PEZ last talked to Richard Moore back in 2012, during the Giro d’Italia incidentally, ostensibly about his fabulous book ‘Slaying the Badger’. That conversation also involved a foreshadowing of another book he was working on at the time, ‘Tour de France 100’, a coffee table style photographic history of the Tour (published in North America by VeloPress). This latest interview was primarily to discuss that very book (which looks resplendent on a coffee table, by the way) but quickly veered into talking about his latest project. A wide-ranging conversation took place with it somehow all tying together. Moore is passionate about cycling and its history, particularly writing about the racers themselves.
“It’s not like the other books I’ve done, it’s not a single narrative,” said Moore of his latest endeavor. “It’s 20 chapters, and they work on their own but they’re interlinked as well. A lot of people crop up in more than one chapter, like Bernard Hinault, who is also on the cover.”
“It’s called ‘Etape’ and the idea was to create a virtual Tour de France by taking random stages from history. I only wanted to cover the modern period and stages I’d actually seen, on TV or in person. It was worth making an exception for Eddy Merckx in 1971; but generally the stages are from the 80s, 90s and 2000s. I don’t really know how to describe them. They’re not the greatest stages – some of them are the greatest, but also the most interesting, the dirtiest, and the most terrible in terms of a crash. The crucial ingredient, and the aspect that made it most interesting, is that each chapter is interview-based. I’ve gone back and interviewed at least one protagonist from each stage that’s featured. I like to catch up with people years on, like in ‘Slaying the Badger’: you find you get a lot out of them. The list of interviewees for this book includes Merckx, LeMond, Chiappucci, Cavendish and Armstrong.
Chiappucci – a character both on and off the bike
“There are also some quirky ones, like Joel Pelier. His lone breakaway in 1989 was a lovely story. I remember watching it. It was a very boring stage and he took off into a headwind with about 180 kilometers to go. It started raining, and he held them off, and he got to the finish and his parents were there. It was very emotional. The story behind it was that his parents were committed to looking after his disabled brother, who needed 24 hour care, but he’d gone to some residential center for a few days, and his parents decided on the spur of the moment to drive across France to watch Joel. He hadn’t known they were going to be there. It’s a lovely story. And he’s now a sculptor. So that was a chapter that was very satisfying to do.
“You’ll probably remember Wilfried Nelissen’s crash in Armentieres in 1994 when he hit a policeman in the finishing straight. So I’ve told that story from Nelissen’s point of view, with Abdoujaparov and Cipollini mentioned there as well – even though Cipollini wasn’t actually riding – because it was a golden age of sprinting.
The infamous gendarme crash of ’94
There’s some other quirky ones, like Jose Luis Viejo, a rider I knew nothing about; he holds the record for the biggest margin of victory: 22 minutes at the end of a stage in 1976.
“A dilemma I had – similar to in ‘Tour de France 100’ – was how to treat the Armstrong years. Do you pretend they didn’t happen? If you apply that logic do you pretend 1998 didn’t happen, and how do you write about Claudio Chiappucci winning at Sestriere in 1992, because there’s an awful lot of suspicion about that? And incidentally, that’s one of the stages I include [in ‘Etape’]. I decided that Armstrong is a figure you can’t ignore so I interviewed him and two of ‘his’ stages appear in the book, one in Limoges in 1995 after Fabio Casartelli’s death and the other one at Luz Ardiden in 2003 after he fell off. And I talked to Iban Mayo about that one as well.
The famous Armstrong uphill crash was also featured in Tour de France 100
“I also include Marco Pantani’s win at Les Deux Alpes in 1998, for which I interviewed Bobby Julich. We know now what Julich and others were doing at that Tour, and I spoke to him about that. The other story is that it could have been a defining day in his career. Julich was convinced he was going to take the yellow jersey. But Pantani was extraordinary. And Ullrich suffered his collapse. It was incredibly dramatic. I watched the whole stage recently and it’s compelling, even though you know they were all doping. Doping is obviously a big part of the story; a big part of some of the stages I feature in the book. You can hardly ignore it.”
I suggest to Moore that refusing to try and sweep the doping years and Armstrong under the carpet, like the ASO has tried to do, is a mature approach to take and acknowledges that cycling can still be interesting when written about openly.
“Definitely. My first Tour was 2005 and, looking back, I was pretty naïve and initially shocked at the cynicism about Armstrong. Not for too long, though, and then the challenges of writing about the sport, and not being able to write all that you thought you knew, or at least suspected, became apparent. Now we’ve got a clearer picture, and you can write about it quite openly. You’re not writing in code. You’re not subliminally communicating your skepticism. Writing now about 1998, or the Armstrong years, is an entirely different proposition, and it’s quite liberating — as is the fact that I can ask Julich about his doping in 1998, and ask Armstrong how and when he doped in 2003 (not that he necessarily answered; but he can’t deny it, either). We know so much, and we know even more after the French Senate released the names just after the Tour last year; we know more about which riders were doping and just how widespread it was, including Pantani and Ullrich who failed retrospective tests for EPO. You’re watching it through a different lens and writing about it in a different way. You’re not making any compromises. It’s just a fact that these are interesting tales.”
With all the research you did for ‘Tour de France 100’ did it change your perspective on the Tour at all?
“I realized how little it had changed over the years. It gave me far more of a sense as to how it joined up, how it was connected, and I think I was able to trace the line from Lapize to Pellisier to Bartali to Coppi to Bobet to Anquetil and really see these guys as carrying on a tradition. You can see how the sport evolved, and also how it’s the same as it was. I learned an awful lot. That book was primarily about the photographs, and the writing was an interesting exercise but there’s not anything new as I relied on second-hand sources. Any journalist, any writer, gets really excited about working with original material, so that’s what’s been really thrilling about this new book, doing the interviews – having the opportunity to put the questions to these protagonists so many years on.”
There has been a deluge of cycling books coming out of the UK in recent years so I ask Moore whether some sort of peak in reader interest might have been reached.
“We’ve said that for a couple of years and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all. It will at some point. But at the moment, there’s still a huge appetite and some are selling really well – last year Charly Wegelius’s book [Domestique – a fine read] did well. One statistic I heard was that cycling books were accounting for one-third of all sports books in the UK, which is amazing.”
I suggest that there is a clear contrast to the North American market, where cycling is popular but certainly cannot compete with reader interest with mainstream sports.
“‘Slaying the Badger’ did well in the US and is now being made into a film by ESPN to be shown during the Tour this year. ‘Etape’ is being published separately in the US, so it will be available there as well, which is good.”
The Tour de France has an inflated and overblown mythology, and the racing can at times be formulaic, but as ‘Tour de France 100’ and other publications show, it is still utterly captivating. Is the Tour simply too large to take in and digest?
“It can be a bit formulaic, but the last few years Christian Prudomme has shaken things up a bit. You often don’t have a real appreciation for the race itself until much later. Still, I was tempted to include a stage from last year [in ‘Etape’], the crosswinds stage [stage 13 where Contador’s team exploited the crosswinds to put time into Froome and put Valverde out of contention], which was one of the best stages in years. In fact, last year we were really spoiled. That stage was brilliant. The second stage in the Pyrenees to Bagnères-de-Bigorre when Dan Martin won and Sky fell apart. That was great racing. The Alpe d’Huez stage was fantastic as well, with interesting things happening at the front, in the middle, at the back – it was great, all you could really hope for. We can be dismissive of it, and 3 weeks is a long time and you can become blasé about it, but when you look back, those were exceptional stages.”
Is the Tour in good shape?
“It’s more popular than ever, at least in some places. It will be massive this year in Yorkshire. It goes in cycles, and the Tour is big news here in the UK at present. The roadside crowds are huge – an awful lot of Norwegians last year, an awful lot of Australians, and their riders had a great Tour. The traditional countries are struggling but these new countries are lapping it up. So it’s in pretty good health.”
The change to a new season saw sponsors and teams departing. Cycling has always been fragile in a financial sense. There has been a lot of talk about revenue sharing, a better division of the pie. But maybe the pie is not that large to start with, so I asked Moore if there was a way out of this.
“It’s a strange, fickle sport. There aren’t that many traditional sponsors, like Sky or Movistar, and many teams are heavily reliant on an uber-fan, a wealthy benefactor, like Andy Rihs with BMC or Zdenek Bakala with OPQS. It’s not very healthy to be reliant on a few individuals. People have always said that cycling offers great value to sponsors. Then why are sponsors not queuing up? It’s a strange one. They’ve got to find ways to package it and selling it without losing that heritage, that thing that it has that makes it appealing to cycling fans. Maybe Cookson will be the man to do that. What he’s been good at in the past is appointing the right people. British cycling has seen that. So hopefully he’ll do the same at the UCI. The sport is not fulfilling its potential.”
Moore had a chapter in ‘The Cycling Anthology vol. 3’ that looked at the women’s Tour de France that ran parallel to the men’s race in 1984, won by the American Marianne Martin. I suggest that women’s cycling is still hampered by the old-school attitudes of machismo that surround men’s cycling.
“In that chapter in ‘The Cycling Anthology’ I try to go into the history of this, and how it’s all connected from the first Tour to now. Then, cycling was an expression of masculinity and women were banned from racing and discouraged from riding a bike, so they’re coming from a long way back. Now, there should be a healthier scene. But we love a lot of these races [the men’s races] because of the history and the heritage, and you can’t just magic that overnight. That has to be created over a long time. It can happen, like at the Olympics where there is now equal prestige for getting a medal between men and women. You hear some calls for a minimum wage for women’s cycling, but I think that’s a bit premature. You need a scene – teams, races and an established circuit before you say to sponsors that you need to pay them a certain amount of money.”
Does it need a top down approach: race organizers need to have parallel races, pro tour teams need to have a women’s team, for example?
“I don’t know if I agree with that. It’s a kind of positive discrimination that’s patronizing in a way. Women’s racing shouldn’t need to ride in the slipstream of men’s racing. Like the calls for a women’s Tour de France – why not establish the most prestigious women’s race in the world and build that up, develop its own culture, rather than piggybacking on the Tour. I don’t think the Tour has the space for the women’s race at the same time. They say that the media are already there. But the media are already stretched to breaking point trying to cover the men’s race. They really wouldn’t be able to cover the women’s race as well.
“So I just don’t see how it can be accommodated. Anyway, why should the women be the warm-up for the men? The women’s Tour of Britain is an exciting new event, why not be ambitious for that and make that the most prestigious women’s race in the world? Sponsors should want to run their teams because it makes sense for them to do so. I don’t think forcing teams to run women’s teams is really the way to develop women’s cycling.”
We conclude by briefly discussing the women’s race at the Worlds last year, and the Olympic road race, both exciting events. Then it is back full circle to the editing process for ‘Etape’, which is due for release in early June this year. The original brief was to talk about ‘Tour de France 100’ but it turned out to be a great opportunity to hear about some new stories as well as the old ones. There are plenty more great stories to be told about the Tour de France, and who better to tell them, really, than Richard Moore. Many thanks for the insights!
Richard’s new book is now available at velopress.com, ‘Etape – 20 Great Stages From The Modern Tour de France’