Paul Howard’s book Sex, Lies, and Handlebar Tape tells the remarkable life of French cycling legend Jaques Anquetil. Anquetil was the most successful cyclist of his day and probably held that title until Eddy Merckx come along and won everything. Anquetil was the first rider to win the Tour de France 5 times, he set two hour records, though only one counted, he won the Giro and the Vuelta, and he won almost every time trial he ever entered. Even though his palmares speak for themselves Anquetil was outspoken and unconventional, especially in his personal life.
Paul Howard’s book is unconventional in the arena of cycling biographies. Most cycling biographies I’ve read are typically light and fluffy ghostwritten books, but there are occasional hard hitting character studies. Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape definitely isn’t light and fluffy. It’s a very well researched and very complete portrait of a man drawing from several of the books already written and the authors manyinterviews with his friends and family. It’s much longer and more detailed then any other cycling biography I’ve read, and it’s wordy. Paul Howard is an English journalist and uses language just a bit differently then I’m accustomed too. There were several words in this book that I don’t think I’ve ever seen.
As I said the book is well researched and the first few chapters which tell the story of Anquetil’s ancestory and early life feel a bit long. In fact I wasn’t sure if I’d even finish the book after the first few chapters. At times the book can feel more like a collection of block quotes then a book. Several books have been written about Jaques and Howard borrows large passages from all of them.
Eventually Anquetil grows up and begins racing and the book starts to become much more interesting. Anquetil didn’t follow the traditional cycling conventions, for instance he ate and drank as he pleased and stayed out late dancing before races. He was openly honest about some of the darker areas of the sport such as doping and deals worked out between riders to purchase assistance, or even races outright. His second hour record was struck down because he refused to take a drug test after completing the ride.
He was a highly calculating rider and was frank about his chief motivation of making money. Cyclists of his day were not paid like athletes of today, those who wanted big money had to make a name for themselves in the Tour then collect large appearance fees in the Post Tour Criterium races that were held all over France. He could have probably won the Tour de France more then 5 times but saw no reason too, winning it again he’d already maxed out his appearance fees.
As the book winds up I kept turning the pages faster and faster. Anquetil’s wild life and amazing accomplishments continue to amaze, but the final chapter is the one that will leave you scratching your head. Anquetil’s unconventional personal life was hinted at early in the book, but it’s not expanded upon until the end. I’d rather avoid spoilers so I’ll just recommend you read the book and find out. It’ll require a bit more effort then a fluffy ghost written autobiography but it’s so much more rewarding.