Sunday, May 29th, 2016
How to not write a novel about cycling
Perhaps it was the tapas, or the Spanish beer, but one night during a family holiday in Andalusia, I dreamt a whole novel. Fully-formed and ready to write. In almost twenty years of writing fiction this had never happened to me. Indeed I’d written off as delusional the idea that one could dream an idea for a novel.
I rushed downstairs to find a pen and paper, though I needn’t have bothered because the idea had lodged itself firmly in my mind. Even more surprising, this was a book with road racing at its heart. Two brothers are growing up in a Northern mining town during the eighties. The oldest is trapped and his resentment becomes channeled into football hooliganism. The younger brother makes a bid for freedom as a professional racing cyclist in France. I’m being a little coy with the full story because, well, novelists are a furtive bunch, but basically it’s Billy Elliott on bikes.
I was excited. The story seemed to have lots of opportunity for family conflict, it was clearly positioned in time and landscape and politics, and the contrast between cycling and football seemed interesting. And I knew a lot about cycling. I knew less about football violence, but that’s what Youtube is for.
Sitting down to write a book is much like training for a bike race. You have to commit to a routine, you have to put in the hours, you have to push through the hard bits. And the daily rituals are similar too. The first step is to put the coffee on. Then there’s a period of prevarication before you have to confront the fact that you’ve just got to get on with the bloody thing. Once you’ve started, hopefully, it will flow smoothly and if you’re lucky you’ll get a few words/miles under your belt before the brain softens and an injection of sugar, caffeine or red wine is required. That’s probably where the analogy ends.
I could picture my first scene. The hero of the story is sixteen and has just received some terrible exam results. He knows that his only way out of this small town is through bike racing. He gets changed and storms up onto the open moorland. The horizon opens up in front of him. The road glistens. He feels free and he rides and rides…
So, pot of coffee made, special writing mug warmed, Jelly Babies poised for the feedzone, I sharpened my pencil (yes I do write long-hand) and faced the empty page. But the air underneath my pencil seemed particularly dense. I couldn’t find the words to start. I sat there for some time, staring into space. Then I got up and began tidying the house. A writer tidying their house is a worrying sign.
For the first time in my career as a writer I was blocked. It was as if my two great passions – cycling and writing – had met and taken an instant dislike to each other. I was stumped. Why? Cycling is full of stories – heroes, villains, suspense, great rivalries – it’s what the media thrive on. And yet I couldn’t tune into the frequency of this idea. I turned to the solace that all writers fall back on – reading. Surely there were other writers who had managed to pen a novel about cycle racing? All I needed was a clue, a lodestar to navigate by.
First I discounted all books that contained bicycles but weren’t about cycle racing. Bicycles are a cultural and technological artefact, rightly celebrated in books by HG Wells, Flannery O’Connor and many others. But it was the much more specific experience of being a racing cyclist that was proving beyond my novelistic powers. The field started to narrow.
I started with a giant of literature. Wearing a generously-sized American national team jersey but really riding for his Spanish trade team, Ernest Hemingway. During the years he spent in Europe Hemingway became well-acquainted with cycling, and in The Sun Also Rises, the narrator Jake Barnes comes across a bike race whilst staying in San Sebastian. “The next morning at five o’clock the race resumed with the last lap, San Sebastian-Bilbao. The bicycle riders drank much wine, and were burned and browned by the sun. They did not take the racing seriously except among themselves. They had raced among themselves so often that it did not make much difference who won. Especially in a foreign country. The money could be arranged. The Spaniards, they said, did not know how to pedal.”
This is really only a mention in passing, and has something of the tourist’s mild curiosity about it. The Sun Also Rises is a book about the disillusionment of a generation. At best Jake’s encounter with cycle racing is part of his exploration of European culture. At worst it’s incidental, and slightly indulgent of Hemingway. It is not central to the story. Unless you’re a fan, long stretches of description about a bike race are only going to be interesting for a couple of pages at most. Hemingway knew that. And here lies the crux of the problem. To hold the attention a novel has to have a lot at stake. Someone’s life must be on the line, physically or spiritually. Winning or losing a bike race simply isn’t enough. Cycling, like any other sport, can only ever be a background. Was there really no way to bring it front and centre?
I turned to Tim Krabbe, a Dutch novelist who was also an amateur road-racer. Amongst cyclists he is known for The Rider, which stands head and shoulders above any other book about cycle racing. But his 1984 novel, The Vanishing, and its feted film version, also has a cycling connection. The Vanishing tells the story of a sociopathic Frenchman who abducts a young woman at a motorway service station, then years later torments the boyfriend who is still trying to find her. In the novel the woman wears a yellow jersey. In the film, which Krabbe co-wrote, a detail is added that most viewers would not pick up on. As the boyfriend goes to the shop in the service station, leaving his girlfriend alone, a radio is broadcasting live coverage of the Tour de France. And as the commentator describes Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon battling it out for the yellow jersey, the Frenchman moves in on the girl. Two men using their wits to duel over this coveted prize. What a metaphorical flourish. So simple and so telling.
The Rider, however, is that rare creature – a novel about cycle racing, from the first to the last page. It tells the story of the one day Tour de Mont Aigoual, a semi-professional race in the Cevennes, South-West France. The narrator is a competitor, the novel an account of the race from his perspective, and as the kilometers tick away we are drawn into his psyche. He assesses his rivals, outlines possible strategies, shares his pain and his fears. We see the obsessive qualities of an elite cyclist, and some of the idiosyncrasies. The novel is true to cycle racing in that its structure and rhythms mirror the race itself. It is a cerebral novel, and that’s the point – it’s about how the mind and the body interact, but Krabbe, who in his youth was a distinguished chess player, seems to be saying that cycling is more mind than body.
“Lebusque is really only a body. In fact, he’s not a good racer. People are made up of two parts: a mind and a body. Of the two, the mind, of course, is the rider”.
The Rider is something of a hallowed work for cyclists, because it uses the unique ability of fiction to get inside its character’s head. No piece of journalism will ever access a rider’s deepest thoughts and motivations like this. But it also works as literature, and will endure because its meaning transcends its story, becomes universal; the examination of mind and body floats freely away from the hot tarmac of the Cevennes roads.
Paul Koechli, who coached Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault at La Vie Claire, would no doubt approve. He considered cycling a game, played out in the minds of riders and their coaches, and was author to some of the more unorthodox tactical strategies seen in the modern peloton, not least the daft notion that on La Vie Claire everyone was a leader. Koechli formed a triangle with Hinault and Lemond, brilliantly told in Richard Moore’s book Slaying the Badger, and as such became a player in a version of the classic sporting story – the duel.
The duel is a perfect shape for a story, because there can only be one winner, even if the victory is moral rather than literal. In a duel the characters should be differentiated, light and dark. This is a rich seam for novels, particularly when there is an interesting, and often ambiguous, third character like Koechli to create a triangle. This is the structure that Chris Cleave used in his 2012 novel Gold, which tells the story of two woman sprinters on the British track team in the build-up to the London Olympics. The women are vying for the single spot on the Olympic team, and Cleave’s descriptions of training and racing sing like the velodrome boards. Yet ultimately what we engage with as readers is a deeper emotional journey for the two women and their families.
So the cycling novel has to be more than about cycling. It has to transcend the sport to be about human lives. Indeed if you think about cycling’s greatest stories, they correspond to recognizable story archetypes, and this is what makes them interesting. Usually they are tragedies. The young king whose insatiable ambition to conquer drags him into a spiral of moral corruption? Macbeth, or Lance Armstrong. The fragile hero who is the darling of his scene, but has a fatal flaw which brings him ultimately to a violent death? Gatsby, or Marco Pantani. What we find endlessly fascinating about cycling’s greatest stories is not that the heroes are superhuman but that they are human, with all the mess that entails.
Have any of these meanderings helped me with my own story? Well not quite. I still have writer’s block. My editor suggested I try another sport, tennis for example. I scowled at her. More helpful was the advice to make the cycling fit the story, rather than the other way round. The centre of my book, its heart, is the relationship between the two brothers and the conflict between duty to family and desire to escape. Cycling seemed to fit this story – after all, don’t we all feel free when we’re out on our bikes. But I was struggling because the research had been taking over. It doesn’t matter whether the boy is a puncheur or a grimpeur, or what kind of embrocation he uses, or whether he wears a casquette under his leather helmet. What matters is how he feels about his brother.
So now I have a plan. Story first, Campagnolo Super Record derailleurs later. But let’s not rush into anything. First, I need a pot of coffee. And the kitchen needs a good old tidy-up…