reading the race. bike racing from inside the peloton. jamie smith with chris horner. velopress softback 269pp illus. £13.95 ($18.95)

reading the race

"There are times in a race when no-one is racing. This is known as 'the calm before the storm'. Collectively, the entire group will sit up and take it easy for a while. It's one of those moments in sport in which everyone is ready for nothing to happen. (In baseball, this is known as 'the entire game').

i really ought to confess that i have occasionally participated in innocent sporting prowess, despite having continually protested my non-competitive nature. on the road back to debbie's at the end of the sunday ride are two 30mph signs effectively announcing the existence of bruichladdich village. we sprint for these. it's something i really ought not to take an interest in, but if i'm feeling mischievous, or the others are scanning the skies for buzzards, i have been known to put on an unforeseen spurt and been first across the imaginary line joining the two aforementioned speed signs.

the only individual employing any manner of strategy at this late stage is the mighty dave t; as a former racer, he has more tricks up his sleeve than paul daniels. he has often impressed upon us that we ought never to trust belgians or pensioners; we always thought he was joking. for the rest of us, there is no attempt at feinting to the left or appearing to be stuffed in the hope that we can remain devious till the last minute. which is just as well, for i can no more read a race than the book of kells. i live in admiration of brian smith who seems to know each and every turn well in advance.

however, to remedy this embarrassingly atrocious situation, there is a recently published antidote entitled reading the race. i cannot now recall from where my misapprehension arose, but my initial introduction to this book had me believing it was by 2013 vuelta victor, chris horner, an authorial debut that would undoubtedly lead to impressive sales based on his latest grand tour victory. though there is little doubt that the book was written and compiled long before any racing in spain had commenced, i was dubious about velopress' timing of the publication date.

on receipt of my review copy, i felt slightly cheated to discover that the book was in fact authored by amateur racer and commentator, jamie smith. chris horner merely contributes a few admittedly pertinent anecdotes along the way. by the time i had finished reading, i felt even more cheated, except this time because no-one had made it plain just how brilliant an author jamie smith truly is.

smith's last book for velopress was entitled roadie: the misunderstood world of a bike racer. that was good, but this almost makes the word 'excellent' seem woefully inadequate. i'm afraid i must admit to harbouring the indefensible habit of folding over the page corners of review books to signify pages that i may wish to quote from during the composition of my subsequent reviews. if i recount that my copy of reading the race ended up with 27 bent pages (none of which referred to the words of chris horner), you may begin to appreciate the comic genius of mr smith. do not mistake his humour as a cover for lack of content; the man knows very well of which he writes, but has a style of delivery that would be the envy of many a professional comedian.

"And as an added bonus, I will find myself at the front of the field in the perfect position to begin the blocking procedure that will ensure your success.
"You're welcome."

smith examines the various motivations that bring those who work long and hard each weekday to pummel themselves into oblivion on the bicycle most weekends. and mercifully, he dwells only briefly on basic training, given the multitude of volumes already published on the strictures of preparing ourselves to do battle from the saddle. this is followed by cleverly detailed chapters concerning riding in a closely formed pack of riders, handling speed, attacking, winning (and other lofty goals), sprinting... i'm sure you get the general idea.

the strangest feature, as far as i was concerned was the compulsive nature imposed by the book's content. i have never raced and have no earthly intention of ever doing so in the future. i have no apparent skills whatsoever that would lend themselves to racing in a fast moving pack of honed athletes, and insufficient members of the velo club that would allow the sort of practice as advised by jamie smith. yet despite the contents being of little personal relevance, never once did the salient advice of messrs smith and horner ever pale into the realms of tedium.

"Riders down! That's the second thing that's said immediately after a crash. I can't print the first thing that's said."

though smith takes the lead on each and every topic, the strategic positioning of (always) relevant anecdotes from chris horner does much to point out the similarity of vision and actions in the professional peloton. though the book could have survived perfectly well without horner's contributions, no doubt his name on the cover will aid the all-important sales figures, and they do have the advantage of placing the author's narrative in a grander frame of context.

the descriptions of specific group tactics, such as pacelines, echelon riding and the like, are clearly illustrated and annotated. if you have any doubts as to how any are to be implemented in real life, these leave no doubt as to how each ought to be successfuly accomplished. but the book's winning smile is undoubtedly jamie smith's well-judged sense of humour. i would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who considers themselves even remotely interested in cycle racing of any flavour, ought to acquire a copy of this book. if nothing else, you'll at least reach page 269 with sore sides from laughing.

despite its distinct american bias, and the comcomitant emphasis on criterium racing round square streets, there is much of relevance to the british/european amateur/semi-pro rider. if you're struggling as to what to buy the significant cyclist in your life, this is the ideal way to gain serious brownie points.


"For example, my team-mate, Ray Dybowski, was once ina solo breakaway in Sanford, Florida, on a boulevard course with two 180-degree turns. As he came through one of the turns, his friend Joe Saling yelled at him. On the next lap, Joe yelled again with what Ray was sure were valuable instructions. Though it was difficult at race pace to hear Joe and hard to comprehend what he was saying, Ray understood Joe this way: 'The key is to put more weight on the front wheel. Don't reach!
"Ray started leaning forward in the turns and found he had better traction and was able to carry more speed through the corners. He eventually won the race and excitedly thanked Joe for the advice afterward. Joe was perplexed. He hadn't shouted any instructions. He was trying to tell Ray, 'We left the keys to the car on the front wheels. We couldn't wait. We're going to the beach."

jamie smith's 'reading the race' is available from cordee books in the uk or direct from velopress in the usa.

friday 15 november 2013