining the role of rugby correspondent for the newly founded Independent with coverage of the Tour. Among the legendary figures of Fleet Street sports writing such as Frank Keating and Hugh McIlvanney, he carved out his own niche with the “spare, precise, evocative,” writing lauded by Trelford.
In Geoff’s second cycling book, Le Tour, he pictures what the senior French Tour journalist he travelled with in the 1960s might have made of the race 30 years later and that raises an obvious question. What would Geoff have made of the Tour, now that his last race, 1993, is now as far-removed in time as the early Merckx years were back then? He would have regretted the Tour’s expansion even since the 90s into the bloated event it is now and I can’t see him being anything other than damning about the overweening status given to television cameras and the dozens who wield them, or the bland statements unwillingly offered at the press conferences which now form the bulk of the media’s interaction with the riders.
Compared to the era of The Great Bike Race, stages on the Tour are shorter, the days more intense and less forgiving on those who report it, driven by social media to an extent that seems unfathomable to those of us who were on the race 20 years ago. It’s a more instant world, offering less time for the reflection that came so naturally to Geoff, but it still should not be taken too seriously; I love to imagine what ironic comment he would have made on the fact that in 2015, in an attempt to emulate Formula One, the organisers designated the area where suiveurs, team personnel and riders congregate at the start as “the paddock”.
The subtlties of the racing have changed – teams are better organised, with better communication on the road with the advent of helmet radios meaning the fog of war has thinned – and there is a sophistication in the teams’ backrooms that was lacking in the 70s. But the Tour retains the fundamentals that Geoff found so alluring: adventure and suspense, speed, physical stress and hazard, constant change of scenery, the element of the unpredictable and “tactical variety… riders attacked and chased, flagged and rallied, formed instant alliances for instant ends and broke them without another thought.”
On the other hand, British cycling culture of the 21st century is a world away from the 1960s and 1970s when, as Geoff put it, the sport faced, “the same kind of problem that soccer has done in the United States. How to promote a sport with no indigenous tradition?” It is hard to conceive of the situation that he found himself in in the 1960s, when, he writes, “cycling was not the proper concern of a serious paper,” and sports editors were less than enthusiastic about covering the sport. Thanks to Sir Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish, Nicole Cooke, Victoria Pendleton and Sir Bradley Wiggins, that tradition has been forged, to the extent that – incredible as it would have seemed back then – Great Britain has become a dominant nation in cycling worldwide, no longer the poor relation among the European cycling family. London and Yorkshire have staged Grands Départs which dwarf the Tour’s 1974 visit to Plymouth. Back home, there is an expanding calendar of international races – 16 days of UCI racing in 2015 watched by European-scale crowds – and a wealth of teams and lesser events. Cinderella has not merely turned up at the ball but is boogie-ing round her handbag, drink in hand, the life and soul of the party.
One by-product of that upsurge is a burgeoning of cycle culture, the full panoply from specialist cafes to designer clothing and exhibitions at the Design Museum. The canon of cycling writing has equalled or outstripped that in more established sports not merely in output but also in its literary quality and variety. Geoff has spiritual sons among the current crop, and it is only right that the father should take his place among his family. In sport, the greats rarely make successful comebacks long after their heyday, but great literature at least can outlast the mere humans who figure in its pages and shine time and time again. The Great Bike Race and its writer deserve nothing less.
This is my intro to the relaunched edition of the Great Bike Race, published by Velodrome publishing this April.