Extraordinary story of Merckx the machine is subject of fascinating new biography


Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, by William Fotheringham

Published by: Yellow Jersey


Lance Armstrong may have won more Tours de France than Eddy Merckx -- seven against five -- but consider this: between 1961 and 1978, the Belgian rider known as the Cannibal won 525 races, including the Giro d’Italia four times and and three world championships, in addition to his four straight Tour de France wins between 1969 and 1972, with another in 1974.

No cyclist has ever won more races in a career, which set Merckx apart from the rest in some minds as verging on mad. Armstrong would save himself for the big events, basing his season on being at his peak at the right moments.  Merckx seemed to want to be at his peak every time he rode.

He had an addiction to winning, so consuming that at the height of his powers he won the equivalent of a race every week for six years.  In his most prolific season, he won 54 races, a total never surpassed.  He holds the records also for most stage victories in the Tour de France (54) and the most days with the yellow jersey (96).  He is the only cyclist to have won the general classification, the points classification and the mountains classification in the same Tour de France, when he won it for the first time in 1969.

It was in the same Tour, with victory almost assured, that he committed the seemingly reckless and unnecessary act that his biographer, cycling journalist William Fotheringham, says encapsulated his character.   On Stage 17, a tough one involving three mountains and a 75-kilometre ride to the Pyrenees town of Mourenx, Merckx had a lead of eight minutes and was a comfortable favourite to win.  Yet instead of trying to conserve his energy, Merckx went on the attack, doubling his lead.  The final margin of victory -- 17 minutes and 54 seconds -- has never been matched.

It was his style almost every time he rode, relying on pure power to leave the field as far behind as he could.  Fotheringham says it was the result of the insecurity that he had never shed since as a boy he was shunned because he spoke French rather than Flemish.  His fear of failure led to him to strive for leads that were far larger than necessary, always fearful of disaster round the next corner, but in doing so he displayed a level of stamina, courage and  pain--defying determination that led people to perceive him as the ‘half-man, half-bike’ of Fotheringham’s title.

Who is the author?

William Fotheringham is a former competitive cyclist who has been writing about the sport since 1988, mainly for the Guardian and Observer newspapers.  He is the author of eight books, mainly on cycling, and has translated two others, including the biography of Laurent Fignon.

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Relive the Festival thrills with the stars of Cheltenham's jump racing spectacular

Horse Racing Books for the Cheltenham Festival

His great rivalry with Denman might have ended with the retirement of his stablemate in December but the Kauto Star story continues and might just have another glorious chapter still to be told if he can add a third Cheltenham Gold Cup to his record five King George VI Chase victories this week.

In the meantime, there is plenty to read about the story so far among The Sports Bookshelf’s selection of horse racing books for the jump racing enthusiast.

It is no surprise to see the paperback version of Kauto Star jockey Ruby Walsh's autobiography in the shops in time for the Cheltenham Festival. The Irishman is the master of the perfectly-timed finish, after all, and his tally of 32 winners at the Festival is unsurpassed.  Ruby: The Autobiography, written with the help of Irish journalist Malachy Clerkin, is published by Orion.

As well as winning all four of the ‘Grand Nationals‘ -- the Scottish, Irish and Welsh versions as well as the Aintree spectacular -- Walsh won the Gold Cup twice on Kauto Star, in 2007 and in 2009, when the gelding, now 12 years old, became the first horse to regain the blue riband of jump racing.

Last year Walsh triumphed against the odds, riding at Cheltenham only five months after suffering a broken leg and yet finishing as leading jockey for the sixth time, his five winners including the Champion Hurdle for the first time.

In an entertaining story, Walsh talks about the three key working relationships in his life - with Paul Nicholls, Willie Mullins and his father, the legendary Ted Walsh - as well as his friendship and rivalry with his fellow Irishman, Tony McCoy.

McCoy’s story -- A P McCoy: My Autobiography(Orion) -- meanwhile, is now available to download in ebook format. The 16-times champion jockey, acknowledged as the greatest National Hunt rider of all time, won the Gold Cup on Mr Mulligan in 1997, when he also landed the first of three victories in the Champion Hurdle, the latest coming two years ago with Binocular, his mount again when he takes on Walsh on Hurricane Fly this afternoon.

The Kauto Star-Denman rivalry is explored in detail, meanwhile, by Jonathan Powell in a highly acclaimed chronicle of the battles between the two, entitled simply Kauto Star & Denman (Wiedenfeld & Nicolson).

Denman, whose appearance in the 2012 Gold Cup turned out to be his last race, beat Kauto Star into second place in the 2008 race, a result reversed the next year. Their rivalry captured the imagination of millions even outside racing, a classic sporting contest that drew comparisons with Borg against McEnroe, Ali against Foreman and Coe against Ovett.

Powell collaborated with Paul Nicholls, who trained both horses, in his autobiography, Lucky Break (Orion), which was short listed for the British Sports Book Awards.

Cheltenham, of course, would not be Cheltenham without the Irish and Brian O’Connor’s collection of Ireland's Greatest Racehorses (Aurum Press) includes a host of Festival heroes. Including Arkle, Monksfield, Dawn Run, Moscow Flyer and Istabraq.

O’Connor, racing correspondent of the Irish Times, offers a fine series of witty and trenchant portraits sure to engage anyone who appreciates the unique flavour of the biggest week in the jump racing calendar.

Also recommended:

The Cheltenham Festival: A Centenary History, by Robin Oakley (Aurum Press)

The Complete Encyclopedia of Horse Racing, updated and edited by Graeme Kelly (Carlton Books)

Kinane: A Remarkable Racing Family, by Anne Holland (O’Brien Press)

Method in My Madness: 10 Years Out of the Saddle, by Richard Dunwoody (ebook: Thomas Brightman)

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Sweeping history of how commercialism and greed swallowed the sporting ideal


The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World by Mihir Bose

Published by: Constable

What’s it about?

In seeking to answer the question of how sport did help shape the modern world, the author has produced a sweeping history of sport in the modern world from its idealistic beginnings to the massively commercial present.

It is particularly relevant in an Olympic year, particularly in the year of an Olympics in Britain, since Bose begins his exploration of the sporting spirit with the advance of the modern Olympic movement as a phenomenon rooted in what its acknowledged founder, Pierre de Coubertin, cherished as an English virtue.

De Coubertin, a French nobleman, drew his inspiration from an English novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a book that paid homage to Rugby School and its headmaster, Thomas Arnold, whose beliefs in manliness and gentlemanly conduct and the health benefits of an outdoor life were set in a sporting context.

Coubertin used to make an annual pilgrimage to Rugby School and would stand at the altar of the school chapel, beneath which Arnold was buried, and imagine him as the man who invented the concept of sporting chivalry around which he would build his Olympic ideal.

Bose goes on to describe how the ideal was hijacked first by nationalism, in particular by the Nazi and communist movements in the 1920s and 30s, and then by big business, who saw the opportunities offered by sport’s post-War sporting boom and created the world that we know today, dominated by money, corporate and individual greed,  corruption and the culture of celebrity.

The picture it paints is somewhat bleak but it is a deep and fascinating study peppered with perceptive insights, written in a bright and engaging style.

Who is the author?

Mihir Bose, born in India and raised in Bombay, moved to England in 1969 at the age of 22 to study engineering at Loughborough University, then trained to be an accountant.  But he found opportunities to pursue his interest in writing and swapped accountancy for journalism in 1978, concentrating on business and sport.  He has since enjoyed a distinguished career with the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC and, more latterly, the Evening Standard in London.  He is the author of 26 books, which are mostly about sport but also include a history of Bollywood.   His History of Indian Cricket won the Cricket Society Literary Award in 1990 and his study of sports and apartheid, Sporting Colours, was runner-up in the 1994 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award.

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New award as Fever Pitch hits 20

The 2012 British Sports Book Awards will include three new categories to mark the 10th anniversary of the annual prize.

One of these -- under the title ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sports Writing’ -- is being launched with the winner decided already.  Amazingly, it is 20 years since Nick Hornby’s groundbreaking Fever Pitch first appeared on the shelves and the BSBA organisers felt there was no author more deserving of the inaugural award.

David Willis, chairman of the BSBA in 2012, said: "The 10th anniversary of the British Sports Book Awards in 2012 also marks the 20th anniversary of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, which altered perceptions about the value and importance of sport in relationships and within society as a whole."

Hornby has already spoken of his honour at being chosen as the first winner of the new prize.

He said: "When you write a book, you can only really hope that people read it and like it, and that it stays around for as long as possible. Fever Pitch is now 20 years old, and it means a lot to me that those who care about sports literature want to recognise it in this way."

Fever Pitch, an autobiographical work that cleverly intertwined Hornby’s devotion to Arsenal football club with events in his personal life, was a landmark book in several ways, most significantly for its part in reclaiming football for the respectable, law-abiding majority after the hooligan-dominated 1980s.

It was the the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1992 and helped Hornby launch a career as a best-selling novelist.

The other new prizes will go to the best golf and motorsport books of the year, joining football, cricket, rugby and horse-racing as single sport categories.  There are also awards for best biography, best autobiography and best new writer, plus best illustrated title, best publicity campaign and best sports retailer.

The shortlists for all the 2012 awards will be revealed on May 3rd, with the winners announced on May 21st.

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Tied Up With Notts, by Colin Slater: Half a century of Notts County from the man who has seen it all and told the tale


Tied Up With Notts by Colin Slater

Published by: Reid Publishing


Few football stories in the last couple of years have been quite so bizarre or riveting as the tale of Notts County, Sven-Goran Eriksson and the Middle Eastern millions that never were.

And few individuals have been quite so well placed to describe it all as Colin Slater, the veteran BBC Radio Nottingham journalist who has been the station’s Notts County man ever since it was launched, some 44 years ago.

In fact, Slater’s association with Notts goes back even further. As a football reporter with the long-defunct Nottingham Evening News, he took his seat in the press box at Meadow Lane for the first time in August 1959.  There began a professional and personal relationship with the world’s oldest football league club that now spans 53 years, more than a third of its history.

No one, therefore, is better qualified to put in perspective not just the squalid, regrettable Munto Finance affair but every other headline-grabbing moments from six decades into perspective than the man nowadays known as the Voice of Notts County, which is a moniker that could not have been anticipated by a boy growing up in Bradford.  Indeed, his lilt, even today, is much more West Yorkshire than East Midlands.

He has done precisely that in a thoroughly entertaining and beautifully written memoir, Tied Up With Notts, published by Reid Publishing, which is best described as a personal history of the club.

Moreover, there have been many headline-grabbing moments on Slater’s watch.  No strangers to financial woes,  Notts sailed close to extinction in the mid-1960s and again in the first decade of the new century, when they went into administration.  So the circumstances in which, to the football world’s astonishment, ex-England coach Eriksson was unveiled as Director of Football in July 2009 -- a Slater exclusive, as it happens -- were not a new experience.

But there have been some high spots, too.  Twice since Slater began to report, Notts have clambered from the lower reaches of the Football League to rub shoulders with the elite, first under Jimmy Sirrel, who took them from the edge of the precipice to the First Division in 10 years, and again with Neil Warnock in charge.

Sirrel was the seventh manager with whom Slater worked in a list that now extends to 33 following Martin Allen’s replacement with Keith Curle last month.  Had he joined the News a year or so earlier and he could claim accurately to have been covering Notts since the Tommy Lawton era, given that Lawton was manager, for 14 months, until he gave way to Frank Hill in 1958.

Nonetheless, while he cannot claim to have witnessed Lawton’s era as a player, when Slater says that the coming of Eriksson could be compared with the signing of Lawton from Chelsea in 1947, he speaks with unrivalled authority.

Who is the author?

Colin Slater was made an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2001 for services to radio and the local community, a phrase that barely scratches the surface of his contribution to Nottinghamshire life.

Shortly before he began broadcasting, he had been appointed Nottinghamshire County Council’s first public relations officer and held that position alongside his growing profile at Meadow Lane for 20 years, in a continuation of the ‘double life’ he had enjoyed as a newspaper reporter, when he combined football with the role of chief municipal correspondent.

Subsequently he worked for Severn Trent Water and Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club.  Away from his professional life, he was a churchwarden at Christ Church, Beeston for 38 years and since 1990 has served the General Synod of the Church of England as lay representative for the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham.

He is also works as a trustee on behalf of several local charities, was a Justice of the Peace for 27 years and in 2005 was appointed chairman of the Nottingham Courts Board.

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