The last book I read before We Begin Our Ascent was Sir Chris Hoy s factual How To Ride A Bike which was all about cycling, but I probably learnt from reading Jo Mungo Reed s fictional account It is wonderfully informative on preparation, training, teamwork, tactics etc but I couldn t get away from my revulsion at the expos of drugs and doping I cannot understand cheating in sport The main protagonist of We Begin Our Ascent is Sol, a professional cyclist and the story is largely set within the period of the Tour de France, with flashbacks to Sol meeting his wife to be, Liz, his marriage, and birth of a son Other than this there little background to Sol other than his now deceased father would have preferred him to be a footballer, and his mother being too self centred to be any influence With regard to right and wrong, it is Liz who is the key in Sol s unsporting descent, as opposed to the book s title We Begin Our Ascent.In a sneaky and persuasive manner narrative employs humour to lighten the darkness of the storyline, and it shifts emphasis away from pressures on Sol to problems faced by Liz She is an intelligent research scientist confronting a career crisis, and she is highly competitive in her reactions Perhaps surprisingly it is Liz who goes along with the insidious suggestions of Sol s team coach which has cheating grow from tiny doses of testosterone to blood changes with Liz involved as a mule carrying controlled substances.Sol accepts his role within the peloton, shielding the leader and setting up the stage finishes etc but he is torn between not letting down his teammates and sinking deeper into the drugs and doping scene Characters are well developed with credibility to Sol and Liz, to other riders, plus various individuals as coach, doctor, osteopath etc and the dramatic nature of the plot intensifies with allegations of drug taking, with disaster, and with grief Though the final chapters present possibly the best descriptions of combative cycling, any understandings are laced with uncertainties Drugs and doping issues do not fit well with a satisfactory conclusion. Any cyclist who intensely practices the sport can only imagine the work and dedication needed to compete at its highest level in the Tour de France We are mere mortals in a sport that favors gods Yet, we all just live for that day, that ride that burst of energy and control that transcends our perceived capability If we are destined to be mortals, why do we pretend to be gods Maybe we are motivated by the joy of work or play or the possibility of a future success Or, is it simply that we have resigned ourselves to support the unusual sport we have chosen What complicates cycling is the dynamics of the group Regardless of how talented an individual might be he she must rely on support from the group, whether it is the team or the peleton.The effectiveness of a team is only as good as its dedication to its top rider s Most professional team cyclists live to support others with little chance of winning a race or even a stage in a race They must give up their own ambitions for the sake of the team and assisting the lead rider Most of these riders live for a day they will ascend to a team leader spot.Reed s book is a tale of what it might be like for a stoic professional rider to be thrown into an opportunity to lead But lead at what cost The story is told from the point of view of a domestique rider, one paid to fill an expendable support spot on a professional team The lifestyle is ascetic and dedicated to the team, especially during the ultimate bicycle race when all life and energy is dedicated to Sleep and cycle.Our rider and protagonist, Sol, is the narrator telling a story of his experience during a very competitive Tour de France lasting over a few weeks We meet three essential characters Raphael, the director sportif team manager , Fabrice, the team s lead rider and Liz, Sol s wife.Raphael is the consummate team manager looking to draw the maximum performance, in any way possible, from the members of the team This translates to supporting the lead rider with a race strategy and superhuman effort by his teammates.Fabrice has made it to the top team spot and knows that the fame and glory rely on him but his performance largely depends on how well his teammates can support him too His cool, humor and otherworldly attitude demonstrates the self actualized level of the sport he has reached as the team guru.And, Liz, who has her own career challenges as a genetic researcher, and a new mother, must face the fact that Sol s performance for this race and this team is suddenly the key aspect of her life In her mind, cycling is, An evolutionary concept You re like a honeybee, giving up a chance to breed for the queen Her actions to assist Sol and the team make her a willing honeybee to advance Sol s and her own personal goals.The book shows the dynamics of what happens when even skilled, professional individuals are pushed to their limits We can push too hard in all aspects of our lives to the point where we lose focus on what is important.It takes a special individual to be a cyclist, researcher, or team manager in a world where today s performance is everything Are we, as individuals, willing to continue to work hard to achieve what we want What is the real price we pay for pushing too hard I highly recommend this book, especially to my cycling friends, and anyone who enjoys exploring the psyche of sports and performance It s a fast and easy read with an efficient Fitzgerald like style showing wisdom beyond the pages. The first thing that grabbed my attention about cycling and dragged me into the sport as a keen amateur was the colour and spectacle of the Tour de France, shown nightly on the fledgling Channel 4 and a ritual part of every July since the early 1980 s for me Trying to understand the tactics, the different roles of the team members who weren t all out for the overall win but there as supporters or domestiques took a little time to understand, but made the spectacle all the fascinating There ultimately came the dismay that there was something rotten at the very top level of the sport, particularly via the well documented Festina affair and the revocation of all seven of Lance Armstrong s Tour de France victories meaning that amateurs were being unfairly and routinely accused of what the sharp end of cycling did to bring the sport into disrepute But why would those cyclists be happy to cheat and put their health at risk with dubious performance enhancers We Begin Our Ascent enters the world of the Tour de France and domestique Sol, and if there s one thing I liked immediately it s the vibrant first person telling of living life in the eye of a storm, painting a particularly vivid picture of what it s like to be a domestique working at the service of a team leader and pushing yourself beyond reasonable limits in a three week stage race in the process From the opening chapter you are transported into the middle of the field with Joe Mungo Reed s writing style painting Technicolor pictures of not only the sights but the effort, the sounds and the smells as well Whilst that effort is emphasised, making you easily visualise every straining sinew what is equally well done is the description of the routine, empty hotel life where not a micron of energy is expended unnecessarily The massages, the carefully controlled diet, the lazing on beds and in shabby TV lounges all is well rendered.In frequent breaks in the chapters we skip back in time to draw a picture of Sol s life, both at training camps, out in all weathers and exploring his relationship with new wife Liz, who is a highly qualified research scientist, and newborn son Barry Without giving too much away this back story is woven into the plot as key members of an underperforming team, including Sol are enticed to join in with the drug culture, initially in a small way Team Director Rafael is highly persuasive in recruiting a reluctant Sol to the programme, likening him to being the only man in a village where the women prefer tall men and everyone else wears platform soled shoes These are moments of dark, almost gallows humour that crop up now and again Whilst it doesn t justify why riders have done this it certainly explains why the fear of getting cut from the team, the inability to perform at the same level as others taking performance aids, the desire to please the crucial sponsor paying for the team, and for some top riders the financial and promotional rewards Personally I found these passages difficult to empathise with, although Reed s writing style makes a bitter pill easier to swallow so to speak.Overall I found this an easy read, with the cycling passages springing off the page particularly well, and it s those I ll remember this book for. Really enjoyed this book as a sports story, there s so much in terms of how the athletes in the Tour de France have to put up with defined roles and the stress to comply with team pressure to enhance performance An excellent choice well written and researched. The author had a rather dour tone throughout the novel which made it hard to truly like any of the characters Overall the characters were memorable, but sketches than fully fleshed out people The story line itself focuses on the sensational aspects of the sport which is understandable for the purpose of a novel, but this was clearly written for someone who didn t know much about cycling.I am an avid fan of cycling and the author clearly is not His use of the term breakers was cringe worthy each time Overall it seemed like he did research the sport, but had no deep knowledge of the nuances Not recommended for a hard core cycling fan looking for in depth narrative. In WE BEGIN OUR ASCENT WBOA , Joe Mungo Reed features a protagonist, Sol, who is a cyclist on a mediocre team in the Tour de France On the bright side, Sol is articulate and perceptive as he discusses cycling, the sport s appeal to him, and cycling s peculiar system of teamwork and success For example Page 209 Teams are stocked with experts who are able to explain our riding as the conversion of so much potential into so much motion We riders, though, do not think in this way We think about rhythm There seems to be a perfect pace, at which we could ride forever Things stack together breathing, pedaling, thought In this zone you become a sort of passenger within your own body.Page 188 I am not blind to the absurdity of this job, to the inessentially of all this carnival And yet in the years after this, whatever I choose to do, I will be lucky to win a tiny part of the acclaim I enjoy now, to experience even a small portion of the excitement that I feel coursing around this gang of skinny men of which I am a part.Page 10 Victory in a tour is about staying with the peloton first of all, and then breaking from it to gain time when other factors, such as steep gradients, crosswinds, conflicts, or confusions, temporarily diminish its capability The role of myself and Tsutomo is to keep Fabrice the star of Sol s team ensconced safely within the group for most of the race, to leave him enough energy to push ahead when the rest of us falter.In the lingo of cycling, Sol is a domestique, which means he rides to support another rider, not to win a stage of the race Since this is his role, Reed has sensibly made Sol disciplined and self effacing in his profession At the same time, this discipline and tendency towards subsumption also means that the consistent Sol is terse and impassive in his interaction with his wife, coach, and teammates Here, for example, is a lightly edited passage of WBOA page 107 that features Sol as he converses with Liz, his wife, and discusses Katherine, who is Liz s mother They are, by the way, in bed She doesn t know my aims She can t understand success She was picking at you, said Liz She does that That doesn t make it not annoying Sure, she said It s a sign that she likes you Really That you matter to her, at least I m not so certain Such laconic social deadpan permeates WBOA The upshot is that the book when Sol is not cycling or discussing the depths of cycling has tedious and unreal moments In a way, the novel is Pinter in the peloton.Not really sure but I suspect WE BEGIN OUR ASCENT is an ironic title that refers to Sol s eventual disillusionment with cycling and its milieu and his and Liz s decision to start a new life This means the articulate Sol can ascend from the sleaziness of cycling since I do not believe in this, I think I do not believe, and realize in coming to this conclusion how much I did I do not feel the necessity of these people being here, the sense that I do anything special It feels like some assumption in the logic that has brought me here has given out an assumption buried, assumed secure, like the foundation pile of a house, ignored until it crumbles Page 217 Rounded up. Terrific portrayal of a week or so of the Tour de France in the life of an ambitious young bike racer, his coach and teammates, and his wife Beautifully written, both funny and tragic I have no idea what the author s research was like but he draws an absolutely convincing picture of why and how athletes take performance drugs, not to mention of the crazy world of top class bike racing I hadn t noticed this book until someone gave it to me it should have gotten a lot of attention. In his trim and powerful style Joe Mungo Reed tells us a story of life on a team on the Tour de France A cyclist, teammates and a manager, his wife, their child A predictable clip of vignettes, a page turner as Joe builds an inexorable crescendo We hold our breath until the end. For Sol and Liz, competition is everything On the road or in the lab, it s all on the line As a young professional cyclist in the Tour de France and a geneticist on the brink of a major discovery, success looks within reach for them both if only they can reach out and grab it But everything comes at a cost, whether that s starting a family or doping to keep up with the team, and soon the worlds of drugs, cycling and family will collide, and they will be forced to decide whether the price of accomplishment is something they can afford In this powerful, gripping and blackly comic debut, this young couple must ask themselves what is it we re striving for And what is it worth An extraordinary first book that tells a riveting story while using spare, beautiful language Not only that, but it tells the story of a modern marriage and parenthood without ever veering into excess sentimentality or self indulgence.It also had the delighful bonus for me of finally understanding a bit about the complex sport of cycle racing I happened to read it while the Tour de France was on and was very pleased that I could begin to see some tactics happening as the peleton swept past on my screen.