Professional cycling is the same as many other sports, with a lot going on behind the scenes in support of the glossy public-facing side. Although we are not normally allowed to observe this parallel life, occasionally we have little glimpses; The Secret Cyclist is unusual because it is a whole book dedicated to that aspect, and it takes the principle further than any previous book.
- Pros: Yet more revealing insights behind the scenes of professional cycling
- Cons: Some of the same ground has been covered elsewhere
Most comments from professional sportsmen or women are frustratingly bland, and those who do stray from the team message risk having to follow up with apologies or retractions, because 'offering an opinion in public is not the done thing if you value your contract'. The shackles are released a little after retirement, so with cycling, as in other sports, most biographies contain a few 'revelations', along with further disclosures into life as a pro.
Not surprisingly, anonymity generally allows for the most forthright views. I enjoyed 'Our man in the bunch', a series of columns that appeared in the late Cycle Sport magazine back in 2012, in which 'an anonymous professional rider sent us a series of dispatches from the peloton, covering all subjects from money, through media to management and more'. I thought at the time that it would make a good basis for a book, and in many ways The Secret Cyclist is that book.
The fact that some of the subjects in The Secret Cyclist have already had coverage elsewhere does lessen its impact, but I am not aware of any single publication that is quite so comprehensive, thorough, and also fairly current – right up to mentioning the transition from Team Sky to Ineos (albeit spelt wrongly as Inios).
While some of the topics covered are to be expected, the extent that reality differs from perception might not be. Take that old favourite of the equipment used by teams: I doubt that anyone will be surprised that 'if you want to know the truth about the latest equipment, don't ask a pro. At least not one that's speaking on the record' – but the extent of that deceit might be unexpected.
The unknown rider is particularly scathing about how the Aqua Blue team were let down by their equipment, reflecting the position that the team's riders and even the team owner eventually espoused – even without the protection of anonymity. 'A track bike with gears stuck on it, because it was so poorly suited to road racing.'
'We ride whatever we're paid to, and part of the gig is singing praises ... It's part of cycling, but it's very rarely honest' – and that's always going to be the case when sponsorship is virtually the only thing that keeps the professional sport alive. The Secret Cyclist has some views on cycling's economic model, reflecting that 'I don't think there's another sport in the world that has a more blasé approach to long-term economic stability', because 'we still haven't figured out how to monetise it properly, how to share the revenues, how to promote growth.'
No book like this can avoid some discussion about performance-enhancing drugs: it is indeed covered, but with a twist. The Secret Cyclist's view is that in some ways things are better than they were – but 'It's a shame that more of the dopers from my generation haven't opened up about what really happened because I think there are still some doctors and managers involved in the sport who have a lot of questions to answer'. Perhaps surprisingly, he did not include riders in that list.
However, it seems that the nature of PEDs is changing, and 'perhaps my biggest concern about the young riders is how far they're willing to go to lose weight' – again with chemical assistance: 'misusing drugs to aid weight loss is the same as abusing them to increase power or stamina.'
There are also many little nuggets of information that would have helped to inform the debate surrounding recent events. Take the transfer from Sicily to the mainland in the 2018 Giro d'Italia, for example: most of the race entourage suffered a long trip in a boat that was then delayed, leading to a compromised recovery process, whereas some of Team Sky used a helicopter. Some claimed that it was just Sky using their big budget to gain an edge, and others that they were merely organised enough to make the necessary preparations. The truth seems to lie in the middle: apparently 'that helicopter was on the list of optional extras that the teams were offered by RCS before the start. It cost €5,000,' and Sky obviously had different priorities to other teams.
I think that Phil Gaimon's book, Draft Animals, might be the nearest equivalent to The Secret Cyclist, and it is mentioned when our unknown rider takes the opportunity to be pretty dismissive of both that book, and the allegations made in it about Fabian Cancellara and motors.
Naturally, some will want to try to guess the identity of the unknown author. There are quite a few leads present, such as being married with children, being close to retirement, and of course numerous comments about races he rode and teams he joined. However, you can't rule out the odd bit of misinformation, or even that the book reflects the experiences of several riders – so while at times it would be really interesting to know his identity, I am prepared to forgo that if it gives him the freedom to write more honestly and still continue to compete. As you would expect, this rider has his personal views on many things, such as riders, teams, and races, and he doesn't hold back.
I suspect that this book would play a valuable role in the education of any aspiring pro, because (if it didn't put you off such a career) you would certainly be better prepared – but I doubt that is the target market. Fortunately, that same information gives the rest of us the best understanding yet about aspects of life as a professional cyclist that are not normally discussed.
An anonymous insight into a side of professional cycling that we rarely witness
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road.cc test report
Make and model: The Secret Cyclist Real Life as a Rider in the Professional Peloton
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
From Yellow Jersey Press:
Who is The Secret Cyclist and why all the secrecy?
"Every public aspect of our lives is so tightly controlled that being truly honest is all but impossible in a newspaper interview, never mind a whole book. You try write a warts-and-all blog about your office. Question how the business is run, make sure you remember to call your boss a moron, and then tell me how it goes."
He's ridden for World Tour teams for ten years. He's achieved top ten finishes in Grand Tours. He likes coffee. These are just a few details about the professional rider who wants you to know what the view looks like from the centre of the peloton.
What do the riders really make of Team Sky? How does the pay structure work? Why should you never trust a kit endorsement from a professional? Is doping still an issue? The Secret Cyclist tackles the big questions head-on, revealing a side to cycling that fans have never seen before.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: The Secret Cyclist
Author: The Secret Cyclist
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
Easy to read and informative.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
Trying to work out who wrote it can be a distraction!
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes – but not at full price.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
It's the best example yet of the genre, and builds on previous 'behind the scenes' works – helped by the freedom that anonymity provides.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding