Anyone watching the final stage of Franceâ€™s CritĂ©rium du DauphinĂ© last weekend could understand why the raw mix of courage, daring, visible exhaustion and, ultimately, crushing disappointment make professional cycling so compelling. All were on display during the course of one afternoon as Tasmanian rider Ritchie Porte, who started the day more than a minute clear of the field, struggled up the Plateau de Solaison, shorn of any help from his exhausted team-mates, in scorching temperatures.
Slowly, but surely, Porte caught the assumed race winner, Chris Froome, only to find that Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang had already launched an attack seven kilometres from the line. It proved decisive â€“ as did the Daneâ€™s 10 second winning bonus. Despite Porteâ€™s lonely heroics, Fuglsang won the CritĂ©rium by ten seconds.
Though unsuccessful, Porteâ€™s courage and determination offered viewers an example of cyclingâ€™s wide emotional range, an area that has provided rich pickings for Frank Strack in The Hardmen. Here, we encounter dozens of Porte-like characters, from the legendary Eddie Merckx and Sean Yates, to Stephen Roche and Bernard Hinault. Yet courage is not an exclusively male preserve and leading female riders, including Nicole Cooke and Annie Londonderry, feature prominently.
Strack knows his cycling history inside out and in a series of comparatively short anecdotes (there are almost forty of them) designed to highlight just how tough some of the high-profile riders and domestiques are, or were, he successfully conveys the sportâ€™s almost masochistic appeal.
â€śSuffering on a bike liberates us from our daily lives,â€ť says the bookâ€™s cover, quoting the disgraced Lance Armstrong: â€śpain is temporary, quitting lasts forever.â€ť. Proof, it says, â€śthat even assholes can be insightful.â€ť Quite.
In different circumstances the authorâ€™s laddish writing style may grate, but he manages to involve the amateur by selecting specific incidents from, say, a Grand Tour, and comparing them to the hurt felt by the club rider tackling a steep by-pass in a raging side-wind on a Sunday morning.
Itâ€™s certainly a book for cycling aficionados, although anyone wanting to know what all the fuss is about as preparations for the Tour de France begin, could devour these bite-sized tales and understand why the sportâ€™s appeal remains sky-high.