BOOK REVIEW: Le Métier by Michael Barry

REVIEW: Le Métier - the Seasons of a Professional Cyclist

by Michael Barry with photographs by Camille. J. McMillan (3rd Edition)

Published  in paperback by Rouleur Books (an imprint of Bloomsbury)  RRP: £30.00

Review by Dave Nash

Michael Barry is a Canadian and a former professional cyclist. From 2010 he rode for Team Sky and prior to that with Mark Cavendish at HTC Highroad. From 2002 to 2006 he was a member of the US Postal Service, along with Lance Armstrong.  He was the consummate professional.  He was also a doper. He is also a very gifted writer.

This is the third edition of Le Métier, Barry's eloquent  and brutally honest study of the life of the professional cyclist.  Barry rode as a domestique - a role in which he excelled and his writing will leave you full of admiration for the many cyclists who toil selflessly, often anonymously, for the good of the team.  He details the suffering, the inherent dangers and the sacrifice that the professional cyclist has to endure  

Engaging from beginning to end, Barry sets out to define 'le métier' - a word that does not have a literal English translation, but encapsulates the very essence of cycling - 'the traditions, experience and knowledge' - that the neo-pro will start to gather the moment his or her wheels start to turn in the professional peloton. In doing so,  Barry offers his reader an intriguing insight into the psyche of the professional cyclist and the attributes and dedication that are required to succeed.

'Our mental strength is in its elasticity and tenacity - like the physical strength, the mental strength is built while training and racing in contrasting extremes . . . In extremes I learn about myself and my limits.'

Barry breaks down his examination of le métier into the seasonal calendar of the professional. Our journey begins in Winter - a time of the year when he can unwind from the rigours of the season just past, yet slowly build up the fitness levels ready for the early season and the Spring Classics. 

He writes with great fondness of his friendship with the British cyclist David Millar, a fellow resident of Girona, and their gentle training sessions into the mountains that wrap around the city. This is one of the few occasions in the book where we mere mortals can identify with Barry and, no doubt, he with us. These are as close to recreational rides as the professional cyclist is likely to come. Unhindered by the necessity to push themselves too hard, they have the freedom and time to gossip, discover new routes and enjoy the beauty of the hills. They can even enjoy coffee and cake in local cafés.  This chapter, dovetailed by the wonderfully evocative photographs of Camille J. McMillan, will leave you hankering for a crisp winter morning ride with friends under a blue sky, punctuated by a macchiato at a pavement cafe.

As the winter months give way to Spring, the training becomes more intense and we follow Barry as he contests the Classics of northern Europe, all the time interjected with observations about the demands, the dedication and exhaustion, the bonds formed on the road, the team tactics and dynamic.  

'To win a Classic he [the cyclist] must rely on instinct. Like a torero fighting a bull, a rider can wear down the competition with repeated bursts, but only one attack - the final sword deciding how the bull dies - determines whether he will win or lose. In a race that follows a pattern, it is in the finale that the rider must use his savoir-faire to forge the winning advantage. His timing must be precise. One wrong move and his energy is depleted and his chances of winning are diminished.'

As the season moves into the Summer and the Grand Tours, it becomes all too apparent that le métier is something that even the most astute and intelligent road cyclist is continually trying to perfect.  The act of cycling has, for Barry, attained a spiritual significance in his life and one could liken his pursuit of le métier to a Buddhists journey to nirvana - elusive and unattainable for all but the very few. By his own concession, Barry is an addict - obsessed with cycling and le métier

Often the journey is a painful one, as Barry's recollection of his hospitalisation after his heavy fall in the 2006 Ronde van Vlaanderen testify. This was a low point for Barry and an experience that led him to  briefly consider his ongoing commitment.  Michael Barry, of course, was never going to walk away from the sport he was addicted to. Le Métier  is an engrossing read . Much of this is due to Barry's  elegant prose and his appreciation, and ability to convey, that professional cyclists are a breed apart - slaves to the bikes they ride and the world they inhabit. 

Yet this no doubt is why Barry succumbed to the lure of doping.  This is the third edition of Le Métier  - the book was originally published in 2010 - and much has happened since the two previous editions, both in the world of professional cycling and in the life of Michael Barry. In October of this year Barry confessed to doping and confirmed he had testified as part of the USADA investigation into  the US Postal Service team.

In Le Métier Barry did not shy away from the issue of doping in the pro peloton. He talks of David Millar's doping past sympathetically. 'Humans', Barry muses, 'are often weak, as we succumb to moral pitfalls and addictions.'  The passage hints at his own doping past (Barry claims he did not dope from 2006) and when he writes about how short the career of the professional cyclist is, coupled with the inherent risks and demands of the sport, he concedes that 'the incentive to maximise compensation is huge.'

In his personal statement, following his admissions, he wrote that 'Cycling is now a cleaner sport, many teams have adopted anti-doping policies and most importantly I know a clean rider can now win at the highest level.' In the final chapter of Le Métier, however, it is other aspects of the contemporary  pro cycling scene that Barry fears will undermine the sport he loves. Longer seasons and increasingly demanding races, with 'dangerously technical sections', a greater level of competitiveness caused by the globalisation of the sport and technological and team management advances.  His list of concerns is long.

He also dwells on the lack of respect in the professional peloton and how unwritten rules of the road, that once defined the chivalry of the sport, are now routinely ignored. He cites the example of the unrepentant young Italian Roberto Ferrari who cut across Mark Cavendish in a bunch sprint in the 2012 Giro, leaving the World Champion sprawled on the tarmac, bruised and bloodied. 'We are losing our unity,'  laments Barry.

Barry retired from professional cycling this Autumn. He leaves at a time when the sport and it's ruling bodies are in a state of flux and transition.  Professional cyling has emerged out of the Armstrong Affair severely wounded and all who are obsessed and involved in the sport should take note of Barry's concerns. It has been a cathartic and much needed experience, but the patient  is in need of  careful nurturing to ensure that the future generation of professional cyclists can enjoy masterning  le métier with the same level of satisfaction as Michael Barry did.

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