13 October, 2014Issue 26.1Sport

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A True Hard Man

Morgan Wesley

Peter Cossins
The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest
One-day Races

Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014
416 pages
ISBN 9781408846810

The myopic public discourse on professional cycling is currently dominated by two things: the Tour de France and doping. Olympic cycling receives sporadic coverage every four years, the World Championships attract a page or two of press coverage, and mentions of the other Grand Tours (the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a Espa√±a) are buried in the back pages of the newspaper. In October 2012, the United States Anti-Doping Agency filed its Reasoned Decision against Lance Armstrong, shining a bright light into the shadows that had shrouded professional cycling in the 1990s. Popularised accounts of the rise and fall of riders during the Armstrong era are doing brisk trade at booksellers internationally, and doping reports still grab headlines.

In his new book The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling’s Greatest One-Day Races, Peter Cossins, dives into the fray with an historical offering that breaks the cycle of scandal-based narratives. Eschewing populism, he focuses on the rich history of cycling’s greatest one-day events, in a cerebral account of some of the most important races in the sport’s history. He understands that far from the front pages of international news, in the eyes of the professional peloton (the main group of riders) and legions of cycling enthusiasts, reputations are made and the fitness of tour contenders is measured across the cobbles and over the climbs of the Spring Classics of Europe. These one-day races have been cornerstones of the race calendar and the progression of professional cycling since their founding around the turn of the 20th century. Of the Spring Classics, five races stand above all others, collectively known as The Monuments: Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix, The Tour of Lombardy, Milan-Sanremo, and the Tour of Flanders. The importance of these races is summed up by Thor Hushovd, a professional rider from Norway:

These races are brutally hard, they are dirty, they are very long. Everyone knows the rider who wins these races is a really tough guy, a true hard man. Then you think about the history of these races, you look at the great names that have won them in the past, and you realise what it would mean to win one of them, that your name would go down alongside all of cycling’s legends.

This quotation begins the concluding chapter of Cossins’s book, but one cannot help think that it should begin the whole work. For it is the list of riders and the routes of cobbles and climbs that form the major thrust of the text. Writing a chronicle of even a single Monument would be a daunting task; to treat all five races in a single volume is a staggering undertaking. For the cycling enthusiast, demanding of accuracy, exhaustive detail, and an unwavering dedication to the glory of cycling, Cossins has triumphed. Few details are omitted in this encyclopaedic account of The Monuments. The casual reader who has become interested in cycling because of the recent scandals will struggle to keep pace with the text, and many will be left behind in the process, like stragglers in the peloton, as a result of Cossins’s unrelenting focus on the specifics of the races.

Cossins is a committed member of his target audience, and navigates with easy authority the vast legion of riders and sponsors and the tiny tactical decisions that make up the full course of these races. From the first chapters discussing the first 33 riders lining up for the inaugural edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on May 29 1892, to the riders of the modern age battling for victory at the Tour of Flanders in 2013, the names and details flow seamlessly. Cossins gives each victor a moment on the podium without neglecting those standing on the second and third steps or the sport’s larger-than-life characters. Riders such as the daring champion Henri Pélissier and his younger brother Francis, left their mark on the races through their fierce spirit and occasionally questionable antics even when out of contention.

Cossins is similarly adept at highlighting the unique character of each of The Monuments, rather than letting them blend together into a “tour” of one day races. Much of this is accomplished by treating each Monument in its entirety before moving onward. This allows him to explore the context of external events and their impact on each of the Classics. While shared European roots and continental events affected all the races, there were different political and economic implications for cycling in different countries. By avoiding the presentation of The Monuments’ history as a general chronology, Cossins manages to capture these differences. His treatment of national pride and regionalism is particularly skilful, demonstrating a sure hand in exploring the thorny areas around cycling’s controversies. The cultural conflict between the Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons as it played out on the roads of Liège-Bastogne-Liège, is given a nuanced treatment in the text.

The dedication to a complete treatment of each race, and ensuring a text that would survive the extensive scrutiny inevitable for a book written with a specialist audience in mind, comes at a cost. More problematically, because of the separation of the races, sections of each chapter have to be given over to re-introducing riders, teams and developments as they become relevant to each individual race. At times, Cossins is able to seize on this to elaborate a rider’s biography with new anecdotes and developments extraneous to a particular event. At others, the reader is left with a deep sense of déjà vu when reading about the top five or six riders contesting a race, unsurprising considering the periods where a single rider or team dominated the yearly calendar.

This repetition is particularly noticeable during the periods dominated by Alfredo Binda’s impact on Italian Cycling and stage-racing tactics, Fauto Coppi’s dominance of international cycling in the inter- and post-war years, and reaches a crescendo at the height of Eddy Merckx’s almost oppressive reign from 1968-1975. It would be impossible not to devote extensive space to these periods in any text that was not a dedicated biography of the rider, but the need for continuous re-introduction makes these sections of Cossin’s text a bit of a slog.

Similarly, the technique that allows for the excellent treatment of regional response to global events presents a barrier to the smooth discussion of changes to the fabric of competitive cycling as a whole. One such example is the establishment of the Challenge Desgrange-Colombo in 1948. For the decade that it ran, the Challenge offered a glimpse of the annual points chase format of contemporary cycling, with the Challenge affecting the scheduling and perceived value of all the major European races. It shifted the focus of riders and teams into entirely new patterns of racing and planning. For the riders a new path to success was created: rather than merely targeting events with courses that catered to their strengths, or as tests of fitness leading to the Tour de France, an alternative arose: the idea of the all-round rider who could excel at a variety of one-day events, but who was not possessed of the raw endurance to compete as a General Classification contender at a multiple-day Tour. This had a tectonic impact on cycling, yet the fragmentary nature of Cossins’s discussion makes it seem an extension of The Classics’s impact on cycling, rather than the reverse.

It is in capturing these massive shifts in the paradigm of cycling that the structure of The Monuments is most limited. Cossins offers tantalising details that whet the reader’s appetite for revelations of this bigger picture, but ultimately he chooses to stick to the encapsulated narrative of each race. The final chapter offers a glimpse of this larger picture, and provides wider context for the races, beginning with Hushovd’s remark quoted earlier. With the extensive knowledge and passion that Peter Cossins has dedicated to the painstaking record of The Monuments, one is left wishing that he could take these larger issues further, even if it means that the occasional has-run was consigned to the footnotes.

Morgan Wesley is a student at Linacre College, preparing to submit his DPhil thesis in History while competing as a Triathlete for TeamUSA.