Book Review: The Peloton

There’s an old joke, “the key to success is sincerity; once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” We think about this whenever consuming non-fiction. Whether it’s Jay Leno’s couch, Terry Gross’s microphone, sitting down for an interview with a correspondent for 60 Minutes or a reporter from The New York Times, part of the reason we consume these things is we believe that they’re sincere in their honesty and candor.

This is probably what drives people to check out “reality television.” Much “reality television” is anything but. It’s not just that the producers stick a camera on a wall and watch what happens; many times, the real people are actors and the conflicts are seeded and instigated. Most sophisticated media consumers are suspicious of reality television and <ahref=””target=”_blank”>” for good reason</a>.

All produced media edits. It could be that the most dangerous forms are the ones where you can’t see the edits, because you’re more likely to trust the magic. Even radio interviews get edited.

While it isn’t so much that cycling media is over-produced, but there are times when there is good reason to be skeptical. Magazines need to sell ad space and copies, reporters have favorites and sacred cows, racers need to flack for their sponsors. We love when it appears racers are speaking beyond coached talking points, when they’re pointed avoiding the clichés  they’ve been trained to repeat.

The lack of obvious production artifice is what draws us into Timm Kölln’s The Peloton. The pictures seem raw, totally lacking in production. Just the subject in front of a white background. The text, words from the subjects taken at a much later date, seems similarly honest and candid.

The simplicity combined with our biases sends a strong message to us that we’re experiencing The Truth. It’s a powerful feeling. We want to believe what we see and what we read. It’s just that we probably should doubt at least a little. It took Kölln five years, from 2005 to 2010, to get these shots. And then he took several months in 2010 to interview the subjects along with six writers. We’re pretty certain that the interviews should have the disclaimer that the Questions For series of interviews in the Times has, “INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED.”(capitals and italics theirs)

The over-arching feeling of the volume is one of intimacy. Most of the riders are photographed tired, dirty, cold, and hungry. Few look happy, only one, Marcus Burghardt, looks joyous, but he had just one his first-ever stage in the Tour de France. A few look coldly calculating, with Danilo Di Luca looking like an inscrutable killer.

Some of the interviews, the one with Di Luca comes to mind as well, not only reinforce what we’re seeing in the picture, but our general impression of the person. “I always knew I could be a winner, and that I never doubted myself.” No wonder he was, until recently, an unrepentant doper.

Doping comes up in several of the interviews, and to some surprising effect. A few riders, most notably Alessandro Petacchi, mention the ADAMS forms, the means by which pro riders are supposed to keep the authorities apprised of their whereabouts. The most striking commentary on doping was from Philippe Gilbert. He asserts that he used to be chased down just because he was on a French team, and that the riders do it because the French riders set themselves apart by being unambiguously anti-doping. He ruefully notes that this also means the French riders doubt one another as well.

The interviews, taken as a whole, present a diverse portrait of the pro peloton. And taken as a whole, they do a good job of representing life as a whole. There is joy, sadness, pride, regret, hubris, rationalization, blindness, raw feeling, philosophical distance. While Di Luca asserted his greatness, his now-teammate Vladimir Karpets declares, “I don’t want to be special.”

Suffering on the bike and the difficulty of the job come up repeatedly, but many brush it aside by discussing that the job is one you have to love, the life is one you have to love, and that there is plenty of joy to be found on the bike, and off.

When people throw about words like “honesty” and “candor,” it’s usually because the person speaking has shared something that is sad, painful, in juxtaposition to what we expect. The admissions of Bernhard Kohl and Leonardo Piepoli about their doping and how they feel about it come across as hard-won realizations. Piepoli says, “I feel abandoned by cycling, and quite rightly…I’d like to be in cycling in some way—it’s been my life—but I can’t because of what happened, and that hurts a great deal.”

Some surprise. Stefano Garzelli admits, “I’m a much better bike racer today than when I won the Giro ten years ago. Maybe not quite as fast, but much more complete.” Or that Jan Antonio Flecha sees himself as a happily emotional guy. Andrea Peron looks back at his racing career and reflects that he rode for different teams and lived in different places to see the world.

Peron, like Garzelli, and many of the older riders come across as philosophical. But even the guys who are in the middle of the age spectrum have been racing most of their lives. Tom Boonen, at 30, is neither old nor young, but despite the joy he feels, “you do it because you love it,” is starting to sense aging, “It’s not that we’re already that old, but you see the difference in the mentality; it’s a different generation. The problem is that there’s no one to talk to any more.”

With many of the interviews, we don’t want the monologue to end, because the rider has said something so interesting, so surprising, or so different, that we have to know more. Christian Vande Velde, who notes that he’s almost always smiling, loved his time in Bjarne’s Army. “I loved CSC, though—it was hard for me to leave. I bought into it, I really did. And I wanted to take some of those same ideas and thoughts to the new team.”

But there’s a limit. It can’t be the naked truth because of the filters, because speaking without taking our questions is a monologue controlled by the editor, whether it be the choice of images, potential photo editing, and what is almost certainly text editing. In many respects, Mark Cavendish addresses this very thing, and vanquishes the image most probably have of him. “How can you read a newspaper and then comment on my personality from what someone else has written about me…It gets to the point where no one asks what you’re bad at-and it comes across as arrogance, because if I believe I’m the best then I’ll say I’m the best. But no one asks what I’m the worst at, so they only see me saying good stuff, you know what I mean.”

This book is the best effort put forth by Rapha Racing’s publishing arm thusfar. People are probably interested in it because it’s nominally about cycling. They’ll appreciate The Peloton because it’s about people. We don’t know if the images or words are true, but they do seem to reflect reality.

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