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Thursday, November 7, 2019

RACING WITH BIKES IN WORDS AND ON FILM


RACING WITH BIKES
IN WORDS AND ON FILM 
Competitive cycling has been the arena for a number of successful sports mysteries. The latest of these is a terrific translation of Mexican author Jorge Zepeda Patterson's The Black Jersey set amidst the Tour de France.

With 2019's real Tour de France crowning the first ever Colombian race winner, Egan Bernal, Jorge Zepeda Patterson is not only timely but somewhat prescient with his Agatha Christie style murder mystery played out against the deadly pursuit of the Tour's coveted yellow jersey.

Marc Moreau, a professional cyclist with a military past, is part of a top Tour de France team led by his best friend, an American star favored to win the current Tour. But the competition takes a dark turn when racers begin to drop out in a series of violent accidents. But as the victim count rises, the number of potential murderers–and potential champions–dwindles. 

By allowing his prodigious knowledge of bike racing to keep the story moving and tie together the non-racing scenes needed to support the mystery, Patterson pulls off the balancing act inherent in the ratio of sport to mystery (and visa-versa) in The Black Jersey, which is the downfall of the majority of sports mysteries.

However, while the central mystery in The Black Jersey is solid (despite the de rigor least likely suspect scenario) and does have a resolution tied directly to the Tour de France, I was far more fascinated by Patterson's insider take on the tour, which raises the novel above the quagmire. The cool stuff I was learning about bike racing and the Tour itself was what kept me turning the pages...actually, hearing to the pages zip by as I listen to the fantastic audio version of the book.

The Black Jersey left me feeling inspired once again by the Tour De France speeding recklessly through the French countryside with all its accompanying hoopla, crashes, and feats of almost inhuman endurance. As a result, I felt prompted to visit my bookshelves and check on my favorite cycling fiction as well as the DVDs of my favorite cycling films. 

Not all of these titles revolve around the Tour de France, but each brings out the reality, agony, and determination of cycling’s two-wheeled speed demons.

Taking the movies first, I have to give my top vote to 1985’s American Flyers. The film stars Kevin Costner as a cycling sports physician with a secret who persuades his younger brother to train with him for a three-day bicycle race across the Rocky Mountains known as The Hell of the West. The racing scenes are well shot and the bonding relationship between the two brothers is worth the price of admission. As in most successful sports films, prepare to cheer while shedding a tear.

1979’s Academy Award winning Breaking Away has obviously garnered more than its share of acclaim. However, this tale of a hardscrabble kid obsessed with Italian bike racers, and the small town clash between blue collar cutters and the much more affluent Indiana University students, is still a delight. If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, it's time to add it to your Netflix’s queue.

My favorite Sherlock, Jonny Lee Miller, gets his cycling groove on in 2006’s The Flying Scotsman. Mentioning Jonny Lee Miller and eccentric in the same paragraph is perhaps redundant, but the film is based on the true story of the eccentric Graham Obree who rose above a severely abusive childhood to become a champion cyclist, by way of designing his own bikes and his innovations in body-position aerodynamics. Miller as Obree does a good line in paranoia, presaging Obree’s revelations after the film premiered, which shed further light on why he tried to commit suicide on three occasions.

Bring this post back to the Tour de France, the 2004 documentary Höllentour (Hell On Wheels) goes inside the Tour de France to focuses on the trials and tribulations of the T-Mobile team as they struggle to compete on cycling’s biggest stage. There are some heartbreaking moments which bring the whole scope of the race into focus.

My first exposure to cycling fiction came via the bookmobile that visited my elementary school. I remember checking out a battered copy of The Big Loop by Claire Huchet Bishop. I don’t remember if it was the cycling or the author’s last name that made me read this, but I was hooked from the first page of the sepia toned world of the 1950s, in which Frenchmen always win their own Tour, and the old school style of teenage fiction, in which heroes are easily distinguished from villains. Perhaps this is outdated by today’s standards, but years later, I tracked down a used copy, reread it delightedly, and have it sitting proudly on my book shelves.

As noted above, good sports mysteries are hard to come by. Getting the right blend of enough sports action and finding a solid mystery to fit in with the spotlighted sporting endeavor is a very fine balancing act. In Two Wheels, Greg Moody manages to pull off that balancing act without the aid of a net.

Between 1995 and 2002, author Moody produced five cycling murder mysteries featuring bike racer and reluctant sleuth, Will Ross. All are all above average sports mysteries with scalpel-like insights into both cycle racing and the business of cycle racing.

Moody's dive into the bike racing world captures enough of the sport to keep those who are barely aware of the Tour de France each year interested, while also giving enough sporting grist for those for whom bike racing is a commanding passion – and, oh yeah, he also throws in a compelling murder mystery set in the heart of the European peloton.

Jean-Pierre Colgan, the world champion, dies in a horrible toaster explosion. He is replaced on the powerful Haven Cycling Team by Will Ross, an aging American mediocrity. As Ross battles the team prejudice against him and slowly regains his form, he realizes that Colgan's death was no accident, that it is only the first step in a plan to dismantle the entire team, and given that knowledge, that his life isn't worth the tuppence he might find in corners of your mother’s sofa.

Moody five cycling mysteries include Two WheelsPerfect CirclesDerailleurDead Roll, and Dead Aireach of them enjoyable in their own right, each taking on a different aspect of the cycling world.

Two novels by Dave Shields, The Race and The Tour, are as fast-paced as the sprint legs of the Tour de France on which their stories focus. Troubled American racer Ben Barnes has a chance to redeem his honor, keep his word, and overcome the secrets of his past. Both books contain top notch race scenes from an author who learned his craft in the saddle.

My favorite Tour de France book can most likely be described as two-wheeled chick-lit. Yes, I know, many of you will be turned off by that term, but you'll be missing out on what is a terrific insider story. Cat by Freya North features the requisite Bridget Jones style journalistic heroine who sets out to report the Tour de France, inevitably getting entangled with some shaven legs along the way. That said, North’s research into the race and the personalities who ride in it gradually takes over the story giving the reader vicarious experience not to be missed.

As the Tour itself heads out over the Pyrenees, cycle enthusiasts can get out on the road themselves or used the above recommendations to settle back into a visual or literary peloton.

1 comment:

  1. Les Triplettes de Belleville is the best film ever made about cycling. I've also stayed to the end of the credits for every film since this one.

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