From the same authors who wrote The Rules: the Way of the Cycling Disciple – in other words, the Velominati – this book is, in effect a demonstration of the rules in practice within professional cycling. In fact it is one rule (Rule Five) that drives much of this book, although Hardmen contains a concise list of the all “the Rules” as an appendix.
I loved it. You might expect this, given the religious language that peppers the Velominati output. I’ve not found a link yet between Luther’s 95 theses and the Velominati’s 95 rules, but I bet it’s there somewhere. But as with ‘The Rules’, the subtitle of this book has a spiritual nod: the legends of the cycling gods.
It’s often laugh-out-loud funny. Great for me; not so for my wife when I’m quoting lines from it when she was trying to get to sleep. The language can be ripe, though – I didn’t quote those bits to her. It seems to ride against the feel of our times, too: there’s not much that’s feely-touchy to the book; it’s all about shutting up and letting your legs do the talking. In Hardmen, quitting is most certainly character failure too. Overall there’s a gritty machismo, albeit something also seen in a few female riders.
Like much cycling lore, the golden era of this book centres on the 1970s and 80s, perhaps because it was a time of perceived – but not actual – doping innocence. It splits riders into five groups, few of whom are the three-week tour specialists. Of course Eddy Merckx is there, but no Anquetil or Indurain, and certainly no Armstrong. The greater bulk are those whose results might not be so spectacular (Merckx notwithstanding), but those riders who would grind out a victory over a single day’s classic ride. Drugs are not lauded, but neither are the riders condemned absolutely – Tyler Hamilton gets a mention for instance, as does Marco Pantani.
As ever there’s a gospel story here. Books like this feel good because they recognise human culture for what it is: messy, but with a higher aim; grubby, but focused on some honourable glory. The cycling gods here are human and fallible, prone to character flaws and failure, but still loved and lauded. It recognises that suffering is part of the whole story and through such suffering comes glory: “suffering is about taking care of ourselves mentally so we may be each a complete person”. Redemption here is found in suffering, and that of the rider. That may be true. But one day, every cycling god has to climb off the bike one last time. And where then comes redemption?