born to ride by stephen roche. yellow jersey press. hardback. 272pp illus. £18.99

born to ride

the daughter of one of my work colleagues plays accordion and an instrument for which the apellation, tin whistle seems barely adequate, in a local trio of young ladies given to airing music of a scottish traditional theme. locally, there are many small collections of musicians playing with little hint of a collective name, for such rarely seems necessary, though on occasion i have been asked by visitors as to the name of the popular beat combo in which i occasionally percuss. however, this female traditional trio are now entering the realm of playing further afield and the need for an appropriate name has reared its ugly head. those who are keen to attract their collective musical musings have a requirement to advertise impending gigs. for this purpose, you can see that a band name is pretty much regarded as a necessity.

this led to many minutes of undeniable hilarity as several of us chipped in a number of completely inappropriate suggestions, ranging from the downright offensive to the sniggeringly hilarious. fortunately she is made of sterner stuff, having laughed at the humour, blushed at the inappropriate, but continued the search for something short and snappy that would encapsulate that with which they would wish to be identified.

i have, during my many years of approximating a drummer, played in many a band where the applied name hasn't always been particularly appropriate or, in one or two cases, even particularly noteworthy. at least two settled on a name which seemed like a good idea at the time, but the efficacy of which waned severely over time. there was a particular group of musicians i can recall when at art college who dubbed themselves, quite cleverly, rue de remarx, but undermined such cleverness by adding the slogan 'la rage' to the foot of their gig posters. for unfortunately, the latter is french for rabies.

the same process must often intervene when deciding on the title for a forthcoming bestseller or, in this case, eagerly awaited autobiography. i am more than willing for a member of the publishing or editorial team to correct me now that i have wasted three paragraphs introducing my subsequent review, but on first hearing of this volume several months ago, it was billed as angel and demon, a title that may have simply been the code name for a work in progress. i still have my original e-mails requesting that thewashingmachinepost might be added to the list of recipients, and at that time i most definitely was under the impression that angel and demon was the title of the book i was keen to read and review. if memory serves, that was also the title under which amazon were advertising it for pre-order.

now that the book has arrived online and on physical bookshelves, it has been now clearly labelled 'born to ride', something of a let down and a bit of a naff title if i might vent my opinon publicly. angel and demon is, i'm sure you'll agree, a far more intriguing entreaty to read than the title under which the book has now been published. of course, throughout our childhood education and continuing into adult years, we have oft been reminded that a book should not be judged by its cover, a mantra that falls mostly on deaf ears, for the cover is, by definition, the publisher's only chance to make a lasting first impression. get it wrong, and a fabulously worthy title may remain steadfastly anchored to a waterstone's or barnes and noble bookshelf. in this particular case, the author's surname is writ large, all but rendering the title a tad redundant in any case.

biographies and autobiographies suffer from the same intrinsic problem; most of the intended readership already know that the butler did it. the destination is often already well kent; the motivation for purchase is more about the journey. approached in logical fashion, an autobiography would start with the born at an early age approach, and end with the lived happily/destitute ever after (delete as applicable). roche has very successfully undermined such predictability by beginning with the end, or at least the end of the sequence of victories for which he is famous.

"For the whole year, my objective for the Worlds had been to do what I could to help Sean (Kelly) take the rainbow jersey. The so-called Triple Crown (Giro, Tour de France and World Championship) hadn't entered my thoughts."

i am, of course, somewhat cynical of such a statement. though the majority of us are not ever likely to ride any of the events that make up the triple crown, if we were already in possession of both pink and yellow jerseys in the same year (in this case, 1987), i'm pretty sure that even the remote possibility of nabbing the stripey jersey would not be of last minute consideration.

"however, when i rode the circuit myself, i re-evaluated. (i) rode a lap and said to myself: 'this circuit ain't for no sprinter'."

the records show that stephen roche did indeed earn the right to wear the 1987 stripey jersey, and the following chapters go on to describe, this time in chronological order, how top step podium finishes in both the '87 giro d'italia and tour de france added up to only the second time anyone had won all three in one season.

roche's writing style is remarkably inclusive (aided and abetted by peter cossins) to the extent of arriving free from conceit or arrogance. only towards the book's end is he apt to blow his own trumpet (so to speak) at points where it seems unnecessary. most of us are aware of his internal battle with self-styled team captain at carrera, robert visentini, quickly usurping the italian as wearer of the pink jersey. most of those three weeks in may combined to make roche's attempt to stand atop the final podium in milan not only a battle with his fellow competitors, but additionally against visentini's faction within his own team. the inestimable services of eddy schepers assisted his successful pink bid, coupled with celtic assistance from panasonic's robert millar who went on to take both second place and the climber's green jersey.

the tour de france, those three weeks in july, are likely most vividly remembered for phil liggett's astonished commentary as roche appeared through the mist atop la plagne to cede only a few seconds to arch rival pedro delgado.

...and just who is that rider coming up behind? Because that looks like Roche. That looks like Stephen Roche. It's Stephen Roche who's come over the line, he almost caught Pedro Delgado - i don't believe it." it's one of those moments allied to armstrong walking on the moon, or elvis presley's death; you can always remember where you were when you watched that stage.

even though the results of all three races are the subject of popular cycling history - those of a certain age will easily recall when roche's name is mentioned - the narrative grabs you by the helmet straps. i was desperate to find out if the winner might have changed over the intervening years. i've no real notion of just how hard it might be to engage your readership to this extent, but i'm pretty darned sure peter cossins does, and both we and roche have many thanks to despatch in his direction for making the book so cleverly compulsive. this is not to diminish stephen roche's own contributions, after all, he's the guy that successfully won all three events and here demonstrates an impressive level of recall from over twenty years ago.

where the book flags just a smidgeon is in the latter chapters, the years succeeding roche's retirement from the sport. placed in context, stephen roche was, by this time, a civilian like the rest of us, and few could claim to have lives worthy of biographical publication. it is also a weird situation where the population at large find it hard to come to terms with top sportspeople being no longer active in the field that first brought them to our attention. almost, in fact, as hard as they themselves find it. though it will soon be thirty years since robert millar won the polka dot jersey in the '84 tour de france, and despite the scot having retired in 1995, he is still imagined by many to ride out each day on a peugeot bicycle wearing a black and white chequerboard jersey.

it is, therefore, an unfair criticism to level at born to ride expecting relative normality to retain the same level of intrigue and excitement as roche's years at the top. after all, the salient purpose behind any biography or autobiography is to inform the reader of life's long song, warts and all. if we can accept the foregoing as a defining interpretation of the genre, then this is a particularly excellent example, one that i think would entrance even those less than interested in the machinations of professional cycle racing.

and the butler did it.

sunday 3rd june 2012


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