Okay, so right up front I need to confess this isn’t specifically a cycling book. But, as the name suggests, it is about sport and it does have plenty of references to cycling including none other than Eddy Merckx and his hour record of 1972. Plus chess, there’s quite a lot of chess.
The author, David Epstein, is an American journalist who spent many years with Sports Illustrated. In some ways a lot of the content in this book isn’t exactly new – but the way Epstein has been able to aggregate such a vast amount of science, case studies and anecdotes into one intriguing book is nothing short of remarkable.
Some of the names and stories you may recognise. Many you possibly won’t, like the Olympic softball pitcher who had the MLB’s top sluggers totally bamboozled in 2004 with her underarm rockets. Regardless, virtually every page in every chapter is thought-provoking, with stories and examples to challenge the pre-conceived ideas we walk around with every day in regards to what the human body is and isn’t capable of doing. And why.
At the heart of much of Epstein’s book is the ‘hardware versus software’ argument. But here it isn’t really an argument anyway, rather an exploration of sporting performance from the perspective of history, chromosomes and socialisation. It looks at the impacts of factors such as sex, age, training volumes and experience. It asks if modern athletic performances are really that much better than 100 years ago. Plus a whole lot of other pretty fascinating stuff from the past, present and future of human sporting endeavour.
As you’d expect there are quite a few references to doping – “Seventy-five of the top eighty women’s shut throws of all time…came between the mid-1970s and 1990, predominantly from Eastern Bloc countries” – but it also covers things like why sex-testing is flawed (“why do men have nipples?”), how a high jumping novice can become a world champion and even Genghis Khan’s influence over the Asian gene pool.
There’s loads of science to back all this up if you like that sort of thing. But rest assured it’s written so as not to be mind-bendingly complex. Anyone with an interest in sport will be able to stick with it. I really enjoyed this one.
This is worth a look too. It’s the author doing a TED talk back in March.
It’s been reasonably well documented that, almost regardless of the sport, a significant number of modern athletes experience major struggles in trying to cope with the transition to ‘normal life’ when their professional careers come to an end.
Whether it be ex-fast bowlers with brittle spines, ex-motorcyclists with forever-bent femurs, ex-footballers with mushed up brains, ex-swimmers who never had a proper childhood, or simply ex-superstars with ‘god complexes’ who’ve spent their entire lives wrapped in a cocoon where they could do no wrong, it can lead to all kinds of physical, social and psychological problems – things which often plague them for the rest of their lives.
This got me thinking. Given so many people are actually drawn to cycling in the first place because of its ease of participation (even at older ages) and known mental health benefits, could it be possible that depression and anxiety rates are lower for ex-cyclists than perhaps those from other professional sports?
Clearly there are many cases of elite cyclists who do suffer from such conditions, the highest profile of which is no doubt Marco Pantani. But I wonder, is the rate any different compared to, say, footballers, boxers and baseballers for whom retirement almost certainly spells the end of their direct physical participation in their chosen sport? If anyone knows of studies into this type of thing, please share. Be fascinating to delve into further as I’m sure there’s plenty of uncover and explore.
In the mean time, here are a couple of indirectly connected stories well worth a read. The first is about the challenges faced by retired athletes in general, while the second looks into cycling and depression.
The fourth instalment of the USA Pro Challenge is currently taking place in Colorado. Whilst the scenery is undeniably magnificent one thing that’s been hard not to notice is the diabolically sketchy TV reception the coverage periodically suffers from given the trinity of challenges posed by demanding terrain, epic altitude and constantly-changing alpine weather.
The final kilometres of yesterday’s Stage Two were surely a commentator’s worst nightmare, as a storm atop the 9,900 ft. Kebler Pass left Eurosport’s Rob Hatch and Magnus Bäckstedt first with pixelated footage and then no pictures whatsoever to talk about for around ten critical minutes of the day’s racing.
As the riders navigated a treacherously wet decent on unsealed roads – which we later learned had dramatically claimed several scalps including Trek’s Franck Schleck – we instead watched the decidedly less interesting empty finishing line at Crested Butte.
Hatch and Bäckstedt did a sterling job all things considered. But it’s just another reminder that no matter how smart we humans think we are these days, Mother Nature still very much has our measure when she wants to.
Took the family up the road for the annual local Street Fair this morning. Amongst the usual assortment of overpriced rides, ‘chips on sticks’ and other sugary crap was something pretty clever I’d not seen before from an event company called Bike n Blend. Basically, it was a few guys with exercise bikes rigged up to blenders. They were offering free fruit smoothies to anyone who wanted one (paid for by the local council). There was just one small catch: you had to ride the bike to blend it yourself. Needless to say the kids had a ball, completely wore themselves out and got a free drink for their trouble. Perfect for your next kids’ birthday party….???
“The relationship between two leaders in a cycling team can be like an exotic fruit – once mishandled, bruised forever.”
Irish sports journalist David Walsh explains the ongoing challenges faced by Team Sky having to manage Chris Froome and Brad Wiggins, in his fascinating fly-on-the-wall book, Inside Team Sky.
From the outset you know this is no Hollywood fairytale. There is no happy ending. The guy dies at just 34, depressed, alone and coked out of his mind. But whilst we know precisely where the storyline is heading, this is still a compelling piece of filmmaking from Emmy-nominated director, James Erskine.
The powerfully made 90-minute documentary seamlessly blends often-breathtaking archival footage with interviews, past and present, providing a deep – and at times deeply disturbing – insight into the enigmatic Italian cyclist who, as his legend grew, became known as Il Pirata.
Whilst I obviously knew who Marco Pantani was, as someone who wasn’t such a passionate student of cycling back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I never appreciated the full complexity of his story – this is where I found the film to be fascinating. From his early days with the Fausto Coppi Cycling Club, to the crash which almost killed him when his collided with a car in the Milano-Torino race in 1995, to claiming the Giro/Tour double in 1998 (the last rider to do it), to his legendary jostling with Lance Armstrong on the switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez, it filled in a lot of blanks for me.
Deeply human and revealing, there’s an unmistakable mood of melancholy hanging over the entire film. The interviews with his heartbroken mother, close friends and former team-mates are moving. Sir Mutton Chops, Bradley Wiggins, also provides a modern rider’s perspective into the legend Pantani cast over the pro tour, omerta or not.
It would be wrong to say you enjoy a film like this. But I did appreciate it. In fact, if I’m being critical the only thing I didn’t really appreciate was the frequently patronising musings from Richard Williams, veteran journalist and Chief Sports Writer for UK newspaper, The Guardian. Erskine may have been using Williams in an attempt to make the film accessible to a wider audience, but for mine his presence simply made me feel like a schoolchild on more than one occasion. Compared to the parallel offerings from fellow Englishman, Mark Rendell, author of the superb book on which much of this film is based, “The Death of Marco Pantani”, I found Williams’ contributions largely redundant and distracting. But maybe that’s just me?
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is ultimately a tragedy on so many levels. Like the mountains upon which the rider made his name it charts his spectacular rise and ultimate fall without ever intending to cast judgement. It’s loaded with empathy but no definitive answers; which I found quite fitting given the recent events in Italy which suggest there may yet be more chapters to be told in the Marco Pantani story.
4 stars (out of 5)