It was right before the sharp descent into the hairpin bend known as The Devil’s Elbow, near the border between the Dublin and Wicklow mountains, when that Bill the Butcher monologue came to mind. The steep climb back up to Glencullen, Ireland’s highest village awaited, but a scene from the now 20-years-old Gangs of New York was running through my mind.
Thursday morning hunger had nothing to do with it. Cycling through these intense autumn colours can quickly conjure up endorphins and so too mad thoughts.
Bill (Daniel Day-Lewis) is telling Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) his age – “I’m 47… 47 years old.” – which back in 1862, when the film is set, is getting on.
“You know how I stayed alive this long, all these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut off his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things … fear.”
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Gangs of New York coming back as a TV series had nothing to do with it either. It had all to do with reading Dan Martin’s newly-published autobiography this week, which has the slightly fearsome title Chased by Pandas – My Life in the Mysterious World of Cycling. Pandas, as you know, are not always friendly.
The title already sits well in that great genre of cycling books, other fearsome ones including Slaying the Badger, the story of Greg LeMond versus Bernard Hinault in the 1986 Tour de France, and indeed The Cannibal, by Eddy Merckx.
Martin promptly makes clear being chased by pandas is not among the fearsome acts that defined his cycling career, quite the opposite. In the first chapter he revisits the scene of his magnificent victory in the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of cycling’s five monuments, which after 250km and seven hours of racing finished that year on the gentle ghost climb to the top of the Côte d’Ans.
He’s not riding it this time, he’s walking it, sometime earlier this year, with his wife Jess and twin daughters Daisy and Ella, having retired at the end of the 2021 after 14 seasons in the peloton. They stop at a bend close to the top and his daughters, always curious, have a question. “Daddy, is this where you crossed the finish line in first place?”
“No, but we’re very close to it. You have to keep going around that bend.”
“So what happened here?”
“It was just here that I was chased by a giant panda. Well… by a man dressed as a panda.”
“Why was he chasing you?”
“I don’t know.”
In the last chapter Martin ponders his wait in vain to someday track down that stranger dressed up as a panda, that they might share a Belgian beer and he could tell him: “we had a good laugh – thank you.”
Martin had little fear of losing Liège-Bastogne-Liège that day, texting his mother Maria, Stephen Roche’s sister, and his father Neil, a former pro cyclist, that he was going to win. Which he did.
This was unusual, he admits, given almost all professional cyclists are surrounded by every sort of fear, which indeed pervaded throughout that race, and will do for the rest of this book.
“Fear has a form, a smell, a colour, a consistency. All around me, riders were starting to become afraid. They were afraid of crashing, of their team-mates being too weak or their rivals being too strong, afraid that their legs would give out, or their mind would. They were afraid of taking too many risks or not enough, afraid of producing the wrong attack or not pushing hard enough. Afraid of losing or of winning. Afraid of being afraid…”
Martin is okay with all that, quoting Mark Twain’s line “courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear”, but admits there is a real omerta around that fear in cycling, just like there is around doping.
“It’s rare for a racing cyclist to open their hearts and share their truths. Well, here’s one: this job has at least as much to do with suffering as with fear.”
So does this book – which is why each of the next 25 chapters is subtitled with one of his (and others) many, many fears; The Fear of Not Getting Up; The Fear of Going Too Fast; The Fear of Descending; The Fear of Destroying Your Body; The Fear of Becoming Obsessed; The Fear of Stopping; The Fear of Doping.
Fear not the obvious: Martin’s chapter on doping comes early on and doesn’t reveal anything we don’t already know about that particular war on drugs, only backs it up. It’s no secret his first professional team, Garmin−Slipstream, had a zero doping policy and there is zero evidence too Martin ever swayed from that during his career.
He “wasn’t stupid”, knew cycling had a problem. “When a rider thinks about the doping taking place around them, they have four possible options:
“A. Practice the sport in a despondent and defeatist state of mind.
“B. Quit the sport.
“C. Turn to doping.
“D. Avoid thinking about it.
“I chose option D.”
Whether or not it’s entirely true he was never even offered anything, never witnessed any act of cheating, Martin’s hardiness on the road and especially towards the end of his career was never once questioned. When he produced another of his finest wins with his summit victory on Stage 17 of last year’s Giro, he also completed that rare hat-trick of Grand Tour stage wins, a feat only achieved before by two other Irish riders (Shay Elliott and Sam Bennett).
He might well have done better than his two stage wins in the Tour (2013 and 2018), that hypothesis certainly credible with the addition of, “if I hadn’t crashed”, which indeed he often did, many of which were properly fearsome acts.
The last chapter concludes his confession of fears with another startling one: the fear of what also might be going on inside his head. In 2010, aged 24, Martin dropped out of the Tour of Britain after his doctor recalled him with a suspected brain tumour. It wasn’t that, they just weren’t sure what it was.
In the end Martin makes clear none of these fears ever held him back, but drove him on throughout his career.
Chased By Pandas, My life in the Mysterious World of Cycling, is published by Quercus and available now