Wide Eyed And Legless, Jeff Connor (1988)

A tabloid journalist travels with the only British team to enter the Tour de France in the past 40 years to provide a hilarious account of their disastrous participation in the 1987 event

Simon and Schuster 0 671 69937 7 paperback 212pp £5.95

At last British cycling’s moment seems to have arrived. Mark Cavendish is in the middle of his second, spectacular Tour. Next year there might even be a British Tour team. We dominated the track events in the Olympics, and organisations such as the CTC are boasting record membership levels. So there has never been a better time to revisit Connor’s classic – lest hubris entangles our spokes.

It is easy to find parallels with the mid-1980s. Kelly, Roche and LeMond were the first English-speaking riders to become truly dominant in European professional cycling. Britain developed some spectacular talents, like Malcom Elliot and Adrian Timmins. City centre cycling was televised from up and down the UK, and a British professional team took part in the Tour for the first time in 20 years.
Connor provides a fabulously observed diary of July 1987 when the dream of British cycling joining the European mainstream crashed catastrophically.

Such was the rising tide of interest in professional cycling that year that the Daily Star – a wretched tabloid whose founding editor, Derek Jameson promised readers a diet of ‘tits, bums, roll-your-own fags, and Queens Park Rangers – sent a journalist to cover the tour. Even more remarkably, Connor was embedded with the Halfords ANC Team, travelling in their team car and staying in the same hotels as the riders. The novelty of The Star’s interest in two-wheeled sport is evident from the editor’s insistence that Connor ride a stage of the race himself to provide riders with a real insight.

A promising rosta of riders was assembled – including Elliot and Timmins – and off the team set, under the improbably guidance of its manager, Tony Capper. In Connor’s words he was ‘a 43 year old, 20 stone plus chain-smoking, ex-policeman, millionaire businessman’. He brought to the Tour practically no experience of cycle racing, as a result of which, as well as the inexperience of the cyclists themselves, team ANC Halfords was in deep trouble from the off.

One by one the cyclists abandoned. Capper’s money ran out. Then Capper himself disappeared, never to be seen again. By the time they reached Paris, only four of the team remained, at least one of whom turned his back on top level cycling thereafter.

Connor’s account is both side-splittingly funny, but also opens an intimate window on a cycling team in the Tour that has few parallels in English.

His own efforts to fulfil his editor’s demands are also rich in entertainment. “I reasoned, was my last chance of fulfilling the wishes of my employer and riding the length of a stage, however tentative and amateurish the effort would prove….Before long I found myself shifting around the saddle as the tissues in my backside, unused to the prolonged abuse, began to compress and complain. The last 20 miles passed in a haze of tortured discomfort. The final hill saw me off the bike and walking.”

By the end of course, Roche had won the race in such a dramatic style that the decisive moment when he appeared at the top of La Plange to catch Pedro Delgardo, is still considered one of the greatest moments in Tour history.

This is not an easy book to find, and richly deserves to be republished. Whatever effort you have to employ to find a copy, however, the rewards are considerable. What lessons it provides for British cycling today is harder to say – suffice to say that I, for one, hope that David Brailsford et al have taken them to heart.

PS July 09

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