Tuesday 28 March 2017

Review: Sport: Inside The Peleton: My Life As A Professional Cyclist by Nicolas Roche

Transworld Ireland, £14.99

Nicolas Roche's first experience of the Tour de France terrified him. "As the TV crews push their cameras closer to my face and the journalists stick an endless row of microphones under my nose, I, too, begin to well up. But I'm not crying out of pride. I'm crying out of fear," he writes.

"'Stephen! Stephen? Stephen. . .' the journalists call out. I turn to the man beside me. He is dressed in yellow and is carrying me, but his name's not Stephen. . . It's daddy. I'm three years old and my daddy has just won the Tour de France."

So begins Inside the Peloton, My Life as a Professional Cyclist, by Nicolas Roche. A stage winner just last week of the Tour of Bejing, his 380-page autobiography tells the story of Ireland's most famous cycling family and gives a warts-and-all account of life as a professional athlete.

Cycling's a funny career. Unlike Premier League football, it's not particularly well-paid. You work in searing heat, wind and rain, suffer spills on a regular basis and meals consist of plain pasta with olive oil for weeks on end.

And the deprivation and hard work doesn't just extend to racing.

Roche talks about the difficulty of maintaining a relationship when you're away from home 250 days a year. About not being able to go for a walk with your girlfriend because you have to save your legs for racing.

And then there's the tragedies that hit every family, including the devastating news in 2007 of his little brother Florian's diagnoses with leukaemia, where the seven-year-old was given just a 20pc chance of survival.

It's in his relaying of these personal struggles that Roche shines, whether they relate to being at the brink of collapse on tour, to frustration with his teammates and coping with the possibility of a loved one dying.

There's nothing sentimental about his account of his little brother's battle for life. He writes of a small boy's bravery and stoicism in the face of death, eventually overcome thanks to a transplant, a trial drug and family support.

But this is primarily a book about cycling, an insight into the need to excel that drives sportsmen and women and makes them different from the nine-to-five jobsworth.

He explains the tactics needed to win big races and recounts how just one accident can end a season, or at best leave you raw from chin to knee.

The sport has for decades been riddled with drug scandals -- and Roche is an outspoken critic. "To me, doping is cheating. If I was to look back at races where I lost places, or where I lost a yellow jersey to riders who later tested positive, then I'd probably crack up," he says. "But I can't think of that. I want to know how far I can go under my own steam. If that's not good enough then I'll just go and do something else."

There are lessons for aspiring professionals about the need to steer clear from competitors spending a penny on the bike, and tales of early-morning wake up calls from drug testers charged with keeping the sport clean.

And there's also an insight into what happens when people don't play by the rules, best illustrated by a column he wrote for the Irish Independent in July 2010 when he was team leader for Ag2r La Mondiale riding in the Tour de France.

His teammate John Gadret refused to give him his front wheel after Roche suffered a puncture, which resulted in him falling back in the rankings.

"If John Gadret is found dead in his hotel room in the morning, I will probably be the primary suspect," he wrote. "After today's stage, if he had sat beside be on the team bus I would have had great difficulty not putting his head through the nearest window."

But there's moments of humour, too. The makers of Valium, he says, should consider sponsoring the Tour de France to help settle riders' nerves. He suggests foregoing diets in favour of cycling -- former Irish champion Mark Scanlon famously lost five kilos in just 45 minutes.

And there's moments of sheer madness like competing in the Ivory Coast just two days after the civil war ended, where villages were guarded by armed militia men and where finish lines were moved because of crowd trouble.

Just 27 years old, one would question the need for an autobiography right now. But a seven-year career and five wins gives insights into the world of the professional tour that you won't get by watching the TV.

Some of the technical details about gear ratios and saddle heights could be better explained for the average reader, but the insights both he and his father give about his career progression in the final chapter are a highlight.

Crossing the finish line in first place makes the skids across tarmac with only lycra shorts to protect you and the nights spent lying with your legs on pillows so you've enough energy to race the next day worth it, he says.

"The thing about cycling is only one guy can win from a bunch of 200 riders, and there can be periods of days, weeks, months or years in between those victories," he concludes.

"Every day I give 100pc. Afterwards I will always, always wish I could have done better."

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