The first WorldTour race of 2023, the Tour Down Under, has returned after a two year absence and started the year successfully, and smaller races in Spain are just getting underway, but for some these are just appetizers before the main events take place. We know that the pro season is underway in earnest when the Classics riders start Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 25 and the stage racers show up for Paris-Nice a week later. Professional bike racing in all its glory and faults!
In all its glory and faults? What are they? Once upon a time would-be enthusiasts living outside of Europe, Cycling’s Promised Land, did not have access to live coverage of races on television or much in the way of print media, let alone local races with recognizable stars or memorable heritage. Knowledge of the intricacies of the sport was gleaned over years but we would have saved a lot of time and effort if only we could have had a copy of “The Complete Fan’s Guide to Pro Cycling,” the most recent publication from the Global Cycling Network (GCN). Road racing is the focus, although of course other forms of pro cycling exist in mountain bike and the track, for example.
Leafing through this book one is struck by just how complicated pro bike racing really is. For those who are just coming into the world of cycling fandom (welcome, tifosi!) it offers a logical and entertaining summary, while Old Hands can even learn a thing or two. Author Peter Cossins, several of whose books we have reviewed here in the past, certainly knows the subject comprehensively but the book also offers up personal points of view by current professionals. Beautifully designed and lavishly-illustrated, with tidbits interspersed throughout (Stat Attack! And Legends of the Sport, plus Jargon Busters), the book covers all the bases.
The author notes that “there are two fundamental truths about bike racing: firstly, as a sport it’s simple, yet complicated. The first rider across the line wins, but there are significant variables that can always impact the result—the type of race, the terrain, the weather conditions—as well as one other elementary feature: that winner depends on the altruism of their teammates, who each play their own role in that victory, offering shelter from the wind, bringing food and water, enacting strategies, while at the same time thwarting the tactical schemes of rival riders and teams. Secondly, freed from the confines of stadiums and arenas, it’s spectacular.”
In order to provide a better understanding of bike racing, “one of the most dramatic and exciting sports, capable of attracting as many as 2 million fans to the roadside on its biggest days,” author Cossins covers, in eight chapters, everything from the origins and development of the sport to the peculiar structure of the racing season (what other professional sport has its biggest event in the middle of the season?), and the races themselves, be they Grand Tours, Monuments or Classics. Focus narrows down to the teams and riders, how teams are managed financially and of course the equipment used and the march of technology. Next up is a review of strategy and tactics and the book concludes with some of the secrets of the peloton, some of which would be incomprehensible to outsiders. Remember, this is a sport where it was once thought that taking showers was a bad idea because your legs would fill up with water!
Not only has technology changed in road cycling but the growth of alternatives to what might be considered classic road racing. The book covers the distaff side as there has been a burst of recognition for women’s cycling, but we also see an increase in the popularity of cyclocross and the new discipline of gravel racing, also given space in “The Complete Fan’s Guide.”
Each chapter is clearly set up, with the core being the author’s general comments being emphasized through sidebar information. For example, the chapter “Teams & Riders” sets out the structure of pro racing, with a little chart alongside, before going into a discussion of rider types, with a sidebar explanation of “grimpeur,” that takes you into stories about domestiques, road captains, lead-out riders, sprinters, time triallists, climbers, stage race leaders and Classics specialists. Along the way, a bit of history of sports legends Gino Bartali and Mario Cippolini, comments about reading the race from current pro Michael Gogl and a summary of Mathieu van der Poel’s incredible win at the 2019 Amstel Gold race—all in 8 pages of text!–which is then followed by a nice section of interviews with seven current pros, big names all, about their specific disciplines. At 240 pages, this book is a masterpiece of editing.
Obviously, if the prospective purchaser of this book is someone who wants to learn the basics of how pro racing works, they will have a great source of information, a one-volume education. However, “The Complete Fan’s Guide to Pro Cycling” also should find a place in the library of even Who Know It All, the dedicated fans looking for some entertainment and lots of fun facts, easily found in this excellent primer, so the title could have two meanings—that is is a complete guide but also suitable for the Complete Fan as well!
“The Complete Fan’s Guide to Pro Cycling” by Peter Cossins
240 pp., illustrated in colour, softbound
Global Cycling Network (GCN) division of Play Sports Network, London, UK, 2022
- Available through GCN at: shop.globalcyclingnetwork.com