Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Sex, Lies And Handlebar Tape, Paul Howard (2008)

Mainstream 9781845963019 Quarto 317pp £17.99

A biography of Jacques Anquetil, the dominant racing cyclist of the late 50s and early 60s, including his highly unconventional post-career family life

Forty years after Anquetil hung up his wheels, he continues to be a fascinating character. The first of the five-time Tour de France winners, he is one of the most famous examples of a sportsman who won races but not hearts. Despite his glittering palmares, the French public always preferred his great rival, Raymond Poulidor – the eternal second, as he was know.

More recently, Anquetil has returned to the headlines after the curious twists and turns of his relationships came to light. In 2004, his grand daughter, Sophie, wrote Pour l’Amour De Jacques (Editions Grasset) in which she explained all. Anquetil had an affair with, and subsequently married, his doctor’s wife, Jeanine. Together they brought up her two children – until, Anquetil started an affair with his wife’s then 18 year old daughter, who he also impregnated. They lived as a ménage a trios, with daughter/grand daughter Sophie, for 12 years, until the retired cyclist took up with his stepson’s wife.

The inspiration for this book was clearly this latter aspect of the star’s life. To get to that, however, you must work your way through a long and illustrious competitive career.

Howard has done a creditable job of this, citing numerous team mates, childhood friends and journalists who knew Anquetil while his star was in the ascendant. There is an enduring fascination in such a sporting phenomenon. On some important issues, Howard is wanting, however. Anquetil openly admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs, for example. Several recent books – such as William Fotheringham’s biography of Tom Simpson - have taken an almost forensic approach to this issue. Howard mentions it, but does not nail it satisfactorily.

Nor is there enough, beyond the basics of a rider biography, to make this book seem worth the effort. More of a flavour of France at that time, and the place that cycle racing enjoyed within it, would have better justified publication – but there is precious little of that kind of detail between its covers.

There is the sex – the subject of 20 pages at the end of the book. It is a pretty stomach-churning tale, but Howard can’t really make up his mind whether his subject is a reprobate or a hero whose ‘superior powers’ placed him above conventional morality. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to offend those of his family and fans who continue to be forgiving of this side of the ‘Viking of Quancampoix’. I found myself mentally bracketing Anquetil with the Fred Wests and the Josef Fritzls of this world.

PS February 09

No comments: