nicholas roche - my life as a professional cyclist. transworld ireland 394pp illus. £14.99

nicholas roche

in a strange kind of way, it's intriguing when things turn out to be confusing, yet not always the contrary when everything is as planned. when i was not particularly old, the bbc started trailering a new television series called 'monty python's flying circus', just the sort of entertainment guaranteed to entrance a thirteen year old. aviators, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of biggles and algie, throwing their biplanes around the skies in deeds of derring-do. at least, that's the pictures a flying circus conjured up for me.

even those of an age that post-dated this magical world of humour will know enough about the series to wonder how i could ever have mistaken it for an aeronautical display. that first programme, if memory serves correctly, opened with alien blancmanges turning every pro tennis player into scotsmen, who immediately did the only decent thing and headed north of the border. it appears the reason for this altering of nationality was part of a cunning plan for the blancmanges to win wimbledon virtually unchallenged. and it introduced the world to a catchphrase still heard to the present day ...and now for something completely different.

this misappropriation of honesty was carried through to the inevitable monty python annuals, the first of which was published as monty python's big red book despite it having a blue hardback cover. the second incarnation proudly displayed inside the cover that there was a free washing machine to be had with every other copy, followed by the direction see other copy.

the surprise of the programme being not what i had thought it to be was admonished by the eccentric humour of the performers and writers, hugely enjoyed by my father and i, but less so by my mother who didn't quite get the point, if there was one to get. my father being an acolyte of the goons, meant such bizarre humour was not entirely unencountered in our household.

nicholas roche's autobiography (i believe there is no disparity in referring to it as such), does not practice so to deceive. plainly stated upon the cover, under a rather stern photo of the man, are the words my life as a professional cyclist. there is no pretence across the entirety of the book's 382 pages of type that this is other than i figured it would be, and it gives me little pleasure to say that those 382 pages are as dull as dishwater.

i like to consider myself reasonably well-informed as to the state of contemporary cycling in its many variations. i am, as is the case with most of us, more aware of some aspects than of others, but overall, i don't do too badly. i would hate to think of myself as an armchair expert when it comes to the competitve aspects of the genre, having never competed at any level, therefore i have only my reading, e-mails and conversations with professional racing cyclists on which to base my appreciation of their skills and fortitude. not surprisingly, all professional cyclists are not of one ilk; they may have the same job as each other but their individual approach can be substantially different from the next guy in the peloton.

i'm aware that nicholas roche is a current member of the french ag2r team, but beyond that, i could relate little. i have no idea where his star fits in the pelotonic firmament, nor could i name any of his recent victories. i doubt that this makes me a bad person, but it is a situation i hoped to remedy by the reading of this substantial book. at one time, autobiographies were written by those who were in the twilight of their careers: actors, sportsmen, politicians etc.; people who had experienced a great deal of life and who had many a tale to tell. you could imagine eddy merckx or sean kelly writing theirs, and both would likely be worth the price of admission.

the playing field has obviously changed substantially in recent years, with twenty-something tennis players writing their life (sic) stories and it would surprise me not one whit to receive an e-mail from amazon announcing justin bieber's autobiography.

it seems a mite bizarre to open the book under consideration with a recap of his father stephen roche's victory in the tour de france as well as his trials and tribulations in the giro. surely some mistake? in my opinion, defintiely a mistake; if the book's about nicholas roche, stephen should not have any chapter all to himself, let alone the first one. though not a bad writer as such, nicholas does not employ a style that has the reader rivetted to every page, and unfortunately he remains steadfastly true to his subtitle, regaling the reader with every minute detail about pretty much every race in which he's ever turned a wheel. though i'm no doubt being grossly unfair, it would be a simple yet trite matter to precis the contents by way of 'i got in a breakaway, rode my ass off, jumped my companions only a few kilometres from the end, but was overtaken by the peloton a few hundred metres from the line.'

of course, the same could be applied to many a professional rider, and i don't doubt for one minute that such is life for many a travelling pro-tour cyclist. though a faint whiff of glamour emanates from those team buses when stood on the outside looking in, it is likely less so for those on the other side of the tinted windows wearing ipod earphones. i would not, for one minute, attempt to undermine or demean this as an often exciting and occasionally well-remunerated career. however, its repetitiveness does not make for particularly entertaining reading.

nicholas roche may be one of the few irish riders in the pro peleton, and despite being apparently less than keen to trade on his surname, he does not have anything like the fame and palmares of his father. which has me seriously wondering what tempted him to write a book that says very little. i am also somewhat confused as to the intended readership he had in mind; for a few years, roche has written a tour diary for le tour, il giro and la vuelta for the irish independent newspaper, almost all of which are reprinted verbatim in the appropriate chapters (part of the reason for such a substantial number of pages). but it is likely that many of his irish fans will have already read and perhaps cut out and kept those diaries; how disappoiting it must be to have them yet again claim a portion of the asking price.

in diary format, they not only break up the narrative, but are, in my opinion, an unnecessary distraction.
stage 10, wednesday 14 july: chambery-gap 179km
bastille day is always crazy on the tour. the french national holiday means that the roads are lined with fans, and more people watch the stage live on tv because they are off work. because of this, every french rider and every french team wants to win the stage or, at the very least, be in the winning breakaway.

really? i can understand this level of chit-chat in a national newspaper, where the audience may be less than well-versed in the obvious and less-obvious aspects of the tour. but surely the majority of those likely to purchase this book will be better read in the sport's intricacies, and less willing to suffer such (mild) patronisation and timorous insult to their intelligence?

or am i being overly critical?

it may be a simplistic rule of thumb, but i tend to gauge the efficacy and degree of interest that a book posesses and generates by how keen i am to read on past the alotted number of chapters designated for each day's reading. many a book has been hard to put down, others comfortably fill their allocated slot. in the case of one or two, it has been necessary to constantly remind myself that copy has been sent for the express purpose of producing a review. in such cases, it can often be a less than enjoyable experience.

this was one such case.

posted thursday 17 november 2011


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