This is the story of Luis Ocaña, the champion cyclist whose entire career constantly veered between heroism and tragedy, always missing out the middle way. Born into abject poverty during Spain’s ‘years of hunger’ and brought up in France, throughout his adult life he suffered from the effects of his childhood malnutrition and the perpetual question of self-identity – the common lot of the exile – Spanish or French or neither one nor the other? Enigmatic and contradictory, Ocaña was driven by a fierce pride, and an all-or-nothing scorn for caution and careful calculation which made him one of the most dramatically exciting riders ever.
This is a biography that has been a long time in the making. Carlos Arribas, cycling correspondent of the newspaper El País, and Spain’s foremost cycling author, has spent years compiling the material and admits that, even as a child, he was affected by Ocaña’s repeated misfortunes.
What he has written is more than a conventional biography. He defines it as a ‘fictionalised life story’, or a ‘biographical novel’. All the duly documented facts are there, but to that solid skeleton has been added the flesh and blood of imagined (but totally plausible) conversations, meetings and encounters. These are are not mere decoration; they serve perfectly to recreate the emotions and recollections of those who knew him, encountered him, loved him, or coped with him. They also provide a compelling entry into exploring the complex personality of Ocaña himself.
‘If I was going to write just one story about
cycling it would have to be that of Ocaña. He was the cyclist who made
us fall in love with cycling, who made us sense the truth of this
sport: love, happiness and tragedy.’
(translated by Aad Janssen
& Adrian Bell)
First published in Spain in 2013
First published in UK in 2014
Translated by Antonio Cuadrado-Fernández and Adrian Bell
Paperback £14.95 + £2.00 p&p
Ocaña - extract
even in conversation with members of the cognoscenti regarding the halcyon days of yore, when bicycles were of lugged steel, with brake cables that came out the top of the hoods and gear changing was effected by two levers on the down tube, the same names will be regularly mentioned. fausto coppi, gino bartali, jacques anquetil, raymond poulidor, eddy merckx and perhaps even tommy simpson. though not all from the same era, you might be forgiven for thinking this not to be the case.
black and white photography has an uncanny ability to be a great leveller. though road surfaces, team jerseys and bicycles may alter over time, the imagery from the mid-fifties all the way up until colour photography made its presence known, would perhaps have you believe that the aforementioned riders were at one time, all in the same race. that, of course, is very much not the case, but in the course of such discussions, there is often one rider missing and conspicuous by his absence.
then, as now, riders tend to be classified on their tour de france performances, and ocana's sole victory in the french race in 1973 hardly ranks with his peers. despite a career that seemed obsessed with besting eddy merckx (an obsession that was hardly his alone), his fragility and somewhat unorthodox, attacking style did not commend him to the top spot of le tour's podium. yet his palmares is nonetheless impressive over a career spanning fifteen years, riding for fagor, bic, super ser and latterly, frisol gazelle. as publisher adrian bell mentioned in an e-mail "You wait years for a book and then two come along at the same time."
he is, of course, referring to the recently reviewed excellent ocana biography by alasdair fotheringham. this particular instance is written by el pais cycling correspondent, carlos arribas, but lest you concern yourselves over whether there is space on an overburdened bookshelf for one more testament to a largely ignored cyclist, this one is a tad different.
to quote from the introduction "It is customary in works of fiction to warn readers that any resemblance to reality that they might encounter in the lines they are about toread is pure coincidence. I would like to warn my readers that in this particular book, any resemblance to reality is not coincidental.". why so, you may well ask? arribas continues: "...what I finally produced is a book that resembles more a fictionalised life, or a biographical novel, whichever you prefer to call it."
in case you find yourself no wiser, let me explain. the content of ocana is indeed a faithful biography of ocana's life, right up to and slightly past the point where he took his own life in 1994. however, rather than describe each and every stage of that illustrious career from the outside looking in, arribas has placed us firmly as flies on the wall.
"Most of the situations narrated and described in the book, as well as the dialogues guiding such narrations... are like scenes from a film." that very accurately describes what follows; if anyone ever has the gumption to make a film of ocana's life, this is very likely what the screenplay would look like. looked at in this respect, there is every danger that such an undertaking would come across as undeniably cheesy, for how can anyone truly know the conversations that transpired between luis and his team-mates, managers, parents, wife? let me tell you that by the time you're even part way through chapter one, you'll believe every word to be true.
every saturday i purchase the guardian newspaper, partly because i find the motoring reviews in the colour supplement to be remarkably humorous, but mostly for the review section. however, while i am happy to read almost all the reviews of the non-fiction, i pretty much skip past the fiction section and make for the author interviews and art appreciation sections. though my sixth year studies in english while still at school were filled to overflowing with lord of the rings and pretty much every book ever written by thomas hardy, supplemented by a decent helping of shakespeare, other than tim krabbe's the rider, i cannot recall the last work of fiction that appeared on my reading list.
i therefore had serious misgivings prior to beginning arribas' ocana. yet he has, in my opinion, pulled off the impossible. few of his fictionalised conversations arouse any suspicion that he might have over egged the pudding. "But I would have liked to have made my farewell to all that at the Montjuic hill climb. I said that to Sabater the organiser, hoping he'd know how to reward me for the gesture, but what he did was to insult me. He offered me 75,000 pesetas, half what he was giving to others, as if I, Luis Ocana were a Mister Nobody. I told him he could stick it up his arse. I went back to my estate in France and there it all ended."
while the more regular autobiography presents chapters in a rider's life as a series of lows and highs, peppered with exploits and misfortunes, arribas, by means of dialogue brings a most satisfying levelling to ocana's timeline. even the oft repeated incident where ocana fell off in a rain soaked downhill pursuit of merckx, being subsequently hit by following riders and abandoning while in yellow, is narrated but with considerably less emphasis than read elsewhere. i find that far more realistic an appreciation of events; few happenings in life, other than births, weddings and perhaps deaths, gain such isolated importance. life goes on whatever the circumstances.
perhaps this biography of ocana succeeds because of its uniqueness and the undoubted skill of the author; i can think of few others who could, or would want to carry off a similar appreciation of one of cycling's greats. however, writing of this quality and style may very well make inroads into the reading lists of those who count themselves not only amongst the non-cognoscenti, but quite possibly those who have little or no interest in cycling in the first place.
and of all the recent books published about cycling's many facets, this has by far the most apt and monochromatically excellent cover.
sunday 10 august 2014