by Matthew Bailey
I love cricket. And I don’t mean the modern, hit-and-giggle abomination of ‘T20’. I mean what’s called ‘first-class’ cricket, the kind that goes on for days on end and usually finishes in a draw. And I like it for a lot of the same reasons I like cycling.
This may seem surprising. In a sporting sense, cricket, of course, is nothing like cycling. And their roots – one quintessentially British, the other uniquely continental – couldn’t be more different. But in other ways they have a lot in common.
Our friends at Pursuit Books have blogged several times on this topic, pointing out that in cycling and cricket, for example, there is room in both sports for a variety of physical shapes and sizes, and that they are both sadly let down by an insistence on protective headgear. It might also be fairly pointed out that they are both quite popular in Yorkshire.
But for me, their most important similarity is their sheer scale. By the standards of most other sports the action takes place over huge periods of time. Not many sporting events stretch to a full day, much less to five days; but a Grand Tour’s three weeks makes even a Test match look positively minimalist.
One important consequence of this is that there are often long periods, and even entire matches or races, where nothing much of interest really happens.
(Of course, ‘interest’ is relative. I once watched thirty minutes of English batsmen struggling manfully against the Indian spinners on a slow and wearing wicket, utterly riveted by what seemed to me to be unmatched sporting drama, only for the commentator to break the spell by saying "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can only apologise for what has been the most boring half-hour of cricket I have ever commentated on.")
However, far from being a disadvantage, this potential for barren periods has all sorts of positive consequences.
For one thing, it means that when the action does start to heat up it can achieve heights of intensity simply unavailable in most other sports. No one who saw it can forget the Cardiff Test of 2009, when England’s last pair James Anderson and Monty Panesar kept the rampaging Australian fast bowlers at bay for 50 nail-biting minutes at the end of the fifth day. Similarly, the shape of Stephen Roche unexpectedly emerging from the fog at La Plagne to stay within touching distance of Pedro Delgado, meaning he would go on to take overall victory in the 1987 Tour, was all the more emotionally charged for coming on the 21st day of racing (and with four full days – almost an entire Test match – still to come).
And more importantly, the sheer scale of cricket and cycling, together with the longueurs common to both, leaves plenty of room for other things besides the actual sporting action.
Cake, for one thing. Cricket stops altogether for lunch and tea, and play is interrupted by regular breaks for drinks and Battenburg. And what would cycling be without its musettes full of treats, its café stops, its regular shots of caffeine and carbohydrate?
And then there’s the storytelling. Both sports have attracted writers and commentators of a very high standard, who are given ample opportunity to fill the hours with discussion, reminiscence, anecdote and tall tales. (They’ve also both attracted their fair share of blowhards and windbags, mocking whom can also be a great source of entertainment.)
Plus, of course, there’s the statistics. What true cricket fan hasn’t whiled away many a blissful afternoon digging through Wisden to compare the records and achievements of stars from different eras?
Both storytelling and statistics are at the heart of Wisden, ‘the bible of cricket’, which has been published every year since 1864, making it the longest-running sporting publication of all time. And now cycling has its very own Wisden in the shape of the Road Book, edited by Ned Boulting and Cillian Kelly and with design by directeur.cc.
Like Wisden, the Road Book purports to be the definitive record of the season just past: not necessarily complete, but certainly authoritative, in the sense it is the place to come if you want to settle (or start) an argument. And like Wisden it is an imposing physical presence: weighing in just shy of 2kg, almost 900 pages long and beautifully bound in red and gold.
Cycling and cricket being what they are, then, like Wisden the Road Book has two key elements: the stories and the stats. On the first of these two it scores very highly indeed. The volume begins with first-person accounts from Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas of their victories in the Giro and Tour respectively. In the middle there are numerous wonderful articles – particular favourites of the present reviewer being Harry Pearson’s investigation of the apparently inexplicable unpopularity of Niki Terpstra, Chad Haga’s report from the Giro’s Israeli grande partenza and Marianna Vos’s very personal account of how overtraining almost ended her career. And it ends, cleverly and movingly, with the uniformly fascinating obituaries of notable (and certainly not all famous) cycling figures who left us in 2018.
But of course if it is truly to be cycling’s Wisden, the definitive record of the year, then it is the Road Book’s other element – the numbers – by which it must be judged.
But there’s an issue here that cannot be avoided. A big one. Surely, you might be saying, the Road Book is already obsolete. Surely all this information is already available online. Why would we pay £50 for a book the size of a Gutenberg bible when we can get all this stuff on Wikipedia and ProCyclingStats.com?
But it is important to understand that the Road Book is not competing with the internet. Not really. Yes, the Road Book has reports from every major race (and every stage of every major stage race) and results from what seems like every minor race too, from La Tropicale Amissa Bongo to the Barnsley GP. So if you are suddenly seized by the urge to look up who won the Tour de Romandie in 1952, or how many kilometres of time trialling there were in the 1996 Tour, you can do so, just as you can online.
But the Road Book offers something the internet cannot. Because you cannot idly leaf through the internet, or let it fall open at a random page. You can’t riffle through it with your thumb to look at hundreds of pages in a second or two, just in case there’s something that catches your eye. Nor can you triumphantly snap it shut under the nose of a disgruntled interlocutor before he can see whether the statistic crucial to your argument and obscured by your jabbing forefinger is attributable to Arbuthnot or Arkwright (or, for that matter, Maertens or Merckx).
But the Road Book, like Wisden, can do all these things and more besides. Would you like to know which dossard has been won by the greatest number of Tour winners? Or which men’s world time trial champion spent fewest days wearing the rainbow jersey? Or which team got the largest number of riders into breakaways in WorldTour races this year?
Well of course you’d like to know now. But if all you had was a search box you would never have known you’d like to know.
The internet falls over itself to help. It digs around in your digital bins to see what sort of thing you might like to see, read or buy. It pushes you in one direction or another by impertinently finishing your search terms for you. It jiggles your virtual elbow even as you try to read, suggesting other similar or related pages you might like to look at.
But the true pleasure of the Road Book lies in wandering: in looking and not knowing what you might find. So, thanks to a moment’s thumbwork, I now know that Wanty Groupe – Gobert’s sprinter Andre Pasqualon won two consecutive stages of 2018’s Tour of Luxembourg, Anna van der Breggen has now won La Flèche Wallonne four times in a row, and that Miguel Ángel López will still be eligible for Best Young Rider classifications in 2019.
And this, in my view, is why Wisden endures, and will continue to endure, in the digital age. And it’s why the Road Book fills a gap in cycling, even if we didn’t know it existed.
It will perhaps come as no surprise that the producers of a premium print journal are in favour of good old-fashioned paper and ink. But it just isn’t a question of digital versus real-world.
Another example illustrates the point. There’s a lot of hysterical talk in the business press about the ‘Death of the High Street’, as shops close down and once-great retail names wink out of existence. But we clearly are not seeing the end of traditional, real-life, non-virtual shopping. If we were, why would Amazon, the ultimate online retailer, buy the organic premium grocery chain Whole Foods? Why would book shops, despite the efforts of Amazon (which, of course, begin life as a bookseller) be making a resurgence? And, for that matter, to give an example from the world of cycling, why would Rapha – which started as an online-only seller – open dozens of clubhouse-cum-cafés around the world, stuffed full of their premium kit and almost all doing a roaring trade?
No: what we are seeing is not the ‘death of retail’, nor the death of ‘bricks-and-mortar’ retail. What we are seeing are the death throes of crap retail. It’s no longer enough to stick your stuff on the shelves, open the doors and wait for people to put money in your till. You need to give people more than that. Success in retail requires identifying and integrating the strengths of online and offline and making the most of both.
And this is what the Road Book does. Only in the digital age, and using sophisticated software (developed specifically for the purpose by Cillian Kelly), could such a comprehensive volume be put together so swiftly after the end of the season. But only a book can give you the tactile, sensory and ambulatory experience of, well, a book. The Road Book gives you the best of both worlds.
While we are discussing the pleasures of pedantry, one more small thing. The Road Book, its subtitle notwithstanding, is not an almanack. This is because an almanack is a list of future events: early almanacks dealt with forthcoming appearances of stars and constellations, solstices, tides, religious holidays and the like, not events that had already happened.
The Road Book, unlike an almanack, is a record of the past, principally of the season just gone, and therefore doesn’t tell us anything about the season to come. For that we’ll have to look forward to the 2019 edition. Which, happily, leaves plenty of time to read this year’s edition.
And, even more happily, plenty of time for cake.
The Road Book can be ordered from theroadbook.co.uk
The latest issue of Conquista (issue 20) can be ordered here.