Friends ask why did I write about horse racing (my novel Breeders) when I spent years racing bicycles and writing about it?
Mainly because thoroughbred racing is rich and glitzy, full of horse whisperers and dripping with money. Old money, new money, exotic foreign money, all conveniently gathered in colorful venues from Saratoga to Pimlico to Santa Anita. Whereas until recently, cycling was a low profile blue collar sport with one media showpiece, the three week Tour de France. Like the World Sauna Championships, it had a limited audience until scandal struck – death by sauna in one case, Lance Armstrong in the other.
Cycling is complicated. All sports are more complicated than they look, but road racing is extra complicated.
It also takes time. We’re the instant gratification nation, and think a two hour marathon is long. That’s less than half a typical road race, and the Grand Tours last longer than a grand slam tennis tournament. They’re like symphonies – three movements, a week apiece, five or six hours a day. Europe loves symphonies, but we go metal, pop or indie.
Sports are complicated in different ways. Road racing is a team sport, but it’s unpredictable and stuff happens. Sometimes it’s comic. In the 2013 World Championships, two top Spanish riders got away with Portuguese Rui Costa. When he took off, the Spaniards couldn’t work together and soon Portugal had its first World Road Champion. A few years ago Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome got into a celebrated Tour de France kerfuffle when Wiggins was leading and looked like he was running out of gas. Froome, a talented young serf in his service, decided to go for it on his own. He was brought up short, but did eventually take over the team. But the move defined him as a talkative and controversial diva, addicted to cameras and microphones.
These team explosions can be historic. Back in the day, playboy Fausto Coppi decided to let team leader Gino Bartali (known as The Pious, loved by the peasants) untangle himself from a crash on his own, and went for it himself, successfully. Big stink team meeting. But the well-named Fausto was on his way, a fearless secular guy who invited his married girlfriend to dine with the team, scandalizing Italy and creating his own more modern fan base. And back in the eighties, the legendary Bernard Hinault double-crossed Greg LeMond in the 1985 Tour. LeMond went on to clean his celebrated French clock the following year in the race Hinault thought he owned. Young Alberto Contador laughing off teammate Armstrong’s comeback in 2007 was along the same lines. Europeans laughed with him – Armstrong was an open secret, hated in the peloton.
So – a team sport that can get loose under stress. And confusing. Just to begin with there are all those teams, as many as twenty in a big race. It’s not mano-a-mano like boxing or tennis (though it often comes down to that toward the end), and it’s not one team against another like soccer or football. It’s a bunch of competing outfits jostling each other like nations or corporations.
Further to confuse casual viewers, there are the many Grand Tour prizes. Overall winner (aka GC) is the one in the headlines, but an individual stage win is huge. A stage win by a lesser or younger rider is a career changer – headlines, interviews, instant respect and a better contract for the next year, because riders bargain individually with teams, and a Tour (or Giro d’Italia or Vuelta a España) stage win is a trump card.
It goes on. There are winners jerseys for the best sprinter, best neophyte, and King of the Mountains, all valuable in contract negotiation. With all these teams and prizes, cycling begins to resemble real life. And just like in real life, favors are exchanged. Quick chats on the road: “I will not attack your candidate for GC victory if you let me have this stage win,” or “I won’t fight you for the King of the Mountains if you don’t attack me in tomorrow’s stage.” And so forth. Is it dirty? Well, on a rainy day you’re covered with mud and freezing and you’ve got road rash from going down. Tomorrow you’re climbing the Pyrenees guzzling water in heat that melts the road tar.
It’s not cricket for sure, but it may be the most perfect reflection of real life to be found in sports. I loved it. I loved racing and working with teams and following the Grand Tours and writing about them. I made just enough to live on, and usually wrote for a small group of people who often understood it better than I did. As in real life, journalists are always a step behind.
I wrote about horse racing because it was so American, and because I had a smattering of knowledge about it, and because people understand it, or think they do. Most races are about two minutes of very exciting seriously dangerous half-calculated life-threatening insanity. Being super-white, it was also the perfect platform for an indirect dialog on race, which no one reading the book seemed to notice, because the hero wasn’t a rich punk rapper or celeb.
Most of all though, it was that money. Thoroughbred racing is saturated with money, which is universally loved and understood. Lance Armstrong was the first big-money guy in bike racing, and he’s nothing compared with any old oil Sheikh who can spend half a million on the possibilities of some fragile inbred creature that may break down in the first month of training.
Bike racing is low profile, low rent, tough as nails, and patient. Zero glitz, and so complicated that I’d have needed footnotes just to explain, say, why Guido let Ian go on up the road and waited for Mike and Pyotr. You can’t do footnotes in a novel.