The sports story template is Rocky, basically: athlete tastes success, athlete suffers failure, athlete faces down demons to snatch success from the jaws of failure. Indeed, I listened to a presentation recently by the publisher at the justly admired Yellow Jersey Press when he said that when he bought the rights to Bradley Wiggins story after his Tour de France victory, and then published in time for the Christmas market, they basically structured it as “Rocky on wheels”.
Another cycling story, that of the insufficiently recognised Graeme Obree, also fits the template, not least when turned into the film The Flying Scotsman.
So it comes as a shock – and maybe a surprise – to open a sports autobiography in which the protagonist never won anything as a professional – at least not individually – and who admits, quite early on, that the pressure of winning was too much for him.
Charly Wegelius was an expert domestique – and by the end of his career, at least, pretty well paid for it. His book, Domestique, is about the frustrations and pleasures to be had from putting your talents at the disposal of your team.
There’s an illuminating passage about the fragility of the life of the professional cyclist during a chapter on one of his Tours de France, as his bike buckles on a descent and he braces himself for the fall.
“A crash, no matter how seemingly innocuous, can be all it takes to start off a chain of events that can end a career. … There is nothing worse for a manager than having one of their twenty-five riders unable to compete. The pressure is passed on to other riders and the management themselves while they try to fill the gap left by an injured rider. …
There is simply no room in the twelve or twenty-four months on a rider’s contract for time out for crashes. People often marvel that cyclists continue to race with horrific injuries, and think that cyclists are tough. It’s not that cyclists are particularly robust guys, it’s just that they don’t have a choice. … If a rider can get to the finish then at least he has a chance to race the next day. If he can do that then he won’t abandon his team in the race, he won’t lose race days, and he won’t be seen as a problem to anyone.”
The classic in this genre is Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game?, about the life of an end-of-career professional football player in the second tier of the English league. There are some cricket equivalents (Peter Roebuck’s It Never Rains onwards). The only other book I know of that sheds similar light on the life of the cycling domestique is Matt Rendell’s A Significant Other (maybe also Le Metier by Michael Barry.)
But a brief memo to the publisher, Ebury Press: in the fact-checking department, David Millar famously stopped half a metre short of the finish line of the Altagliru in protest, not 150 metres. And Alberto Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, but not in 2008. And please, proof it one more time before you publish it in paperback.