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🚴Two new cycling books reviewed
A new bio of Jan Ulrich and the business history of the Tour de France
On a rainy summer day (which growing up in Ireland was very very common), there is nothing quite as enjoyable as watching the Tour de France and reading a great cycling book before getting out for a spin on the bike when the rain stops.
With le Tour starting today, plenty of you will likely be checking out some of the recent cycling book releases. In that light, here are my reviews of two excellent recently published books - one on the business side of the Tour and the other on 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich.
🚴Jan Ullrich: The Best There Never Was by Daniel Friebe. Ullrich may be best remembered these days as the guy who kept finishing second, usually to Lance Armstrong, on the Tour de France. Born in East Germany, and coming of age as the Wall fell, Ullrich appeared destined to become the dominant force in cycling with his victory in the 1997 Tour de France. However, despite other victories (including the Olympics), he would ultimately never reach the predicted levels of greatness that his early talent suggested.
Together with a sense of unfulfilled potential, the other shadow that dominates Ullrich’s legacy is, of course, doping. Ullrich was caught up in the Operation Puerto scandal in 2006 which made it crystal clear he was a long time doper during cycling’s EPO era. Friebe however has sought to write a ‘non-judgmental’ biography which doesn’t shy away from the truth of doping, or other undesirable aspects of Ullrich’s character, but seeks to understand Ullrich as an athlete and a person beyond the caricature of doper.
In charting Ullrich’s early years, the book provides a fascinating insight into that turbulent time in East Germany for the generation who came of age as the Berlin Wall fell and struggled with being somehow neither fully East nor West German. It puts his early success and the immensity of his fame in the context of Ullrich being among the first sporting heroes of a newly unified Germany and the rare success story from the East. One of the most interesting aspects of the book for me was the insight into Ullrich’s status in Germany and the huge impact he had on cycling there.
Ullrich’s career is presented as a continuous struggle against his greatest opponent - not Lance, but his own willpower and discipline. Ullrich was prone to self-sabotage most notably by over-eating during the off-season and putting on too much weight. While his palmarès would be impressive for any cyclist, his career is seen more as a case of what might have been given just how difficult he often made things for himself. The book also delves deeply into the structures around Ullrich at Deutsche Telecom in particular and his various relationships both personal and professional.
While, the emergence of evidence that Ullrich doped brought his career to a premature end, Ullrich may very well have quit around that time had he been allowed to do so on his own terms. His failure to follow other cyclists’ lead and admit his doping made it much harder for the cycling community and German public to forgive him leading to his long-term ostracization from the sport. While at first he seemed able to move on with his life, Ullrich ultimately descended into alcoholism and possibly other addictions, losing his marriage and leaving him continuing to grapple with demons which also affected many of his one-time rivals.
This is a comprehensive, gripping biography of a fascinating athlete. Ullrich is presented as a man of immense talent but lacking some intangible qualities required to fully exploit his gifts and also to be at peace with himself long term. At times naïve, childish and incapable of managing his own life, Ullrich could also very much be his own man, making his own career choices and more than willing to ignore coaches. We are left grappling with the strange contradiction of a man who took PED to ‘level the playing field’ with his peers, yet lacked the discipline needed to fully exploit the benefits of the drugs he risked his career to take.
Much of Ullrich’s inner life is, of course, unknowable. However, Friebe has gotten as close as possible to presenting a comprehensive portrait of an athlete and a man who, despite his flaws, has always been compelling and strangely likeable. The volume of research and interviews that have gone into the book is remarkable and is reflected in the quality of the book.
The Best There Never Was is an exceptionally good biography and a very enjoyable read for any cycling fan.
🚴Le Fric: Family, Power and Money: The Business of the Tour de France by Alex Duff. I’ve read countless cycling books. It is a sport that is wonderfully served by the quality of the writers it attracts and the broad audience (probably mostly of middle aged men) for books on cycling history ensures a steady supply of interesting books. Yet, I knew very little about the business side of the Tour other than it’s origins as a way to sell newspapers.
Le Fric corrects that gap in the market giving us the an entertaining and comprehensive history of the Tour’s ownership, its business model, and the family that controls it. It’s a journey that covers pre and post War France and the various political machinations that eventually allowed Émilion Amaury and his descendants take over cycling’s most famous race.
Le Fric is a fascinating work of history but it is also strong when reflecting on more modern changes to the Tour as a business and wider, so far largely unsuccessful, attempts to reform cycling’s structure more generally. Duff captures the internal power structures within the sport and the unique challenge of the sport’s biggest event being owned and operated outside of the control of cycling’s governing bodies.
The book also captures how the leadership of the business grappled with the fallout from various doping scandals and somehow managed to both run newspapers reporting on the scandals and keep the Tour as a major global sporting event.
Le Fric is an excellent addition to any fan’s cycling library.
New Sports Books - What’s out recently or coming out soon?
🏏The Nine Waves: The Extraordinary Story of How India Took Over the Cricket World by Mihir Bose
🏒When the NHL Invaded Japan: The Washington Capitals, the Kansas City Scouts and the Coca-Cola Bottlers’ Cup, 1975-1976 by Steve Currier
🚴Beryl: In Search of Britain’s Greatest Athlete by Jeremy Wilson @JWTelegraph. A biography of legendary British female cyclist Beryl Burton. There was a previous bio of Beryl last year by William Fotheringham highlighting how this legendary figure is beginning to receive long overdue credit.
🏏An Island’s Eleven: The Story of Sri Lankan Cricket by Nicholas Brookes. Any cricket fan will be interested in this deep dive into one of the more interesting cricket cultures.
Thanks for reading. Let me know your thoughts, opinions, any improvements I can make etc. Catch me on Twitter. More books next week!