the professional cyclist, other than when hiding behind tinted death star windows, is pretty much in the public domain. we are constantly reminded, for no particular reason, that cycle racing is perhaps the most accessible of all the major sports. while soccer, rugby, tennis et al have the innate ability to seat their audience at remunerative cost, professional road racing is open to the elements and to those who wish to stand by the roadside, free of charge, and watch the proceedings whizz by. and having left the safety of the team bus, the riders' every moves are witnessed even to the extent of their pre-race warm ups on turbo trainers 'neath a sponsored gazebo. it is little wonder that many take this ooportunity to don headphones and ipods to gain what little solitude may remain in their jurisdiction.
to witness this is to question whether riders are truly concentrated on the moment, or simply making use of the only form of hiding behind the couch they have left.
several years ago, former sky rider, michael barry, collaborated with esteemed photographer camille mcmillan to produce an esoteric look at a year in the life. barry wrote the words and mcmillan supplied the imagery. the book was entitled metier. in order to enhance my review of this volume, i e-mailed michael barry a selection of questions just prior to that year's giro d'italia, pointing out that, in view of his participation in said three week race, i was happy to wait until the shouting was all over for his answers. i suddenly had need of hurriedly sending a second batch of questions to photographer camille mcmillan, when michael suprisingly sent his answers from italy just prior to the start.
you would figure that, in such a situation, there were considerably more pressing matters to contend with, yet michael promptly and kindly sent an impressively cogent set of answers for a feature in hardly one of the world's major cycling blogs. i also received one or two further e-mails during that particular race.
however, moving on just a few years, the disgraced phloyd landis decided to drag michael's name through the mud by testifying that he and one or two others were as guilty of taking banned substances as was he himself. simply to demonstrate that my naivety knows no bounds, i sent michael an e-mail offering my support (such as it was) and proclaiming my belief that phloyd was simply stirring the brown stuff in order to present himsefl as a more credible witness.
as a rider with team sky, michael barry points out in shadows on the road that prior to his pronounced retirement at the end of the 2013 season, sky had offered him the opportunity to move into a marketing and pr position with the team. then came the admission that he had, in fact, been guilty of injecting epo earlier in his career. with sky's zero tolerance stance, this meant the end of barry's cycling career and the withdrawal of the post riding position. it also made me feel a tad foolish for having sent those words of support.
it is, of course, easy to criticise from the sidelines, safe in the knowledge that such decisions will never be a part of our own lives. but unlike tyler hamilton's the secret race, barry's shadows on the road is not an explicit expose of drugtaking in the peloton. in fact, were it not for his opening chapter describing his feelings on being summonsed by usada to testify against others, you'd never know there was a bubble waiting to burst.
well, actually, that's not true; you probably would. the overall tone of his narrative seems none too optismistic.
barry is something of an intellectual; even his bespectacled photo on the book's inside rear flap gives that impression. he writes very well, very descriptively and often at length, adhering to my own philosophy of why use one word when several would do.
"The team moves quickly, skirting parked cars by inches and accelerating out of tight corners. Locals give a short cheer as we pass through a town in a blur of colour. Our conversation, mixed with the ticking and whirling of the the freewheels and the squeal of the brakes, creates a symphony of noise against more routine small-town sounds: the rattle of bottles being delivered to a bar, the laughter of kids playing in a park, the clink of glasses on a terrace."
shadows on the road reminds me a lot of jazz drummer bill bruford's autobiography written on his retirement from public performance after a 41 year career. though there are high points in the book, there is a distinct impression that happy ever after is not at the end of the last chapter. brooding would be an apt description.
though michael barry seems to have enjoyed a successful career in the peloton, shadows on the road seems to dwell more upon the hardships: accidents, travel, loneliness and being away from home for long periods of time. not especially surprising revelations, but part and parcel of a world tour rider's career. the early chapters in particular, number one excepted, read more as a series of pensive essays, often descriptive and moody, but also often unresolved at chapter's end.
"The laptop was a wonderful way to stay connected...But perhaps we have become too connected. There's less sense of community in the peloton and less solidarity amongst teammates and riders. Self-aware narcissism is the unhealthy side effect...We are no longer absorbed in the moment or immersed in our environment. A teammate once noted that many riders, especially the Americans, seemed more concerned with getting online to report on a race than with racing well."
it's not till we reach chapter twelve when the author almost surprisingly brings to light those revelations that ultimately ended his career (though in mitigation, he had already decided to stop of his own resolve). a bit like a stage race, those first eleven chapters, in retrospect, appear to have been been softening us up for the big bang theory, digressing somewhat and even leading us astray. if this was deliberate, it works very well because deliberate is not how it comes across.
barry appears more at ease with himself in subsequent chapters, having publicly admitted guilt which he felt team sky's insistence had made him keep hidden. admit and you're out; keep it to yourself, and you're fine. but there is a touch of the world weary throughout, perhaps not intentional, but this isn't the book you'd hand to someone considering a professional career in the peloton. i can't help thinking the title is somewhat of a heavy precursor to the contents.
that said, it's a good read if you're a connoisseur of good writing. it is not only hard to disagree with many of barry's points of view, but hard also to think we'd have done otherwise if in a similar situation. i think i was more comfortable with the reflective, observant barry in the first eleven chapters than with the revelatory man who occupies several of those subsequent, but the philosophical individual rises again towards the end.
"Speaking with my retired teammates, George (Hincapie) and Jez (Hunt), I find that they have also tried to find the same equilibrium in their lives. They continue to ride, no longer focused on a finishing line...
"Climbing back on my bike after months seems to put things straight. Pedalling is therapy."
sunday 1 june 2014..........................................................................................................................................................................................................