The book begins in the very earliest days (1868/69) of cycle racing when Le Vélocipède illustré saw a marked rise in sales of its periodical during and after it’s organisation of the Paris-Rouen cycle race. From this point on newspapers, particularly L’Auto and later L’Equipe, would use cycle racing to help increase exposure and sales.
In these early races nobody had an idea what would happen during these long distance races but nevertheless the doctors found it necessary to detail what we’d now consider inaccurate and rather quaint advice to the riders:
A physician advised the cyclists to pause every 20 to 25 kilometres for food and drink, preferably a steak accompanied by a couple of glasses of Madeira or sweet white wine. Then, after fifteen minutes’ rest, it was advisable to walk alongside one’s bicycle for a few minutes before getting back on.By the early to mid Twenties riders started publicly complaining about the conditions and distances they were expected to ride. Henri Pélissier is generally regarded as being the first high profile rider to rebel against Henri Desgrange, the then all powerful organiser of L’Auto’s Tour de France. Following an altercation with a steward at the beginning of a stage where the steward lifted Pélissier’s jersey to see if he had another jersey on underneath Pélissier let rip in an interview with Le Petit Parisien:
I’m not allowed to leave with two (jerseys) and arrive with just one…Not only are we supposed to ride like beasts, but we’re supposed to freeze or suffocate…And you’ve seen nothing yet, just wait for the Pyrenees. That is hard labour...What we wouldn’t do to mules, we do to ourselves. We’re not idlers for God’s sake, let them stop pestering us. Torture we put up with, but we don’t want to be harassed…I’ve got newspaper under my jersey. I left with it, I have to arrive with it, otherwise I’ll be penalised. If we want to drink we’ve got to pump the water ourselves. There will be a day when they’ll put lead in our pockets because they’ll claim that God made humans too light.Pélissier became even more popular thanks to this interview and in 1925 a new riders union swung into action for the first time.
The book flows in chronological order through the years and the nuances in the style of written word race reports before and after the first regular television coverage began in 1952. Along the way the reader is treated to stories about many of the greats including Gino Bartoli, Fausto Coppi, Hugo Koblet and Louison Bobet from what is considered the golden era of cycling.
With the extra exposure given to cycle racing by television it wasn’t long before France would follow Italy’s lead by allowing extra-sportif businesses to sponsor teams. Raphaël Géminiani formed a team and agreed a sponsorship deal with the Saint-Raphaël Apéritif company. In 1955 Géminiani presented the first extra-sportif sponsored squad, the Saint-Raphaël Géminiani team. One year later the majority of Tour riders were riding on behalf of extra-sportif firms.
Maso provides clear examples of how the media influenced racing over the years. For example, in Coppi’s prime at a time before television coverage sports writers would write epic descriptions of Coppi’s legendary long solo rides when he’d pull ever farther away from his competitors to victory. Coppi’s reputation depended on these type of victories. In contrast fast forward to 1972 where Eddy Merckx broke away 50 kilometres before the finish to win Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Television journalist Marc Jeuniau told him:
If you had been a little less impatient we would have had a marvelous broadcast: twenty kilometers farther along the TV coverage began, and at that moment your breakaway would have been much better appreciated. For three-quarters of an hour people saw only you on the screen. That is nice, but after a while it becomes boring.This reminds me of Fabian Cancellara’s recent victory at Paris-Roubaix. I’m pretty sure the television companies and journalists would have rather seen his competitors put up a fight to the end rather than him pulling away many kilometres from the finish.
The role of the patron, the unwritten rules of team hierarchy and the use of domestiques is then discussed in a chapter featuring Rik van Looy, Merckx, Felice Gimondi, Luis Ocaña, José Manuel Fuente, Roger De Vlaeminck and Bernard Thévenet. This section of the book provides examples of how races were controlled by the strongest riders such as Merckx and how domestiques might have been punished to the point of their careers coming to an end if they were to take a victory without permission from above.
The book then turns to the subject of money. Big money started pouring into cycle racing in the mid 80’s. Sponsors were increasingly looking outside the traditional European markets to expand their presence, with the USA being a prime target. This chapter looks at riders like Greg LeMond who was first to earn a $1 million three-year contract and the knock on effect this had on future sponsorship. The number of countries viewing the Tour grew dramatically between the 70’s and 80’s from five countries in 1978 when Bernard Hinault too his first Tour victory to 27 by 1986 when Hinault took his leave. This increase in exposure suddenly made the Tour highly attractive to multinational sponsors.
All the way through reading the book I had been wondering why there had been little, if any, mention of doping, then I got to the last chapter, Fuelled by Dynamite. It is here Maso discusses the impact of doping from the 1998 Tour with the Festina Affair onward. Maso draws on the relationships between sponsors, media and the riders and the downward spiral all three categories headed towards in search of victory, it was the era of Lance Armstrong and the US Postal team. He and other riders of the time such as Jan Ullrich take centre stage in this final chapter.
I know this review is long, maybe too long, but The Sweat of the Gods packs so much interesting information I really felt the need to give a flavour of the type of content the reader can expect to find. I thought I new a fair bit about cycle racing and its history but having read this book I now realise there is so much detail I wasn't aware of.
The Sweat of the Gods is published by Mousehold Press. It costs £9.95 plus worldwide shipping and can be purchased from Urban Hunter.biz.