The Yellow Jersey–book review by Peter Marsh

A Saddlebag’s worth of  Cycling, Success and Sex

Back at the height of summer, I re-told the story of Tommy Simpson, the Englishman who died trying to capture the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. Now I’ve met another English rider who just might succeed where Simpson failed. His name is Terry Davenport, and he’s the hero of the cycling novel The Yellow Jersey by Ralph Hurne. Of course, a fictional win in the tour is a poor substitute for the real thing, but it’s raining outside – has been for days—and I need a shot of road racing excitement.

The world of cycling fiction is not just thin, it’s practically non-existent, so I suppose any novel that centers on the European circuit would do the trick. But Hurne wasn’t satisfied just to fictionalize a bunch of race reports when he wrote this book in 1972. He set out to create believable characters and a context for the action, and takes his time setting the scene in the first half of the book.

His leading character is a 37-year old, retired pro who is approaching his first mid-life crisis. Should he become a respectable, full-time coach, an antiques dealer in Ghent with his fiancee Paula, or continue to postpone his inevitable decline by scrounging off his friends and making sexual conquests in his spare time? Davenport, you see, is the kind of bloke we’d have called a “likely lad” in London 30 years ago. He’s always on the lookout for “a bit of crumpet” or anything that might spice up his life. Today, he’d be considered “a male chauvinist pig” plain and simple, but let’s not spoil everything with political correctness.

Terry inhabits a fictional world where every woman he meets adores him, all his European friends speak perfect English, and a washed-up rider can quickly develop enough fitness to ride the Tour de France as a mentor for the young, rising star of his team. Many pages are devoted to filling out these characters, although the more I learned about Davenport and his views on women, the more I wanted him to shut up, pull on his shorts, and get on his bike.

Terry seems quite unable to comprehend that the more time he spends in the bedroom, the more confused he becomes. His musette (shoulderbag) is stuffed full of very-English euphemisms so he can avoid any discussion of these intimacies. Why should he bother with anything too explicit when he routinely refers to a woman as “it?”

In true working class style, his world view is strictly limited to the basic social divisions he sees around him: male-female, boss-worker, English-foreigner. I don’t know if there’s any more equality among the sexes in Britain than there was in the 1970s, but to our hero, the greatest achievement for a woman is to become a “dolly bird” and gush over everything he says.

He has a crude, vulgar answer for everyone, even when he’s finally pulling on the Yellow Jersey after a mass pile-up and a drug bust gives him a moment of immortality. With this last, fleeting chance to prove himself, Hurne puts us all in the saddle as his hero struggles against his advancing age, the weather, and a peloton full of tough professionals.

I found the constant use of dated, English slang and abuse a bit sophomoric, but this might actually sound exotic to the American reader. And the romantic plot made me groan with embarrassment. What matters though is that I couldn’t put this book down until the early hours of another rainy day in November. Does Davenport have the right stuff to reach the Arc de Triomphe? Does he get any of the girls? Tighten up your toe straps if you want to find out!

$14.95 from VeloPress (a source for many cycling books)


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