Yellow Fever

Jeremy Whittle

Read July 2005, September 2002

[This is a revised report. Earlier, I had praised Whittle's coverage. My opinion changed when I re-read the book.]

One of the joys of buying English books in Europe is the chance of finding an interesting British book that is unlikely to make it to American shores. This is one such book, which I found in Glasgow airport while rushing to catch a flight.

When summer rolls around, my thoughts turn to Grand Tour cycling—especially to the mother of them all, the Tour de France. 1998 was a signal year for the Tour: following Indurain's reign, the cycling world had discovered the prodigy from Germany, Jan Ullrich, who looked set to begin his own era. Simultaneously, Italy's Marco Pantani had won a dazzling victory in the Giro d'Italia, though nobody thought him a serious enough contender for the Tour. France's own Richard Virenque looked ready to end the French drought, while contenders such as Abraham Olano and Bobby Julich looked set to make it an interesting battle.

What happened, instead, is a matter of shame for all concerned. The Festina team (with France's best hopes on it) became embroiled in a doping scandal, and eventually several other teams were either accused or quit the Tour in disgust over the treatment of the riders. A badly hobbled Tour looked like it might never make it back to Paris. The tragedy is that, amidst all this controversy, Marco Pantani was riding brilliantly, creating his legend (which he ensured by a sad, premature death). There are few things as memorable as the sight of a Pantani attack on a mountain, whether or not Pantani himself was riding ``under the influence'', or as thrilling (if overdone) as a one-handed Pantani descent. In short, Pantani's epics and theatrics saved the Tour, setting up what looked to be a classic rivalry between himself and the starkly contrasting Jan Ullrich. Too bad that, just as things got interesting, a certain Texan showed up.

Whittle, a long-time Tour fan, spent the summer in France following the Tour with the intent of writing a book about it. It's unclear just what kind of book Whittle planned to write, but it couldn't have been a very good one. As it is, finding himself in the midst of cycling's greatest controversy, Whittle seems to come undone as a journalist. He is reduced to banal reporting, interspersed with hand-wringing and needless personal observations about the riders individually and collectively. For instance, Bobby Julich might indeed have been an insufferable media mug back then; but equally likely, he was just an over-excited, talkative kid, happy to be in the big time. One senses in Whittle a general antipathy toward the American (who, perhaps, offends a British sense of proper reserve), and an inherent bias against the riders: true, they acted petulant and coddled, but is the legal principle of innocence until proven guilty not worth standing up for? Whittle never seems to find a second side to any argument.