Daniel De Visé on his new book The Comeback
The Sox have done it again this week, winning the fourth World Series in 15 years. You can’t walk down the street without seeing a proud fan sauntering with a Red Sox cap cocked on their head. A little over a hundred years ago, though, baseball wasn’t the biggest sport in town, journalist Daniel de Visé told DigBoston. It was cycling.
De Visé is the author of a new book on American cycling called The Comeback: Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France. His book chronicles the ups and downs of LeMond’s cycling career—from his humble California beginnings, to becoming the first American to win the Tour de France, to his remarkable recovery from a near-fatal hunting accident to win the tour again.
De Visé is coming to Boston to talk about his book at Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Sunday, Nov 4. DigBoston talked to him about his book, cycling in Boston, and how cycling makes for thrilling reading even when it’s boring on TV.
In the author’s note, you recall the moment you had the idea to write the book as a “jolt” when you realized the 1989 Tour de France was perfect for a book as a “great forgotten story.”
Greg LeMond’s victory by eight seconds that year was the greatest bicycle race of them all, but I think it’s not just a great cycling story. I think it’s actually one of the all-time greatest narrative sports stories in any athletic endeavor. It’s not just one comeback. Really it’s multiple comebacks. The first is how Greg survives sexual abuse as a young man. Riding hundreds and hundreds of miles on his bike helped him overcome that pain and shame. Then he goes to Europe, and he’s almost the first American to go there and rise to the top, and becomes the first American to win the Tour de France. All of Europe was against him. The third was when he gets shot in a hunting accident—almost dies—and has to recover. Then, after Greg retires, he has this terrible faceoff with Lance Armstrong for many years. LeMond is the first to question whether Armstrong was for real.
You begin the book with a dramatic retelling of the final time trial that would determine the champion of the 1989 Tour de France between LeMond and Laurent Fignon. Then you leave us hanging and dive into the details of LeMond’s family. Ten pages later, you take us to an athlete’s banquet in 1927 New York. What motivated the organization of your book?
I wanted the book to be not just understandable but potentially gripping to somebody who wasn’t necessarily into cycling. I wanted to set out all the terms of cycling to someone who might not know them. Over the course of the book, I break away from my narrative to describe the history of cycling and to describe the weird, bizarre spectacular that is the Tour de France. I wanted to highlight the fact that in Boston in 1905, say, bicycle racing was a lot more popular than baseball.
You note the first recorded bicycle race in the United States was held on May 24, 1878, in Beacon Park here in Boston. What is the history of the sport here?
A lot of the first activity in bicycle racing was in that part of the country. A Bostonian named Frank Weston founded the American Bicycling Journal in 1877. The next year saw the founding of the nation’s first bicycle club, the Boston Bicycle Club. Massachusetts winds up being a particularly hospitable place for Major Taylor, the first African-American world champion in cycling and really in any sport. He was based out of Massachusetts because it was the only state where he was allowed to participate in racing.
After bicycling faded as a US sport, Boston and Massachusetts remained vital to the racing network that remained, much of it concentrated in the Northeast. The Tour of Somerville, run since 1940, is the oldest continuous bicycle competition in the country.
If cycling isn’t big in this country anymore, books about it certainly aren’t. Where does your book fit in?
In Europe, in France, England, Ireland, Holland, Germany—there is a large body of nostalgic literature about cycling. In this country there’s no such thing. Most of the cycling books you find in bookstores are like Wheelman, they are scandal books about doping. I’m pretty sure this book is the only one that is a nostalgic book about cycling. I wrote it to be something that would celebrate cycling and provide some uplift to those who feel kind of bitter about what cycling has become.
The bigger ambition of my book was to try to write a work of narrative nonfiction that reads like a novel. I aspired to make this read like Seabiscuit, Moneyball, or The Boys in the Boat. All of these books broke out of their niche genre and people who didn’t necessarily know much about the sport still read it. Likewise, I want people who aren’t even cyclists to think it’s just a good read.
You mention loving cycling in the authors note—“the hypnotic rhythm, the bucolic scenery, and the rush of accomplishment that came after a long ride” (pg. 329). How does writing a book about cycling compare?
I’m now, more than ever, convinced that bicycle racing is a great sport to read about. Watching it can be challenging. When you watch the Tour de France, it’s almost more like watching French scenery for a while. The action often comes in the last 10 minutes. Ninety percent is just guys riding their bikes around. It’s really cool to read about bicycle racing, though. If you write it up you can harness all the drama and suspense. It’s better than just sitting and watching for five hours.
THE COMEBACK. SUN 11.4, 7PM. TRIDENT BOOKSELLERS & CAFE, 338 NEWBURY ST., BOSTON. TRIDENTBOOKSCAFE.COM