balmamion - herbie sykes

balmamion. herbie sykes. rapha editions/bluetrain publishing flexicover. 224pp illus. £25

a colleague of mine is currently typesetting a book of short stories, all of which have been written by a group of amateur writers. in the grand scheme of things, these are not the sort of brief essays that would be considered by any commercial publisher, and there has been the occasional scream of agony on reading through some of the attempts. if anything, the experience has proved that the phrase 'everyone has a book inside them' isn't entirely accurate.

i well know that, despite writing several thousand words each week, there is no book inside me, and i have strongly resisted the temptation to prove myself correct. herbie sykes, on the other hand, once supposed himself to inhabit a similar space. as he informs us in his introduction to this re-printed edition of the thoroughly excellent, 2008 mousehold press publication, 'the eagle of the canavese', recounting franco balmamion's two successive victories in the giros of the early 1960s.

eager to ask balmamion for one of his pink jerseys to add to a grwoing collection, he invented the subterfuge of writing a book in order to have a friend facilitate a meeting. "I set about pretending to be a cycling journalist. I bought one of those voice recorder things, and wrote a load of facile questions on a piece of paper. Then I flew to Turin." of course, though the subterfuge worked, following their meeting, in order not to alert others to the nature of the hoax, he wrote the book, for who could hold any grudge if the book was subsequently rejected by publishers?

except it wasn't rejected.

balmamion - herbie sykes

he sent an e-mail to adrian bell at mousehold press. "I didn't think for one minute that it would appeal to a wider readership, but he hadn't (quite) said no. He agreed to look over a couple of chapters, and... he emailed me saying he liked them." the rest is (recent) history. and now, twelve years later, rapha and bluetrain have re-published the book, simply entitled 'balmamion'.

franco balmamion, riding for carpano, won both the 1962 and 1963 editions of the giro d'italia before reaching the age of 24. it's a feat that no italian cyclist has emulated since. and, as the author is keen to point out, despite the praise usually heaped upon grand tour winners, balmamion remains all but unknown. born in 1940, in nole canavese, north of turin, franco balmamion entered a world of poverty, mitigated only slightly by an impressive local cycling heritage. an industrious child, he adored gino bartali, and though bereft of a bicycle to satiate this passion, eventually money was found to acquire one, a bicycle on which he rode to work at the fiat spares department. falling in love with racing, he was an all-rounder with no specific skills as a racer.

" He lacked the power to ride away from the others, and the speed to win a sprint. He was quite good at everything, but not quite good enough at anything."

gaining a place on the fiat factory team, he trained heavily to overcome his apperent mediocrity, then signed up to ride and win the coppa val maira. this victory proved his strength and confidence. by intelligently taking a strategic victory at the 'corsa san pellegrino', where the winner's jersey was presented by his hero, gino bartali, he effectively sealed his future as a professional cyclist. but, rather than sign for bartali's 'san pellegrino' team, he reckoned that he'd be better as leader of a more lowly team, than a domestique in one of the more prominent squads. thus, he joined bianchi, who promised him leadership at the giro d'italia. sensibly testing the water as a professional, he asked for, and was granted, a year's unpaid leave from fiat.

the 1961 giro was won by arnaldo pambianco, balmamion having missed an essential break and finished well down the general classification. however, he was successful enough throughout the rest of the season to maintain his confidence and take a second year's unpaid leave from his job. with bianchi opting to pull out of professional cycling, franco joined carpano in advance of the 1962 giro d'italia.

balmamion - herbie sykes

herbie sykes is one of the most important authors in contemporary cycling, even though his writing tends to favour the bygone years of italian racing. though my review has concentrated on the principal subject of the narrative, herbie's chapters place all the foregoing in a carefully and astutely observed perspective. however, his importance (with which i doubt he'd agree) revolves not only around an impressive historical accuracy and perception, but is every bit as much due to his writing style. balmamion is a book that can be read on a least two levels, one of which is purely based on his use of language.

" An even more brilliant talent, the Norman, Jacques Anquetil, concentrated on time trials and stage races. For all his extravagant gifts and his five Tour wins, Anquetil's palmarés makes for curious, lopsided reading. Aside from his victories at the motor-paced marathon Bordeaux-Paris, the semi-classic Ghent-Wevelgemand at Liège-Bastogne- Liège, he too failed to distinguish himself in the muck and nettles of the classics over a 16-season career."

the author's confidence in the treatment of his subject(s), inspires the reader to place confidence in his assessment of proceedings, while the conversational manner of the narrative makes comprehension of the historically complex, as clear as if discussing the weather. even more admirable is the naturalness of his writing; there is no indication that hebrie sykes is overly trying to impress us with either his knowledge or his almost care-free ability to pass it on, page after page.

and let's not discount the efforts made by guy andrews and taz darling at bluetrain. though untold credit must be offered to adrian bell, the book's original publisher, bluetrain have created a volume worthy of both your approbation and your money. the copious illustrations, and the pink gazetta dello sport front covers that accompany the majority of the 1962 giro stage analyses, means that to simply describe 'balmamion' as a book, risks being guilty of serious understatement.

having read and reviewed the original publication in 2008, the narrative seems not to have aged one whit in the intervening twleve years. i asked herbie sykes if he expects this new edition to appeal to a whole new generation?

"I suspect all the ageing had done by the time I started writing it, 45 years after the fact. I'd like to think that it will find a new audience, but I'm not deluding myself that it will sell tens of thousands of copies. I think they've made a really beautiful book though, and it's quite a bit better than 'The Eagle of the Canavese'. I decided not to make wholesale changes, but some of the grammar is a bit tidier and there a few really interesting new bits and pieces."

given that herbie almost 'unintentionally' wrote the book in the first place, if bluetrain/rapha editions had offered him the opportunity to start again from the beginning, would he have approached it differently?

balmamion - herbie sykes

"Not really. I'm aware of its limitations - I was just starting out, after all - but I'm comfortable with it as is. I wrote it as well as I was able back in 2007, and I'm proud of having completed it and finding a publisher in that cycling paradigm. I also think that the stories of Carpano, post-war Italy and the race itself are really interesting."

with news released this past week that a majority shareholding in colnago bicycles had been acquired by abu-dhabi-based 'chimera holdings', there have been many paeans to the marque, describing it as amongst the most sought after in the world. such praise could just as easily have been directed at italian cycling. though arguably past its sell-by date, italiana still holds considerable sway over the cycling aficionado. what does herbie think is the reason that italian cycling still carries such a fascination, not only for him, but for those of us eager to learn of an all but unknown winner of two giri, almost sixty years ago?

"Well, it's easy to be seduced by Italy, and to fall in love with the 'idea' of Italy. This is a beautiful country architecturally, geologically and culturally, and for Northern Europeans it's extremely other. It also had a unique journey through the twentieth century, and bicycle racing was an intrinsic part of it. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the Giro, like the Tour, is a wonderful, quixotic idea. It also tends to be a very good bike race, and by definition its winners are extraordinary human beings."

finally, i asked herbie, if he were commencing his writing career today, are there as many riders of interest, as there appears to have been in balmamion's era?

"That's a slightly abstract question. Human beings are no less interesting than they were back then, but most people would agree that the more 'professional' sports become, the less human they seem. I don't doubt for one minute that thre are great stories around today's bike riders, but the Giro is in glorious, 24/7 technicolour now. There's a massive amout of media, it's very carefully stage-managed, and perhaps a bit less esoteric as a consequence. The guts of it are, however, the same. The Giro is still the Giro. It's still a beautiful concept and, for me at least, the young men who do it are still heroes."

betwixt the twenty-one stages describing balmamion's 1962 giro victory, the author features many of the individual protagonists of that year's race. riders such as imerio massignan, balmamion's relationship with his team leader, nino defillipis, marino fontana, bruno mealli and several others. aside from adding to our three-dimensional appreciation of the italian racing scene in the early 1960s, they serve to offer a welcome interruption of the stage by stage account of the race.

2008's 'the eagle of the canavese' was the first cycling book i had come across that i felt could be appreciated as both literature and history. nothing about this edition undermines those thoughts.

but this time round, it's immeasurably better.

purchase a copy of 'balmamion'

sunday 10 may 2020

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................