Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Roule Britannia, William Fotheringham (2005)

Yellow Jersey Press 0 224 074253 290pp Octo £15.99

A highly readable history of British participation in the Tour de France 1955 – 2004

It is a curious thing being a British cycling fan. Bicycle sport can’t be claimed as an underground interest any longer – Channel Four used to attract audiences of 5 million in the hey day of their tour coverage, and London could scarcely have made a greater spectacle of hosting the Tour’s depart in 2007. But, because there are sports that are so, so much bigger - sports that are woven thick through the national culture - there is still something of the outsider about us bikies.

Only our perception of our marginal place in the country’s grand scheme can have made heroes out of the nation’s rosta of professional bicycle racers. Taken together and subjected to objective scrutiny, they do not amount to a hill of beans. In the entire history of the tour, as a nation, we have not produced a single top three finish, have only one won a jersey of any kind (Robert Millar’s 1984 Mountain’s prize), and have won fewer stages than countries with one tenth of our population.

And yet, I for one, have hung on the performance of every British tour rider, at least since Barry Hoban. I have willed Robert Millar out of the pack; saluted Sean Yates sturdy performance of duty; thrilled to Chris Boardman’s electrifying prologues, and; spent five hours in a baking sun just to watch Max Sciandri pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. It has been a meagre diet of victories. But, perhaps as studies of the health those brought up on WW2 rations have shown, thin pickings can be the most nutritionally beneficial.

William Fotheringham’s account of this history is masterful and frequently touching. Even where riders have been the subject of quality biographies – say like Millar - he finds new angles. He may not touch Jeff Connor’s account of the ANC/Halfords 1987 debacle for laughs – but he provides enough make a good case for seeking out Wide Eyed and Legless. And in the case of David Millar, the rider with whom Fotheringham’s book closes, he has done the best job of explaining his troubled persona that I have yet read.

Roule Britannia is actually at its most affecting when Fotheringham touches on his own cycling back story. It is used to provide only the most occasional linking fibre to the narrative, but I would happily have read a whole lot more.

Of course this is a story that has now moved on. In the 2008 Tour Mark Cavendish served up four stage victories – as much to digest in one race as British fans had to contend with in the preceding decade. And, Team GB’s cycling Golds at the Beijing Olympics provided a further eight course feast of success. So much triumphal fois gras after a century of gruel may prove a challenge to our constitutions. But, hey, who can blame someone who has walked through the desert for gorging themselves now that they have reached the waterhole?

PS February 09

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