Ad Nauseam

No, not blogging – something else.

The genre of autobiography is considered by many literary critics to rank among fiction, and I agree. What better examples to prove this than the many cycle racers (auto)biographies.

Here is a choice, quite eclectic and unsystematic, showing which tomes I was able to score over time. Most came from fleamarkets and, on two occasions, from the aftermaths of tidying up actions in cycling clubs´archives.

I can remember well reading the first autobiography many years ago, it was Rudi Valenta´s Kampf um den Goldpokal, Wien 1956. I was impressed by the detailed description of many races and the wonderful photographs. Also I thought it was a great idea to have a framework story to start the book off.

Lateron I found that of all the (auto)biographes I have read so far, five (Valenta, Simpson, Altig, Buysse and Kübler) work this way: The book starts with the description of a race which takes place when the rider is already famous, only for chapter two to depict this rider´s youth and first steps in cycleracing. There seems to be some formal leitmotiv here. Buysse (Gouden Lucien Buysse, Gent 1976) takes it as far as it gets: His biography starts when he is an old man and then jumps to a time before he can even ride a decent bike.

BTW, Buysse´s book is my all time favourite because of all the wonderful pictures. There´s literally dozens of them, and all in very nice b/w quality. It´s a shame I can´t scan any, but doing that would destroy the soft cover binding.

Speaking of topoi, or leitmotives, one soon realizes that there is a number more. One is: No drugs, no dope. There always is the single black sheep rider who does take doping substances, but he is punished right away, not by the authorities, but by life itself. Cycleracing is depicted as clean fun, a tough man´s sport, a fight to the end, but with equal chances. This of course borders on the ridiculous; drugs and doping have been part and parcel of pro cycling since times immemorial and will probably never be stamped out. Autobiography is fiction, just like I said.

Next in line, all the riders have had a hard start in life, excepting Täve Schur (Unser Weltmeister, Berlin 1959) who became Eastern Germany´s cycling star, so him having been a working man´s son would have been de rigeur, but strangely there is hardly any mention of his background. Ferdi Kübler (Training-Kämpfe-große Siege, München 1961) relates that his very strict father saved every penny to open his own shop, so Ferdi and his siblings had to do without shoes (p.98). It is Swiss Hans Knecht (Strasse ohne Ende, Zürich, no year given) who really hails from a background that would have done honour to Täve Schur: Knecht´s father is a violent man, and Hans has to save money for a long time to be able to afford his first bike (pp. 48ff). He feels depressed because he thinks that his lowly background hampers him. Kurt Stöpel has to get up each morning at three to be able to fit training in his busy work schedule (p.3). Buysse´s parents run a small farm and can´t really let him go off cycleracing because they need his help. Janssen´s father is self employed and while not wealthy can get by.

Nearly all future cycling pros had jobs early on in their lives which made them cycle a lot. One rode a baker´s bike, Täve Schur cycled to school (p.15), Ferdi Kübler covered 84km each day commuting. Contrary to the doping and other items this sounds plausible. Freddy Maertens (Niet van horen zeggen, Antwerpen 1988) does a paper round before school (p. 17); Jan Janssen (Ik verkoos de wielersport, Rosendaal, no year given, ca. 1968) has to cycle 30 km each day to college (p. 12).

Something else which I have always found very positive and which to my mind is one of the few saving graces of such books is the internationalism which comes to come naturally with cycling. People like Trott (Ich fuhr die Tour de France, Wuppertal 1959), who rode the Tour at a time when German Fascist atrocities were all too well remembered in many European countries, keep mentioning the atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie among cyclists of many nations. Also Kurt Stöpel (Tour de France, Berlin 1952), who came second in the 1932 Tour, are full of praise of cycling as the sport which manages to lessen the pain of the Great War which had ended only 14 years before his ride through France. “Ich erhebe mein Glas und rufe: `Auf die deutsch-französische Freundschaft!´`Bravo, Stöpel´, schallt es vieltausendstimmig zu mir empor” (p. 240). [I lift my glass and exclaim, `To German-French friendship´, A `Bravo, Stöpel´resounds from many thousands of voices.]

Shall I carry on with the role of women in these books? I don´t think I could keep a straight face doing so. Women´s lib was a long way off, it seems. Most racers´ wives stayed at home with the kids while their husbands zoomed all over the world pursuing their manly trade. Style, BTW, often reflects this overly bourgeois way of life.

It seems sometimes it takes about as much stamina to read those books than to ride the races described therein.

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4 Comments

  1. MTMcM
    Posted November 29, 2012 at 5:58 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hi this is really great, do you happen to know how tall Jan Janssen is please? tx

    • Posted December 1, 2012 at 7:59 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi tx,
      glad you like the post.

      Sorry, I don´t know off hand how tall he is, but I can try to find out. His frames certainly aren´t the smallest size.

  2. Posted May 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Hans Knecht’s Book was published 1949. It must be somewhere in the library with his dedication. 1967 I bought with financial help from parents and Godfather a road bicycle (not a runner) from his bike shop in Zurich and did Zurich – Hamburg in 4 days, on still bad side roads from the war (Autobahn forbidden)! Everybody admired the light construction (16 kg) at that time, as bikes in Germany were mostly heavy army models, some Raleigh from England. It was the big time of Ferdi Kübler and Hugo Koblet!!!

    • Posted May 9, 2013 at 8:00 am | Permalink | Reply

      Thank you for your comment.
      Are you speaking about 1967 or perhaps 1957? That would make much more sense.

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