drummer bill bruford played with the progressive rock band yes, for around three years in the early part of the 1970s, culminating in the breakthrough album close to the edge, possibly one of the forerunners of the concept albums of the time. after that, bill could see little opportunity to further his abilities in that particular style or company, so he jumped ship and joined the darker side of progressive in the shape of king crimson. yet throughout a forty year professional career, he is still more famous for leaving yes, than for any of the subsequent years of music-making in which he has been involved.
thus, it seems for jose beyaert, a cyclist of some note in the 1940s, and victor in the olympic road race in 1948 held in windsor park, london. if you've never heard of beyaert, then you are not alone: despite there being an included photograph of jose mere inches away from fausto coppi and raphael geminiani in the 1951 tour de france, i searched the index at the back of william fotheringham's the passion of fausto coppi to no avail. in fact it was on reaching the photos in the centre of the book that i began to experience a zelig moment (or two). beyaert was renowned, apart from his cycling prowess, for always wearing the same round, heavy rimmed glasses that resembled aviator's goggles, and it is those that started me thinking that perhaps mr rendell had just pulled off one of the finest coups in modern publishing.
as someone well versed in the art of photoshop manipulation, i know how relatively easy it would be to have a fictional character appear to have been a part of whichever historical moment you deem necessary. so i did some checking through other sources, but it turns out that jose beyaert really did exist and was indeed, olympic champion in 1948. but if you get the chance to view any photos from the 40s or 50s, you may see from whence my suspicion arose.
after the 1951 tour de france, where he finished outside the time limit on stage seven, bayaert never again raced in europe. bad luck, bad choices and perhaps a large helping of sod's law deemed that the reigning olympic champion did not have the luck or fortune that might have made him as famous as the likes of coppi, bartoli etc. beyaert was, by nationality, belgian, but his father had applied for french nationality in 1936 and had it refused, yet when france needed conscripts to fight the war, mr beyaert found himself to be conveniently considered french. this had implications ten years later when jose, having come into a bit of money, desired to buy a tobacconists, but was refused a license because he was not a french national.
in the ensuing months, he received an invitation from the colombian government to visit with a view to better acquainting the country with the sport of cycling. the invitation was accepted and thus began the demise of beyaert's association with cycling, and his long-term residence in colombia.
rendell's work here can be read on two levels: the research, investigation and sheer tenacity with which he followed the disparate strands of jose's career, based on the failing memory of an old man's interviews are little short of incredible. throughout my lengthy reading of this book, i was very much in awe of the structure of the biography. however, upon reaching the south american years of beyaert's career, the numerous digressions in order to place the story in national and international context threaten to overshadow the story you thought you were reading. i'm none too sure if this is a good thing or not.
on another level, the story is an incredible one, but in the context of my bill bruford introduction, jose's fame for winning one year's olympic road title is a very small part of an adventurous and oft times hard to believe narrative. that zelig moment again. but studious reading of the 350 plus pages will reward the tenacious, though i'm not sure that the book will delight those with few interests outside cycling. still, it's definitely a story worth telling, and based on his skillset for so doing, mr rendell is likely the only one capable of doing so, given his extensive knowledge of columbia, its riders and social history. it's not an easy read, but if you have the time, the inclination and the will to accept that cycle racers are not necessarily cycle racers for life, this you will find a satisfying endeavour. and in case you need further evidence of matt rendell's genius, there's a more than comprehensive index and bibliography over the last eighteen pages.
somewhat of a triumph in an unexpected fashion.
posted on sunday 15 august 2009..........................................................................................................................................................................................................