on 27 August 2013
I first encountered mention of The Rules in one of Robert Millar's occasional articles for a leading cycling website. Considering anything that is acknowledged by a man who can combine the iconic Peugeot jersey with a perm and still come out with his cool intact as being worthy of investigation, I duly purchased the book. I understand there is an associated website for "devotees", but I keep my comments firmly addressed to the printed literature.
So which worthy individual can undertake the laborious task of creating order and clarity in the codified world of road cycling? Why, surely some esteemed correspondent from Het Nieuwsblad, La Gazzetta dello Sport or L'Equipe? Perhaps some grizzly old DS, harking back to the seventies with a couple of Grand Tour winners under his wing? Maybe some leather-skinned super-domestique with more Pro seasons digested than plates of pasta al bianco?
No, in fact a regular guy called Frank, of no exact road racing heritage, hailing from the good old U S of A and professing - like all alienated Americans - a strong link to the "old continent". Frank is aided by a couple of mates from other traditional cycling countries, like Australia. Apologies in advance then if you were expecting words of wisdom from cycling's equivalent of the Landed Aristocracy; what you've got is the Nouveau Riche. The only real difference between Frank's cumulative knowledge and anyone else who has been riding bikes for upwards of three decades is that Frank simply spent 20 or so hours scribbling down these things while everyone else was out doing through-and-off. Frank think: 20hrs x 30kph is a lot of kms missed.
Before considering the actual content, it's worth mentioning the quality/errors within the printed material: black and white photo quality is consistently vague and poor throughout; the bold text that appears to be appropriate to rule #81 is duplicated for rule #77, where it does not appear to be so appropriate; there is an error in the text for rule #16 where "over 2500km long" should obviously read, "over 250km long"; finally, and most embarrassingly, giving the existence of rule #89, on page 121 the hallowed Campagnolo is spelt with and "a" at the end, and in so being, goes some considerable way to undermining any credibility that the book may perhaps have started off with.
Sure, the author outlines his pinch of salt / tongue in cheek proviso at the start of the book, but he comes down fairly harsh and heavy as and when it suits his own personal hard-line agenda. He commences with the percept that Merckx is God, which is far from disagreeable and infinitely more palatable in real terms that the Italian version, fixated on the lesser achievements of Coppi. And indeed, his underlying rule #5 is ultimately laudable and reminds us all that, cycling ain't football (unless you're the kit designer for team Sky's single colour, single sponsor kit, in which case you clearly believe it is!)
While I'm no Armstrong fan, impartiality and common sense lead one to conclude that rule #51 is farcical. Yes, six or so years ago, there were a lot of people who never even owned a bike walking around with yellow bands on their wrists, but this attack is not on them but on Armstrong himself. Armstrong's crimes are many: socks too high, shorts too low and encouraging fly-by-night, multinational sportswear brands to stick around when the going was good and try to basketball-ize Pro cycling, but anything else he did was strictly within the remit of being a "Pro Cyclist". He didn't like the drugs, but the drugs liked him.
The contrast between the author's juvenile loathing of Armstrong in rule #51 and his idolisation of Museum in rule #90 epitomises the book's inconsistencies: because Museeuw was willing to take 500 bucks off a group of yanks for a two hour bimble over the pavé, he can do no wrong; yet Museeuw was a rider of exactly the same generation, exactly the same alpha-male characteristics and exactly the same application to his métier as Armstrong. In this irrational context, it's easy to see rule #51 not existing at all if Armstrong had also agreed to take 500 bucks off Frank and his laughing boys for a two hour reminiscent trudge up Sestriere during their annual Euro cycling vacation. Similarly, Magni is pictured on page 223 with the old rubber tube attached to the handlebars, whilst Tyler Hamilton, who endured equal torture finishing one his Tours de France isn't; one was untested by the drug protocols of his time, the other was found subsequently to be suffering from a severe case of "bad blood". It's hypocrisies like this that make the book more comical than the author must surely have intended, but Strack is not alone in this romanticising of the bygone and bludgeoning of the present: in Herbie Sykes otherwise rather good, Maglia Rosa, he also revels in the halcyon days of 300km stages on single-geared bikes over un-surfaced roads with riders heroically fuelled by strychnine and amphetamine, yet condemns the recent equivalent of 200km mountain stages runs off at close to 40kph with dodgy blood transfusions sloshing around the innards: both methodologies were equally ruinous to the rider's health and both only resulted in one winner.
Rule #89 is another example of the author's generally limited scope and experience: he cites Paul Sherwin (of all people!) as being multilingual and having a far superior European pronunciation than Bob Roll. Clearly the Velominati archives don't include the same version that I have of the '98 Giro where Sherwin repeatedly makes the proverbial dogs dinner of the pronunciation of, amongst many others, the Italian rider, Gy-you-seppy Goo-er-eeny. (That's Giuseppe Guerini, if you do happen to have a smattering of another language).
Similarly, rule #35 about helmet visors is another clanger born of insufficient cultural depth: the author clearly forgets that his all-time American idol Greg LeMond rode Paris-Roubaix in his late Z / early Gan years wearing a visored Giro helmet. (He also road Rock Shox to ramp up the roadie/MTBer image to the max, which I'm sure wouldn't go down at all well in The Rules.)
Some of the rules are inane - rule #60: if you ride right through winter, road salt will corrode a presta valve tight shut if you don't put a cap over it; some are nonsensical - rule #30: how is "gaffer taping" a pump to ones frame in any possible way aesthetically pleasing; some are missing - what about always leaving the bike in little / little e.g. 39 x 12 so to place zero stretch on the cables when not in use?
The rules that deign to inform both mere mortals and the Pros on how to attire themselves - characteristically - enter into misguided territory: again an insufficient knowledge base prevents the author from providing some truly insightful nuggets of wisdom. If the book is to enter into Pro territory, then let's have some real bona-fide nuggets of wisdom, like this one that a multi-Grand Tour winner and world champion once told me when discussing tactics for the Worlds: "Nei Mondiali, non si guarda la maglia, si guarda i pantaloncini". It's ironic that the author does not mention this "rule", (or "non rule" as the case is), as adherence to it had a significant effect upon his idol, Museeuw winning the Lugano Worlds back in the Nineties. Suffice to say that a cursory glance over Marco Pinotti's recent book, Il Mestiere del Ciclista, will provide more genuine insight into the plain and simple business of riding a bike quickly than a thousand hours of exchanging banalities with the Velominati web site.
Finally, the Lexicon: while he correctly includes, "doing a Delgado", he neglects his compatriot, Miguel. The "Indurain sandwich" occurs when two members of the same family finish first and last in the same event, as happened to Miguel and his brother, Prudencio during that "extra-terrestrial" first time trial of the 1992 Tour.
In conclusion, The Rules is vaguely amusing and largely frustrating. It may or may not provide hours of discussion in cycling cafés and club runs around the world, but ultimately it left this reader more than a little perplexed as to what it was truly trying to achieve. The experienced cyclist will take little joy in differentiating between the occasional formalisation in print of his accrued wisdom and the utter nonsense that makes up the remaining 75% of the content; the Johnny-come-lately, freshly equipped with his new $/£/ 5000 racing bicycle, will remain genuinely bemused, having absolutely no mechanism in which to differentiate between one rule that may possess some nuance of common sense and another that is absolute, unconfined bull. A case in point - rule 91: no food on rides under 4 hours. While the faux machismo of the omnipresent rule 5 is vaguely amusing, rule 91 is absolute twaddle and a sure recipe for a very, very slow latter half of the ride. But, pity poor old Johnny-come-lately who, heaven forbid, takes this inanity as absolute gospel and trundles home, a danger to himself and all other road users as he tries to propel his cycle and negotiate road hazards while his blood sugar level has been in severe deficit for the last two hours. Velominati - keepers of the cog? Keepers of the clog, more like.
"Cycling is like a church: there are many people who go, but few who understand it." It goes without saying that The Rules is very definitely the bible of the many who go.