Off-The-Back Grumpies

Wide-Eyed and Legless: Inside the Tour de France by Jeff Connor, 1988.

This book is long since out-of-print and has eluded me for years. Finally, through the magic of ebay, I purchased a copy from a bookseller in Australia.

Jeff Connor spent the 1987 Tour de France embedded with the British ANC-Halfords squad and pulled no punches chronicling their trial by fire in the team’s first and only Tour appearance. The book assumes the reader has virtually no knowledge of cycling since that’s what British sportswriter Jeff Connor possessed before his editors sent him to France, but the educational elements don’t seem too gratuitous. What the book deftly delivers is the internal power struggles of mixed nationality management and staff (British, Belgian, German, French), creative financing (none of the riders received payment due to the bankruptcy of the title sponsor during the Tour, echoing the future debacles of Le Groupement, Linda McCartney, Mercury/Viatel, Team Coast), and the wholly improbable cast of characters thrown to the wolves-Brits Malcolm Elliot, Graham Jones, Paul Watson, and Adrian Timmis, Aussie Shane Sutton, Czech defector Kvetoslav Palov, Frenchmen Bernard Chesneau and Guy Gallopin, and the scourge of Lance Armstrong, youthful Kiwi Steve Swart. Malcolm Elliot was the team’s star and came oh so close to winning stage 12, but the team’s fortunes were unflatteringly summed up by one of only 4 ANC riders to finish, Czech Kvetoslav Palov, “We have done nothing”.

I remember a phrase coined by some anonymous Cat 2 rider in New England regarding the feeling of getting dropped but still persevering to the finish: “off-the-back grumpies”. Every little thing would piss him off- a piece of litter, a smoking spectator polluting a small section of the course’s air, someone on the side of the road wearing a stupid hat, sharing a paceline with riders wearing ugly jerseys, in other words just about anything and everything was eligible fodder for venting the humiliation of being shelled. Off-the-back grumpies aptly sums up the collective mood of ANC-Halford’s riders, mechanics, soigneurs, and director sportif, but what a story they tell in the background of Delgado’s and Roche’s duel for Tour de France supremacy.

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