the belgian hammer - daniel lee. foreword by george hincapie. breakaway books paperback 208pp illus. £9.59 ($15)

the belgian hammer

now that i've put myself on the spot, i can't actually think of a film that fits the bill. you know the sort of movie i mean; one that starts on the movie channel late on friday or saturday, meaning you already know bedtime will be after midnight. there's a mug of drinking chocolate and a couple of digestive biscuits and a packet of crisps on the coffee table, and just like a nest, the sofa or armchair has been suitably contorted for the duration. the movie starts slowly but dramatically, then pretty much fails to do anything else for the next hour and a half. by about two thirds of the way through, the realisation that it's probably not going to be getting any better has been physically underlined. but so much time has already been invested in watching, that you're darned if you're going to give up now.

and true to form, nothing much else happens.

don't tell me you've never experienced that kind of film? there's sort of an embarrassment that the trailer shown earlier in the week suckered you in, but at least you can pretend it to have been deep and meaningful, with a level of insight only apparent to those of appropriate intellect. sometimes it works.

the belgian hammer by daniel lee is sort of the book version of the hypothetical movie i have just attempted to describe. but like any work of interest, there is sort of a twist in its having been brought to the table in the first place. firstly, i blame for leaving me wide open to having my wrist slapped in the first place. george hincapie has favoured this volume with a foreword, something that the bookish website has managed to misinterpret as co-authorship. while this error is unlikely to damage the book's potential sales, it could be seen in certain quarters as a disappointing state of affairs.

in my latter years of primary school, i contrived to be naturally rather good at drawing and painting, something that had an unwarranted effect on several of my classmates. when it came to many of the annual art competitions, some of my peers would cry off participation because in certain quarters it was seen that i would simply walk off with the prize. sometimes that's exactly what happened, but as far as i was concerned, i was simply doing my job.

on going to secondary school, suddenly i was only one amongst a group of semi-accomplished artists, most of whom were considerably better than i. follow this to its logical conclusion, and on reaching the lofty heights of art college, it would be straining credibility to suggest i was anything other than a journeyman; i survived, but only just.

daniel lee's forging young americans into professional cyclists has uncanny parallels to my art career, and many other walks of contemporary life. there is a huge difference between not only the indigenous style of cycle racing in north america, but in the speed changes inherent in this form of competition. however, as with most forms of competitive endeavour, reach close to the top of the tree, and it is not at all unusual to look up at the next tree. such has been often the case with north american cyclists. we have already been regaled by the excellent a dog in a hat by joe parkin, the recently reviewed book describing the entry of the 7-eleven team into european stage racing, and the evidence of success evinced by greg lemond, lance armstrong, steve bauer and recently one or two others.

almost to a man, they will admit that european racing was a bit of a wake-up call. to put not too fine a point on it, most of them got a kicking. this, however, is hardly front page news. between the aforementioned books and various magazine articles over the years, i think we've all grasped the notion that american bike riders (and often british, if we're totally honest) are initially out of their depth after setting cleats on belgian soil. some of them remain out of that same depth until returning across the atlantic.

so why write another book about it?

the existence of a dollar price tag on the book's back cover would suggest that it is aimed at the (american) home market, and not necessarily expected to be read by many across the pond. i'm forever wondering what the belgians think about such endless adulation directed at their cycling prowess. what do they write books about? however, for any aspiring american bicycle rider, a few pages of directly witnessed forewarning might just prepare them for a world of highly contrasting black and white.

however, at long last to return to my opening gambit relating to the endless movie that is seemingly going nowhere, i read all 208 pages in one day, fully expecting the preamble of the first thirteen chapters to be resolved in the fourteenth and final one. you can imagine my disappointment when this turned out not to be the case; this essentially seemed to be a book with no discernible point to its lengthy narrative. not an entirely unheard of situation, but one that i'd always hoped would body-swerve my bookcase.

but surely it bears some redeeming features? well, that's sort of the twist to which i referred in my second paragraph. for starters, i read the entire book in one day. not quite in one sitting you understand, lunch has to be grabbed at some point or other, but certainly between waking and sleeping. as one who reads a lot of books over the course of a year, this is an almost unheard of state of affairs; this is, bizarrely, a rather good book.

it has it's disappointing quirks, such as a seeming necessity to credit the author's photographs along with each caption; totally unnecessary. and it has been a long held tenet that any author should refrain from referring to his/her book in the course of the narrative; the book itself should be transparent, and should not become the subject of itself. i quote: "as (jackson) stewart and i finished our conversation, i told him that he had been helpful... i told him i planned on using those things in my book. 'i'm glad to be part of a book,' stewart responded." daniel lee is also noticeably in awe of some of his interviewees. this is likely not particularly unusual, but i think it better not to bring it to the notice of the reader.

a reviewer's hatchet job? not really, for i would maintain there is still much to be admired in the hammer. lee's writing style is impeccably smooth, with an uncanny ability to draw this reader into his ostensibly vacant parking lot. for despite my contention that this is a book devoid of a tangible point, i actually enjoyed reading pretty much every page. there are nuggets of joy, such as the blatant observation by american rider ian boswell that "cobbles are stupid" or that colorado rider peter horn revitalised himself after a belgian kermis by devouring a goat's cheese and jelly sandwich. it was difficult eating lunch after that culinary indiscretion.

wisdom, however contorted or dubious, is also existent midst the belgian hammer's pages. on acting like a professional, on and off the bike:"the way you talk, the way you are dressed, the way you eat, the way you are organised, how clean your bike and clothing is, all this and more is part of your personal communication package. people will perceive all this a certain way, and this way you create an image... becoming a professional cyclist is a public job, your sponsors will pay you partly because your behaviour, your image will help to enforce their company or product or service." richard sachs would be proud.

there are, of course, words to enter the annals of cycling rules: "don't shave your legs the day before a race because the process of the hairs growing back and poking through the skin wastes energy. don't shower before a race because your legs will fill with water. don't eat warm bread because it's still baking and expanding. don't have plants in your room because they will take your oxygen."

but perhaps if there is one salient point brought across by the defiant attitude adopted by some american riders to integrate themselves into the heart of belgian racing, is evinced by the tattoo sported by addison bain's forearm "let them hate so long as they fear".

i still find there to be little or no point to daniel lee's the belgian hammer and that may, in fact, be the point. a confusingly excellent book.

breakaway books

posted tuesday 18 october 2011


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