Posts Tagged ‘william fotheringham’

The Knowledge

September 5, 2013

le metier-blog
Words: William Fotheringham Photos: Offside

It all began with the bread.

We sat down to dinner on the evening I arrived in France, and the future top professional on my right picked up his bit of baguette.

I picked up mine. I crunched into it.

He didn’t. Instead, he went through an elaborate little ritual: carefully, he removed the soft inner core. He rolled it up. He put it on the side of the plate and began eating the crust.

I watched. He looked at me. “Faut faire le métier,” he said.

Those four words are the cornerstone of an entire cycling culture in France, and they have broad connotations.

Un métier is a profession, so when you faire le métier, you are living the profession, doing the job, being professional. Faut faire le métier. You gotta do the job properly.

Or, if you really want to go places, faire le métier à fond. Do the job full-on. That’s when there is no bread-core issue, because you aren’t eating bread at all.

Quite why you should eschew the yummy middle bit of your baguette escapes me, but I don’t think that’s why I didn’t go on to win Tour de France stages as my club mate did.

What’s more, I don’t think he had the slightest idea why he was doing it either. He just knew he had to do it if he wanted to be a pro eventually, in the same way that he had to wear an anorak when he went out in the cold (don’t want to catch anything) and that he never, ever, ever trained in shorts without leg-warmers (you only race in shorts, don’t you?).

Being young and ingenuous, I didn’t ask him whether he lived by the old saw that you never slept with a woman within, ooh, five years or so of a major race.

The wealth of received ideas that combine to make up le métier were christened “The Knowledge” by the group of English-speaking professional cyclists of the 1980s that included John Herety, Robert Millar and company.

Once, interviewing the pair in the 1990s, they began going through the catechism: always wear long-johns in winter (you might get cold and want to eat more); always have the heater on in the car (you might get cold and get a cold); never eat strawberries (the fruit of the Devil); always have a shower, not a bath, because baths reduce your muscle tone; never drink plain water, always put some cordial in it. And so on, and so on.

The problem, as Herety and Millar saw it, was this: if you didn’t stick to The Knowledge, you laid yourself open to accusations that this or that infringement had caused a problem of some kind (that cold you had, well, shouldn’t have had the air-con on, should you?).

It was all handed down through the generations, from soigneur to rider to rider to soigneur, from professional to amateur, and so on down the food chains and the family trees that make up cycling.

Researching biographies of Tom Simpson and Fausto Coppi, it was clear that The Knowledge went back decades, to the days when soigneurs were like witchdoctors rather than merely helpers.

The cures were exotic and far-fetched: ice rubs to harden up the crotch; moving the bed in the hotel room so it faced south; putting bricks under the bed end so the blood flowed out of the legs more easily; eating salt fish and royal jelly (not necessarily together).

And not having sex, according to some – although Simpson and Coppi may have been exceptions to that rule.

Tongue in cheek, then, you could claim that the notion of aggregating marginal gains is nothing new.

The Knowledge consisted of hundreds of marginal gains, the theory being that nothing could be left to chance; the practice being that if you left something to chance, it might go wrong.

Season those tubulars for four years in the dark. Boil that chain for the six-day bike in motor oil for a week.

The difference between now and then, of course, is that the aggregation of marginal gains is scientifically based.

In theory, you know what works, so you can dispense with the not having sex and the never having baths and have mood lighting in the bus and wear those wacky stockings.

But watch Team Sky at the dinner table if you ever get the chance. Someone in their ranks will be taking the core out of his baguette, I’ll be bound.

Le métier will never die, although it may go underground.

Extract from Rouleur issue 17. William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent for the Guardian.

Podcast: Issue 37

March 11, 2013

Screen shot 2013-03-11 at 16.12.16

Jack Thurston travels to Ludlow, foodie capital of the Welsh Marches, to talk about the terroir and heritage of the great bike races, with William Fotheringham, veteran cycling journalist, regular Rouleur columnist and author of best-selling biographies of Tom Simpson and Eddy Merckx. They discuss the strange attraction of the Arenberg Trench, Team Sky’s strategy for winning at this year’s cobbled classics, how the UCI is unwise to tamper too much with the established race calendar, and why it ought to be doing more to promote women’s bike racing.

Issue 37

The Rouleur podcast is brought to you by Mosquito Bikes, London’s custom made bicycle specialists. Mosquito Bikes is proud to announce that it is the UK’s first & exclusive retailer of Alchemy custom bicycles. You can see them in the flesh, along with all Mosquito’s other brands, at the Bespoked Bristol hand-built bicycle show show between the 12th-14th of April. Mosquito is at 123 Essex Road, London N1 2SN or on the web at

On Guards

February 21, 2013


Words: William Fotheringham

It was Robert Millar who first opened my eyes to one of the bitter realities of cycling: we spend more time riding our bikes in ‘winter’ than we do in any other season. For a bike rider, winter isn’t a neat division into a three-month segment: it is when you need mudguards and tights and is the part of the year which lasts, if you are unlucky, from October to April.

Millar was the only pro I ever knew who, at his own expense, had a winter bike custom made for him by a local builder, partly on the premise that he wasn’t going to get a machine with mudguard eyes out of the sponsor – and, more to the point, that if he did and then changed teams, the sponsor was liable to ask for it back just at the point he was going to need it most. But mainly, he got that bike in the knowledge that he was going to ride it as much if not more than his race bike, and he might as well keep a bit drier while he did so.

Although I never went to Millar’s extreme of putting a tubular inside a clincher to avoid punctures, I followed his winter bike example in 1996. It felt like a curious step, asking a builder to make me a frame to the same dimensions as the bike I raced on, using the same light steel tubing but with big clearances, longer forks, and all the relevant braze-ons.

Everyone I knew had the same approach to the winter bike. They either used a racing bike they didn’t race any more with the guards attached in various unreliable ways, or they bought the cheapest steel frame they could find off the peg and lived with it. That was cycling tradition: you didn’t invest in something that was going to take the battering from water, potholes and road salt that your winter bike would have to take.

I’ve come to regard those few hundred quid (well, it was 15 years ago now) and the regular sums I’ve spent on resprays as the best investment I’ve ever made in a single item of cycling kit. And not just because taking the guards off and racing on a bike with mudguard eyes and a big fork rake, that looks a bit, well, battered, is an excellent way of winding up fellow bike riders. Mudguard eyes plus long forks equals heavy, right? Not necessarily. (Knowing smile.)

For a sport which we associate so much with summer, there is a curious amount of pleasure to be found in winter bike riding. Even this diluvian winter – where many roads seem to have reverted to a pre-modern, non-tarmacked state – doesn’t have to be hell if you have decent mudguards, substantial tyres, an obsessive regard for wind direction and air temperature and a fair collection of gloves, not to mention an old trick or two like the spare undervest for the café stop. The fact that winter kit is now the best it ever has been, across the board, makes all the difference.

I’ve come to realise that although much of the pure joy from British bike riding is to be had in summer – probably because those sensually pleasing shorts and short sleeve days are so few and far between – winter riding is the source of the most memorable experiences. The extreme stuff that sticks in the mind seems to happen when the days are short: the time when I was a kid and the water froze in the bottle on a 100-mile sponsored ride; the first and, I hope, only time I braked on an icy descent; the club run where we ended up wandering through four foot snowdrifts in our cleats chucking snowballs at each other.

There is plenty to take from this winter too: a Sunday spent dodging epic floods, topped by a half hour on an islet in a flood plain watching a mate repair two punctures as the waters rose around us; the way that constant rain made new and extreme ways of lubricating a chain a constant topic of conversation; a hilarious low speed pratfall on a sheet of black ice that materialised from nowhere; a new climb in the Welsh borders to the top of a mountain tackled (cunning laugh) with a gale force easterly tailwind in dazzling sunshine.

Winter cycling is like teenage love. You dream about the pleasure, you remember the pain.

Extract  from Rouleur issue 36. William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent for the Guardian and translated Laurent Fignon’s autobiography We Were Young and Carefree, published by Yellow Jersey.

Troublesome Child

January 31, 2013

Ever get that feeling, having entered an event weeks in advance, that it was all a horrible mistake? That the upcoming pain will far outweigh the endorphin high?

I go through the same ridiculous process every time, even though, deep down, I’m aware that the chances of enjoying every single moment of the ride – or certainly the feeling after it’s all over – are high.

Fretting is the default position, even when there is entry on the line. There are chimps on both shoulders, arguing the toss over the merits and demerits of racing, while I sit helpless between, like being on the night bus to Peckham when it kicks off. The spat soon gets ugly, but there is no point in intervening. What will be, will be.

It’s the same deal with the magazine. We send off the finished article to the printers, then the doubts set in: what if it isn’t as good as the last issue? How do we know we have got it right having pored over the content for weeks and become blind to its charms?


The reason struck us is the strange chain of emotions running through the office as we went to press. The editor and myself had concluded issue 36 was not one of our best efforts, and had resigned ourselves to improving next time round. Let it go and move on.

Then the publisher, Bruce, and the ad man, Andy, called us to say it was one of our finest. And the early response from those who had got the issue was the same: it’s a beauty. We are happy to stand corrected.

What the editorial and design team strive for is originality, quality and balance – and it was the balance part we were unsure we had got right. Too much historical and Rouleur becomes a museum piece; all contemporary and we have left our core values behind.It’s not until we get the magazine in our hands, having watched it take shape on a computer screen over the shoulder of our designer, Rob, that we can truly say whether it has worked or not. Thankfully, we all agreed: it has worked, and then some.

And what is contained within the covers of this troublesome child, you ask? Ned Boulting opens with a fabulously written piece on the Revolution track series, with suitably wonderful images by Taz Darling. Guy Andrews, a man with a penchant for a steel frame himself, follows the development of the new Madison Genesis team, who will (whisper it) ride steel frames this season. Retro or forward thinking?

Herbie Sykes, a man who loves a good barney, sits down with Paul Kimmage, not averse to a heated debate himself – ask Lance… It is a fascinating feature on where the sport is now and where it’s heading. Our man Jordan Gibbons goes to Germany to discover one of the finest carbon wheel producers in the world making very expensive hoops from Heath Robinson machinery. And even Lance has to pay to get a set. Superb.




We have two writers new to Rouleur this issue: Olivier Nilsson-Julien talks to Dutch author Herman Chevrolet about his fascinating book on dirty deals and double-crossing in the peloton; and David Sharp spends time with time trial wunderkind Tony Martin, talking over a year of extreme highs and lows, with the always-excellent Timm Kölln recording the scars.


David Curry accompanies Rouleur regular photographer Olaf Unverzart to the Czech Republic to discuss cyclo-cross with Zdeněk Štybar as the former World Champion converts to a career on the road with Omega-Pharma –Quick Step.


Plus columnists Paul Fournel – with Jo Burt’s illustration as usual –  Matt Seaton and William Fotheringham, winners all.

Enough of the hard sell. We’re happy enough, but we’re not the readership. Let us know what you make of it.

The Wheel Turns

January 2, 2013


Words: William Fotheringham    Photo: Offside/L’Equipe

Sic transit gloria mundi. Addio Vigorelli, the under used and under loved track in Milan where the boards are to be ripped up. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the disappearance of one of the last links with the great days of track cycling; the days when the crowds would queue for hours to watch the likes of Antonio Maspes, Reg Harris, Fausto Coppi and Ferdi Kübler ride within what is a monumental and somewhat pompous structure. The building harks back to the fascist days, is in the same style as the city’s Central station, and is to be retained. You will still be able to go there and ponder the wartime day in 1942 when Coppi braved the British bombs to set his hour record but it is unlikely to see bike racing again.

When I visited the track in 2005 during research for Fallen Angel, my biography of Fausto Coppi, it already bore little resemblance to a functioning velodrome. Although the immediate surroundings were no more propitious than at Manchester, it made a stark contrast with that place’s bustling foyer, the constant comings and goings of the GB team and the sold out sessions. Vigorelli’s legendary boards of north African maple were still in place, although they were clearly unusable. (The note in the dilapidated lobby recalling a Beatles concert was an amusing footnote.)

It was obvious even then that it would take a monumental effort, a fair bit of finance, and a huge drive on the part of Italian cycling if it were ever to be restored to its former glory.

In a parallel universe – one where the UCI wasn’t constantly panicking about surviving the latest doping scandal and sending legal letters to those who question its dealings (step forward Paul Kimmage, Floyd Landis and Greg LeMond) – you could envisage a future for track cycling in which velodromes such as the Vigorelli host World Cup competitions. They would be a hub for activities which draw young people into the sport. The boards would be seen as a vital way of getting youth cyclists onto their bikes free of city traffic and winter weather.

This is what is happening in Britain but, given the absence of a coherent top level plan to reboot worldwide track cycling, it is unlikely to happen elsewhere. In the litany of the UCI’s crimes against the sport it is supposed to run, killing off track cycling – by omission rather than commission – should have a prominent place, along with its disregard for women’s racing.

That the Vigorelli would not have a future was confirmed in the week that we lost another link to the golden age of Coppi, Bartali, Kübler et al. Fiorenzo Magni’s death at the age of 91 closed a magnificent innings in which he won the Giro d’Italia three times, claimed a legendary second place in the Giro with a broken collarbone and humerus, and achieved the unlikely feat of winning the Tour of Flanders three years running.

He was an energetic, bustling, determined man in his late 80s when I met him for an interview which was of immense value when writing Fallen Angel, and which eventually appeared in these pages. His memories were clear; in the ‘affair’ of the White Lady which had so divided Italy, he had come down firmly on the side of Coppi’s wronged wife Bruna, to whom he and his wife were close. After half a century, his views were still trenchant.

There was another death that mid-October week. On the day after Magni breathed his last, the Dutch finance house Rabobank announced that – after 18 years – it was pulling out of backing its professional team. In a neat reversal of what Magni had achieved almost 60 years earlier – when he brought in the first of the extra-sportif sponsors who would take over the financing of elite squads as the bike industry fell on hard times – the bike supplier Giant looked set to continue.

Given the relative health of the cycle industry compared to the frailty of finance and consumer goods, that could become a trend if more extra-sportif sponsors take fright in the wake of the Armstrong revelations. The wheel turns, as the French say, but it is at times of crisis such as these that the past becomes doubly important. Greats such as Magni will pass but the sport’s physical landmarks – Alpe d’Huez, the Stelvio, the Madonna del Ghisallo, Arenberg, and the Muur at Geraardsbergen – are a vital link to that past. Therein lies the true tragedy of the loss of the Vigorelli.

William Fotheringham is cycling correspondent for the Guardian and author of Merckx: Half man, Half Bike, published by Yellow Jersey Press.

 Extract from Rouleur issue 35, out now.

Le Tour de Bore

August 9, 2012

Words: William Fotheringham 

Boring. Tedious. Monotonous. Predictable. That, according to some, were the words that summed up this year’s Tour de France. We had the first ever British winner but apparently that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t thrill a minute, seat of the pants, tension all the way stuff. Well that wasn’t how Bradley Wiggins lived it, if the few chances we had to exchange views during the race were anything to go by. He seemed to be having quite an intense time of it.

Concern that the Tour is boring is not a new phenomenon. In fact it’s a perennial concern. In 1952, the organisers increased the prize money for second place to liven things up as Coppi romped to victory. In 1970, they were aghast when Eddy Merckx took the lead early in the race. Further back, Alfredo Binda was famously paid to stay away from the 1930 Giro because, guess what, he was making it too predictable. Jacques Anquetil was criticised for it, so too Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.

Part of the problem is down to the nature of cycle racing on the road. An endurance sport is not always thrill a minute. Thrill a minute is an elimination race on the velodrome; the 20/20 to the Test Match that is the Tour de France. But while elimination races provide great entertainment they are rarely memorable in the longer term (unless Laura Trott or Willy De Bosscher is involved, but that’s another story). The other issue with road racing is team tactics, which are now so well honed that the outcome of many Tour stages is preordained until the (bunch) finish.

If we have expectations that the Tour is an edge of the seat ride, I blame Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Greg LeMond. It’s all their fault. Between them they created the most incredible Tour ever in 1989, with the Frenchman and the American swapping the lead time after time with never more than 53 seconds between them. I suspect that race has conditioned many people’s view of what a Tour de France should be. But it was a completely unique event, because neither Fignon nor LeMond was anywhere near their best form – both were fighting back from long-term injury of different kinds – and the big favourite Delgado set off with a 3min handicap by missing his prologue start time.

The 1989 race came two years after the Stephen Roche Tour – in which the Irishman ruthlessly hunted down Delgado in the final week – and three years after the most intrigue-filled Tour ever, the 1986 race in which LeMond and Hinault indulged in a hilariously theatrical battle with the glorious twist being that the pair were team-mates. That contest pitted a mentally strong but physically fading Hinault against a physically fresh but mentally fragile LeMond. Further back, the 1979 Tour was a thriller (ignore the 13min gap between Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk, 10min of which was added on afterwards when the Dutchman tested positive), largely because Hinault had a nightmare on the stage to Roubaix, losing three minutes after a puncture and a delay due to strikers on the course. He then hunted down Zoetemelk with the same ruthlessness Roche showed eight years later in his pursuit of Delgado.

These Tours are exceptions, however. Mostly, the race is a relentless process of physical attrition in which the first big physical test, be it a summit finish or an early long time trial, delivers a verdict that remains largely unchanged in Paris. On the whole the rate of physical deterioration in any stage race is a curve which remains the same for most of the protagonists, so in the final week it’s rare for a leader to be much better than earlier in the race. That’s why the classification is often fairly set and the gaps simply get bigger.

That can seem predictable but the fact is that there is so much else going on during the Tour that in my eyes it never is. This year’s ‘boring’ race had Wiggins calling the Twitter doubters “fucking wankers” (and worse), the tacks on a Pyrenean climb, the intriguing question of Chris Froome, and plenty more. It didn’t have the cut and thrust of the 1989 and 1979 races but few Tours do. Boredom is in the eye of the beholder.

Extract from Rouleur issue 33. William Fotheringham is the author of Roule Britannia. A history of Britons in the Tour de France, the book will be reissued in October with new sections covering the 2012 race. 

Eddy and me

March 21, 2012

Being the youngest of four children, hand-me-downs were a fact of life – not that any of my siblings ever got a new bike either. Uncle Ted would scour the local tip for abandoned frames and wheels, take them back to his workshop and somehow fashion usable machines from piles of junk. Scrapheap Challenge had nothing on Uncle Ted. His creations were invariably painted in the same disgusting shade of green paint liberated from his workplace, sported Sturmey Archer three-speed hubs and weighed more than dad’s Mini, but they did the job.

Until I joined a cycling club, that is. Then it became abundantly clear that Uncle Ted’s clunker would have to go and be replaced by something racier. Much parental badgering ensued – threats issued, tantrums thrown – until they relented and allowed the princely sum of £50 to be withdrawn from my savings. Cash in pocket, I headed for the nearest decent cycle emporium in the glittering metropolis that is Swindon.

A host of gleaming lightweights awaited, mostly too big or too costly for a 13-year-old, but the smattering of machines within my price range looked adequate. Falcons, Raleighs and Carltons vied for my attention. They were all distinct possibilities. And then the Swindon Cycle Centre came up trumps. The moment I saw it, I knew it was the one.

The shade of Molteni orange paint used for its 19-inch frame is a colour that remains deep in my affections. Steel-rimmed 26-inch wheels didn’t so much spin as grind their way round, but Weinmann centre-pulls were a step up from the stopping capabilities of my old clunker. It had those curious ‘mudguards’ – lengths of dull silver metal extending a few inches either side of the brakes that deflected no road muck but rattled incessantly. Five gears, courtesy of French company Huret, seemed plenty to me.

But none of these things informed my choice. What counted – more than the wheels, more than the gears, more than those infernal chrome guards – was the picture on the headtube: a diamond-shaped sticker, framed by World Championship bands, containing a portrait of the greatest rider in the World, the impossibly handsome Eddy Merckx. The sticker repeated on the downtube for good measure.

It was hardly what you would describe as ‘lightweight’, but Eddy and me travelled far and wide on increasingly lengthy club runs, into the hills of Somerset or the Cotswolds, and we got on just fine. Youth Hostelling excursions into Wales or Dorset were a regular feature once proper mudguards, rack and saddle-bag were added. We tackled five-mile time trials every Wednesday evening, recording PB’s week after week. Come the winter, the gears were stripped off and a donated fixed wheel with 40 spokes and no chrome whatsoever (it appeared to have spent several years at the bottom of the River Avon) was fitted. Not once were we defeated by a climb, although one snowy descent at Easter saw us flying into the hedgerow at speed due to my inability to stop.

But Eddy was with me. We were fine.

My legs were growing ever longer and skinnier. The seat post had reached its limit before long. Me and Eddy would have to part company. It was years later I discovered my bike was made under licence by Falcon Cycles in England and had no input whatsoever from the great Belgian, apart from his picture on the frame. Not that the news clouded my feelings about my first racing bike. Me and Eddy had something special.

But it was over. The next machine would have be a step up: self- assembled, one piece at a time, with every component hand-picked by me. No walking into a shop and picking some factory-built, mass-produced mount. The next time would be different…

Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham, is published by Yellow Jersey. Bespoked Bristol, the handmade bike show, runs from Friday, March 23 to Sunday, March 25.