The Race – by Dave Shieldsby ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The Race – by Dave Shields
Just as a great racer excels in some aspects of our sport while falling short in others, Dave Shields displays both strengths and weaknesses in The Race. On one hand, he has given us a realistic and compelling tale of European pro racing. On the other hand, the writing is… well, let’s say that it’s good enough for the task at hand. The result is not great, but it is great fun, and rare fun at that: what other pro cycling novels are there to compete with it?
If you’ve been lucky enough to see The Race in person, the book will call up memories of the mountains, the fans, and the sights and sounds of the race as it passes. (And if you haven’t been to see the Race yet, grab one of the few remaining spots on our 2005 Race tours and finish this book as you cross the Atlantic.) The immediate draw of The Race is the author’s familiarity with and love for cycling and le Tour. If you share that interest, you’re almost certain to enjoy the book.
At its best, The Race will keep you up late as you promise yourself "just one more chapter." As the intertwined present and flashback plotlines are revealed, it’s natural to root for protagonist Ben Barnes. Ben’s journey through the French Alps to Alpe d’Huez is full of twists and obstacles, and I don’t just mean the treacherous Alpine roads. It’s all here: the tactics, the mechanics of the team effort in cycling, the brief alliances and the pecking order and public scrutiny. The powerful emotional undercurrents ring true, and the nearly operatic themes of loyalty and betrayal, ego and sacrifice, disgrace and redemption, make for an accurate depiction of the world inhabited by bike racing’s strong personalities. Over the course of the career-making solo break that represents most of the book’s "now" storyline, Ben confronts his past, his rivals, his fears and his own wasted potential, eventually drawing on each as a source of strength to carry him onward when his reserves are exhausted.
Any cyclist who’s ever worn out a set of tires knows the introspective value of a long ride. Many of us have sought answers on the horizon the same way some folks look for them at the bottom of a bottle. If cycling has ever gotten you through a painful time, you’ll recognize Ben’s epic solo break for what it is: the mother of all long, hard, contemplative rides. It might go far toward explaining this book’s popularity to note that one need not have a racing background to feel that resonance.
The Race is not perfect. Its chief flaw is that it is at times a teen adventure novel, or an after-school special, disguised in logo-spangled lycra. Supporting characters don’t have much depth. For example: Thierry, the Banque Federale captain, is equal parts Obi Wan Kenobi and Jacques Anquetil; Kyle, Ben’s rival, is a study in antisocial selfishness; Brigitte, the love interest, is infinitely supportive and understanding. Ben’s father gets a little more flesh on his bones, but even he is basically just a hard, cold man, overprotective and pessimistic. Each of them contributes to the lessons of Ben’s mythic ride, as he learns to ignore his enemies, to cherish his friends, and (most importantly), to recognize which is which. It’s not a subtle message: no matter how late you’ve stayed up to find out what happens next, you’ll be alert enough to recognize the moral of this story.
But don’t let that detract from the good times to be had here. If The Race is a teen adventure novel, it’s a pretty darned good one. Dave Shields clearly has a talent for putting together a story that will keep you reading. Anyone who enjoys cycling and follows racing will somehow find time for "just a few more pages." (And enjoy a fascinating insight into some of the things at least one bicycle racer thinks about while alone on his bicycle!)