Thursday, 3 January 2013

Book Review: Slaying the Badger

(The first in an occasional series of book reviews.  This is designed to both get me to read more books and to enable me to write more regularly too.  Expect a mix of novels, social history, nerdy science and, just sometimes, sport).

Slaying the Badger by Richard Moore

I was talking with my new boss the other day at Work One (see the footnote here for my distinction between 'Work One' and 'Work Two') about how I like to operate at work, what my values and principles are, all stuff that I love (mainly because it means that I get to talk about myself) and we got to talking about the Tour de France.  Now, anyone that follows my Twitter during June and July knows that I'm a huge TDF fan but not everyone might realise that I use it as my one "sporting metaphor" at work.  I usually get very turned off when people try to engage me with football metaphors: "we're down two nil in the eighty-fifth minute, we need a super-sub" or "I'm just the skipper on the pitch, I need all the other ten men to get behind the ball too".  Bleugh.  

But for some reason the Tour is a totally resonant gold-mine for me of how I want my team to behave, lead and perform.  I could go on for hours but three examples should do;

- Cycling is a team sport but it's also an individual sport.  Each team has a leader and the rest of the team (the "domestiques") are paid to support him.  This means that you competitors whose job it is to support and shelter their leader and that alone - this could be anything from: giving up your musette (feed bag) if the leader misses picking his up on the move; pacing the leader back to the pack if they stop for a wee or have a problem; all the way up to giving up your bike if the leader's bike has a failure.  There's a wealth of things to think about there for work and other things you do in your life - how are you acting as a domestique in service to others?  When are the team leader?  When do these roles change?  (On the last point, the best example of this is Bradley Wiggins as winner of the Tour leading out his team-mate Mark Cavendish for the stage win in Paris in the 2012 Tour - leader turned domestique for the day.  

- The above, combined with the fact that to "just" be a domestique still means cycling 200km+ a day, every day for three weeks pretty much blows my mind.  These are world-class athletes and they not only sublimate their ego and own ambitions to the service of the team leader but put themselves through agonies to do it.  Legends.  

- But probably the thing that I love the most about the Tour (and it's similar to why I love cricket) is the way that there are competitions within competitions and the balance of power and advantage can switch one way and another many times within a day.  A rider might break away from the pack and be supported by a rider from another team during that lonely 150km because that helps their team to achieve something they want.  Sometimes this is explicit with deals being done ("support me today and I'll set you up for a stage win tomorrow") on the wing and sometimes it's more serendipitous.  

I was talking with my boss about all this and it turns out he is also a big cyclist and TDF fan and said he'd lend me a book he'd been reading.  He did and I read it over Christmas and it's highly recommended by me for general sports fans or cycling aficionados.  

It tells the story of the 1986 Tour which featured a see-saw battle between the new wave, represented by Greg LeMond and combative old-guard in the shape of Bernard Hinault (the eponymous 'Badger').  It's a cracking read that moves at huge pace and colours in the history and context of the race to make it fit together.  There is a wealth of interviews with the key participants including LeMond and Hinault and their coaching teams.  

The paperback edition (as linked above ) also has a fascinating epilogue that explores and justifies the author's designation of the 1986 race as the "Greatest Ever" in the subtitle to the book.  The final passage touches on a few of themes I talk about above so I thought I'd quote from it at length;

"The reaction from one reader prompted me to think about another aspect of the story, an obvious one but one that I hadn't given much consideration to because it seemed so obvious.  The reader, Gabriel Karaffa from New York, notes that the 1986 Tour was a 'stark example' of so many different people 'pursuing their own agendas'.  The problem, of course, was that so many of the dominant players - from the charismatic, wealthy team owner to the coaching genius to the two strongest riders - happened to be in the same team.  In cycling, perhaps more than any other sport, this is a recipe for conflict.  Because, as Karaffa notes, 'cycling was not originally a team sport, but it evolved into one ... The problem with this, of course, is that only one rider can win the general classification ... Were it to completely convert to a team sport, all events would be decided by team classifications'.

Those of us who follow cycling closely accept that it is a team sport and rarely reflect on how unnatural this is.  Perhaps it's best described as an individual team sport.

But it is an aspect of the sport that cuts to the heart of the 1986 drama.  Neither Hinault nor LeMond was drawn to cycling in order to become a member of a successful team.  Teenagers do not embark on the road to a career as a professional cyclist harbouring dreams of becoming a domestique.  The team role is something that is forced on the majority of riders by their own limitations.  For those without limitations - Hinault, LeMond - it is a nearly impossible compromise."
This neatly encapsulates the excitement at the heart of the sport for me.  We saw some of this in the 2012 Tour with Cavendish (a cyclist built and conditioned to win) being de-prioritised by Team Sky to make sure that Wiggins won the race.  This led to Cav leaving the British (dream) team to join Omega-Pharma-QuickStep where the operation will be built around him to win the Green Jersey.  

Roll on 29th June!

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