racing hard; 20 tumultuous years in cycling by william fotheringham. faber/guardian books paperback 360pp £12.99 (kindle edition £5.03)

racing hard by william fotheringham

though over the past fifteen years or so, other factors have crept into the equation, the simplest method of gauging a rider's worth as his/her career comes to a close, is by the list of results left behind on the finishing lines of the world. the palmares if we wish to have it couched in the lingua franca of cycling. by having access to a well-compiled list of results, it's possible not only to view how said rider compared with his/her peers, but by dubious extrapolation, compare how they might have competed with the heroes and heroines of modern times.

doing so in this latter convention, however, leads to all sorts of absurdities. those who follow the present day listings in the comic will be aware that mark cavendish has recently ousted robert millar as britain's best ever cyclist, based on a ranking devised by the weekly magazine. and in terms of pure results, they are no doubt correct. however, conditions for british cyclists in the early 1980s are somewhat different than those in place nowadays. sprinters' trains make it more likely that a specialist in this activity will have a greater chance of crossing the line first, and noting that millar was a grimpeur means that the comic is effectively comparing chalk with cheese.

however, i have little doubt that they are well aware of such iniquities, and in and of itself, there is little harm in their methodology.

cycling journalists, however, are perhaps less well-served in this manner, for though it would truly be of little value to have a league of the top ten british cycling journalists of all time, there's a strong case for realising that such a list might be entirely beyond practicalities. the nature of the job can often be compared to that of the very athletes of which they write; it is quite likely that any given scribe may contribute words and features to several publications along the way, some of which may either not see the light of day for one reason or another, or perhaps just as likely, go unrecorded in a big black book.

in the robert millar pages of thewashingmachinepost, you will find a number of articles that were originally published an a wide variety of newspapers and magazines. i thought it prudent to attempt to collect as many as possible and have them all reside in the one place, though i have little doubt there are just as many that slipped through the net. however, in those same pages, you will find a list of millar's race results from the beginning of his career through to retirement.

i'm not sure i could manage a similar palmares devoted to author and cycling correspondent, william fotheringham, but for quite contrary reasons. i doubt i have the time and tenacity to track down his every written word and list it in black and yellow pixels. however, in the absence of such unrequited cataloguing, it is prudent that a substantial selection of articles originally written for and published in both the guardian and observer newspapers has been curated in the shape of this not insubstantial volume.

perhaps fotheringham's plamares need not take the form of a list, but be summed up by the very scotsman mentioned above. "Educated, well-judged and honest writing...when was the last time you thought that about a journalist?" given millar's apparent disdain for those practising the profession during his career, it seems likely that the above quote might serve as the highest of praise.

the writings have been culled from over twenty years of contributions to the sport and to journalism by the author himself; "Best" in a journalistic context is an adjective that needs qualifying. As a journalist, that 'best' is not the 'best you can possibly create',... it's the best within certain limitations, the best you can provide to your paper on a given day."

there are those who would have it that they are always at their best, and in the context of will fotheringham's quote above, that may indeed be the case, but it's likely that he is guilty of false modesty, even if he himself does not see it that way. for aside from the cycling facets of each inclusion in the book, perhaps the finest tribute to the writings of mr fotheringham is that he seems to have hit the ground running and never looked back.

on nights that i occasionally suffer from sleeplessness it is instructional for me to return to the very early days of the post. re-reading those articles is often close to torture, and i often wonder (out loud on occasion) why anyone bothered to read such ramblings in the first place. i like to think i have improved with age. william fotheringham was truly excellent in the beginning and is every bit as astute and creative as he was those twenty years ago. there are few sports journalists who can lay claim to such a startlingly high level of consistency over such a lengthy period of time.

racing hard also provides the reader, if not the author, with the opportunity to exercise their honours degree in hindsight. many of the articles can only be truly judged in such an historical context, where the reader can be convinced of their full awareness of the situation at the time. there are few for whom that will be true. and it is here that another pointed aspect of william fotheringham's perspicacity can be applauded, for rare is the occasion when he has allowed himself to be fooled by an all but unbelivevable performance. he may not requite that he was as astonished and laudatory as the rest of us, but nor does he directly and bluntly infer that dodgy dealings may have been afoot.

in a diary entry for the observer while following the 2007 tour, he remarks that alexander vinokourov had not only commenced working with lance armstrong's former trainer, but has hired bodyguard, serge borlee and his old chef willy balmat. "It is tempting to chant "Are you Armstrong in disguise?". his footnote to the entry continues 'There was a double entendre here, which I hoped the reader would pick up. Vino was done for blood doping 10 days later.'

the contents are, however, not solely concerned with the tour de france. fotheringham has paid due attention to the fortunes of britain's track riders over the years, not entirely unexpectedly since again in hindsight, it is they who laid the carpet for brailsford's success with team sky. the chapter entitled 'Great Britain - Atlanta to Athens' starts with the official opening of manchester's velodrome in 1994 and follows the increasing snowball of success that leads to a subsequent chapter Inside GB Cycling and onto Beijing in 2008.

as an historical note of the last twenty years across the upper reaches of professional cycling, it is unlikely that racing hard can be bettered, particularly concerning the rise and rise of british cycling across those two decades. though this year's tour de france reaches centenary celebrations, and doubtless influenced the use of yellow as the cover's primary hue, the principal pleasure to be gained from this volume is not only in ultimately making us feel good about our national selves, but as a lasting testament to the literary abilities of one of the world's finest cycling journalists and authors.

to place it in perhaps more contemporary language, consider it 'william fotheringham's greatest hits'