Strangely for someone with the aerobic capacity of a small field mouse, I find reading sports books particularly fascinating and inspiring.
I don’t know if it’s the thought of hopefully one day being able to push myself physically in the ways I read of others doing, or if it’s precisely because I have no idea what it feels like to push you body to its limits in those ways.
One of my favourite books is Matthew Pinsent’s Lifetime in a Race, which is not only really well written and engaging but also brilliantly descriptive of the punishment Olympic sportsmen and women put their bodies through. Similarly, I enjoyed Paula Radcliffe’s book and others too.
Recently, as you may have read here, I picked up Lance Armstrong’s book It’s Not About the Bike, the story of his struggle with cancer and eventual comeback and first ever Tour de France victory, a feat he would go on to repeat a further, record-breaking 6 times. It’s a fabulous book, just as fascinating and inspiring as I’d heard it was.
What intrigued me about it was how interesting it was from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about and has no interest in cycling as a sport. Despite numerous recommendations I had always sort of ignored the book before on the basis that, not being a follower of the sport, the book wouldn’t interest me. It turns out to be much more than a cycling book, though, and it tells stories with a rare perspective and wonderful fighting spirit that I think many people with critical illnesses often share.
More than that, though, it actually got me interested in cycling. So much so that in the spirit of trying to find more books to inspire me on my mini-quest for mini-fitness I picked up a copy of a book called Inside the Postal Bus by a guy called Michael Barry.
There were a few reasons I chose this out of all the books lining the sports section of Borders when I was browsing. The main one, though, was the promise from the blurb of the book to get an insight into how a cycling team operates within the Tour de France itself – how the other riders in a team work to support the lead rider in his bid to victory.
The book covers the 2004 racing season from Barry’s perspective as a rider on the same team as Lance Armstrong – the US Postal Racing Team, named for their sponsors, the US Postal Service – riding in the races with him and on their “tour bus” between events and stages, the titular Postal Bus.
The blurb itself proclaims: “Journey across Europe with US Postal – from the first workouts in the winter to the intense intra-squad competition to make the Tour de France team selection.” It tells us Barry had “The hardest job in sports: riding for Lance Armstrong in pursuit of a Tour de France victory.”
What a brilliant idea for a book I thought – cycling from the perspective of a regular athlete, rather than from the point of view of something of a super-human success story. I was really interested to find out what it was like for a semi-mortal – and the rest of a winning team – to go through the rigours of such a massive event.
There is, however, one big flaw in the book, which I’ve just uncovered.
Ignoring the fact that the “intense intra-squad competition” promised in the blurb actually amounts to about 3 paragraphs telling us that since there are 20 riders in the squad, not all of them will make the 9-man Tour team – a pretty big fact to ignore, I know, but wait for it – and getting past the fact that it is actually quite sketchily written, with paragraphs that jump all over the place and often fail to hold a cohesive thread of thought (not something I can really complain about given the nature of my ramblings on here), there is one pretty major, single issue that stands out above all the rest.
Michael Barry didn’t ride in the 2004 Tour de France.
He wasn’t injured, he didn’t crash, he wasn’t taken ill. He didn’t make the team.
The publishers – in their infinite wisdom – commissioned a book (in 2005, no less), one third of which concerns the 2004 Tour de France and Lance Armstrong’s record-breaking 6th victory, from a rider who spent the 3 weeks of the Tour watching it from his home in Spain in his boxer shorts.
He even say it himself – he watched in his underwear, on the telly.
Just how much insight did they expect him to be able to give to the goings on in the tour party? Honestly, it’s not hard. I know nothing about cycling save for what I’ve read in Lance’s two books and the first third of this one, but I could tell you just as much about the 2004 Tour if you gave me the broadcast tapes and let me catch up.
His analysis of the race as it unfolds amounts to, “They looked really tired after that stage, which was really long. I think that the long stage made them really tired. Actually, I spoke to one of them and they said they were all really tired because the stage had been really long.”
The mind boggles.
So, if you want to read an interesting book about cycling, buy It’s Not About the Bike or Every Second Counts – not only inspirational, but interesting too. If you want to stop in your tracks halfway through a book and stare at the wall thinking, “What the….?”, go for Inside the Postal Bus, by Michael Barry. Who wasn’t.
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