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Interview: Cycling Journalist & Author William Fotheringham
By Giles Belbin
Date: 6/23/2009
Interview: Cycling Journalist & Author William Fotheringham

Interview: Cycling Journalist and Author William Fotheringham
The Daily Peloton talks to cycling journalist and author William Fotheringham about the sport, his career and his latest offering – “fallen angel: The Passion of Fausto Coppi”

DP: Hello William, thank you for taking the time to talk with DP

William Fotheringham: No worries

DP: When did you first become interested in cycling?

WF: When I was 12. I came out of school, my dad was listening to the car radio, it must have been the Alpe d'Huez stage of the 1977 Tour, because he told me all the guys at the back got eliminated - there was about 30 went home that day. Then he started getting me [French cycle magazine] Miroir du Cyclisme - probably the next year - because there was another day I came out of school in July, same thing, it was an early stage in the 1978 tour and Paul Sherwen was in the break. I read those Miroirs all summer, worked out the French, all that stuff. Then he took me to the Skol Six [six day track event that used to be held in London] so I got to see Barry Hoban & so on. Just part of being with my dad I guess

DP: So your dad was a big fan then, did he ride at all?

WF: He was a third cat in the late 1950s, rode with the BLRC [British League of Racing Cyclists], then just dropped out of it. I raced on his racing bike as a junior, a 1950s curly Hetchins with some of the old bits on it. He had these copies of Sporting Cyclist I used to read in the outside loo.

William Fotheringham
Photo courtesy of William Fotheringham

DP: Growing up who were your cycling heroes?

WF: Paul Sherwen, Graham Jones, Robert Millar, Bernard Hinault and Joop Zoetemelk when they had a big battle in the 1979 Tour.

DP: What was the media coverage like in the UK during the late 70s?

WF: I just read miroir du cyclisme & listened to Jean-Rene Godard on Europe 1. don't remember ever seeing it in a paper.... the first time I saw it on TV was on exchange in France.

DP: So these guys, and your dad must have provided the inspiration you to ride yourself. When did you start racing?

WF: [Riding] Club 10s, probably 1980. The usual sort of thing but I had to eat steak beforehand. I started road racing the next year but it was a disaster in retrospect.

DP: Why was that?

WF: You can get away with a heavy bike in a 10 but not in a proper road race, plus I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't get it together until I went to France when I was 19.

DP: You went to France at 19 to ride?

WF: I went to a club in Normandy called ES Livarot which had the two best amateurs in France - not that I knew when I asked them - Thierry Marie and Francois Lemarchand. So the club looked after me, sorted my kit out, got me riding lots of races so I could progress. The problem was before that there were so few races you would ride once a month and never learn if anything went wrong.

DP: What was life like as an amateur on a team like that?

WF: They were a good mix of professional and homely. They had two guys going to the Olympic Games but it didn't matter that I was a 3rd cat, they just loved the fact that I was there and they could get some publicity out of me. They found me a part-time job, a flat, a guy to travel with, kit at trade price, and [gave me] lots of encouragement.

DP: How did you progress?

WF: I kept falling off because it was 200-up fields most of the time, but I won one race, should have won another. Considering I'd barely got round a race in bunch in Britain it was pretty dramatic.

DP: Sounds like a steep learning curve. How long were with them for?

WF: I did most of 1984, and a decent spell in 1985 which was the best because I went with no form and just got better to the point where I'd be away all day getting primes. The thing was that Chippers [3rd and 4th Cat. races] were serious business with good money in France back then.

DP: So what happened after '85?

WF: I went to university and the racing became a bit intermittent.

DP: You studied languages at university, were you considering writing as a future career or not at that point?

WF: I didn't really start to think about writing until my final year. I didn't want to do the student journalist thing, because I wasn't one to put myself forward for anything. It just happened when I realised it might be a way to earn a living, but when you put it together - languages, writing, cycling, it all fits.

DP: How did you go about getting from language graduate to writer?

WF: I wrote a couple of freelance pieces, one for Winning, one for Cycling, which were both linked to racing in Normandy, and got a job at a magazine called Bicycle Action on the strength of that. Amazing to think of it now.

DP: And that was where you learned your profession?

WF: Not really. I just did what was needed, which was to write about anything and everything. I guess there I learned that writing wasn't that difficult. I really learned at Cycling Weekly, I went there about six months after starting at BA, and I got a fair bit of help from Martin Ayres.

You had to do sub-editing there, basically rewriting the weekend race reports and doing your own, re-jigging stories off the agencies. It was all deadline stuff and if you were up for it, there was a lot to be learned.

DP: Must have been a great place to work, if fast paced! Were you there until you went to Procycling?

WF: Martin left I think in 1991, a couple of years after I got there, and I was there until 1998 with Andy Sutcliffe - just writing, writing, writing. Procycling came after that, when Andy left and asked me to go with him.

DP: That was when Procycling launched?

WF: Jeremy Whittle and I launched it in March 1999, with Andy as publisher. It was a bit of a rough ride because it was a start-up company but I think we really moved cycling magazines forward, trying to make them prettier, more dramatic, faster paced and net-linked.

DP: That must have been a huge jump for you, to go from an established weekly to a whole new start up, especially one aiming to be so fresh.

WF: It was a huge learning curve because Cycling Weekly was an institution where there was total economic security, but it was hard to actually change anything. Here [Procycling] we could do anything we wanted but we were on a knife-edge.

DP: Was that the inspiration then to bring change to cycle mags?

WF: Jeremy and I both felt that it could be done in a far fresher way and Andy just loved magazines. We wanted wacky photography, in-depth profiles, that kind of thing.

DP: How would you say your experience as a rider in France has influenced your writing? Paul Kimmage has famously written about the difficulties he faced as an ex-rider turned journalist, can you empathise with that at all?

WF: Not really because I was never really a proper racer. I had no illusions that I was going anywhere after my first race in 1981. I just wanted to go to France and see what I could do [whereas] Kimmage....nearly won the Milk Race and came 5th in the worlds. What France gave me was fluent French, plus some sense of what happens in a bike race.

[What influenced me] comes down to three people. My mum or dad got me Geoff Nicholson's The Great Bike Race when I was 12, and I read it to bits. Then I got to see a lot of Geoff and Stephen Bierley at the Tour when I was only 24 or 25, and did a Tour with Alan Fraser, who taught me to look for a story every day.

DP: So it was those guys who influenced your writing more than your racing experience.

WF: Yes, exactly. I think spending a Tour in a car with Alan Fraser when I hadn't been out much was quite important. And I would read Steve and Geoff's stuff later when I got home and mentally compare it with what I'd seen and heard. Plus we would be in the hotel having dinner every night. I was given Steve's job covering the Tour freelance in 1994 and that was very important. Again it happened very young.

DP: It must have great to have learned from people like that, what's a typical day like covering the Tour, or is there no such thing?

WF: Typically I would try to do the start, then try to see some of the route while keeping in touch via race radio and French radio, then watch the last 50k at least on television, then try to pull together something from all that. The difficulty is trying to balance the logistics every day.

DP: It must lead to long days with tight deadlines, especially these days with the pressure to post instantly on line.

WF: It's a killer. That's why I'm glad I'm not going this year. I'll be 10 years younger this August.

DP: You'll just be following it on TV then?

WF: Yes. It's not always that bad, it's a huge privilege to be there, but the problem is you come back in a box. It's got a lot harder since 1998, because you are constantly waiting for a drug scandal, there always is one, and those kind of stories move all day and all evening so you never ever stop.

DP: Can you talk a little about your view on technology in the sport, radios for instance and the impact good or bad you think it has?

WF: Radios are a disaster in terms of the racing, but I think a good counterbalance to the increased danger with road furniture etc. I'd ban them because for me part of bike racing is that the guys should think for themselves and there should be time for stuff to happen.

DP: So you think the races are too controlled from the team cars?

WF: Exactly. If you compare the Indurain tours and the Armstrong tours, they were trying to control the race in the same way but it's just got too machine-esque now.

DP: That brings us nicely on to tactics. In “fallen angel” you wrote about Coppi's impact on tactics and his targeting of specific stages and then riding defensively. This is all we see now in Grand Tours which sometimes leads to defensive final weeks, should this be countered in some way?

WF: I think it's always been that way. Anquetil was hammered for allegedly riding defensively, I remember 1981 and 1982 as deadly dull Hinault tours, and the Indurain tours were controlled. Same with Merckx except he kept attacking. Really exciting, edge of the seat last weeks of the Tour were quite rare I think, but the last two have been decided late.

DP: The UCI have finally published some results of their bio passport scheme. What do you think about the battle to clean the sport up? Is genuine progress being made?

WF: Yes, I think so, because more and more seem to be getting caught for various reasons. The only downer is that a lot of rider's mindsets seem not to have changed and they think they can get away with it. I assumed after 1998 [the Festina affair] everyone would see sense, I think more have now, but it's shocking how long it takes.

DP: Let's talk about your latest book, “fallen angel”, why do you choose Coppi?

WF: It followed naturally from Simpson, [Fotheringham's previous biography was an acclaimed account of the life of British rider Tom Simpson who died on the slopes of Mont Ventoux]. Coppi was the other great tragic hero. Like with Tom I felt the story hadn't been told in depth in English, but I also really wanted to look at Italian culture. Coppi is far more of a cultural phenomenon, much more part of Italy than Tom is part of Britain.

DP: Both died young and that fact has of course had an impact on how they're perceived. Is that something that particularly interests you?

WF: Not as such but they are just very deep human stories with an added edge because of the tragic ending. All romantics like the whole 'live fast die young' thing.

DP: Can you explain a little about the process you undertake, do you complete all interviews and research before starting to write?

WF: Usually most of the research is done before the writing. You have a hit list of interviewees and background books to start with. Sometimes you go back for a second visit or begin to discover angles which aren't obvious to start with as you write, but the bones are there beforehand.

DP: Was it easy to get access to family for interviews and to get them to open up, particularly in relation to his [Coppi's] affair?

WF: Everyone was amazingly helpful but I think so much has been said and written about the affair that it was hard to talk about. There's a lot left unsaid.

DP: You get that impression from the book. How long did it take to finish?

WF: From first interview to final proofs it was over four years. Not all that time writing but it was a long process, often interrupted.

DP: As you pull together all the information and build a picture of your subjects, do you feel a kind of bond to them, even though you can never meet them or talk with them?

WF: It wasn't as close with Coppi as it was with Simpson, because there I had access to personal letters which were in my first language. With Coppi there's a language barrier, but things like the letter from his aunt which I use as an opener [sent] shivers down the spine.

DP: Have you any other books in the pipeline?

WF: I've got two projects on the go which I will reveal in the fullness of time. I like to keep people guessing.

DP: Fair enough. The tour starts soon, what do you make of this year's route?

WF: [The] last weekend with the Ventoux will have massive hype, let's hope it lives up to it.

DP: Prediction time. How many wins for Mark Cavendish and care to give me your stab at the Paris GC podium?

WF: Four again for Cav and I reckon [Alberto] Contador, [Cadel] Evans, and someone from left field for the podium, [Denis] Menchov maybe.

DP: Evans second again? Interesting. Finally over all the years you've been covering the sport, do you have a favourite story or anecdote you'd like to share?

WF: Laurent Fignon getting vertigo on the Eiffel Tower for Cycling Weekly in 1992 was good. And the way he parked his car.

DP: The way he parked his car?

WF: It was a vast 4x4 which he parked Parisian style - bump into the one behind, bump into the one in front. Total class. And the pictures of him looking learned in a book shop were classic.

DP: Excellent. Thank you for your time William.

WF: Thank you.

Book Review: fallen angel - The Passion of Fausto Coppi

fallen angel - The Passion of Fausto Coppi
by William Fotheringham
(ISBN 9780224074476)
Available now, published by Yellow Jersey Press.

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