the long race to glory. how the british came to rule the cycling world. chris sidwells. andre deutsch publishing hardback. 298pp illus. £19.99

the long race to glory

lots of us are still asking how it happened. just how did britain manage to occupy the top position on the podium of a sport that it may conceivably have helped invent in the first place? generally speaking, we're not much use at anything at all, and more often than not, we revel in it. who can forget eddie the eagle edwards, britain's first competitor at the winter olympics as a ski jumper? at the time he was the british ski jumping record holder, number nine in the amateur speed skiing league and renowned for holding the world stunt jump record. he managed to get himself over ten cars and six buses.

however, come the winter olympics in 1988, eddie the eagle came last in both the 70 metre and 90 metre events. pretty much exactly what was expected of him and something for which he has become eternally famous. at one time, a similar fate more often than not befell britain's cyclists, particularly on the track, while performances in european road racing were patchy to say the least, any successful results arriving through the tenacity of individuals willing to brave the rigours of living abroad, unassisted.

chris sidwells has carefully and methodically documented this journey from complete obscurity to worldwide recognition, even if the journey to the top has been far longer than even that experienced by our american cousins. there are, of course, legitimate reasons as to why this has been the case; the lengthy ban on massed start road racing being a notable barrier. looking specifically at the history of track racing, though it's common practice nowadays to blame the government for everything, there may be some mileage in such apportioning of condemnation.

while many a former eastern european nation saw an investment in sporting prowess of whatever flavour as something of a standard bearer for their particular brand of communism, our own government certainly didn't see this as a flag to be waved for democracy. that is, until the commencement of the national lottery and the subsequent funding of many an olympic sport.

sidwells begins, however, with the earliest known cycling victory in europe by a british rider. on may 31st, in the parc st cloud, paris, james moore won a race organised by the olivier brothers. as sidwells mentions "James Moore must have been a very good rider, becasue he won the next big milestone in cycling, the first bike race on the open road."

though the franco-prussian war of 1870 put a stop to continental racing for a while, it later re-started on both sides of the channel, and moore continued his winning ways.

the long race to glory continues to comprehensively, if a tad briefly, take the reader through the early part of the 20th century, offering the an opportunity to discover hitherto unknown members of the british pelotonese. of necessity, there is an eclectic mix of road and track riders, including arthur linton, jimmy michael, charles davey and charles holland, (the first ever british rider to take part in the tour de france in 1937) ray booty, and reg harris amongst others.

however, though cycling harbours a myriad of european races over several different countries, cycling success for the uk civilian population really only has one colour: yellow. and the road to that particular glory was a long time coming. riders such as brian robinson, barry hoban and tom simpson achieved notable success in the tour de france, simpson also managing to garner world championship bands for his considerable efforts. however, given the profile of le tour itself, a race that has an infinite capacity to believe its own publicity handouts, top step on the parisienne podium is arguably the only one that counts.

of course, britain's cycling history concerns not only the male population; beryl burton also receives appropriate mention, as do yvonne mcgregor, victoria pendleton, nicole cook, emma pooley and others of note.

chris sidwells has all but achieved the holy grail of sports writing in being able to satisfy the interest of the cognoscenti while managing not to lose the attention of those with either a passing interest in cycling history or simply a rudimentary grasp of its technicalities. he has also managed to weave the rudiments of cycle development across the decades without ever becoming tedious or more involved than his narrative demands.

perhaps unsurprisingly the latter section of the book goes into far greater detail than is apparent in the early years and frankly, this skews all heavily in favour of wiggins, cavendish and froome via boardman and obree. it's an era of cycling that has perhaps received more than its fair share of exposure over the past few years or so. granted, there are some insights that i've not come across in the biographies of wiggins, froome and cavendish, but there is much that has been aired previously and recently. it's a similar situation regarding the exploits of chris hoy, craig mclean, jason kenny and other members of of the british olympic squad in both beijing and london.

however, as britain has edged ever closer to gold and yellow, the media has analysed each and every pedal-stroke in far greater detail than was comparitively the case last century. it would perhaps be remiss of the author to have ignored this unprecedented availability of information, though a smidgeon more judicious editing might have presented a more overall balance. taken as a whole, those who left british shores for europe in order to carve a career as professional cyclists are portrayed as mere stepping stones to ultimate victory, despite their sacrifice being arguably of greater consequence than inhabiting today's sky machine.

as one who works in the publishing industry, albeit at a very low level, i'm well aware of the spelling error. no matter how often you read through a manuscript or article, it's alway likely that a mistake will sneak through. the defence against this is farming out the proofreading to as many individuals as makes economic sense. i've come across the occasional error in previous books for review, but they are usually isolated incidents and generally not worth remarking upon.

unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the long race to glory. the author shall remain blameless; this is simply the result of shoddy proofreading. throughout the book, joey mcloughlin's surname is spelt mcgloughlin, even in the index at the back. emma pooley gains a double l - poolley - again repeated in the index. on page 147, when discussing the offroad abilities of liam kileen, comes the phrase 'but he's back in training and looking forward to rio 2014.' in which case, he'll be there on his own a couple of years early.

come the stephen roche years, and his winning of the tour of italy; the irishman is quoted as saying "I had one team-mate with me, Eddy Schpers...". no doubt he was referring to eddy schepers. and while franz van looy is accredited to the telkom team, cavendish is credited as winner of the scheldedprijs, and wiggins apparently spent time reconnoitring in france.

with a bit of luck, these will be remedied when the book arrives eventually in paperback. to err is human, but there are limits.

however, these are probably noticeable predominantly to pedants such as myself and do not materially detract from the overall quality and integrity of the book. the title would rather alert you to its partisan leanings, for there is no attempt to place the british victories in context with the endless winning by other european nations. but in truth, that's not really the point here; the 298 pages are intended to let us feel good about ourselves, to rejoice in the yellow and gold that has eventually come our way and to offer virtual praise to those who have brought them to british shores along with those who preceded them.

long may it continue. (by the way, nice photoshop work on the cover).

saturday 21st september 2013