On Tour, Bradley Wiggins (2010)

Wiggo’s 2010 Tour laid bare in words and pictures

Orion 9781409131366 192pp £14.99

The literature of Anglophone cycle-racing failure fills an increasingly long shelf. From every decade since the second world war we now have reminiscences of valiant, doomed attempts to beat the Continentals at their own game.

Other sports have inspired accounts of dreams dashed – although they tend to be produced long after the fact, and rarely by participants themselves. You will search long and hard for Rio Ferdinand’s testimony of how he and his team’s South African campaign this summer disappointed Albion. But Bradley Wiggins has decided to lay bare his encounter with human frailty on the slopes of the Col de la Madeine last July.

That a major publisher would contemplate such a venture does beg a question. What is it about cycling fans that makes them interested in the nitty gritty of defeat when enthusiasts for other sports would sooner forget?

Part of the answer lies in the long-term demographic of cycling enthusiasm. For most of us, cycling has marked us out from the crowd. Even with today’s unprecedented support for professional cycle racing, a fascination for the Tour de France still has the power of a Masonic handshake when you meet a fellow devotee. Rather like championing obscure indie bands, following cycling is something you do in defiance of the mainstream.

So, just as devotees of obscure bands thrill to lists of gigs to which few people came, and tales of the making of albums that left the charts undented, so accounts of cycling failure are what cyclists came of age on. At the current trajectory, one might fantasise that bicycle racing will soon be a part of mainstream culture. But perhaps this tome is evidence that English-speaking cycling’s indie roots will endure, even if the sport makes the transition to the tabloid back pages.

Wiggo is a cycling superstar. His Olympic success established him as one of the greatest ever British cycling talents and then, when he finished forth on the 2009 Tour, he seemed to be on the cusp of greatness of which his fans could hardly allow themselves to dream. This book was clearly commissioned in the hope that it would produce a document of the Tour-dominating ride that cycling’s more fanciful followers hoped that he might produce.

As we now know, his performance in the 2010 Tour was a bitter disappointment – even if it would have been considered a triumph for Britain in any year before 2009.

Book publishing being what it is, the document has appeared anyway – another volume in the UK-cycling-failure library.

The bulk of the book is made up of photographs by Scott Mitchell – Richard Moore provides an illuminating account of how snapper and subject met. The decision to shoot in black and white appears to have been inspired by Brad’s enthusiasm for the imagery of Tours’ past. It is a fabulous illustrative record – although curiously unlike pictures from ‘the golden age’. Mitchell’s photography – aided quite possibly by digital cameras and modern printing technology – has a warm quality in which middle-distance details appear flattened. Some shots featuring spectators even look staged, when they clearly are not.

There are visceral detail shots that don’t differ that much from, say, Lance’s pictorial memoire of his 2009 outing – but the emaciated bodies and gashed limbs are no less powerful.
The accompanying text is in the form of contemporaneously recorded thoughts at the end of each stage – as well as pen portraits of other members of the peloton and overlooked aspects of riding the tour, such as the team bus and the appeal of Paul Smith suits.

By his own admission, Brad is not beyond a cliché or two – but this is nonetheless a illuminating, occasionally brutal, journal of life on the road. He is more dead-pan than grisly, however. “I’ve given it everything but my top-end climbing just isn’t there this summer, and without that you can’t compete in the Tour de France” – is his ultimate conclusion.

Were Brad competing on bookstalls against the memoires of someone who had actually had a good Tour, perhaps the publishers would not have bothered. As it is, until British cycling fans will no doubt content themselves with another lesson from cycling’s school of hard knocks.

TD Dec 10

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