Desperate times lead to desperate measures, as I’m found resorting to sporting books.
Recently, I’ve had a lot of time to ride bikes on my own. The weather has finally come around, the warmth has returned and, of course, one finds oneself with a lot of extra free time that can’t be spent with friends. That means that at the moment, riding bikes takes the form of a lot of time spent lapping the Cheshire lanes and getting in and out of Manchester.
It’s been great to get out of constricting layers of kit, unflattering, boxy jackets, and ditch the noisy, heavy mudguards. But what this introspective time on the bike has made really clear is one thing: most of the time spent cycling on the road is really, really boring. Without friends to chat to or spar with, journeys to make, or even races to look forward to, it can be tough to find the motivation, or stay connected to the parts of the culture that draw me in and keep me coming back to the long, dull B roads.
This, combined with the fact that most of us have ended up with a lot of time to twiddle our thumbs at home, has led me to take sanctuary in something I’d historically scoff at – with occasional exceptions, of course. I’ve been reading sports books. And not just any sports books. Autobiographies. Lots of people like them, I assume, since they always seem to take pride of place in the shops. Or is it just that they seem like good stocking stuffers? For the most part, it seems like a way to capitalise on a bit of fame from sporting success, or being the athlete of the moment, and that generally makes me cringe a bit.
I’ve got a few of them, though. And it’s a damn sight more appealing than scrolling through the dross that people write online. So let’s get on with it.
David Millar was a pro cyclist from 1997 to 2014. Somewhere in the middle of that career, he was caught doping (spoiler alert). He owned up, got in quite a bit of trouble, and eventually returned to racing as an anti-doping activist, seemingly trying to become the spokesperson for frank and honest discussion about what was going on in the sport. Racing Through The Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar is the story of all of that.
There’s something else, though. Millar was one of the real ‘characters’ in the peloton, earning the nickname ‘Le Dandy’, being a shameless cycling aesthete, and waxing romantic about the sport and his rides. It was always going to rub some people the wrong way – especially from a former cheat. This probably wasn’t helped by the knowledge of how many of his colleagues were happy to lie through their teeth, too. With the end of his career in sight, how could we trust that this wasn’t a cynical attempt to claw back some media attention, to build a brand and shore up for retirement? If pushed, I’d always have considered myself a Millar apologist. But how can you ever know for sure? Do people still run the risk of having heroes in cycling in 2020?
Summarising Millar as a character, in the way the TV commentators do, created this unbelievable figure of style, living the dream of moving seamlessly around the cities of the world with luxury car sponsorships and expensive clothes. For me, the book went a long way to dismantling that image and replacing it with one of a flawed human, with the ability to be self-aware, to reflect, and, ultimately, to change. The ‘icon’ of David Millar goes some way to support the unhealthy myths of cycling as a higher pursuit, on whose altar no sacrifice is too great. As a human being, it’s possible to find more of a hopeful narrative. For what it’s worth, I feel that if someone isn’t able to be a little introspective and poetic about what they do, then they’re probably not the right person to tell a compelling story about it, or to effectively unpack and communicate their motivations and feelings.
There are some other unexpected appearances, too. Lance Armstrong and David Brailsford show up briefly – almost anecdotally – and this goes a little way to building them up as recognisable people behind their usual PR armour. How can those kinds of media soundbites create anything more than a caricature? And how could anyone equate those caricatures to real people who can be trusted?
It could all be a fabrication, but it gives me more satisfaction than the curated content and press releases that usually surround them.
Will it make me any less wary of the likes of Brailsford, or even Millar? No, it probably won’t. But I hope it’ll make me more wary of myself, and of falling into the trap of making judgements about these people as if life is some kind of morality play. We’re more than soundbites, and that’s probably worth remembering now more than ever as we transfer our consciousness to social media.