THIS month marks the official start of GMST (Gobshite’s Miscellany Summer Time). It sees the end of cycling’s first grand tour, the Giro d’Italia, and Armagh’s first match in the All Ireland Gaelic Football Championship.
Both started badly with a blood doping accused winning the Giro (Denis Menchov, albeit in very dramatic terms) and with Armagh taking a bit of hiding from Tyrone – the muck savages from over the sheugh. (Irish for drain – in this case the River Blackwater)
Summer starts with the Giro and the first round of the GAA provincial competitions and then moves to the great sporting monuments of the season: Le Tour de France in July and then culminates in the six weekend marathon of drama that is the battles for the two greatest team game titles on the planet – the All Ireland hurling and gaelic football championships.
Nothing tops gaelic games for righteousness on any number of levels. In terms of skill, physicality and stamina nothing comes close, no matter what those convict derived-brutish-enthral-to-Yankee-sport-Aussies decree.
Secondly, nothing comes close to engendering the true nature of amateur team sport in the face of encroaching globalised capitalism than the GAA, a sport whose heroes (usually) are linked in an umbilical fashion to their parishes, clubs and counties in a way that doesn’t exist in the modern world.
That millions travel to grounds across the 32 Counties, often on fools’ errands, and get up at all hours to watch it on satellite TV across the world in our diaspora enhances its righteousness yet further.
It is the very definition of an unthreatening, celebratory united Irishness that modern politics, partition and pretentiousness can’t kill.
Grand tour cycling, and le Tour especially, are the reverse of GAA as the ultimate expression of the individual in an endurance sport.
Thousands of kilometres through France, with several days over the highest mountains with roads, the drama lies in the simplicity of (usually) two riders battling mano-a-mano, eyes out up the highest peaks and in sharp, tough time trials.
There may be team tactics and politics which may have a greater or lesser influence on deciding who takes the maillot jaune (yellow jersey) depending on conditions, but usually one man is stronger than the other, and it is played out brutally in real time for all to see.
In 1987, Stephen Roche showed how far one (Irish) man has to go into his physical reserves to get the greatest prize in cycling. It transfixed the nation, even if Armagh lost the Ulster final on the day of the Ventoux time trial won by Jean Francois Bernard.
The commentary from Phil Ligget in this clip shows the fine line between defeat and glory - Roche went on and won this tour three days later.
The Tour renders the gladiatorial beauty of sport in its starkest most brutal way.
But this time of the year always sees me looking towards the best books, especially about cycling and GAA, to give me succour away on holliers in France. There’ll be no away days in Brittany or the Vendee this year, but the (re)reading will continue nevertheless.
So this is my download and keep guide to the best GAA and cycling books.
Push Yourself a Little Bit Further Johnny Green – former Clash roadie gives an outsider’s view on the surrealist, multi-coloured caravan of obsession that is Le Tour. Not a cycling book per se, but a book about the cultural and political connotations of the tour, the fact that it's by the man who used to catch Joe Strummer’s ‘Ignore Alien Life forms’ Telecaster makes it even easier to love.
Hurling: The Glory Years Denis Walsh – Why do amateur sportsmen put themselves through the tortures of professional sport? This is an insightful look at an ancient game in transition to modern sports practice. It has men living in tents and pulling lorry tyres up sand dunes for the love of their county, and for no other reason than that love. An unbelievable read, purchased for 25p in Southport.
Rough Ride Paul Kimmage - The multiple award winning Sunday Times sports writer was a domestique with the RMO team when he won Channel 4’s 1986 Tour rider competition despite being the lanterne rouge (finishing last). This book openly discusses the physical and mental hardships of racing a bike professionally day-in-day-out and the systematic use of drugs that often results from it. For that, Kimmage was accused of ‘spitting in the soup’ by fellow pros. However, reading the excerpts in the (still) old style broadsheet Sunday Independent while dangling over the couch in my ma and da’s house in the years post Roche 1987 were a thrilling insight for me into the fabled pro peloton.
An Illustrated History of the GAA Eoghan Corry - a peerless, beautiful, book that puts the Gah in its social historic perspective. Mick Mackey and Christy Ring cutting lumps out of one another, cardinals throwing the ball in for the final, the first Bloody Sunday, Mick O’Connell, Dublin v Kerry and the sea of Orange on September 22, 2002. THE essential toilet book. I’ll leave the Seinfeld reference unflagged.
Tour de Force Dan Coyle – despite the author’s Tyrone name, this is an insightful guide to the obsessive professionalism of Lance Armstrong. Not an easy man to like, Armstrong becomes more understandable from this study by Sports Illustrated’s celebrated writer. Armstrong’s attention to detail, his single mindedness come as a given. However, his need to control everything, including cycling writers however comes across as mean and small minded, no matter how favourable Coyle is.
The supporting cast of Cheryl Crowe (Juanita Crow), Robin Williams and Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell make the whole trip a bit more extreme, man, but the subsequent drug cheating fates of his team leave a gaping ethical hole in the achievements. Roberto Heras and Floyd Landis are both there prior to doping bans while former team mate Tyler Hamilton is present despite moving from the US Postal team to CSC.
A man of unresolved issues, Armstrong’s focus, despite its faults, is an inspiration – all truly, good sport books need an inspirational actor at the centre and this one has it. No matter how troubling the reading between the lines brings.
Dublin v Kerry Tom Humphries - This is, perhaps, the greatest book ever written about the intense rivalry betweens two teams in any sport.
The Dublin and Kerry gaelic football showdowns of the 1970s/1980s did, and for once the rhetoric is justified, transfix and divide a nation. My father hates gaelic football but my entry to the GAA family came watching Dublin Kerry in the living room of our old house in 1978.
Even at 5-years-old the colour and power of the occasion hit me. It changed me forever – all I ever wanted to do was play for Armagh at Croke Park after that. This book conveys the madness of amateur players physically and mentally torturing themselves for a sport.
At times brutal and tear-jerking, Humphries also shows why GAA writing is better than any on the Premiership. GAA players are amateur and are as yet not surrounded by a shield of PR and press offices, you get a sense of what the time and the people were about. It has access all areas to the deepest secrets of each team and none of the senior protagonists holds back.
It also shows the dark side of retirement, when the glory days are over – alcoholism, depression and death. But ultimately, it shows the camaraderie and glory of GAA teams that helped transform the games and the nation. The funeral scene near the end is the greatest set piece of any sports book I have ever read. A book to cherish forever.