Sunday, January 11, 2015

Tomorrow, We Ride . . .

I love the photo on the cover of this book: two men—the Bobet brothers, Louison and Jean, riding side by side, so close together that they’re touching, in that way that only veterans of the peleton can do, despite having the whole road to themselves. The image captures the bond between these very different brothers. In some ways, they lived in different realms—Louison was the acknowledged champion, Jean the bespectacled intellectual—but throughout their eventually divergent lives, they shared a passion for riding bicycles together, one that lasted far beyond their professional cycling careers.

The book is not a biography of the more famous Bobet, Louison, who won three consecutive Tours de France (1953-55) and was the first great post-war French cyclist—though it does include many intimate details of Louison’s career (including a gruesome account of Louison’s legendary saddle sores during the 1955 Tour so horrific that I couldn’t sit down for days after reading it).

Rather it is a memoir of the lesser known Jean Bobet, who fashioned a middling pro cycling career of his own, mostly supporting his brother but winning Paris-Nice in 1955 as well as a handful of other notable races. What makes Jean’s story unusual as a cycling memoir is the unfolding of his parallel life as an intellectual, something novel in an age when pro cycling was dominated by a working-class, anti-intellectual ethos.

Tomorrow, We Ride offers the expected glimpses into the gritty world of 1950s bike racing, with its culture of soigneurs, mysterious flasked liquids, casual race fixing, and general exploitation. I loved, for instance, the story of the brothers’ father leaving a race in disgust after his sons abandoned before the mid-point. Louison and Jean had to ride their bikes another 100 km just to get home. Now that’s old school parenting.

Such stories are commonplace in the biographies of ‘50s heroes like Fausto Coppi and Hugo Koblet, but Bobet’s book also features another: accounts of brushes with literary lumens of the day, such as the critic Roland Barthes (who infamously described Jean as his brother’s “negative image” and the “Tour’s greatest victim”), avant-garde poet Georges Perec, and novelist Ernest Hemingway. (Bobet was an Anglophile and studied English literature at Aberdeen, Scotland, between bike-racing stints and, at one point, wanted to write a dissertation on Hemingway’s fiction.) Jean explains that while he loved cycling, “first, I was a student.” Many of the best parts of the book explore Jean’s attempts to balance and honor these twin passions.

In a sense, Tomorrow We Ride is the story of Jean’s gradual transformation from the cycling world to the literary one.  His literary leanings emerge in chapter epigraphs and bursts of poetic prose: lyrical renderings of the vocabulary of the peleton, evocative descriptions of what he calls the volupté (the pleasing sensations, both physical and metaphysical) of the cycling experience.

But the most memorable parts of the book are about the complicated relationship of the two brothers. Louison was five years older and not much of a talker (not much for words, period), but bike riding provided a way to bridge the gaps of both age and communication.  After both were long retired from racing they continued regular weekend rides together. As Jean explains, “Monday to Saturday meant work; Sunday was for cycling.”

When in their early 50s, they even started riding cols again together, re-visiting the sites of their former glories, the Izoard and the Galibier, as if some remnants of lost youth might be found on old hunting grounds, the steep switchbacks of the Alps. And indeed, Jean explains, they did find flashes of the old “volupté of yesteryear,” moments when “we almost took ourselves for the Bobet brothers.” Of course, they quarreled, terribly at times, as brothers will, even stopped speaking to each other in the worst spats, but eventually, after a few weeks, reason for the stand off would be forgotten and one of them would telephone the other and announce, “Okay, that’ll do. Tomorrow, we ride.”

Jean’s account of Louison’s rapid physical decline after his 1955 Tour, and of the sickness that eventually did him in, is powerfully, affectingly told. The ill Louison found cycling increasingly difficult but he stubbornly stuck with it long after he should have quit. He must have been remembering how, as Jean says, “in cycling, you sometimes come back from this far off.” But they both knew that most times you don’t. Still, both men sought some kind of normalcy in their rides. As Jean says, “I was just as sure that I would be able to keep him going straight if we pedaled shoulder to shoulder.” Alas, sickness eventually forced Louison off the bike and out of this world.

Jean invokes an old cycling metaphor to describe his brother’s death: “he escaped,” Jean tells us—invoking the classic image of the ultimate solo breakaway victory. It’s corny, sure, but powerful nonetheless. In his mourning, Jean was left to ride solo himself. “For a long time afterward,” Jean explains, “I went riding with his shadow.”

Maybe Barthes was half right; Jean and Louison were “negative images,” each the shadow of the other, just as they appear in that cover image, two near-symmetrical halves of a single Bobet.  

Book published in French, 2004, translated to English, 2008.

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