Book Review: Ma Liberté de Rouler

Ma liberté de rouler by David Moncoutié

For a long time professional cyclists had one of two blood groups, they were either EPO+ or EPO-. David Moncoutié was one of the minority who avoided the doping culture. Yet he thrived and often beat the cheats.

There’s been plenty of publicity given to the doping and the dopers. Many ask “what about those that rode clean?” and here is the tale of one who did just that.

The book is in French and Ma Liberté de Rouler means “Freedom to Ride”. It might be unusual reviewing a foreign language book but this is an unusual voice, a rider who not only rode clean but lived clean. There’s next to nothing in the way of scandal or shocks, just a linear read through a career from early memories of the first bike through to retirement at the end of the 2012 Vuelta.

You can tell from the cover this a modest affair, a cropped image of a victory salute rather than the fashion-shoot retouch of David Milar’s Racing Through The Dark. This “my freedom to ride” rather than my rock n’roll. There are tales from school to start but two lines on meeting his wife and a paragraph on the birth of two children; even a year living in Paris with a student actress girlfriend is transformed into a training challenge, how to be competitive when you live in the city; there’s little on life in the capital or what he likes to do out side of cycling.

Early life is influential. His mother rejected frequent use of pharmaceuticals and “pas de médicaments” would become a career theme. He’s into his running and football at school but one day goes cycling and takes off on a long solo ride for the hell of it. Why? It seems he’s looking for freedom and pleasure and finds it on the bike.

The Accidental Pro
His father seems keener on pro cycling than him. The two watch the Tour on TV every July but as Moncoutié rises up the ranks – riding an old bike with toeclips and straps – he’s still looking to enjoy himself rather than apply himself. He’s offered a place in a sports school but the idea of spending the winter doing cyclo-cross and velodrome drills is not for him. He opts for university but a student strike sees him blocked from class and so rides more and wins more. Still unsure what to do he thinks about becoming a postman in order to have the afternoons free for cycling. This is not the tale of a man on a mission.

The will to succeed might not be obvious but the talent is. Cyrille Guimard has been tasked with building a top team and takes two neo-pros: David Millar and David Moncoutié. He meets Guimard and Millar and after a VO2 Max test – Mouncoutié only did one in his career and doesn’t know his score – they go to a restaurant. Over lunch Guimard asks him “what are your ambitions” and presumably wants to hear about sporting progress and teamwork but Moncoutié replies “I want to be happy” which leaves Guimard stunned for a moment, half-thinking it’s a cocky joke… but no, it’s true.

His career longevity is impressive and he stayed with the same team throughout. He was part of Cofidis and they needed him too with various doping scandals. The book in fact opens with a preface from the corporate human resources boss and ends with a note from former Cofidis boss François Migraine and the book itself is sponsored by the French credit company.

One of the greatest hits – soloing to a Tour de France stage win in his home region

Enjoyment = Ambition
Throughout the book there are two themes: accusations of “a lack of ambition” and his search for freedom and happiness. On ambition he’s frequently accused of being careless and not applying himself, famously sitting at the back of the bunch because he hated fighting for space up front. His reply is that he still had ambition but used it in other ways and besides, his ambition was always enjoy himself and it was the media or managers who invested their ambitions in him by insisting he raced up front. Infuriating or admirable, you decide.

Sometimes he was tempted to aim for the top-10 in the Tour de France but saw the pressures this brought and besides, he knew he could not last three weeks against riders on doping programmes. His 13th place overall in the 2002 Tour is source of pride, especially as everyone above him bar Carlos Sastre has been rumbled for dopage. He could well have stood on the Tour’s Champs Elysées podium if things had been different but more importantly he knows this is speculation so he doesn’t dwell on it. Instead it’s all about pleasure, whether picking off preferred races or riding for the fun of it. His heart rate monitor is stowed in a draw and for years performance measured by times up a local climb and “feeling”.

The Problem with Being Mr Clean
The peloton’s Mr Clean label annoyed him at times, he didn’t want the label because there were others who deserved it too. But also because he feared reprisal from those doping; he admires Christophe Bassons’s outspoken stance but has some criticism too, the “two-speed cycling” where only dopers can win angers Moncoutié because he’s winning clean. He’s also got beaucoup admiration for Lance Armstrong at times, they were briefly team mates and half the peloton thought the Texan was going to die so to comeback impresses him; at a training camp when it’s -5°C outside and Lance Armstrong – bald and scarred – is ready to ride when the others are hesitant. Moncoutié could use the book throw Armstrong under the bus and reverse back him over for good measure but doesn’t, although he clearly wishes cycling’s doping culture never happened.

my team mates are adults, they can do what they want

Moncoutié knew he couldn’t change anything so he played the cards he had. He knew what some team mates like Philippe Gaumont was doing but this doesn’t mean he knew what the whole peloton was doing. Even some team mates he assumed were clean get busted. Others he guesses the changes, he notices the mood change in David Millar.

His honesty and ethics aren’t reserved for doping. He claims he never once bought or sold a race and once tried to negotiate a pay cut with Cofidis because he didn’t like pressure of being a team leader. If does get saintly at times but he’s also ready to stick it to some too; one example comes when Laurent Jalabert was critical of him live on French TV and now Moncoutié serves up a cold textual revenge reminding us that he won his all races clean, something that can’t be said for Jalabert.

Like climbing a mountain and descending, the upward trajectory of Moncoutié’s career gets most attention and he clearly enjoyed the wins, reading the book reminds you of his success whether absolute triumph or his relative success, for example posting the fastest clean time up Mont Ventoux. The eventual career decline is covered fast in fewer pages. But he ends on his own terms, in the Vuelta he’s winning stages and taking mountains jersey for years in a row but on his terms, enjoying Spain like a Brit or German tourist: as he goes for evening walks in the stage finish towns, enjoys a dip in the hotel pool and sinks a round of beer with his team mates. Unconventional but by now Cofidis have accepted he just does what he wants.

Ma liberté de rouler Moncoutié

It’s not award-winning prose but this is an informative and at times uplifting read. The tale of “how I won clean” means fewer dramatic devices. There’s no guilt nor gore to write about, none of the self-analysis about the decision to dope nor any Proustian descriptions of syringes plunging illicit hormones into the body. Instead he reminds us that you can and should do it for fun. Moncoutié has the genetic gift to get away with this at the highest level but there’s a lesson for everyone.

Don’t read this expecting a torrent of invective towards the cheats and an “I was robbed” narrative. Moncoutié seems saddened by the direction the sport took but realistic to adapt to the situation and explore the frontiers of what’s possible and pleasurable. You sense he wants to be known for his successes and achievements rather than his ethics but the two go together, he won whilst others took shortcuts and that only makes his success more enjoyable.

“Ma liberté de rouler” is available in French from Cristel Editions, €18..

A list of previous book reviews is available here.

46 thoughts on “Book Review: Ma Liberté de Rouler”

    • Ha, I only found out by the chance the book was out, it’s with a small publishing house and unlikely to reach a big audience. A film deal would be good, a sort of “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” tale in the pro peloton.

  1. Started to train and race better once I decided to do it all for the fun and passion!
    Don’t look at the numbers, riding mostly without my bike computer unless I know I have
    to do long pulls during training. Don’t know if connected but less accidents and tech problems since!
    Respect to Moncutie
    RIP to local pro Kristof Goddaerts

  2. The number of comments for this wonderful book review indicates that people aren’t really interested in people like Moncoutié who go thorugh life with a minimum of fuss, even though his achievements are possibly greater than some of the champions of his era, simply because he won races riding clean against a peloton doped to their eyeballs. I think people want to hear a story of redemption. That is, a talented cyclist descends into the dirty world of doping, then eventually comes clean, admitting their mistakes, and write a book to cash in on it. I think Moncoutié’s story is far more interesting in that he resisted the temptation to dope and was still successful.

    • Someone who says they became a pro more or less by accident and, despite being in a sport about winning, “just wanted to be happy,” is unlikely to make a prospective reader feel like they’re going to be treated to the thrill ride, doping or not, that you’d get with someone more driven and successful, though. That those more successful were probably on the sauce doesn’t mean that that’s the reason why people would want to get inside their head though — people determined to win at all costs (even if it’s only all costs that are within the rules, rare beasts that they may be) are psychos really and so people find it interesting to read about them, from a distance. No need to read about nice guys because probably that nice Tim down the road is just as nice, and you can go round to his house any time you want and he’ll make you a cup of tea.

    • Maybe there was no big temptation to be resisted… If you can get what you’re interested in, why risk and suffer (and train) more?
      In fact, EPO (for example) creates differences not only being used – literally – as a PED (that would be quite a reduced margin, altough important in a top competition context), but being used as a… “TED”.
      TRAIN more! And you have to train “better”, too, in a more complicated, “scientific” way, to manage the advantages.
      Something about which Moncoutié doesn’t seem to be so enthusiatic, even besides the doping question.
      Moreover, he looks like a kind of “Dani Moreno” character, refusing to be a team leader because of the emotional (and not only) stress this implies, not to speak of the impact on your lifestyle.

    • Well Millar’s tale is definitely the better story (taking the meaning of story literally), there’s ups and down and redemption…it’s almost a rise and fall of heroes tale – but as an example for your children or anyone else, it’s Moncoutie all the way by the length of the Tour.

  3. I deeply admire Moncoutié, and much more for his general approach to cycling and life than for the question of avoiding doping (which I really appreciate, but as a decision of good sense, not as a matter of honesty: I still believe that a rider able to satisfy – or to adapt – his sporting desires/necessities without doping, in whatever context, is gaining much more than he’s losing; that is, it’s a decision of intelligence rather than sacrifice, and I see those who take it as resourceful rather than heroic).
    I totally loved his trainings in the Bois de Boulogne, and feel very akin to his no-number-crunching training & riding style.
    That said, I wonder if some of Moncoutié’s more spectacular successes weren’t… landed to him by a “favourable” context.
    I remember to feel like that (distinctly) while watching at least one of his stage wins in the Tour, and in different occasion at the Vuelta, too, this resulting in totally mixed feelings on my part.

    I’m going purely by memory now, so it’s possible this impression is biased, but the attitude shown in the book (for what I can say thanks to inrng’s excellent review) made me think about it, just as if he found a way to take advantage of his position, since his wins were like advertisements for cycling… And given that he wasn’t accusing nor complaining, he wasn’t so… “disturbing”… for the Big Bosses, either in and outside the race.
    The fact that he could win was really good for so many people, after all (and Cofidis as a sponsor has a huge importance for the Vuelta, even before ASO came in buying shares).

    Anyway, chapeau.

    • He seems to know the Mr 100% clean label is valuable and it helped both him and the team, he made a good living from. A lot of it presented as ethical and his relaxed style, the opposite of win at all costs. But we can also say he could be clean because he was able to win, a huge engine allowed him to rival the best times up a mountain. There’s one point in the book where his contract gets renewed by surprise and he speculates that if he was under pressure for a result, who knows he might have done what almost everyone else was doing.

      • I agree… I was hinting at the same idea when I wrote, in a comment above, “…if you can get what you’re interested in”.
        The way he was dealt with by the peloton (in contrast with Bassons, for example) is another facet of what many call the “hypocrisy” of cycling, whereas I prefer the word “complexity” 😉

  4. Good review and I would learn French just to read this one book. Moncoutie’ sounds like the type of person who you wished lived next door and a great cycling buddy too.

  5. I’ll buy Moncoutié’s book. I’ll read it knowing that 99% of the peloton (yes, even today) is not fit to lick his boots. And I’ll die before buying a product that ever sponsored Lance (that sick, vindictive, unrepentant pathological liar); that means you Subaru. Nike. Trek.
    Nor will I read ever read a line again from superfrauds like Sally Jenkins or John Wilcockson, etc…. So good to know someone out there in or around cycling does not have the ethics of a drug lord! Thanks for pointing the book out.

    • I admire your sentiments Oliver, it’s tricky with Armstrong tho… Oakley, 24H Fitness, Bontrager, Giro, Anheuser Busch, Shimano, SRAM, Radioshack, FRS, Oak Investments, Honey Stinger are a few you missed , and I imagine a ton of other companies queued up to give him cash back in the day…

      • Noel, thanks for the list. That helps. Obviously I think there is a difference in terms of brand identification with that psychopath. I mean Lance and Trek the crooks who kicked out Lemond? Boycott! All the products in which he has been in an advert, like Nike, Subaru, & that tasteless beer — Boycott! The horrible waffles that sport his cheating likeness on the packaging, check. Etc. Oakley? Their execs lied or refused to testify to cover for him, so clearly boycott.
        Shimano on the other hand, I think he has not advertised directly for, just rode bikes with Shimano on them….

        All in all it is about remembering that the name and the person Lance Armstrong is toxic. Even to this day every tweet, article and utterance coming from him is about his own self-preservation, about minimizing his devious behavior and responsibility for the uniqueness of his vindictive actions. And he does it under the guise of being contrite, apologetic. Now that’s sick. That’s Armstrong.

        This guy didn’t just lie: he went out of his way to destroy those brave souls who told the truth.

  6. Interesting to hear about his comments on the “two speed peloton”. I was always struck in David Millar’s book that he was winning clean too before he started doping, and these two come from the same place in origin. It wasn’t so much that you HAD to dope to win, in his way of looking at it, it just wasn’t professional to take chances. You should be doing everything you could to make sure you could compete with the rest. While I can feel a fair bit of sympathy with the dopers of the era (perhaps more than most), I am getting sick of the “you doped or you were out” narrative. Perhaps that did apply in some teams, but this version is a more nuanced and interesting account.

    • Moncoutié writes about others suggesting he “goes up a gear” and other euphemisms to start doping saying if he’s able to win big without, then with the doping programme he’ll do even better and therefore the whole team will thrive etc.

    • I share inrng’s view.
      When I said Moncoutié was “resourceful”, I mean that he had, among other qualities, the ability to resist some serious pressions (possibly, to avoid greater pressions!).
      Many cyclists, when they entered the doping world, were no more than kids, usually with a lack of formation due to the long trainings required since teen years. The same motive leads to a certain lack of a social network of friends or “counselors” outside the cycling world.
      It’s uncommon, nowadays (?), that a twenty years old guy has got the psychological, intellectual and “moral” resources to stand up to difficult choices, when everything around him pushes in a different direction.
      So many times quitting cycling means you find yourself with a delay of years, trying to start university or some job without proper preparation.
      IDK, even if the comparison may be considered even insulting, when I think to athletes entering the world of pro sport, I find myself remembering the first pages of Vonnegut’s beautiful book, “Slaughterhouse-Five (or The Children’s Crusade)”.

      Besides, sporting performance is quite obviously a ladder with a lot of steps… Everything depends on what step you find yourself in. And on how many steps you eventually want to climb.
      Maybe it could be better depicted as a pyramid, due to gaussian reasons. Which means that for a lot of less known cyclists that narrative was just their reality.
      The fact that some statistical exception was able to win, sometime, without doping (notably, we are talking about two riders with an acknowledged “big engine” ) doesn’t mean anything for the majority of the peloton. Additionally, I don’t completely trust Millar, but that’s just personal opinion.
      Think about it… do you think that doping feels great, do you think people aren’t worried about the possible long-term consequences on their own bodies?
      If those riders who EVEN under a doping programme were just “gregari”, winning a couple of minor races at most, had the possibility to choose, and remain in the sport riding clean, wouldn’t they have given up doping?
      Enter in any database, and give a look to what the career of most pro riders is like.
      Nevertheless, if you’re saying that some top riders using such narrative are lying, well, with *that*, I totally agree.

      Anyway, we shouldn’t forget that the sport is much more than the Tour de France podium.

      • <> = the “you doped or you were out” narrative, quoted by apkdsmith, whom I was replying to.
        I noticed that my previous reference to Vonnegut’s book may create confusion, when I start talking about “that narrative”.

  7. As fans of the sport, but more so as (unpaid) cyclists, we should all be able to relate to Moncoutie’s creedo of riding for the joy of it. As a pro rider, he was unique for this attitude, which shouldn’t be construed as a lack of ambition. BTW, Sean Kelly in his book HUNGER doesn’t sling the shit about fellow riders either–which shows class in a memoir and its author.

    • Re: Sean Kelly, he too was a doper – he twice got caught – so it would be a bit two-faced to sling mud. Plus, the EPO era hadn’t begun by that stage, so organised doping was not such a hindrance to winning races.

  8. Too much publicity given to the dope heads (for obvious reasons) and not enough given to those like Moncoutie. I hope in future there are more paragraphs to read on riders like this, I gave up on reading about anything to do with drugs and the dopers long ago.

  9. I have long admired Moncoutie and his style. I love that his ambition was to be happy. An ambition I’m more than happy to subscribe to.

    PS As if I needed much persuading, your review has persuaded me to buy the book.

  10. Thanks for this post. Interesting by all means. I’m one of the few who always had a hard time believing Moncoutié was clean through and through, but he seems to be, finally, a character I can really relate to, and very French, by the way, in the best sense of the word (I mean, “life-loving”, as opposed to “life-dominating”).

  11. I met David Moncoutié at the Tour de l’Ain last year where he rode the cyclosport stages as the cyclos ‘godfather’. He was cheerful, friendly, and happy to pass the time talking to anyone who was about to set off and ride the route. I mentioned I was from Australia and he straight away asked if I had been to Adelaide where he had once ridden the Tour Down Under. Shook my hand, wished me luck. All class. Good luck to him.

  12. Great review. It seems like an excellent reading. Too bad it is only available in french. Someone up to the task of translating it to english for the good of others? 🙂

  13. Great review, thanks. I always liked Moncoutié and like him more now I know a little more about him. I may yet get a copy and attempt to read it. Is it written in simple laguage, or poetic/flowery/formal French? My vocabulary doesn’t stretch to the latter.

  14. Thanks for sharing your review and all of the comments from everyone.
    Makes for an more interesting mental picture of past cycling personalities and past states of the sport.

  15. title is, possibly a play on the song “ma liberte de penser” a big french hit for Florent Pagny. The song is very much about being cheated out of material things (in the singers mind), and being able to take material things from him. but not taking away his personality, and expression.

    Total tangent there, but there ya go.

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