The Sweat of the Gods, Benjo Maso (2005) trans Michiel Horn

An alternative history of professional cycle racing focussing on the external, and frequently malign, influences that have shaped the sport

Mousehold Press 1 875 739 37 4 165pp £9.95

What is it that makes an athletic hero? The rules of any sport suggest that winning alone should be sufficient. It takes little historical perspective, however, to see that the consistent, effortless victories are rarely rewarded with much affection by the spectating public, save for nationalistic fervour. Just ask Lance Armstrong or Miguel Indurain

The trick to being a hero, of course, is to win heroically – in the teeth of impossible odds, against a bitter opponent, with an unexpected flash of brilliance.

All sports are, of course, human contrivances, with a particular end in mind – with professional spectator sports, thrilling the viewing public. In this book, Dutch sociologist, Benjo Masso attempts to unpick the forces and fancies that have shaped modern road races, and in particular, the Tour de France.

And what a generously stacked smorgasboard that provides! Masso traces the Tour, though its early genesis – as a spectacle designed to sell newspapers; to the drug scandals of today. And it is the early years that are particularly interesting. Henri Desgrange, editor of a French sports newspaper and founder of the Tour, endlessly tweaked the format of the race to maximise benefit for his paper – and to fend off the influence of other interested commercial parties, such as the bicycle manufactures.

So, at various times: teams were outlawed, then later introduced as national squads, before being replaced by trade teams. Riders were required to: ride identical bicycles; carry enough spares to equip them from start to finish; and, ride on courses deliberately strewn with tacks (to demonstrate how quickly Michelin tyres could be repaired).

The pressures on the race vary over time. In the early years, Desgrange watched his circulation rise and fall depending on how interesting was the race. Sure-fire start-to-finish winners were a disaster. For much of the time, the journalists had little real knowledge of how the race progressed, so for the most part, invented the heroics. Indeed, some of the best loved characters of the race are entirely the result of such ingenuity.

In 1934, for example, team members were, for the first time, allowed to give each other components when the need arose. So it was that rookie rider, and formidable climber, Rene Vietto found himself at the foot of the Pyrenees. His team mate, race leader Antonin Magne, broke his front wheel in a descent. Vietto offered his own wheel, only to find that it did not fit his leader’s bicycle – who instead accepted one from another rider.

However, the tale, retold by Tour director Jacques Goddet in the column he wrote for L’Auto, accompanied by a doctored picture of a wheel-less Vietto, sobbing after having sacrificed his own chances, made a hero of the first-year rider. Indeed, ‘King Rene’ was hailed as the Tour’s moral winner in Paris, and earned a decent living on his resulting reputation for the rest of his career.

At times Sweat Of The Gods reads like a kind of Peloton Babylon, so relentlessly does it unearth the sports seamier side. And certainly in translation, there are no references, leaving the reader with little opportunity to double check any of the author’s claims.

Nevertheless, this is a tremendous read for anyone with a serious-minded interest in professional cycle sport – so long as you don’t harbour too many illusions about la Grand Boucle’s Athenian ideals.

MOUSEHOLD Press, a small, Norwich based imprint publishes an impressive range of off-beat cycling books.

PS Sep 08

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *