when my kids were younger, at the age when they enjoyed having a good book read to them, that is precisely what i'd do every evening when they went to bed. as is mostly the case with children (and adults too), they had their favourites; in any given week, i might have to read the same book more than just once, twice, or three times. other than where the wild things are and burglar bill, the esteemed favourite and one that i particularly enjoyed myself, was how tom beat captain najork and his hired sportsmen, written by russell hoban and illustrated by quentin blake and eminently worth owning for the title alone.
basically speaking, a small boy named tom does little else in life apart from fooling around. his aunt fidget wonkham-strong does not approve and calls upon the rather intimidating captain najork who, along with his hired sportsmen, challenges tom to three rounds of womble, muck and sneedball. this particular book demanded to be read in a droll american voice, reminiscent of the voiceovers accompanying humphrey bogart private detective movies. since this practice was confined to the child's bedroom of an evening, embarrassment was saved.
reading the same story over and over again not unnaturally led to familiarity on behalf of both reader and listener to the extent that, when captain najork announced the name of the last sport to be played, we'd jointly exclaim "sneedball!" as the page was turned. no doubt many of you have similar tales to relate. though you may not be familiar with the above mentioned book, there are bound to be others that have found great favour with kids other than my own.
to digress for a moment or two however, there can be few folks in the world who still hold lance armstrong in high esteem, (other than phil ligget) for either his sporting prowess or friendly personality. while the dailies and red tops will pounce upon any cycling stories involving drugs, many remain the preserve of the pelotonese, mostly going no further. lance's seven year dominance of the tour de france, coupled with his subsequent comeback, arguably more successful than even he thought it might be, no doubt contributed to his dramatic downfall after confiding in oprah in front of a television audience of millions.
here was undeniable evidence of a systematic undermining of the sporting milieu. not just the ingestion of one or two doubtful substances to help with an off-day, but a whole listed history of blood doping, epo, cortisone, hgh and a number of others of similar ilk. whereas you and i would (i'd like to think) enter the sporting arena after at least a modest amount of training, yet still get a kicking, lance seems to have decided from the outset that he needed the advantage provided by chemical assistance and sod the kicking. that's not to say there was no training involved, for it seems likely that he undertook every bit as much if not more than his peers, but there was always that safety net.
however, it is the old, old story, one that we've all heard before if a tad less specifically. throughout my reading of juliet macur's incredibly well researched book, there was this overwhelming feeling that at the top of the next page would be the word sneedball!".
the only fact previously unknown to me was that armstrong had been using many banned substances prior to his contracting cancer. no doubt this is the spin that big tex preferred to put on his comeback from the dead, that here was the man who had suffered from cancer, been medically close to death, and had not only survived, but returned stronger and faster than ever. it seems less than pertinent to note that armstrong's initial use of epo and blood-doping had been as a result of what the french referred to as deux vitesses. others were already using and armstrong was losing face and races by riding clean.
the author, a reporter with the new york times, has made this her life's work so far, conducting interviews with many of those associated with lance, including former team-mates and lengthy one to one conversations with lance himself.
"If people think I cheated to win the Tour de France," Armstrong says, "they're fucking dumb. I didn't cheat."
You broke the rules.
"I did, but we all did," he says. "All two hundred guys that started the race broke the rules."
if you've not already read tyler hamilton's 'the secret race', a book that detailed just how the us postals systematically doped with impunity and almost effortless organisation, there may be more than one or two revelations in cycle of lies that will make you like armstrong even less than you already do. and should you wish to remind yourself of dates, times and circumstances, there is an exhaustively detailed index at the back.
i'm not suggesting that you read juliet macur's book to your kids at bedtime. in fact, i'm not even suggesting that you read it to yourself. it's not, at any point, what could be described as entertaining reading, though it is very well written. however, in 2014, it strikes me as the bedtime book that has been recited just once too often, and i do wonder who its intended readership might be. now that i've read its well over 400 pages, i'm not sure i'm any the wiser.
however, it has me thinking that i might have to write-off an entire decade of cycling history, if that hasn't already been done for me.
thursday 17 july 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................