This is the third and last installment in a three-part series of conversations with author and journalist Matt Rendell.
In this post, we discuss Pantani, Hincapie's legacy, the media's relationship with the sport, the idea of buying into cycling, Kimmage and Walsh as well as other topics.
Your book The Death of Marco Pantani managed to be critical, but more importantly sympathetic. I found this to be a very fair take on a man who seldom gets a fair assessment from anyone. How do you feel about Pantani today?
This sounds like something from a person who is incapable of learning from life, but I wouldn't change a word in that book. I think it captures him exactly. He was diagnosed in early 2002, and the diagnosis by a psychoanalyst and a team of experts who dealt with drug abuse is in the book. He was diagnosed as having a number of personality disorders. And I think those disorders were largely masked by him being involved in professional sport. Problems like being unable to have empathy, or severely impulsive are largely hidden by the technical backdrop and against the fact that there are the sport is full of rivalries that are largely based on hostility. Actually, you could say that things like being impulsive, lacking empathy and the like, would perhaps help you excel even.
Some of those do sound like traits that a successful athlete would have.
I think that the ascent from humility to great fame and wealth, is one of the great narratives of modern sport. It's one of the things that we come to expect in sport. But the descent from that exalted position and into the gutter, is equally part of it. But I believe that possibly within less than twenty five years, what we know today as global sport will be utterly discredited. I think that when George Hincapie testified before the Grand Jury, that was an absolutely key moment in the history of the decline of global sport.
Here in the United States, Hincapie's testimony is clearly seen as important, and more than likely a turning point for some fans. But why do you view it as part of a bigger turn in sports in general, not just cycling?
Because Lance has traded on the narratives that sporting culture made available for many years, and he's reached the great pinnacles of what sport has to offer. So up until recently, he was certainly on many people's lists of great icons or heroes or whatever words people use to describe sports figures. Lance was certainly on those lists. And while you can throw facile dirt at other riders, you can't do so easily at George. And mind you, what is the definition of a confession? You had one story, which was a pack of lies, and then you changed it to one that is the truth. By the definition, and it's what the whole of religious experience, and the whole of juridical law is based on. It's this idea of transformation. So this idea that Landis or Tyler, or the rest of them, can't make a truthful statement because it's invalidated by the fact that it contradicts earlier statements they've made…well…that's exactly what a confession is!
But why is this a key moment in sport?
Because I think there's a cumulative effect at work, and I think the messianic approach that Lance has adopted and made a great deal of money out of, it's one that people swallowed. Personally, I think it' in very bad taste, but people believed it and when you surf the wave of global sport at its very peak, as he did, and you fall…well. Him falling invalidates many of those narratives that exist in sport. It's all very well for Olympic athletes to do it, like Marion Jones, but Lance is bigger than that. He is a symbol of something bigger.
Could Hincapie make his legacy greater, and perhaps more significant and lasting if right now he came forward and spoke openly about this? It's complicated, and there's a million other things at stake for him.
I don't know, I don't think he would. Let me put it this way, it takes a certain type of personality to take on history. You know? You need to be a Lance to do that. Hincapie had no choice but to testify, so his idea was not to take this on.
Without getting too much further into the Armstrong topic, what do you make of the power he's had over publishers and journalists over the years? You've mentioned that the publisher of the Pantani book tried to make you remove all mentions of Armstrong.
Yes, publishers are absolutely terrified of anything having to do with Armstrong. So they asked me if they could remove all mentions of Armstrong, and I said, "Yes you can! But if you do that, then remove the name of every other cyclist in the book. If you do that, then I'll be happy." Because it wouldn't have been fair. American exceptionalism can only go so far.
Aside from that book, did you feel any such pressure at other times in your career as a commentator or as a journalist as a result of Armstrong or someone else?
I'm having to think…I'm not sure. See, I have a bit of José Beyaert in me, but I also have a bit of Pantani in me, because I am a bit reckless myself. I'll give you an example of this. During the 2007 Tour, I was doing a daily podcast, which I do with Ned Boulting for ITV. I had gone to the Rasmussen press conference the day before, and someone asked him about his racing license from Monaco, and asked him if they had ever tested him. He said "no". So I asked about his Mexican racing license and if they had ever tested him, and he said "no". So in our podcast I said that Rasmussen had quite clearly chosen residency from places that would allow him to hold licenses from cycling federations that wouldn't test him. And for saying that, I was very nearly sent home. I was told that I had crucified him without evidence. But I was saved by the fact that Rasmussen was sent home that very night.
But you know, publishing has changed. I know of one author who is writing three books simultaneously. And for me, books are almost sacred objects, in part because for a time I was an academic historian. On the one hand, there's a tendency to gloss over points of controversy. On the other hand, as with Fignon's account of Colombians racing in Europe, there's a tendency to be controversial for the sake of it…while not necessarily placing things in their right context.
Considering the current state of things, do you think Kimmage and Walsh have a sense of vindication right now? Public opinion has changed as of late, as has the point of view of many in the press.
I think so, in part because they both chose to go about things the hard way. They really are the pioneers. And I published very hard words about David Walshs’s first investigative book about Lance Armstrong. I think I myself am vindicated in so far as he then re-wrote it as L.A. Officiel and then From Lance To Landis. He eventually re-wrote the same book. But those were hugely expensive pieces of investigative journalism, and when the world catches up with you, you can feel justified for feeling happy about that.
Paul Kimmage, during his days with Fagor. By the way, have you noticed how publications and websites seem to always use the same unflattering picture of Kimmage without fail? Will the picture change once the way he's viewed by some changes?
And as I see it, the relationship between print journalism and cycling has always been convoluted, since the races were originally sponsored and put on by newspapers. For some races, that's still the case. The legacy and the history of cycling has largely been told by the people who put on the races, which is unusual.
This is one of the very things that my book Significant Other is about. Cycling is a sport that you can't really see at once. You need a team of people, journalists, speaking to everyone to find out happened. Even at the Tour, where you think there's camera's everywhere, you actually have cameras nowhere, and you see very, very little. It all needs to be pieced together after the fact. In other sports, the events are all there, in the stadium, all within the field of vision. But cycling has that unusual relationship with the press. Because the media make the sport visible.
In your podcast, you recently spoke about the manner in which cycling is often portrayed these days...in black and white photography in an effort perhaps to bring forth the sentiment that is so common today, which is that of being “epic”. Cycling fans and companies didn’t invent this, but I do find it curious that fans are even willing to dress up in period garb in order to celebrate previous eras in cycling at times. It makes me feel like they’re missing the here and now. And perhaps I should include myself in that, because I think back very fondly on the 1980s. But I wont dress up in period-correct costume.
See, in a place like Colombia you wouldn’t have that [people in costume]. Under all circumstances, if someone gets on their bike, they’re being who they are. There is no costume. I find it slightly disturbing really, that the need for drama and costume exists in an attempt to assume another identity. And I think it’s something that Anglo-Saxon cultures have always done, dating back to Victorian anthropologists. Going out into these cultures, looking around, taking notes, and then coming back to write a set of rules or standards. Thus electing ourselves to be the arbiters of good practice.
After having observed the “savages” for a certain amount of time, and getting a taste of just how “real” their culture can be. And yet it's the pageantry that many are attracted to down the line.
Exactly. But I guess my take on how some see cycling is just me being out of step with my own culture. Because that’s just the way that British culture is going at the moment. You buy into things, and that’s a very telling expression, isn’t it? You “buy into” whatever it is that you are fascinated by.
And those fascinations largely define individuals.
Whether it’s cycling or whatever we buy into, we believe that whatever we choose to buy into, defines who we are. That’s the Anglo-Saxon way, we exercise choice, that’s a big thing, and through those choices we define ourselves to the world. But in reality, I think it’s the other way around. Our basic values have a claim on us. It’s not we that have a claim on those things. Like when we are ashamed, we don’t choose to feel ashamed. It’s those things that we have no choice over that define us. So people in Colombia for whom cycling is life, not a hobby they took up, those are the people that in my view truly own cycling. Or dancing, or whatever it is that they do.
And in the United States, that concept of choice is framed as Freedom, with a capital “F”, because a large amount of importance is placed on the things you chose through your Freedom. That has become a substantial portion of the ongoing American narrative.
1. Thanks to Matt for his time and patience with me. Make sure to follow his daily podcasts during the Tour once the race starts.
2. Books by Matt Rendell
3. My brother just posted the second part of the Lucho Herrera's story, which you can find here.