What's Cool In Road Cycling

Pez Reads: Le Mйtier by Michael Barry

“Le Mйtier” translates from the French into several possible English expressions (job, occupation, commercial trade, studied profession; practical experience) which suggests that there is no one expression in our language which captures the idea with sufficient precision…

Michael Barry makes like Vivaldi, with photos from Camille McMillan

Since arriving in Dьsseldorf, I have dealt often with people described as Handwerker, translated in as many imprecise ways as well: mechanic, craftsman, artisan. The words do not capture the respect given in Europe to those who have been apprentices, moved on to becoming journeymen and then reached the pinnacle, the master. Certification as a master, no easy accomplishment, allows one to have one’s own business in the chosen field, and to train those entering it. There are a surprising number of professions covered (the old guild professions, such as carpenter and baker, but also web designers and bankers) but in this fine and thoughtful book on the nature of racing, Canadian cyclist Michael Barry, currently riding for Team Sky, describes his life as a professional in this sense of one who has paid dues and learned much.

The book opens with a description of what it is like to stay awake the night before the World Championships. Unable to sleep, he thinks of his preparation for the event and is confident that his training has been “pointed, perfect and professional.” He recalls the words his first directeur sportif, would have said: “Il a du mйtier.” He has been devoted and everything under his control–the hours, the kilometers, the diet, the rest–converge. And as the World’s are near the close of the racing cyclist’s season, he has reached a pinnacle of mental and physical fitness. And so the book opens with this highlight but moves not into an account of the race but into the off-season. It is winter in the pro cyclist’s calendar.

This first chapter in the book is a gentle one, reminiscences about growing up in Toronto, and riding the deserted roads of Catalonia with David Millar. Ah, David Millar, he of the “sacrй coup de pйdale,” the perfect, supple rotation of the pedals that brings effortless speed. And with David Millar our ride through the damp, quiet roads becomes a rumination on doping. Although he is not uncritical of drug use, Michael Barry describes a world where the pressure to perform is so high that riders, often immature, succumb, particularly as they saw other riders, less-talented and hard-working, succeed. He expresses his disillusionment when, in the 1990s, racing as an amateur, he learned that doping had turned cycling from sport into a black science. Nonetheless, a reevalution of his profession at 20 made him realize how beautiful the sport truly was and he much he wanted to remain in it.

Two months of riding in November and December builds fitness but the next transition is adaption to the team environment, so training camps are formed in late December or early January. The intent is to turn fit individuals into teammates who can race and compete together. And it is off to the prep races for the Spring Classics.

The centrepiece of the second chapter, Spring, is Michael Barry’s crash in the Tour of Flanders. He writes of waking up in a hospital bed and thinking he will not want to race anymore but he writes of the cobbles and the weather and the brutal courses and the teamwork with pride and fascination and fear. It is a sport that is that its practitioners hate at times:

Most cyclists complain incessantly about the difficulties. The sport kills the athlete’s morale repeatedly as we suffer day after day. But this pain also leads to the incredible joy and sense of accomplishment when he crosses the finish line, triumphs in victory, or simply reaches the doorstep after a long day of training. In no other sport does an athlete feel defeat as often….There is joy in the struggle and that struggle becomes an addiction rooted in the elation.

Summer is, of course, the time of the race of races and this chapter is an insider’s look at the Tour de France. At the time, Michael Barry was riding as a domestique for HTC-Columbia and its relentless sprinter Mark Cavendish, a central presence in this element of the book. There are some lovely paragraphs about the team and how it works, or doesn’t. Insights include the idea that in bike racing, unlike other team sports, failure is not shared but is individual. And failure is not without its beauty too in this strange world of endless suffering:

This is the emptiest moment in a cyclist’s life: no longer able to hold onto the last wheel in the bunch, the gap grows, the team cars speed past, and there is suddenly an abandoned sense of silence. He now hears only his chain meshing with the sprockets, his breath, and the surrounding environment. He is no longer playing in the show.

The final chapter, Autumn, takes us into that time when half the riders are tired from the long season while others, have raced minimally during the summer, race in earnest for targets like the World Championships or the Tour of Lombardy. In this chapter, Michael Barry takes us into a short stage race and the tone of the book, thoughtful and poetic, jumps up a notch as suddenly, for the first time, he is in contention for a win. It is such a surprising development because winning is not a big theme of this self-effacing book. It is about putting in the miles, supporting teammates, getting the water bottles, cleaning the bike, packing the suitcase over and over. But here is now the bright hot flame of competition burning and you can understand why Michael Barry could not leave cycling when he was twenty.

This is a beautifully-written reflection on pro cycling but the four chapters amount to barely 60 pages. The bulk of the book is actually comprised of superb photographs by Camille McMillan, whose work I have lauded here before. Often not pretty in a conventional way, the photos intrigue and give an underpinning to Michael Barry’s text: the bike, peeping out of the arched doorway, ready for the training ride; the miserable view across the parking lot of the cheap hotel in France; stolen moments with the family; Mark Cavendish, looking dead tired, eating a popsicle and signing an autograph; the fans; the massages in the anonymous rooms. One is so taken up with enjoying the revelations of these photos that Mr. McMillan in fairness should be regarded as co-author.

This is a book to savour and I found myself rereading favourite sections, such as the one on timetrialling in Summer: “The effort has pushed the world out of focus and has consumed me. Slowly, I re-enter.” It is not a book that would necessarily make you want to become a pro racer, but it makes you understand why someone might want to do it. Michael Barry’s list of stage wins may not be a long one but in this account he is revealed as a consummate professional as a cyclist, certainly someone of whom it could be said “Il a du mйtier.” However, he shows that he has long passed the stage of apprentice in his writing as well .

Le Mйtier: The Seasons of a Professional Cyclist
by Michael Barry, with photos by Camille J. McMillan
199 pp., Rouleur Limited, 2010
ISBN 978-0-9564233-1-3

The second edition of the book will be available at Rouleur in November 2010.

When not baking delicious biscotti from a Michael Barry recipe (seriously), Leslie Reissner may be found gaining weight at www.tindonkey.com.

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