Literary tour de force on the Tour de France

Racing through the Dark
David Millar (Orion)
Slaying the Badger
Richard Moore (Yellow Jersey)

Within the space of 24 hours in May, professional bike racers forced the cancellation of a stage of the Tour of California because of cold weather and persuaded the organisers of the Giro d’Italia to bypass a particularly dangerous descent. A reader of Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger, an account of the ferocious battle between Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond for supremacy in the 1986 Tour de France, might come across the tale of Hinault — the badger of the title — suffering severe frostbite while riding to victory through snow and ice early in his career and conclude that today’s riders have gone soft.

If that reader then encountered David Millar’s harrowing description of his mental and physical ordeal on an Alpine stage of the 2010 Tour de France, which forms the climax of Racing through the Dark, a different impression might be entertained. Millar’s suffering that day is the sort of thing that forms an unbreakable link between cycling’s rich history and its present.

By the time we reach his Calvary on the Col de la Madeleine, we have travelled with Millar from his origins as a party-loving expat brat in Hong Kong to his current status as one of the world’s leading riders, by way of the life-changing consequences of the single most dramatic incident of his career: the night in 2001 when two French policemen led him out of a restaurant in Biarritz, his adopted home, and, with the aid of two empty syringes found in his apartment, induced him to confess to having used illegal performance-enhancing drugs to achieve some of his greatest triumphs.

Some, but not all. When he was 23 years old and still drug-free, Millar won an important stage of the Tour de France. Drugs alone did not make him a top rider. Gradually, however, this intelligent, articulate, emotionally volatile, intellectually inquisitive young man, who would have gone to art college had he not become a professional racer, allowed himself to be sucked into the culture of doping.

Like many others, he had grown frustrated with being part of a peloton a deux vitesses, in which the doped riders almost invariably beat their clean rivals with demoralising ease. There was a natural progression from regular “recovery” injections of vitamins to the use of cortisone and the quasi-scientific administering of EPO, a hormone that boosts the production of red blood cells. This changed the doping game in the 1990s, when riders moved beyond crude stimulants such as the notorious “pot Belge”, a concoction of amphetamine and heroin, to substances that increased their capacity for physical endurance to inhuman levels.

Millar’s description of his fall is laceratingly honest, detailing every twist in the argument by which he convinced himself to take a step he had previously considered unthinkable. Most of the men who helped him to destroy himself, either by supplying substances, sharing their expertise or turning a blind eye, are named, but that is not really the point: anyone seeking to understand the motivation of a drug cheat, or wondering why such a man should be allowed back into his sport after serving his two-year suspension, will find their curiosity satisfied here.

Since returning to competition in 2006, Millar has taken every opportunity to campaign against doping, speaking eloquently from a position of considerable authority. He lost the thread of his career and is now determined to help save his sport by preventing others from falling into the same trap. Cyclists still dope, but a smaller proportion than 10 years ago and with a greater chance of getting caught.

This is an urgent tale, told in an authentic voice. His portraits of contemporaries such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are vividly intimate and shrewdly observed. The recollection of his meeting with Lance Armstrong at the end of the 2007 tour, when he accused the man who had been among his early supporters of abusing the sport, is chilling. And the description of that agonising mountain stage last year, during which he scoured the depths of his soul while falling helplessly behind the rest of the field, deserves to stand among the great first person accounts of sporting experience.

If Millar’s tale is largely about one man’s battle against himself, Moore’s book recounts the saga of the classic duel between Hinault, a pugnacious Breton who had already won the tour five times, and the gifted but somewhat less worldly LeMond, a younger man bidding to become the first American to take home the yellow jersey.

This was a rivalry to match those of Ali and Frazier, Borg and McEnroe or Senna and Prost, made all the more intriguing by the fact that the two men were members of the same team. A year earlier, LeMond had sacrificed his own chances to help le Blaireau to achieve his record-equalling fifth win, and had been promised that the favour would be reciprocated at the next opportunity. That was not the way things turned out in the course of a struggle so bitter that the American came to feel that he was fighting the entire French nation.

Drawing on interviews with the protagonists and many of their supporting cast, the author recreates the mounting tension between the cunning Hinault and the more cautious LeMond, who scandalises the old-school European riders by reading a book at dinner and playing golf on the tour’s rest days. A former rider who has written for the Guardian, Moore entertainingly unravels the complexities of the relationships within the peloton during a three-week stage race, the sort of battle in which alliances can shift from one mountain peak to another and your enemy’s enemy can suddenly become your most valued friend. —

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