The Spokesmen Cycling Roundtable Podcast
The Cycling Roundtable Podcast

15th April 2024

The Spokesmen Cycling Podcast

EPISODE 351: Andy McGrath — God is Dead 

SPONSOR: Tern Bicycles

HOST: Carlton Reid

GUEST: Andy McGrath



Carlton Reid  0:12  
Welcome to Episode 351 of the Spokesmen cycling podcast. This show was engineered on Monday, April 15 2024.

David Bernstein  0:28  
The Spokesmen cycling roundtable podcast is brought to you by Tern bicycles. The good people at Tern are committed to building bikes that are useful enough to ride every day and dependable enough to carry the people you love. In other words, they make the kind of bikes that they want to ride. Tern has e-bikes for every type of rider. Whether you're commuting, taking your kids to school or even carrying another adult, visit That's t e r n to learn more.

Carlton Reid  1:04  
I'm Carlton Reid. And today's show is the first of two episodes with bike book authors. Later this week, I'll share the chat I had with potholes and pavement author Laura Laker a book so fresh, it's not even out yet. But today, I talk with William Hill award winning author Andy McGrath about his 2022 book, God is dead biography of Frank Vandenbrouke the wunderkind who died a mysterious death in a grungy African hotel room. 

Liège–Bastogne–Liège has been staged since 1892, the oldest of cycling's five monument races, and this year's race will be staged at the end of the month, Sunday the 21st to be exact. Now, Andy, it's 25 years since a certain famous victory of that particular race. So tell us about that. 

Andy McGrath  2:10  
This was the edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège where the great Belgian cycling hope Frank Vandenbrouke seemed to be fulfilling his immense potential. And he did it in his own unique way. He told anyone that would listen in the days for the race, you know, teammates, DS's, rivals and other races and media, where he was going to attack to win the race to make it stick, a bit like Muhammad Ali used to do before his heavyweight fight. And he'd went out for a 20 minute puto, a few days before the age best on the age. And it's covered his teammate saw him come back to the hotel, you know, barely a blink of an eye later. And he told him, that's all all I need, I feel good. I'm going to win lift some of the age. And he was in a state of grace that day, he attacked on by ODU, which sounds different course back then. It finished in an industrial suburb over the age. And the Cordilla. Redo was about oh, at 90k from the finish. And he, he he wrote up in the big room, he tacked up in the big green, which is I could barely walk up it when I was researching the book, which is a astonishing and slightly sinister thing when you really get into that era of cycling. And he was already clearly the best, you know, he he accelerated pass the defending champion makayley Bartley like it was nothing and then he just let the rest catch him up, basically. And he did attack, you know, if we're going to split hairs slightly later than he said he would you know, or maybe earlier actually, I think it was early. And he said he would you know, a few 100 metres earlier. Because

Carlton Reid  3:55  
Because that's in your book, isn't it? Yeah. It's a very detailed book and you you're knocking on doors, and you give the exact door that he actually did attack on and not the one that you said he's going to attack on? 

Andy McGrath  4:06  
Yeah, the thing is, I actually knocked on the door of the house number he said he would attack which was 256. You know, hoping for some kind of journalistic intrigue and it was a little bit disappointing that I think people that answered the door were very nice, but it was someone looking after their elderly parent and they said they didn't like cycling, they didn't know about it. So so so I was like yeah, that's there's that avenue gone in the book. But no abandoned Brook road away from the last remaining rival Michael Burgard on the court to send Nicola outside the edge and road to victory just like he said he would and you know, a country that was already in thrall to him was an even more rapturous, you know, Eddie Merckx was extremely impressed. You know, the Eddie marks the greatest and that was really, I think it was 24 Back then van of work, and it wasn't so normal for providers to break through in their early 20s, which is what he had done. He was the exception. And it seemed like that, you know, the cycling world was gonna fall to him. You know. During the book research, I kind of ascertained that he could probably have won almost anything apart from a grantor, you know, he was a strong climber, but didn't have the consistency or the or the mentality to do it over three weeks, but everything else was, was fair game. But that was a very brief high point, you know, that was that was paradise. And he was soon into purgatory. And then how, you know, within a year, which kind of summed up his his life and his career trajectory.

Carlton Reid  5:41  
And, and spoiler alert, the kind of the title of your book tells us that Frank is no longer with us. But you did refer a few moments ago, almost to the fact that this is an EPO era. So he's going up in the big ring, that's kind of Superman stuff that, you know, Nietzsche, God is dead stuff. So clearly he was he was deeping, he kind of admitted he was doping. This is the EPO era. But then what everybody was saying at that time was, well, everybody was doping. So we're all equal. Do you buy into that? Are you if everybody's taken EPO at the time, and he's such a wonderful rider? Let's give him those victories, because everybody was on this stuff. person.

Andy McGrath  6:27  
I mean, they're all saying at the time, and I was partly what bothered him, you know, 5, 10 years later that he felt that he was being scapegoated. What we know now, is that essentially, you know, let's be the what's the word diplomatic here? Legally, most of the bunch, we're, we're doing it, there's been lots of admissions. Do I think that makes it okay, in a level playing field? No, no, I don't think so. That's too simplistic, you know, that comes down to you know, things like science and natural amount of creates and how much room you have to dope, you know, or to get up to the rudimentary UCI testing limit of 50, which it was back then, you know, which was, like a broken speed Camry on a motorway. It barely stopped cheating. If you are caught over the 50, like, image credit limit you are. I think you were given a small fine, and you couldn't race for two weeks? What kind of, you know, what kind of punishment? Is that really what kind of thing to stop? Anyone from having huge gains, really, that can change, change everything? So no, no, it wasn't fair. Like it's not fair. And there are a fair few riders who were probably in, in the minority who chose to be clean, you know, to ride on bread and water, as they say, who didn't make it who had to take other jobs who. And that was the kind of that's always a sad thing about doping in a way, you know, that. I don't think anyone who's has a positive for doping, who's cheated. When they get into cycling, they don't want to put a needle in their arm or have their blood transfused or whatever kind of ghoulish thing hopefully went on, doesn't go on now. But along the line they get, they get sucked into certain culture and you know, you invest so much time and energy and sacrifice into something you love, and you have to love it. That you realise, well, this is the kind of Faustian deal that many of them thought I had to make that they thought that they didn't do this, they would finish in the last group or second class group and they wouldn't, they wouldn't get the contract renewed. They wouldn't even be close to winning, you know, to fulfilling their childhood dreams. And you have an abrupt turn turn pro in 1994, which was really probably the worst the worst possible year to turn pro maybe in cycling, because EPO was, that was the year that it was about to get ramped, and if it wasn't already ramping.

Carlton Reid  9:00  
And then Cofidis wasn't exactly the cleanest of teams.

Andy McGrath  9:04  
No. I mean, this is Vandenbrouke. He was on Mapei who were the Italian super team. You may see their products in your local homeware stores you know, they still make I think it's grouting Yeah, ground

tiles, tile, yes. tiles.

things are still popular. I still smile when I see them and and b&q and all other good stores, but they were the best number one, and they really complimented in hindsight, complimented Vandenbrouke perfectly because often, you know, in in the classics of old classics, he won and he won a fair few, you know, scale the price hit Volk, obviously Liège–Bastogne–Liège. He could be the attacking foil or tactically to say Tom Steels, a sprinter or Johan Museuw, who was a permanent cobbles rider. But anyway, after three, four years, which were the most stable, far and away the most stable years, results wise and maybe mentality wise over his whole career. He has acted in he he wanted to be a contract. He wasn't ever patient with very much ever. And he he chose good to French Team Cofidis for double the money basically. And they gave him he could pick, you know, his friends, his his teammates, so, pick several of those. And it started off well, but yeah, it transpired that they had they had a kind of sleeping pill and drinking culture. And that's not a good combination. You know, even one thing. One of those dumb two accesses is bad, but they'd be on training camps, you know, in winter, this is how Vandenberg got hooked in the winter of 98. You know, they'd be it'd be bored you know, you do your training in the sun somewhere in Spain and then a radical Philip go mom, who I think one gateway will give himself. This strong, strapping Frenchman, you know, said why don't you take this and we'll have some drinks and what happens is you kind of you have a euphoric high. That's beyond you know, extreme drunkenness. You know, often you don't remember what you do when you're on under the influence of still not an alcohol, you know? And they go out partying or they're still the team campervan. And it's kind of thing you wouldn't believe it happened then, let alone now.

Carlton Reid  11:28  
So what is Stilnoct? It's in your book loads. So just tell us what Stilnoct is.

Andy McGrath  11:34  
It's a sleeping pill with various different brand names. I actually think Anglophone listeners might know it better as Ambien. I think that's alright. Okay. Yes. Australian kind of version of it. Yes, it's a sleeping pill. And you know, normally, I think it's used for insomniacs. And if you, you take one you wait 20 minutes, and it should pretty much knock you out. But they will take festivals, you know, handfuls at the very least. And if you resist if you fight the urge to sleep with alcohol, then you you push through to this strange blankness and euphoric high. And David Miller also has some stories, I think in his, his autobiography of strange things, and I'm the influence, you know. And, you know, it's kind of a reminder also, that professional cyclists, young freshmen, cyclists are very suggestible. They're, maybe not quite all of them fully formed as adults, you know, when they turn someone like Vandenbroucke turn pro, at 19. He was more brought up in the sporting culture than really, as a human being, as an app was an adult human being it and kind of influenced by that. So they're very fragile. And that's the other thing, you know, we've covered it. So there was a lacking duty of care, you know, in terms of the management and, you know, they seem to know what was going on, but they didn't do much about it really like they, they hired a psychologist to do a to have a talk with with the riders who basically laughed him out of the room. So you know, hindsight is 2020, but it was not a good team for Benbrook to band with a good culture.

Carlton Reid  13:21  
Andy, let's let's dig into you, because you've written this book. And we will we'll we'll talk about it, tonnes coming up. But this is before your time in effect, certainly before your time as a journalist you've started working from what I can see from your LinkedIn profile. You started working for Cycling Weekly. And then you became the head of Rouleur, which many people wouldn't want men will know both both titles of course. But this is in effect before your time. Was this before your were You were you like a big cycling fan? From a you know, a youth? 

Andy McGrath  14:00  
Yeah, I mean, whenever its heyday was before my time in terms of cycling fandom, I really got into it, you know, the Lance Armstrong years 2002 was the year that I you know, discovered this fantastic and strange and exotic sport. And I you know, I did come across Vanderbrouke but by then he was really really on the down slide you know the downfall. I do remember his 2003 Tour of Flanders at the time you know, I remember it. It being this remarkable comeback story where you know this guy who was ranked outside the top 500 in in the UCI standings came second in the tour Flanders out of nowhere. But you know, he was kind of the figure of fun the kind of the fallen hero then. But yeah, he was kind of trying to see I didn't think much about him when I was at cycling weekly as a staff writer and then you know, joining ruler like, later on I to my first book was about Tom Simpson. I I published back in 2017 lovely kind of mix of contemporary photographs and stories from those who know Thompson best with Rapha, you know, one of their first books. And I was very fortunate that won the sports book of the year prize that year, which was a huge boon. Yes.

Carlton Reid  15:22  
What did you do with 30 grand Andy?

Andy McGrath  15:25  
I bought a Colnago Carlton, which possibly wasn't seeing us, I don't like to ride it in, you know, winter, or spring, sometimes autumn. So, you know, in the UK, I don't ride a bike to get too messy. And then that really leaves you two or three good months of cycling. So that was, that was my dream bike, you know, when I was a teenager that that was a bike. But funnily enough, that was a brand that I saw in all the cycling magazines, and I obviously, cycling journalists are not the best paid people in the world, sorry to disappoint their any young listeners. But that was, I mean, that was a life changing amount of money for me. So I did go ahead and bought a Kona Argo. You know, that was the that was the main thing and the rest went boringly in the savings.

Carlton Reid  16:11  
Now, I kind of threw that in there a to be rude, and see what you say. And so you know, is it wind, wind? And so on? No, it's a bike. Okay, great. But also, that was a big deal to win that, that, yeah, that's a big cash amount. And that's a big deal to win the William Hill sports book of the year well done on on that. You're basically your your, your, your, you've been writing about people who were from a different era, in effect. So these these are these are almost not united to me, Tom Simpson is isn't a contemporary, obviously. But Frank Vandenbroucke is certainly somebody I would be very, very well well aware of when I was, you know, in into, in writing about cycle sport I was, he was around at that point. So you're writing about people in effect from from from history. So you're almost a historian, not just, you know, not just a biographer, you're digging into past history,

Andy McGrath  17:13  
I never really thought about it like that, that's an interesting way of putting it maybe I should put historian on my LinkedIn profile. It feels like quite recent history, though.

Carlton Reid  17:22  
It really isn't, you know, when you look at this, this is 25 years, that's a good time away, you know, for for somebody to still be talked about, and for books to be written, etc. That's, that's, that's a federal what it is history.

Andy McGrath  17:36  
That's also what I like, because, you know, in a way, you know, Vandenbrouke, and Simpson both have, have had books written about them already. But I had the kind of maybe the naive hunch, which I would have told my publishers that I can get new stories, you know, there's more things to be said, by different people, which I which, which I believed in, you know, turned out to be true. You know, there's, there's deeper perspective says revisionism to be done, there's new things to be discovered. And, to be honest, I think I've found with, with slightly older people, you know, when you're talking about the people around Simpson and Vandenberg, and in general, and in cycling there, they've lived long lives, you know, so they have more more stories, more life, experience, more more regrets, you know, more successes. But they also, yeah, that somehow they're just that appeals to me, you know, they, they're certainly more open, generally speaking. You know, compared to, for example, let's say, if I was trying to write the, the biography of Matthew Vanderpool who, who won the Tour, Flanders, you know, very recently, there will be a whole circle of people around him that comparatively, it will be very close, very hard to get close to him. And very hard to get intriguing things now, you know, in 10 years time, maybe it'd be a different story. So I think that plays as a kind of advantage in a way to be going back rather than rather than always working with, you know, present champions,

Carlton Reid  19:14  
the people you've written about in their books are clearly flawed heroes. So both both legendary, both died, that that kind of helps if you're going to be a biographer, when somebody is no longer here in many respects, but they're both flawed. So So is that something that naturally attracts a biographer because if you if you're floored by de facto you're kind of more interesting. You know, you're you're you're there's there's chinks in that armour. There's the stuff that a journalist stroke historian can get their teeth into. And most sports people tend to be kind of flawed anyway, you know, there's many psychological studies which show that you know that the absolute top achievers have had some sort of formative bad experience in in their earlier life, which is then forced them to become these, these super men in terms of you know, male sport. So is that something that attracts you the fact that these are flawed heroes you can you can really talk about a flawed here and more than somebody who's squeaky clean.

Andy McGrath  20:34  
Well, firstly, I think we're all flawed. You're no one's perfect. But the Yes, I completely see what you're saying that these these are top athletes are people who push things to the extremes who, you know, can be quite flawed or extremely flawed, you know. And that's more the thing, but it, there was no middle for Vandenbroucke things were either going fantastic or his confidence was 100%. Or it was the opposite, you know, there seem to be, you know, they will see a sixth gear or a neutral with him. And I think we're all drawn to, to people who push limits that regular human beings wouldn't normally you know, push. Who wouldn't, you know, we we wouldn't want to take you know, 10 sleeping pills, and then down some glasses of wine on a night out, but so there's a kind of, I think there's a slightly vicarious fascination sometimes. But Vanderburgh was also I wouldn't say he was escaping from something, you know, a kind of traumatic incident in his childhood, but it's definitely worth noting that his father was his uncle. He was part of a second dynasty. So his uncle was dubbed the John Louis mercs as Frank would be. Sean Luke, that's right. Race for Persia had some great results. Never quite lived up to that moniker, who Ken and his father who was older than John Luke. So John's brother, John Jack. He was on the cusp of being a pro site because he just signed his his contract. When hit, their father died and he became guardian to John Luke, and John Paul. His brothers, his younger brothers, so his history was snatched away from him before he could do anything about it, and he had to he had to sell off his his father's Frank's grandfather's his basins and toilets and sinks because he was a kind of plumber handyman to shut down the business. So there was a kind of element of his Frank's Father John Jack being being a real driving force for positive and for negative through his formative years, you know, he pushed him so hard, you know, he would, he would follow training with a stopwatch praise was kind of few and far between shows of shows of kind of love work, not not regular at all. And, you know, Frank felt that sometimes you've treated too much as a cyclist and not enough as a son you know, as a as a person. And they had, you know, they had fallings out throughout Frank's life. And, you know, there was also a depression that John Jack had. Or John Paul, maybe it was actually his younger brother. And Frank had that too. So there's a kind of there's a, there's a kind of site genetic, I think, vulnerability to two of, you know, mental health problems that was on show here. So there's that extreme too. And this is what I kind of also find fascinating about not just pro cyclists, but people in general, athletes in general, that when we see them, just seeing when we see them in the Tour de France or tour Flanders, whatever, we're seeing 1% of their life, you know. And for Frank, you know, when he was on the bike, that was a kind of safe place, really, when things are going well. That was his refuge. And it was really like when he wasn't on the bike when he was by himself. And you know, he couldn't be by himself, really, he loved being around people need to be around people to be supervised sometimes. But when he was alone, that was when the problem started, when he had time to think or to do certain misdemeanours or wrong things. That was a problem. And people don't think about that, you know that. Everything really needs to be going well, and in the 99% of your life outside of the bike pace for the bike race to go well.

Carlton Reid  24:46  
So you mentioned father, son relationship stuff there, which can reminded me that when I was looking at the emails of when we've interacted before, and when you were editor of Rouleur, you actually published I'm getting more into you about, you actually published a ride of my son of coming back from China, in Rouleur, and this is now four or five years back when he did that ride and you, you, you published an account of that ride. But you were with Rouleur for about five years, four years editor?

Andy McGrath  25:23  
yeah, yeah, every year for nine years and I was here to for five years, you know, which was that was a dream. That was a dream, you know, I was in my mid 20s When I became editor, and I just loved hearing their stories where I'd actually been at cycle sport, which is part of cycling weekly part a part of that IPC Media Group, you know, 15 years ago, that was where I was kind of under under the wing of Ed Pickering, who, who's now the Rouleur editor, you know, I was around all these great writers like Lionel Birnie, and, you know, just learning from them, you know, either by by osmosis or by asking stupid questions, which is a kind of great way to learn. But I've really found I was drawn to longer form storytelling, you know, articles, over 2000 words, long interviews, you know, two, three hours sometimes or, you know, spending a whole day or, or, you know, to with a pro cyclist to really, truly get under their skin, you know, because that's also the media landscape in increasingly at the moment, sometimes, you're given 20 minutes, 25 minutes in a hotel lobby, to write a long feature that's supposed to you know, be chapter and verse about the cyclist. And that's not you know, that's not sufficient. I really was kinda like an entry kind of opened the doors you know, ruler when you said you with ruler that kind of had a special effect, they knew you were gonna do a very thorough, well researched, well written job, which I think really helped. And this is also the last landscape we're in that was, you know, I joined over 10 years ago, and slightly magazines, were more plentiful, were more more profitable. And I still read paper, by the way, I'd never read a Kindle course. And I'm, I'm kind of 35 going on 65 I just like, you know, I'm looking at a bookcase with about 200 books right now. And the same goes for magazines, I just, I'm a magazine guy. And I don't see that changing. And I'm kind of proud of that, because I'm slightly scared that in even in 10 years, Time Magazine might go the way of a vine on and be a collector's item when it really shouldn't be

Carlton Reid  27:42  
well, Cycling Weekly is older than Liège–Bastogne–Liège. So that was that was 1891. So that presumably, has has a place in the market, almost guaranteed a lot of the other magazines, maybe not so much, and ruler has a place in that is long form. It is something that, you know, the pro riders as well as cycle sport fans will love and look up to because it does go into immense detail and great care, and the quality of the paper, all that kind of stuff. So it's I guess, it's the magazines, in the middle, that that fall between those two kind of different models that are going to suffer.

Andy McGrath  28:28  
Perhaps, you know, the Rouleur owner told me a few years ago that there was there was going to be survival of the fittest and you know, he's turned out to be right. I think it's also the care you know, the photography and in rural areas, you know, top top notch I think people like that baby surprise, you know, sometimes have little feedback I got as editor, you know, that I could just see the, you know, often the subscription numbers rising and you see the sales figures and I like to think there's a very happy silent majority. And maybe the numbers pull that out that, you know, some people on social media will either go on there to say how fantastic something is, or how appalling it is or that their magazine never arrived, you know, and that's fine, you know, but that's, that's the world we live in. But I'm not even sure about cycling weekly, I've got a huge attachment to that magazine sentimentally. But it could be that that ends up being being an online only presence in 10 years time or you know five years time and I really hope that isn't the case. But that more and more people are reading things on their phones or their tablets. So you know, papers printed so as a find its its place you know, but realised yet definitely one for the connoisseur. Um, and we do crazy thing crazy fun things. You know, I remember taking a crew of photographers and writers to Paris-Roubaix, which is my favourite race. Because Because I said next year we're going to do a whole edition of Rouleur just around Paris-Roubaix. And we designed it with a kind of cobblestone font. And we kind of you know, each story was a sector basically and we did it you know, we were there for a week. We worked bloomin hard. And I think we saw six sectors on the day, which for goes from south to north, took some driving that pushed the limits of the highway code. But it was you know, we, we just had carte blanche to do pretty wild things like you know, we had a Gonzo writer called Mort not bow, who was Danish, who, who who divided opinion, you know, but I've never seen anyone write like that in cycling media, let alone sports media like and he always got the interview, he always ingratiated himself with the biggest names in cycling, you know, and that's what I loved was like different styles make make a magazine, for example, you know, Morton was meant to Morton and Jakob, who we call the crazy Danes is right of geography in a combo for several years, so we're meant to spend two hours with Lance Armstrong in the height of his, you know, scandalous air, I think was 2013 2014. And they ended up spending two or three days I played golf with him, you know, and it was just, yeah, like, the one thing about Rouleur that we wanted to change was that to make it not seem so stuffy or serious, because because we were having a lot of fun making it and we all love cycling, and there's a lot of, you know, humour to be had with it. You know, you might look at the black and white photographs. And you know, think it's been ernest but you know, we tried to change that every now and then. It's

Carlton Reid  32:01  
clearly it was it was founded in a party in a Guy Andrews but partly with Simon Mottram of a Rapha, so it's like, A, in some ways, like a Rapha, journal it had that certain had that, you know, in the early days, certainly had that Rapha you know, aesthetic. And, and power to its elbow for having that aesthetic, because Simon, you know, absolutely went in it, I can say this into the veins of cycling at that time with with with, you know, a very beautiful magazine. 

Andy McGrath  32:40  
Yeah, he was, you know, he was pivotal to its founding like, along with Guy who, who was the founder, you know, they they saw they saw something different. And they, you know, they put in the money in the effort fearing that no one would buy that first issue which now goes for hundreds on eBay. And, you know, in many ways, it was similar to I think Jacque Waterlase courir magazine in the 50s and 60s, you know, that style and that aesthetic and you know, Guy didn't want any reviews. He wanted to show the cycling that you know, that he loved that also a child with the Rapha aesthetic and their values. And basically, the Rouleur blueprint that he laid out in those first issues is still what Rouleur is, you know, it's you know, in depth interviews, it's photography with a difference. And you ever heard is actually coming up for nearly 20 years. I think it'll be in a couple of years time. And

Carlton Reid  33:42  
Rapha is 20 years old this year. So that makes me feel old. Because now, I was the first person to report on Rapha's founding on in would have been, it would have been online, I would I probably did a story on on this, you know, strange aesthetics based, cycled clothing manufacturer, you know, coming in from the advertising world. So I broke the story of Rapha coming in into cycling, and then now it's that 20 years or so their current PR you know, emails me and says, Oh, would you like to do a story on on Rapha being 20 It's like, oh my god, they're 20 and I did a story on them, you know, and it doesn't feel 20 years away. So it's history, as well. So we're kind of coming full circle on on history there. Now on on LinkedIn, you actually say you're one of your career highlights is actually writing for Bicycling. So what why was that a career highlight highlight?

Andy McGrath  34:50  
Did I say that? Oh, that's good. I just I just wanted to write for you know, one of the tops like a magazine. I've been seeing it all my life. You know, when I went freelance two years ago, that was basically my chance to write for whoever I wanted. And yeah, I'm a fellow fellow news. Now fellow went online. So I just saw this kind of this prestige of writing for for an American publication who, who I always thought, you know, did some really good journalism. And they do. I mean, it's most rigorous fact checking process I've ever had, and they did some beautiful photography, it was a long profile of Peter Sagan in his retirement. Yeah, and I went to Slovakia to see, you know, his family with old friends. And I went to Spain to interview him. And it kind of felt like old school journalism, you know, also that they back you to do that, you know, both in terms of time, word count, and paying expenses.

Carlton Reid  35:56  
And paying, because that's why I like writing for American magazines is they pay five times more than any British magazine.

Andy McGrath  36:06  
Yeah, I'm not sure if we should be advertising that this is true. Yeah, saying the Americans taking out lucrative stores. But no, absolutely. Like, that's the thing that I'm not sure why it's five times more. So I understand, you know, the, the kind of living costs, generally speaking, in the US in cycling friendly pockets is probably higher. So, so they were charging more, but five times more. You know, word rates for journalists, and in cycling identity have changed for 20 years, you know, since Rapha's inception, which is kind of sad. It's more of a labour of love than it ever was, and it was still a labour of love 20 years ago. But yeah, like the bicycling and you know, writing for cycling class I've written for basically every Anglophone cycling title in my not so young career now I'm 35. And it's just a pleasure, you know, that something that you know, the teenage me will be super proud of, and you know, that, don't me, it's, it's still proud of, you know, it's something really nice to go in my bookshelf. And it's always new stories and new angles, and well, not new sci fi magazines, really. But I kind of live in hope that I can keep doing that mainly around cycling, but I am you know, one slightly sad thing is that I'm trying to diversify slightly and you know, write about different sports, as well as cycling.

Carlton Reid  37:39  
I see you on art substack. So that's really diversifying.

Andy McGrath  37:45  
That's not That's not for profit. That's just for me. I just wanted to ride this is, this is something that I started this year, just going to local galleries and doing short, short reviews, you know, with just to learn about art, and to see what I like what I don't like, you know, I always, you know, I've kind of thought that modern art is a bit pretentious, but I've never really been to see that much. So I thought it could be fun. And it's proven to be fun. But the irony is that my my work deadlines are kind of impinging on my art reviews to the point that I haven't posted anything in about two months, but I will soon for my 20 substack followers. No, it's just fine. You know, you can live in deadlines. And with a bit of stress for so long that it's a nice kind of thing to try to do to, you know, flex some different writing muscles, but also learn about something totally away from sport, which is really the thing that I love.

Carlton Reid  38:49  
So I want to dig further into that level of  cycling and into God is dead, your book. But right now I'd like to go across to my colleague David, who will give us a short ad break.

David Bernstein  39:06  
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Carlton Reid  40:24  
So we are back with Andy McGrath and Andy is the well as he's been telling us in the the before the ad break that he's been telling us about his career trajectory through cycling into into now doing an art substack even for the for the fun of it and the hell of it and the learning of it. Which Which sounds fantastic, because I should do that too. I should learn new stuff. But the thing we started this podcast with was with the the anniversary coming up to 25 years since since Frank Vandenbroucke and we can we call him VDB Do you think we can we can really Yeah. Yeah. Or should we say Frank goes to Frank because really it is it's like it's a it is actually an unknown nickname for other people in Belgium isn't is not not just something that's pertinent to him.

Andy McGrath  41:23  
That's right. There's lots of bands you know something? Yeah, Vanda

Carlton Reid  41:27  
something. Okay. So VDB we can we can go with that, as we kind of use a shorthand gumming up. So your book 2002. This came out, and he and it's the rise and fall of Frank Vandenbroucke cycling's great wasted talent is the subhead to God is dead. Now God is dead is clearly a Nietzsche reference. Also a reference to when he was coming up when when Frank was coming up through the sport, lots of people treated him as a god. And then in his autobiography, he talks about not being a god, but the very fact that he's saying he's not a God means kind of other people were saying he was a god. So that's, that's a hell of a provocative title for a book. Andy Yeah, absolutely.

Andy McGrath  42:25  
I just correct you there. It came out in 2022. If it came out in 2002, I would have been 14 and

Carlton Reid  42:33  
I'm sorry, sorry. 20222. Sorry. Yeah. No, that would have been deep military. Yes. Yes. Yes. Sorry, kind of literal, you

Andy McGrath  42:39  
know, the spoiler alert as you pointed out earlier as sports which makes it a kind of backwards who done it or you know, what happened to his life when you know, beside nd and also, you know, his friend contemporary or when I went on to wrote a song called Cody is dead. So I just thought it was too there are too many, you know, perfect similarities to not have that title. It does, I suppose it you know, catches the eye, as well, as you know, telling you what happened. And it intrigues and it should stop people in their tracks, you know, make them think, you know, who was this? Cyclists because most people most passing people in bookshops, for example, wouldn't have heard of Frank Vandenbrouke, some people at the time, you know, very briefly, he he was on the cover of pro cycling in the UK, for example, he was in the top three of the world rankings, he was going to be the biggest things since sliced bread on 11 speed. And then and this is the thing that half the book is really the rise of a sporting talent, exceptional sporting promise, despite all his problems, you know, that he had the human for example, he was involved in a in a crash with a rally car when he was four years old. Of all things, you know, in the country lanes where he grew up, and that meant that after a long, long recovery, his left leg was always two centimetres shorter and thinner, and the right leg which you would think will be problematic for for a pro cyclist and it proved to be problematic. You know, often during his career, he was always fighting these knee injuries. But anyway, he he rose up at a time when the stars were older, you know, they were 30 Plus, and they were quite bland in comparison to him. You know, we had Indurain, Rominger, Museuw, and Frank Vandenbrouke was this 20 year old counterpoint who said good things to all the Belgian media and was handsome, you know, he was good looking kid. But he raised with such panache. And he won unusually early unusually often. And for someone that yeah, when he was a junior, he won half his races which is ridiculous for someone who who wasn't a great sprinter either, you know, he he had to attack really to win most of the time.

Carlton Reid  45:14  
So it's an awful lot of is not just legacy but at the time was he just looked so beautiful on a bike I mean there's there's a little bit of you know, homo-eroticism going on there but he's just he just looked wonderful with you know those those as you're saying those those the legs being shorter and thinner. I hadn't actually noticed that but it just it looks so beautiful on a bicycle. He's just like the dream rider.

Andy McGrath  45:42  
Yeah, and that's the way that we the most of us wish we could you know, pedal that's like pedalling and in a dream. It's that the French word souplesse. It kind of describes the way that he pedalled you know, with, with no, either body barely moved, didn't move when the back was still when he kind of cycled it was like ballerina esque if that is the right word for a male ballerina probably is. And it was so incongreous, too, because his legs was so thin. You know, they were like pipe cleaners. Really. They weren't particularly muscular. But they were tanned and yeah, like it. It is funny about cycling isn't all Pro Cycling that sometimes it we don't just admire the best riders. With my style, we My grace. For example, I still remember this Russian writer called Mikhail Ignatieff who won a few Olympic goals on the track. And he didn't win any anything of any note, you know, in Tour de France, all the all the big leagues of road racing, but his pedal stroke was just gorgeous, just like you know. I imagine there was no human around years of you know, Russian training in the Velodrome but

Carlton Reid  46:55  
so that you're definitely getting back to that kind of Rapha aesthetic which, which Simon Mottram tapped into, you know that it's not about always winning. It's sometimes about just looking good and being stylish and having panache. You know, that Tom Simpson also taps into that with his suits and his writing style.

Andy McGrath  47:17  
Yeah, absolutely. Like, it's not about winning always. It's about how you make people feel. It's about how you bring the fans along with you all, all the media. And there's some riders in their 30s. Now, their favourite cyclists was Frank Vandenbrouke. That 999 the age pastorally. Age is the race of their dreams. I think I'll have an arson who's a former Belgian champion, said he watched it 200 times on replay I feel it was your bet. The great Belgian bike racer, idolise Vandenbrouke, that and there's something it wasn't just results like we can all have, well, not all of us, pro cyclists can have a page on Pro Cycling stats or whatever results. Software, you use that, that shows you what you've won, but it doesn't say anything for how you want it, you know, like with, with daring, long range attacks, like Vandenberg sometimes did, or what you said to the media afterwards, you know, giving them great quotes. And that's part of his charm. And you know, why people wrote books about him in Belgium, although that said, you know, if, if he hadn't been a kind of fatal hero, if he hadn't died so young, it would, it would be a happy a different story. Because

Carlton Reid  48:37  
there is that Amy Winehouse, you kind of mentioned that, you know, that Marilyn Monroe that kind of that here, who's a die young they stay heroes. So there's there's that element of and Africa somewhere else in your book where you talk about how people couldn't have imagined him getting older anyway. You know, there was that that there was almost a fatalism there. That this is somebody who is, you know, the Icarus figure, you know, burning bright climbing high, that will probably come a cropper like almost wasn't a surprise to many people, the way his his life ended. 

Unknown Speaker  49:15  
Absolutely. I think sometimes that's it's not easy to say that, you know, 10 years after he's died when, you know, after the fact. And the problem was that he had all these issues, he had depression briefly and he became addicted to, you know, cocaine and amphetamines. But he will always find a way out of it that I think a lot of people thought that he would eventually find a way out of his problems, you know, the 10 years from the age when the end of his life in 2009 We were just roller coaster teaser kind of cliche like, but he would always drag himself out. So that's the sadness and and they were under a lot of pain. April, he said to me, there was some regret, you know, in the quotes that his agent pulled the gator that said, when it came to his drug addiction that they were, he compared it to a kind of sinking ship and said that, you know, when they were bailing the water out, they should really be plugged in trying to plug the hole which was quite a kind of poignant quote like I thought so and so one more thing, too We, of course it gets into sad tragic territory, but you know, it's not the kind of misery misery fest biography No, and I found them bro was loved by so many people and charmed and joked around with so many people like, he was a great impressionist, he, he was like a bouncy teenager, really, at the age of 35, still, you know, like, messing around with his roommate, and putting toothpaste on the bathroom mirror. And he had this kind of universal boyishness that people found it very hard to be mad at him, even when he did, you know, quite bad things or selfish things or acted vainly, which he could do. So there's, you know, at the core of it, it goes much beyond the cyclists into this human being who could be lovable, but can also be very frustrating and, you know, do some bad things.

Carlton Reid  51:26  
So the book is, yes, it's not, you're right. It's not all doom and gloom. But there's an awful lot in there. You can't get away from this about addiction, doping clearly. And then mental health care or lack thereof, in in, in not just in cycling, but in probably in society as a whole. Yeah, like, I

Unknown Speaker  51:46  
kind of think that. If we look back, even 10 years alone, 20 years, the duty of, of care for professional athletes was really lacking. You know, I think it's really sad that there were top level riders not just Vandenberg, who were going to psychologist or psychiatrist, but we're keeping it strong, you know, because it was seen as so shameful, you know. And to me that shy, that taps into the old school soccer mentality of, you know, the way they used to be the way they used to train, you know, do 300k Drink very little, eat very little. Ride harder, don't complain. And that could work for some people. But that is not a caring way to look up to most people. You know, that's, and that can come back to by many athletes, you know, and I think that's what happened. Vandenbrouke's psychologist probably helped to help him to live longer. You know, that's what he said in his his autobiography. Actually, Vandenbrouke

Carlton Reid  52:52  
That's Jeff Browers?

Unknown Speaker  52:54  
Yeah, exactly. And, in fact, he was probably an early kind of adopter of this help that he needed, you know, not just for, you know, the cycling was one thing, but they were trying to cure his kind of addiction problems and is show him that he he was loved, you know, even though he felt abandoned often. And that's the crux of it, that, you know, this need to be loved that I kind of thing most of, well, pretty much all all of us have, whether it's conscious or subconscious. And he always felt unloved or abandoned, despite, you know, the obvious legion of fans that he had and everything else. And that was a tragedy, there are human tragedy.

Carlton Reid  53:37  
So in your in your book, there's a kind of murder mystery, and to the book, murder, mystery, suicide, whatever. So Jeff, Browers was the psychologist about it, he basically told you that he thinks it was it was it was suicide, because he was, as you've just said that he needs people around and he was quite alone in that grubby hotel room in Senegal. But then other people, family obviously blame the people he was with and don't want to have that association. With with suicide, you don't really come you don't come to a conclusion because you can't really come to a conclusion, especially as it happened in Senegal, where it's kind of difficult to come to any conclusion anyway. But there's, there's various people give their their opinions weighing all that up. What's your opinion?

Unknown Speaker  54:40  
I don't have to give one you know, like, if it isn't clear, factually, and I can't be certain, but I've laid out you know, that's the job of the biography is to talk to everyone that was close to Vandenbrouke around him at the time. He was actually you know, basically there and include what they said Um, but no. I think that there could be something very well and what you have for hours says, you know, the psychologists who, you know, he was a man who spent hours with him and in that in that room I can see why he would say that. But one of the great, one of the great, strange things about this is, is that mystery like that, you know, Vandenbrouke had never even been to Africa, and he decided to go to Senegal, ye. And this filmic ending, you know, where, whereas you say, a prostitute was the last person to see him alive. So maybe he wanted it to be, you know, clouded in some kind of doubt that it could never be be definitive. But either way, you know what, like, whichever way that he died, it was pretty tragic that that he died, you know, and he's not the only one from that era, either. He had Pantani, you had Jose Maria Jimenez, you know, and I think it's, it's partly a kind of symptom of the doping culture that what they were taking to perform in bike races made it much easier to get into recreational drugs. And both of those things, mess with your mind and your body. And probably your, your, your soul, you know, the core of who you really feel you are and what you're doing, you know, whether you think it's cheating or not that moral maze, it, it can't be easy. I'm there must have been a hot a horrible time to be a pro cyclist.

Carlton Reid  56:41  
People think of these things doping is a black and white issue. Yet, there's a spectrum here, you know, is I mean, the UCI classifies too many coffees, too many espressos as doping. But, you know, four or five, okay. You know, marginal gains, you know, all these things, which which you can legally do, and yet you somehow trip over a line, if you take this other thing. And the other thing is, is meant to be this evil thing. And that's clearly you know, the wrong thing to do. But vitamin supplements and you know, creatine, all of these things are performance enhancing, why did they not get the stigma that EPO get? So it's a spectrum and addicted, it's very difficult to say this as a black and white thing, when there are many things that can make you better on a bike, including EPO, but then you know, just your energy gel makes you better on a bike, should we be adding energy gels, it's there's very little nuance gets into it talking about doping, it's just black and it's white. Yeah,

Unknown Speaker  57:57  
when really if you're saying is that it's basically shades shades of grey, you know that the modern game does you're in the peloton is ketones, which are not banned, but they seem to be ethically questionable. And my rudimentary understanding of the science around it is also that no one knows how, how it can affect the career in a few years time or five years time that we might be seeing some writers already suffering from not using them in the right way or overusing them. Well,

Carlton Reid  58:35  
my wife is a is a diabetes doctor. So she knows about ketones, and she knows about insulin, as well. And insulin was, was clearly one of the things that Frank used to basically say he was going to kill himself and he's going to use insulin to do so. So potentially that was, it's very hard to trace insulin as if you're going to kill yourself with insulin. So potentially, that's, that's, yeah, you're gonna kill yourself insulin is a pretty good way of doing it.

Andy McGrath  59:11  
Yeah. And you know, why would you why would you take that to Senegal? Or how would you source it? You know, what? He wasn't a diabetic, you know, so. Yeah, I won't give away you know, the ending or, you know, what everyone said about the ending, but, you know, several people were pointing towards suicide, certainly in the book, but yeah, like, I just going back to the grey area of crime doping. I just hope it's a bit more nuanced. Now. The way that people regard dope is like I even think that you know, 10 years ago. It it's really hard. It's very hard, isn't it? Because they have cheated. They have done something wrong, and they've done it knowingly, you know, in probably 99% of cases. Despite the numerous They can excuse.

Carlton Reid  1:00:02  
Yes, there have been quite a few good ones. False twin

Unknown Speaker  1:00:10  
Yeah, false twin, pigeon pie, weeks from a Colombian grandmother. It's got

Carlton Reid  1:00:17  
I bought it for my dog. Okay.

Unknown Speaker  1:00:20  
Yeah, well, that was bingo. So on the one hand, they are not above appropriate, you know, the rider. They are number one, you know, anything that turns up in their body knowingly or unknowingly, if they're positive, that's that's on them, you know, that's how it is. And I totally get that. But on the other hand, it still seems to me that the culture around doping IE, you know, the people that help them or, or facilitate, you know, people like team doctors, team managers, people in the know, people who are still in the sport, you know, nowadays seem to get away with it, pretty much, often quite, quite scot free. And that's not okay. And I've had, you know, cyclists who were pros in the 80s through to, you know, the last decade, you know, saying a similar thing, but that's a thing that needs to be changed that needs to be snuffed out like the right is kind of like the symptom of a wider problem. And of course, if we knew the answer if the UCI or Wilder knew the answer, you know, anti doping foundations famously have much smaller smaller budgets and maybe even the biggest cycling team in the world they're always fighting kind of a chasing battle they're always you know, one step behind maybe against the latest wonder drug or the kind of latest cheats but I think I can save some some confidence Pro Cycling is is cleaner now than it was in Vandenbrouke's heyday. But I also fear that it'll never be totally clean partly because of human nature partly because of the money was going up and up and partly because of this bizarre kind of will to win this drive is addiction

Carlton Reid  1:02:13  
Yeah, can even amateur races you know, people have been caught doping that will to win

Andy McGrath  1:02:22  
Yeah, I mean, that's that's sad in my opinion, you know, if you're, if you're doping to win a category three cap for race. What's the point? You know,

Carlton Reid  1:02:32  
do you race have you written Have you raced

Unknown Speaker  1:02:38  
I did a few time trials when I was up at university in York. Beautiful place to ride around there Oh, and I did someone's teenager with the Addiscombe in Croydon that's where I'm from. no great shakes, Carlton. I've never meant to be the next Frank Vandenbroucke much better at writing than riding my bike has put it that way. But

Carlton Reid  1:03:08  
yeah, you're a rider. Not a racer. So that that that that Colnago that you bought is something that you would ride on a nice day with no mud around so what you're writing normally what's what's if you're not running the Colnago what you're writing 

Andy McGrath  1:03:33  
it's a time XRS I'll steel a nice bike from now not a pub bike.

Unknown Speaker  1:03:38  
It's a decent bike it was just it just keeps going and it gets me around town if I want to ride in the autumn or winter on the road so I'll use Quickstep used to ride it back in the day me 20 years ago you know Palpatine and all that

Carlton Reid  1:03:57  
which did you pick that up in your in your magazine days then is that was you kind of like you somehow acquired it back then.

Andy McGrath  1:04:07  
Well, the thing about me is I'm I'm not I'm no techie I'm really good people that would have seen me trying to fix a puncture back in the cycling weekly office 15 years ago would have realised that immediately now I'm there because I like riding my bike. I just to be completely honest, like I don't know much about bike tech and isn't the most interesting thing about cycling for me, you know, I'm the people that ride the bikes, you know, the pros and all their you know, differences and their opinions and personalities. That's much more interesting to me than say this bike weighs eight kilos or this carbon one weigh 7.5 But that's that's just me, you know, each have their own. Yeah, I'd much rather you know ride a bike then. do the legwork for it, you know, which is but actually need to get better at you know mechanics and changing chains and that kind of thing and maybe on a warm summer's day, I'll just practice doing

Carlton Reid  1:05:13  
that. That's what bike shops are for. That's my opinion. Now I'm with you. I'm with you on the I'm not fussed about technical stuff I've never really been happy writing about the technical stuff doesn't excite me writing about technical stuff or weighing things and yeah, it's the people that is all the stories that are around it that that are from me, personally. A more interesting.

Andy McGrath  1:05:40  
Yeah, absolutely. Like, I find it hard to rhapsodise about tech, you know, whereas I can. Yeah, like I kind of wish I was more intrigued by it, but I'm just not, that's just my personality. And the funny thing is, as a former tech magazine, Ed editor, you really you do have to slightly balance the editorial side with not keeping advertisers happy, but keeping them onside. And there was a slight tech element with Rila. But we we did it in our own way with basically treating the bike or the other kit, like a like a model, you know, hanging on trees or oversea wall, or all kinds of crazy sheets.

Carlton Reid  1:06:29  
So if people want to and we're now wrapping up here, Andy, if people want to get your book and be maybe getting in touch with you or find out what you're doing, where do they find you on websites on on social media?

Unknown Speaker  1:06:44  
They can find me on X formerly known as Twitter before Elon Musk made it even worse. Yeah, at Andy McGrath, that's a n d, why. MC Gra? So, take off the th basically for my surname. Yeah, they want to buy the book, just any online bookseller, really from from Amazon to Waterstones to Blackwell's to whoever, whoever you like, it's on there. And I'll put

Carlton Reid  1:07:19  
your art stack substack link in in the show notes. So people can also you know, if they're not interested in cycling, they could they could follow you for your, you know, your your opinions on Anthony Conway says

Andy McGrath  1:07:31  
the next step comes from me being an expert, what's your, what do you think?

Carlton Reid  1:07:39  
Well, I guess if you're not into the techie side, you know, and you're just looking at maybe just the people behind these things, rather than the art itself? I don't know. Is that do they? Are you looking at the art itself? What's going to interest you?

Andy McGrath  1:07:51  
I am mainly looking at the art itself being and that ties into their lives and the era they were in. It's a bit of everything really, you know, if it's modern art that I'm likely to question, you know, how did this make me feel? You know, what do I feel? What does this elicit in me kind of understand how much work is took or, you know, the literal art artistry behind it? That's one element. But, you know, I just went to see Frank Howell back. He's at the Courtauld in London. He's basically the last surviving artist from that Lucien Freud. Francis Bacon set in the 1950s. And I thought it was fantastic and but it's only black and white because he didn't have the money for pain in 1950s, which I've become a pain which is also an insight into a different world, you know, that I'm very fortunate to not be in you know, post World War reconstruction. But anyway, we we digress. Any followers are welcome.

Carlton Reid  1:09:02  
Yes, no, I'll put that link in. For sure. And to your other things. So Andy, thank you so much for for talking to us on me, us.

Andy McGrath  1:09:11  
Thank you. Absolute pleasure.

Carlton Reid  1:09:15  
And that's it for today's show. Thanks for listening to Episode 351 of the spokesmen podcast brought to you in association with Tern bicycles, show notes and more can be found at As I mentioned earlier, the next episode, dropping real soon, will be a chat with cycling writer, Laura Laker. But meanwhile, get out there and ride ...


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