Book review: The Sweat of Gods

Sweat of Gods

This blog covers topics in cycling that go beyond race results, I often try to look at the business behind the sport. An inspiration for this was the book by Benjo Maso “Zweet der Goden”, originally in Dutch and since translated by Michiel Horn for Mousehold Press and better known as “The Sweat of Gods”.

Cycling is full of myth and exaggeration, perhaps more than other sports. Tales from past races have become legend and Maso, a Dutch sociologist, explores the history of cycling to unpick myths, exposing the commercial pressures behind the sport. The basic premise is that business has driven the sport. Whether it is manufacturers trying to sell bicycles or newspapers selling copy, commercial conspiracy turned races from mere competitive rides into gladiatorial conquests of dramatic proportions.You have to agree with Maso. He starts by pointing out that a plaque in Paris to commemorate the first bicycle race is wrong. It does not mark the first race but instead celebrates an early race won by a famous rider, the first example of cycling celebrating celebrity ahead of fact. And so it goes on, with all sorts of tales ignoring the truth. Take one: when Jacques Anquetil lies on his deathbed he tells one time rival Raymond “eternal second” Poulidor “you will be second again (to die)“. Yet Maso says Poulidor never met Anquetil. Or see how Charles Pélissier was not as good a rider as his brothers but he shot to fame thanks to his looks and personality which allowed the media to vaunt his abilities.

Maso does the same with race organisers and the media. If journalism is a quest for the truth, Maso exposes sports journalism as the opposite, especially in days past. Before TV it was left to radio commentators and journalists to piece together a story on the day. Unable to cover the breakaway and the bunch at the same time, most observers simply didn’t know what happened during a race. This allowed great creative licence, race reports could almost be written by Jules Verne or Homer. A mountain pass is hard enough but bears and vultures were added for good measure. Rain showers became diluvian downpours. And since riders could not be seen or interviewed on TV they could acquire additional characteristics and mystery.

And it goes on and on. Every page seems to contain an anecdote and an explanation. This is “mythbusters” for cycling history. One criticism of the book is that the information is so dense, you cannot read it on a long flight or train journey. Rather you should find it easier to read in stages, to pick up and put down. You can also return to it because the density of information means you cannot remember everything. Maso romps through history denouncing a lot of the legends but there is little in the way of supporting notes and pointers to confirm the source of his information.

Maso concludes that tradition is vital for pro cycling yet this tradition is constantly reviewed. I agree, for example “legendary” roads like the Arenberg Forest in Paris-Roubaix were only used for the first time in the 1960s, indeed Paris-Roubaix only went to town with the cobbles in the modern cycling era. If it proceeds in chronological order, this book isn’t a full history of cycling but dips in and out with arguments to support Maso’s hypothesis that cycling creates myth and legend.

If it sounds cynical, it need not be. Because to debunk old myths only makes today’s cycling stronger, there are good old days and good new ones too. And there is only so much light that can be shone on the past, little will change the status of Eddy Merckx and Fausto Coppi. This is a good book but not always a page turner, rather it attempts to turn much of the sport upside down.

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