The Write Stuff – The London Sports Writing Festival

On cold autumnal mornings the refined environs of the Grace Gate at Lord’s are expected to be quiet. The cricket season is long over and the security guard at the first gate I encountered, on the shadow-cast North side of the ground, was somewhat disgruntled to be disturbed from his newspaper. “Go back the way you came, turn right at the end, right again at the corner, and then right again just past the the red postbox” he instructed when I asked for the location of the suite of rooms that bears the name of the original owner of the land upon which this most hallowed of sports grounds took residence in 1825. Given that the entire perimeter is pretty much a solid red-brick wall, and given that I was asking for the location of a bunch of sports journalists, he could have just said “Above the pub” and been done with it. A few more minutes walk brought me to the Lord’s Tavern where a few tourists were milling around waiting for the next museum tour whilst inside a couple of old boys in ‘egg and bacon’ ties were reading the back pages of The Sunday Times, but in the main this residential backwater of NW8 was as deserted as the dressing rooms in the famous pavilion beyond.

Thankfully the Thomas Lord suite upstairs was not quite so empty. The 2015 London Sports Writing Festival had just completed the first talk of its final day and there was a reasonably sized audience already. Over the three previous daily sessions the likes of Roy Keane, Trevor Brooking and Brian Moore had talked sport with leading writers such as Roddy Doyle. Sunday however was exclusively set aside for cycling and I was booked in for the remainder of the seven scheduled talks. This being Lords it was somehow comforting that I was ‘hitting for six.’ Having a full day dedicated to cycling talks may be a nod to the current popularity of the sport here in Britain but it also says much about the long and mutually fulfilling relationship that cycling has with the written word. From the florid prose of Desgrange and Lefèvre exhorting the epic undertakings of the early géants de la route to more modern examinations of the connection between human and bicycle, the two arts have always made for affectionate bedfellows.  Just as Lords is the spiritual home of cricket, the printed page is perhaps the spiritual home of cycling.

First up was The Cycling Anthology editor Ellis Bacon with sports journalist Brendan Gallagher and ex ANC-Halfords pro-rider Paul Watson. They mulled over some of the chapters from the new ‘Cycling Anthology Volume V’, which I have reviewed on the blog already here. Following them was the first of two female speakers that I was really looking forward to seeing. Emma O’Reilly was a key soigneur at the US Postal team during the Armstrong era and was close at hand throughout what she referred to as  ‘The Programme’. Her take on the doping, the lies, the lawsuits and the final fall from grace is that of an insider who, as one of the first to blow the whistle, bore the brunt of the attacks from those with the most to hide. Her talk with Jeremy Whittle was frank, revealing and hugely engaging. She sees what happens as a ‘human story’, with many layers of grey, rather than the black and white issue we as outsiders find it easier to make it. Her book ‘The Race To Truth’, which comes full circle with her meeting of an apologetic Armstrong following his Oprah Winfrey confession, has allowed her to finally close a long, painful, costly chapter in her life. 

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The wider human cost of decisions made for cycling gain were at the heart of the next talk too. With Richard Williams asking the questions and Herbie Sykes answering on his book ‘The Race Against The Stasi’ this very much felt like the ‘Heavyweight Round’ of the day. Covering the Cold War politicisation of sport, the importance of the Peace Race to GDR self-image and the breathtaking volumes of files documenting a nation saturated with informants, it felt like a strong coffee would be needed beforehand just to keep up with the discussion but it was not the case. Sykes had originally set out to write just about the Peace Race – Socialism’s showpiece stage held annually behind the Iron Curtain – but the sighting of a familiar name from those races turning up in the 1967 Tour de France line-up lead him to Dieter Weidemann, a young rider who defected from East Germany to be with the woman he loved, leaving the rest of his family at the mercy of the machinations of the Stasi. It was as sobering as the earlier Anthology talk about cyclists’ role in the First World War but, like Emma O’Reilly’s talk immediately beforehand, the role of a single person who didn’t agree with ‘The Programme’ or ‘The Ideology’ at the heart of the bigger issue makes the story much more accessible and understandable.

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It says a lot about our sport that of the six talks I heard at the festival half were about associated problems concerning politics and doping. The second doping talk was from another whistle-blower; another person who had suffered for standing up to what he believed was wrong. Rider Christophe Bassons was infamously hounded out of the 1999 Tour for wanting to speak up against doping. In one of the Tours most ignominious moments both Armstrong and Bassons’ own FDJ teammates were at the heart of the pressure applied to make him quit the race  Unsurprisingly Bassons now works for an anti-doping agency policing the Franco-Spanish border. With Jeremy Whittle again asking the questions and Daniel Friebe handling the translation duties, the Bassons talk – which ostensibly was to plug his book ‘A Clean Break’ but which was as much a discussion of the sport in general as Christophe’s own story – was another window into a world that now genuinely seems to be a healthy distance from the current reality. He is another who Armstrong has reached out to with an apology but when I had the chance to speak with Christophe afterwards I was more interested in the teammates who treated him so poorly at the time. Within the peloton breaking the omertà was the worst crime imaginable – far worse than cheating to win – and it seems that none of the riders and staff who first refused to support him and then actively encouraged his departure have said sorry for their behaviour. He said that he occasionally sees some of them at races but that the issue is never raised. “They have very selective memories…” he volunteered with a Gallic shrug. Like O’Reilly, he has the comfort of knowing that he made the right decision and also feels sympathy for those who didn’t and who are now paying the price. Forgiveness, it would seem, goes hand in hand with righteousness.

After a triple bill of cheating, spying and doping, it was good to get back to a bit of ‘proper cycling’ in the next talk. I say a bit but it took Brendan Gallagher a good five minutes to reel off the palmarès of the (still young) woman who sat opposite him on the small stage that had been the focal point of the day. Olympic Gold medallist, ten-time British Road Race Champion, two-time World Road Race Champion, Tour de France winner, Giro d’Italia winner, three time Flèche Wallone Winner, Tour of Flanders Winner, Amstel Gold Winner, etc etc etc.. Nicole Cooke is a cycling phenomenon and I use the present tense for, although she retired at the tender age age of 29 in January 2013 (in the days leading up to Lance’s Oprah appearance), I’m certain that Nicole is not yet done with cycling. Everything that she has said in the past, that she is doing at the moment and that she talks of regarding the future point to her returning to the sport to take it by the scruff of the neck and give it the shaking many feel that it needs. Nicole Cooke is passionate, intelligent and persuasive. And she’s off to do an MBA so that she can start a new career in business next. “I’d like to develop new business skills,” she said of her future plans,” And then, at some time in the future, I’ll consider working in the governing bodies on the big issues in the sport”. My feeling was that, just as in her career, she’ll be aiming even higher than that“Will we see you running for UCI President one day?” I asked her afterwards, having listened to her story of a lifelong battle against a system that had let her down time and time again. “Maybe..” came the reply, accompanied by a smile. Now, anyone with young children will know that, in their world at least, when a grown-u says “Maybe” they actually mean “Yes, but I’m not admitting that to you just yet”.  I wouldn’t bet against seeing her in the very top job at the UCI or WADA sometime in the future. Even if you don’t manage to buy her book The Breakaway’, just take five minutes and read her retirement statement.. I think you’ll get the measure of her..

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By this time bad light would have most definitely have ended play out in the middle at Lords, and the glut of wordage was almost proportionally matched by my hunger. Half an hour had been scheduled between each talk but naturally this tended to get whittled down to around fifteen minutes, which turned out to be just not quite enough time to go and find something to eat in the conspicuously shop-free environs of St John’s Wood. Following a packet of crisps between the Emma O’Reilly and Herbie Sykes talks, I had to make do with a bowl of Chinese crackers from the Tavern before heading back upstairs for the final talk of the day. I do reckon that the organisers had got the line-up exactly right for, just as the audience were in danger of wilting, they rolled out an easy-going three-way, (beer-assisted) chat about The Grand Tours to round out the festival. I had heard Tim Moore and Max Leonard speak at the Rapha Tempest event during the Tour in July so knew that they had a good rapport with each other and their audiences. Throwing Richard Moore into the mix was never going to be recipe for stilted conversation either so the last hour flowed along quickly. Tales of Lanterne Rouges’, Terribly Hard Giro d’Italia and the Untold Stories of the Tour de France’ were just the ticket for sign-off session.

Leaving a sports ground late at night, alone and with neither the euphoric glow or despondent gloom of a contest won or lost is an odd feeling to say the least. Om the way back to the tube station I had plenty of time to reflect on the day and think about the thread that linked all the talks. Bicycles were the obvious link, but it was the human travails that were caught up within those cycling tales that lingered longest. The triumphs and despair that was discussed were not just sporting ones but also victories of morals, principles, and self-determinism. Sport is so often used as a metaphor for aspects of civilisation that occasionally the people within it are lost to the sweeping arc of the analogy. It was great to see and hear the people at the heart of the stories again and to see that cycling writing is remembering how to champion the good guys again..

The London Sports Writing Festival is jointly hosted by David Luxton Associates and the MCC

One thought on “The Write Stuff – The London Sports Writing Festival

  1. Pingback: The Race Against The Stasi – Herbie Sykes – Book Review | the jersey pocket

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