Whenever I read The Cycling Anthology (Peloton Publishing RRP £8.99) I often find myself conjuring an unusual vision. At the back of my mind – in between images of high alpine passes or desperate bunch sprints – appears a vision of an impossibly overcrowded spare room somewhere near Watford.. It’s rather reminiscent of the famous last few frames of the first Indiana Jones film or the final revealing scene from Citizen Kane where Rosebud is tantalisingly glimpsed amongst the mountains of artefacts that the millionaire newspaperman and politician had amassed over a highly eventful lifetime. Albeit on a slightly smaller scale, and with towering piles of books instead of the “Loot of The World” (as Charlie Kane’s hoard is memorably described) this is how I like to imagine Peloton Publishing.
The truth is, expectedly, more prosaic than the legend – not that that would have bothered Kane too much; he would have printed the myth anyway – and it’s many years since Lionel Birnie’s spare room also functioned as the warehouse and dispatch centre for the publishing company he owns. Housing the growing print run of the Anthology – now in its sixth edition – outgrew his Hertfordshire home almost immediately and Lionel and his co-editor Ellis Bacon now have off-site storage.
I should admit at this point that I have a soft spot for the Anthology. Like many others I enjoy the excellent writing to be found within its usefully pocket-sized pages. Equally I love the sense of adventure that the constantly shifting pace and tone of the chapters (and the Simon Scarsbrook artwork) engenders: when you pick up an Anthology you are starting off on a journey where you know neither the destination nor the route. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for this post, I hugely admire the communal ethos that underpins the whole enterprise. Each writer – whether a feted doyenne of the pressroom or a previously unpublished newbie – gets an equal share of the profits. It’s a lovely idea and, it seems, a successful one. So how did it all get started and how does the process work? I spoke to Lionel to get the lowdown on the Anthology.
It seems that we have football to thank for Cycling’s most enigmatic offering. Birnie recalls the transition from pitch to peloton: “I had written and published a few football books about Watford, the team I support, and at the start of 2012 I knew I wanted to produce another book about the club but I wasn’t sure I wanted to write it all myself, partly because I was working with Sean Kelly on his autobiography at the time. I wanted to start a series that would involve some other people so I came up with the idea of a collection of essays written by journalists, well-known supporters of the club and former players. Once that was up and running, I thought, ‘Hang on, this idea could work for cycling.”
So where did Lionel’s co-editor (and contributor of some of the more esoteric offerings in the various volumes) Ellis Bacon come into the picture? Surprisingly, Lionel had not worked with him much prior to embarking on the first edition of the Anthology. “I actually can’t remember where I first met Ellis. It must have been out on the road somewhere while covering a race. At the time he was working for Procycling and I wrote for Cycle Sport. It wasn’t until Ellis moved to Cycle Sport that we had any real contact and even then we didn’t really work together. I think the first meaningful conversation we had was at a Christmas do in 2011. But I think we quickly realised that we’d basically had the same sort of introduction to cycling as youngsters and we found that we enjoyed the same things about the sport – Channel 4’s Tour coverage; the same interest in obscure races from the 1980s and 1990s; quirky jersey design. Ask Ellis what sunglasses a rider was wearing in the 1987 Tour and he’ll probably know.
During his early conversations with fellow journalists about the idea, Lionel learnt that Ellis was thinking about something along similar lines, although he was looking at doing it online. Lionel called him up and pitched the idea of a print edition. The pair have co-edited every edition since.
I have met both Lionel and Ellis on various occasions but never at the same time so I was really intrigued to learn about how they work together. I had also heard that Ellis had recently moved to Australia, which seemed to put whatever previous arrangement they had into potential jeopardy. “When Ellis lived in the UK, we’d meet up every now and again, usually over lunch, and spend a couple of hours talking about nonsense before getting round to the Anthology. Now he’s in Australia we talk on Skype.
“We never work together, I’d say we dovetail. We share out the jobs pretty evenly. Generally, Ellis gives everything a first read when it comes in and I then typeset the chapters on the page. In the past, the books were stored in my spare room but we’ve got a proper storage unit now. But I still post out any individual orders and arrange for copies to get to retailers and all that.” I’d heard the story of the books being stored in the spare room when I first started reading the Anthology and was slightly saddened to learn that Birnie and Bacon hadn’t returned to this practice after taking back publishing duties from Yellow Jersey Press, with whom they had collaborated for Volumes Four and Five.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves by taking about printing, promoting and posting. I wanted to find out more about the writing and editing process that must be so key to the Anthology’s success. Many of the contributor’s are Anthology regulars on whom you can depend to pop up in almost every edition and Volume 6 has excellent pieces from stalwarts such as Sam Abt, Ned Boulting, William Fotheringham and Brendan Gallagher. But the writing pool has perceptibly widened in the last three books and I was intrigued about how a couple of the first-timers had got on here. Felix Lowe writes columns for Eurosport and Cyclist magazine and has written a book on cycling previously but Kathy Lemond – wife of 3-time Tour de France and double World Champion Greg Lemond had no writing experience before getting involved with the Anthology. How did they both approach the task and what additional challenges does working with such a wide range of authors demand of the editors?
Felix’s chapter in Volume 6 is placed about three-quarters of the way through the volume and, along with Gallagher’s wonderful chapter on Hemingway’s relationship with cycling, is perhaps the most memorable of the selection, hanging as it does on the thoroughly captivating character of Alexandre Virot; a buccaneering French radio journalist who met a tragic end whilst covering the 1957 Tour. Three barely legible signatures found upon a piece of memorabilia from the race sets Lowe off on a voyage of discovery and we get to go along for the ride. Lionel admits that, at first, he wasn’t entirely sure about the pitch, “I hope Felix won’t mind that my brow furrowed a bit when he initially sent his idea over. He was effectively saying: “ I’ve come across this piece of 1950s Tour memorabilia and it’s got some signatures on it and I wanted to find out who those signatures belonged to. I found out it was a radio commentator called Alex Virot.” It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what the story would be and it would have been easy to say: “I’m not sure that’s for us, can you think of something a bit more populist?” I am glad we didn’t, because the end result is terrific. [ ] It’s a case of trusting people to come up with an idea and see it through without us dictating at every turn. If you were to ask me what makes a great Anthology piece I am not sure I could tell you. There’s not a checklist of ingredients, or a set formula. Often we don’t know what we’re looking for until it lands in our inbox.”
Felix agrees,“I was free to tackle the project as I saw fit. They didn’t ask me to change anything stylistically nor did they give me a brief to start with. Just a loose word count to work with and I was left to my own devices. I guess in this respect they are looking for writers to pitch their ideas as opposed to commissioning writers to write about things they (Lionel & Ellis) want in the anthology. Almost a reverse of the usual publishing piste, where editors and publishers have a lot of say and often dictate terms to authors. It was a challenge to keep things succinct and not get carried away. My first draft was well over 10,000 words and so I had to cut it down a lot to keep within the guidelines. It was a fulfilling process, though – and a good lesson at how to be more economical with words. For me the whole process was a joy.”
And from the editing side? Lionel: “We really don’t have to do anything major to the structure or tone of the pieces. We try to edit with the lightest of touches and make sure anything we do improves the chapter. We don’t want to leave our grubby fingerprints on everything and end up with a book that sounds like it’s been written in one voice. One of the things I like most is that each piece is written by a different person and each person has their own voice. The more we work on something the more it becomes a sort of homogenous mush, all sounding the same so we try to avoid that. I’ve always liked being edited by people who care about the finished product and who can improve what I’ve done without making it unrecognisable to me. Ellis has a real eye for detail and can improve something with the tiniest cut or rewrite. I tend to look more at the big picture; does the story fit the Anthology, does it make sense, is it enjoyable and informative to read?”
Even with a non-writer like Kathy LeMond? Lionel again; “You say Kathy is a ‘non-writer’ and I suppose she is but she’s a natural story-teller. She’s interested in other people and interesting. And so when she said she wanted to tell the story of the build-up to the 1989 Tour, and explain what was going on with them as a family, I was immediately interested. People will have to read the story but it relates to Greg’s struggle to get back to the top of the sport after his near-fatal shooting in 1987. We met up at the Classics and I said I’d help Kathy write it. We sent it back and forth by email a few times and we got a draft of it that I was pretty happy with. She went quiet for a bit and then emailed to say she wanted to have a go at writing it all herself. The finished result of that is what you see in the book. The reason it was such a pleasing process was because she wrote it herself. I suspect if I had asked her at the beginning to write 5,000 words she would have found that a pretty daunting thing but because of the work we did, she was able to tell her story in her own words and it’s all the better for that.”
So which is harder – writing your own chapter or nagging the contributor’s about their deadlines? “I find writing my piece is easily the most stressful part of the process and it often happens near the end when everything else is done. [You always have to badger people about deadlines.] Always. But that’s the way it is. Anyone who writes for a living is always pushing deadlines to the limit. What’s that line by Douglas Adams? The best thing about deadlines is the whooshing noise they make as they rush by. Something like that. I know I often need a nag to get me to deliver on time. But we factor that in to the process. The deadlines the writers have give us enough slack for the production block – but don’t tell them that!”
The production time for an Anthology seems to be about 10 months. Even in the focussed environment of a two-man publishing house, things move slowly in the world of print. Felix submitted his pitch in late January and and got a go ahead a couple of weeks later. Lionel and Ellis set a deadline of early May for the piece and the editing process happened between the Giro and the Tour. Presses rolled in late August and the books arrived back at Peloton’s warehouse in October.
It was only after my first conversations about the editing of Volume 6 that I actually noticed that Birnie and Bacon had taken the publishing back in-house. There had been a noticeable shift in the cover artwork (and thickness of each volume) when Yellow Jersey got involved for Volumes 4 and 5 and, once you clock that it’s back with Peloton, it’s clear to see that the look of Volume 6 is a composite of the two styles that have gone before. I went back to Lionel to ask about why the change of heart? He was as candid as ever, “I think, having established the series in the first couple of years, it felt like the logical step to see whether a major publisher could add to the strength of the series. There was interest from a couple of other companies but Yellow Jersey Press seemed like the perfect home for the Anthology because it has such a strong stable of cycling books. At the time we agreed to work with them, it felt like the Anthology had grown so quickly and we were struggling to cope with it.
The first couple of editions we printed what we thought would be the right amount (although we really were taking a guess at it). The problems we faced were boring, practical ones such as storage. At the start it felt wrong to be paying hundreds of pounds on warehousing before our writers saw a penny for their work, so we were sort of limited to a print run that would fit in my spare room and office! That turned out to be insufficient and so we did a second run of each book, which is the least efficient way of producing something.
So, when we had this interest from some major publishers, it came at exactly the right time because we knew the really hard work – the printing, the storage, the distribution – would be taken off our hands. After two books, the contract with YJP expired and we all agreed not to renew it. It was all very amicable.
I think we found it hard to let go of this thing we’d created from scratch. I must stress, they were great to work with. They didn’t interfere or dictate to us at all. We still edited in exactly the same way. It’s just we lost control of the ownership of the thing. In the year or so that we didn’t have to worry about storage, distribution and all those other practicalities, we’ve solved a few of those problems because of the way the football titles I’m involved in have grown. We now have warehousing that doesn’t break the bank and a better way into the supply chain.
I suppose I realised that I missed being involved in every stage of the process and that the things I grumbled about were actually the things that got me out of bed in the morning!”
And what of the future? Has Ellis’ relocation to Australia cast a proverbial pump into the spokes of our favourite cycling compendium? Thankfully not. On the contrary, Lionel sees it as something of a boon to potential productivity, whilst continuing to champion those he has always held in highest esteem,“It’s certainly not the end of the road. Having Ellis in Australia actually doubles our effectiveness because we can work round the clock in two different time zones. With Skype and email, we can keep in touch. We hope the Anthology lives on for many volumes to come but that’s not entirely down to us. It’s down to the writers..”
Some of the older Volumes of the Cycling Anthology can still be bought from a wide variety of booksellers. For Volume Six Lionel favours Prendas, who offer free UK postage.