the race against time. edward pickering. transworld books hardback. 314pp illus. £16.99

the race against time

drumming, when practiced by those with even modest ability, looks deceptively simple. it's a truism that applies to almost any musical instrument, though admittedly as regards drumming, you can only ever be out of time; rarely if ever, out of tune. the skills required to become a rounded percussionist are comparable to those of the apprentice pianist, but instead of scales, drumming has rudiments.

it's eminently possible that the resulting number of these rudiments has been contrived to fit equibly with the letters of the alphabet, since both consist of 26 in number. i fear this may be an americanism, as the number is dictated by the percussive arts society and is somewhat tenuous at best, since many are combinations of each other. however, the starting point is invariably the single and double-stroke rolls, the latter often referred to as the mammy-daddy roll, consisting as it does of two right-hand strokes followed by two on the left-hand, pretty much ad finitum.

in order that one might acquire the control required to play a smooth roll that sounds like a sheet of paper being torn in half, these right-hand, left-hand double strokes need be practised slowly and evenly. it's a process that takes around two or three months to perfect, assuming one practices diligently and regularly. the trouble starts more frequently with the single-stroke roll, requiring only one stroke per hand but requiring the same attention to detail. for such is human nature that it is not sufficient merely to play a smooth roll, but ultimately necessary to play as fast as humanly possible, as witnessed by the numerous world's fastest drummer competitions.

suddenly a musical pursuit becomes a track and field event. in the quest for glory, music is all but forgotten in favour of speed and bragging rights. the drum roll removed from its intended context. many of you will be nodding your heads in agreement, even if you recognise the trait as applicable to many other factors in life. and in the course of considering such, every now and again along comes more than one individual not only convinced that they are the fastest, but are in possession of an hitherto unknown method of achieving the same.

author (and taiko drummer) edward pickering has revisited the 1990s when two protagonists of the time-trial almost inadvertantly met each other on both the national and ultimately international stage. and superficially at least, each inhabited apparently vastly differing methods of achieving their designated goal. chris boardman and graeme obree contrived to fill many hundreds of column inches during their parallel careers. both competed for national time-trial and track titles before moving onto the more esoteric regions of individual pursuit medals and the world hour record.

neither rider was content to stretch for results through the more accepted practice personified by fausto coppi ride a bike, ride a bike and ride a bike. if found necessary to come down on the side of one or other in terms of individual analytical approach to the problem of going faster, the badge would likely be pinned on obree. though one could hardly deny that boardman too had an original modus operandi, to be fair, he had considerable assistance from sports scientist peter keen. obree was largely an original thinker.

"When he was at school, his class did a project which involved making collage flowers to be put up on the windows and walls as decoration. 'All I remember thinking is, "You don't get flowers without bees, so I'm going to cut out bees."'
"...That's what Obree has been doing his whole life - cutting out bees while mainstream society makes flowers."

compare that with boardman. "He was prepared to work with Peter Keen and he was prepared to work with Lotus. He realised he couldn't possibly do it on his own."

ed pickering has spent a great deal of time researching the ins and outs of two intertwining careers, enjoying intriguing conversations with obree in his flat above a saltcoats (ayrshire) carpet shop. "he likes the fast there are no neighbours, that the shop closes at five. There's nobody for him to disturb, and nobody to disturb him.

one gains the impression, however, that boardman was less engaged in pickering's authorial toil, and many of the facts and figures relating to boardman's career seem gleaned more easily from peter keen and, to a lesser extent, mike burrows, designer of the lotus bike on which chris boardman won his 1992 olympic gold medal. though i could be wildly left of the mark, boardman can be perceived as one who has closed the cyclist chapter of his life, and now more presently involved in the cycling part. graeme obree, on the other hand comes across as a man who does not have chapters. if one could morph a sequence of events into a stream of consciousness, obree's the man who could do so, and it is this distinction that pickering has cleverly revealed in his informed narrative.

both men had wildly differing yet strangely similar demands from the need to go fast. for boardman each title or success was a progressive step on the road to a career as a cyclist. he is rather infamously renowned for having stated that he did not particularly enjoy riding his bike; it was simply a means to an end; a professional career doing something at which he and keen had proved him particularly adept.

with obree's eventual admission of having suffered from serious depression and a lack of self worth, his cycling could be seen as a means of self-justification, one that disappeared almost immediately another notch had been cut in the seatpost of old faithful. boardman epitomised the world of hi-tech, an image that followed him to british cycling's secret squirrel department for both the beijing and london olympics. obree was diametrically opposite, or so it would seem, yet his need to question everything and develop his own methods wasn't that different than that from the keen/boardman approach. ultimately their methodology was the greatest contradistinction.

though the competition and intrigue between the two is relatively recent history and at the very least, familar to the average cycling obsessive, the book itself offer compulsive reading. though i have never met boardman, i am acquainted with graeme obree; thewashingmachinepost as a blog title didn't manifest itself from thin air. yet i read all 314 pages over the course of three evenings; it's that good.

if it is necessary to criticise such a well-researched and well-written volume it's that scant attention seems to have been paid to obree's otherwise comprehensively documented bi-polar illness. obree himself admitted all with self-effacing detail in his autobiography the flying scotsman. pickering does bring it to the reader's attention in the epilogue, but does not relate it to his failure to qualify for the individual pursuit in atlanta. "Atlanta was a disaster for Obree. he rode 4.34 in qualifying - a terrible performance just a year after he'd won the world title.". obree himself explained this remarkably poor performance as a result of suffering at the time from severe depression, something not mentioned even in passing in the race against time.

though boardman and obree are the headliners in this narrative, the supporting cast often shine almost as brightly. almost unwittingly, pickering has reinforced the premise offered up by boardman's broadcasting colleague, ned boulting. in on the road bike boulting affectionately describes the backbone of british cycling as a cast of eccentrics. if you accept this, then peter keen, mike burrows and even vic haines are no different and just as essential to the fabric of cycling.

"I've never been a natural rebel. I'm not a rebel, I'm right." so states burrows. "If you work for Boeing, you work on this little bit here or that little bit there... But with model aircraft, you design the whole.". Though publicly at least the lotus superbike overshadowed that man who rode it to gold, the thinking behind its construction was every bit as radical as that of obree's old faithful.

"My impression of Keen was reinforced when he was quoted immediately after Boardman's 1993 hour record in Bordeaux. He was pleased, of course, but he also expressed regret that he had not been able to get a core temperature reading immediately after Boardman had finished. Only Peter Keen's first instinct after one of the greatest athletic achievements in cycling history would be to stick a thermometer up his rider's arse, rather than give him a hug."

the race against time is a book that can be enjoyed on more than a single level. it's complexities work for it and never against. the constant yet necessary switching between characters and scenes from chapter to chapter are handled with considerable aplomb. i only wish that pickering had refrained from using the letter 'z' as opposed to 's' in words such as realised, criticises etc.. i'm afraid i'm enough of a pedant to have found it mildly irritating, though coming from one who plainly eschews capital letters, i daresay those living in glass houses ought not to throw stones.

an entertaining and important addition to cycling's literary panoply.

wednesday 12th june 2013