– He doesn’t steal the bottle from the Euskatel soigneur. Rather, it’s offered to him. If you’re feeling dramatic, you call it chivalry. To the less-excitable, it’s simple courtesy. Define the moment as you will, but it was my favorite detail of the 2013 Paris-Roubaix.
– Strategic use of road furniture is my second favorite.
– When it comes to native English-speaking domestiques, Charly Wegelius isn’t a hall of famer in the vein of Sean Yates or George Hincapie. Those two were doomslayers, immortal for their year-round ability to create or clean up bloody messes in the peloton. Not only was Wegelius more sporadic in terms of the impact of his presence, but even when he was at his best, he didn’t achieve greatness.
While Wegelius has gone down in history as a medium-plus quality domestique, that doesn’t mean his story is uninteresting. Cannon fodder have feelings, too, and their stories are arguably more compelling because of the familiarity of the themes. Frustration and failure appear throughout Wegelius’ memoir “Domestique – The True Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Cyclist.”
Wegelius’ narrative shines brightest in the moments when his voice seems most unguarded. The best example — and probably the highlight of the book — is the awe he conveys upon his first visit in 2000 to the luxe training compound and apartment provided by his neo-pro sponsor, Mapei. It’s a chapter that should’ve been titled “From Squalor To Squinzi.” Up until then, Wegelius had stormed the French amateur racing scene despite living in conditions he remembers for their filth and claustrophobia. It’s the typical stuff of good sports books: Think of the country bumpkin fireballer who sets foot for the first time in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse. The genuineness of Wegelius’ awe is golden.
His honesty reveals itself in other fascinating ways. His description of his first-ever Grand Tour, the 2002 Vuelta a Espana, is a veritable Book of Job. By then he’d been a pro for three years, but he’d had yet to do a three-week tour. The time for him doesn’t pass as much as it crumbles, with crisply-worded exhaustion and despair at every turn. Few narratives of bike racing woe will leave you feeling more spent. Almost equally draining is his account of first meeting Cadel Evans after joining the Lotto team. It was a small dinner to which Cadel brought his wife and Wegelius came with his fiancé. According to Wegelius, the small talk simply wouldn’t come. It was two hours of crickets, which foreshadowed a painful season of social dysfunction from Cadel through the entirety of 2009.
In terms of leapfrogging from anecdote to anecdote, “Domestique” is one of the more satisfying books written by an ex-pro. But it is also exceptional in the ways in which it annoys. Wegelius’ account of the last part of his career doesn’t exude a vibe of gravitas (something best evidenced in Michael Barry’s “Le Metier”). His pettiness and vindictiveness dominate instead. In places it’s trivial, like his still-strong pissiness at the quality of rider hotels at the Tour de France. In other places it’s massive, most notably his unbridled hatred for the British Cycling Federation, which compelled him to take an under-the-table payment from the Italian team at the 2005 World Championship Road Race. Throughout the second half of the book, Wegelius’ crankiness grows hotter and hotter. As the bitterness and resentment go from simmer towards boil, “Domestique” verges on becoming less a memoir than a bitch session.
Yet in the final few dozen pages, Wegelius makes a comeback. It surrounds his final Grand Tour, the 2010 Tour de France. After a very good Giro, his ramp-up for the Tour was compromised by a deep-seated fatigue he couldn’t shed. Once the Tour came, a feverish illness demolished him. He spent the rest of the year like a zombie. There are times when the prose goes purple and ghost writer Tom Southam shows his cards as a frustrated novelist. But outside of a few overcooked phrases, it’s an unforgettable account of six months lost to total physical and mental emptiness.
If for no other reason, “Domestique” is worth reading simply for the rich detail of its anecdotes (I’ll now begin to emulate Wegelius’ practice of bringing a “blackout kit” to hotel rooms.) But in the honest appraisals of the people, the races, and the places Wegelius encountered through his lengthy pro career, it brings added color — albeit much of it dark — to the sport we love most.