"Cycling's modern-day descendants in the mass market (Formula 1, Moto GP and the like) are in many respects its polar opposites. The winners and losers in these sports are increasingly determined not on the battlefield itself but in offices, banks and design studios; by scientists and financiers and men in suits."
we're more or less at the end of the first week of the 2013 giro d'italia, a race that has yet to expose the weaknesses of the weak and the strengths of the strong. this is, i'm sure you'll agree, not a particularly unusual state of affairs. much like a good book, film or stage production, events such as these are, to a certain degree, stage-managed. it is necessary to entice the viewer and tifosi (in this case) with a modicum of foreplay, before the second week whets the appetite of the eager, and the third delivers the expected/unexpected final blow.
when team sky convincingly won the team time-trial at the beginning of the first week, someone on twitter alluded to an inevitable final podium victory by bradley wiggins, effectively nullifying the following three weeks. this was, i'm sure, a 140 character attempt at humour, and not without a perceived element of truth. though my opening quote from the second edition of herbie sykes' superbly written and researched volume concerning the rich and illustrious history of the giro d'italia would give credence to its differentiation from its peer sports, in truth there are certain similarities, not least in the hype surrounding the nominated winner.
herbie sykes is the author of eagle of the canavese, a biography of former giro winner, franco balmamion and a regular contributor to both rouleur and procycling as well as recent curator of the bloomsbury/rouleur publication coppi, a volume that contains that which i would contend is probably the finest piece of cycle related literature of the recent past.
that aside, sykes' contention is ultimately true. which other major world class sport allows free access to the spectacle, and at any other time, unfettered public access to the very roads on which bartali, coppi and balmamion plied their heroic trade? any sport at this level, particularly when substantial sums of sponsorship monies are involved, will harbour machinations, competitive subversion and hidden strategies that occur both on and off the road.
"Meantime cycling, solidly on the periphery of progress, remains steadfastly and definitively analogue. Firmly rooted in the working and lower middle classes of occidental Europe, and now attracting a decent share of a rapidly expanding global demographic, it's by and large doing reasonably well for itself."
this is a state of affairs that plays both to the strengths of cycle sport and to its disadvantage. for few amongst those in the grandstands of high speed motorsports or the ubiquitous game of soccer, care greatly for such behind the scenes stage management. it's the speed and modernity that grasp the attention, no matter who's pulling the strings. and given modern society's predilection for ease of access via tv and online devices, many of cycling's historic, yet lesser events have succumbed to audience indifference. if it can't be viewed in pixels, it doesn't exist.
such is the contention of the inestimable mr sykes in this the second edition of his iconic maglia rosa. triumph and tragedy at the giro d'italia. as a resident of italy, herbie sykes is likely more au fait with the idiosyncracies of italian social mores than those of us watching on british eurosport. and though such immersion in the culture has undoubtedly informed many of the commentaries contained in the book's 336 pages, it is herbie's writing that makes this compulsive reading.
one or two of the chapters concern events in italian history and that of the giro that will be familiar to many readers, particularly those concerning the greats of the forties and fifties. yet unlike those who have been satisfied with mere repetition of the facts, sykes perpetually offers both insight and perspective that seem to be missing from many of the alternatives on the bookshelf. herbie has also achieved the holy grail that eludes many a contemporary author; that of familiarity. as i wrote in my review of the original edition of this book (published 2011) 'i have read this book as both manuscript and finished article, the latter replete with its fascinating photographs and chapter opening quotes from gino bartali. through all, i have yet to accept that i am having other than a conversation with the author. sykes' style is chatty, often irreverent and downright idiosyncratic; the word formulaic is particularly conspicuous by its absence.'
since the bulk of this second edition is subtly identical to that of the original, this particular feature remains positively intact. the opening quote is taken from the beginning of what is now the penultimate chapter e quindi? (and then?) followed by duty now for the future this version's bonus chapter where herbie examines the giro's continuation in the grand firmament that is modern professional cycling.
"By definition the last thing cycling needs is for races like the Tour of California to be in May.
"Given (Pat, UCI President) McQuaid's disdain for Italian cycling, it's hard not to conclude that there was method (and probably even malice) in (this) madness."
i admit, at this point, that i have done sykes a disservice by stating that this second edition is all but identical to its predecessor. in conversation, herbie mentioned "It was quite a job, updating it, but it's probably a better book." if herbie has an obvious fault, it is an over-riding case of modesty. even reading this material effectively for the third time, i find facts, anecdotes and nuances that escaped me over the previous two readings. whether you think it an appropriate investment to purchase this as a companion to the first edition depends very much on your level of obsession with the giro d'italia. if you missed out on 2011's original publication, i sincerely hope you have spent the intervening two years standing in the corner, hanging your head in shame.
"Through its frequent peaks and troughs it prevails. It will continue so to do because it remains by a distance the most beautiful, and the most captivating, of cycling's great stage races. Quintessentially and resolutely Italian, it is the perfect distillation of the Bel Paese - enthralling, esoteric and frequently unfathomable."
aside from the delightful idiosyncracies, skill and plain joy of sykes' words, the book is lavishly illustrated with both colour and black and white photographs which are darned near worth the price of admission alone. i jest not when i admit to having spent an entire evening simply looking at the pictures. i seriously doubt you have any right to describe yourself as a member of the cycling cognoscenti if at least one copy of this book does not sit easily to hand on a bookshelf near you. even the page numbers are printed in pink.
the ultimate accompaniment to any edition of the giro d'italia.
maglia rosa second edition | rouleur will offer a limited edition of maglia rosa, a project undertaken by ludlow bookbinders of shropshire, strictly constrained to 96 individual signed copies. to register an interest in this edition of the book, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
saturday 11th may 2013