NOTE: This post is rated R for mild strong language.
I’m trying to learn how to write fiction. I’ve dabbled in it but I’m more comfortable with essays. And yet, recently I discovered that for years I’ve been telling a story about the French cycling champion Bernard Hinault that I only thought was true—I’d unknowingly fictionalized an account of one of his victories. Does this count as fiction? Probably not. But this got me thinking about the fictions we unintentionally create all the time. This post explores the different reasons why, and methods by which, we create “unintentional fiction.”
What, you’re not that interested in reading about the act of fiction? Well, in the following post I explore this topic through bike racing stories, so you might enjoy it anyway.
Would you rather read actual fiction than read about fiction? Well then, here are some links to albertnet short stories:
Hinault wins Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Here is the story I have been telling for over twenty years about Hinault winning the 1980 Liège-Bastogne- Liège bike race—the oldest of the classics:
That fake autobiography, “Hinault by Hinault,” got it all wrong. It was your typical blather about Hinault wanting so badly to win this race for France, since only three Frenchman had won it in its 100+ year history, so he pushed through with unflagging motivation even though the weather was terrible, snow and sleet, etc. But in his actual autobiography, “Memories of the Peloton,” Hinault told the real story, which is that he didn’t even want to start the race. He tells his coach, Cyrille Guimard, “This is bullshit, I’m not racing in these conditions.” Guimard says, “Just start the race, and when you’ve shown your face you can drop out.” Hinault asks for a jacket. Guimard says, “No, start without it, and I’ll give it to you later.” So Hinault starts. Ten kilometers in he drops back to the team car and says, “Okay Cyrille, give me my jacket, I’m riding back to the hotel.” Guimard says, “No, just stay in a bit longer until more of the others have quit. You don’t want to look bad.” Several more times Hinault is denied his jacket until Guimard finally says, “I’m not giving you your jacket until you finish. So you might as well race.” Furious, and wanting to stay warm, Hinault drops the hammer and obliterates the field, ultimately winning by almost ten minutes. After the race he finds Guimard, who says, “Well, now are you glad you raced?” Hinault snaps back, “Fuck off. Give me my jacket.”
It’s a great story—but largely untrue. As I discovered when I reread “Memories of the Peloton” recently, my memory of this tale has proven seriously defective. Yes, Hinault won by almost ten minutes, and Guimard and a jacket were involved, but the real story is quite different. Hinault lined up with everybody without complaint, and “everyone was wearing a cape or a windcheater.” Hinault continues:
I was riding with a hand up to my face to keep the snow out of my eyes and came very close to retiring. I told [teammate] Guilloux that it was impossible to carry on and I was all for getting back to our hotel, but he persuaded me to carry on to the feeding-station and pack it in if it was still snowing then. [At the feeding station, 100 km from the finish] there was a bit of rain and it was cold but the weather looked more stable. Cyrille Guimard told me to remove my racing cape because the real race was about to start. My cape was made of a waxed fabric and I was very warm inside it, but I took it off as instructed…. I decided that the only thing to do was ride as hard as I could to keep myself warm…. [After dropping everybody, I was] like a kind of snowbound Tom Thumb protected only by his balaclava, but heading for a heart-warming victory in Liège.
My account was scarcely better than the one I’d remembered from “Hinault by Hinault” (which is out of print so I can’t even check up on how well I’ve remembered it). In my story, Hinault had railed against authority, but in truth he did as he was told.
How could I have remembered this so wrong? Well, the idea of Hinault as a rebel is entirely valid. Later in “Memories of the Peloton” he writes, “The atmosphere at Renault had been cloudy since 1980. Cyrille always wanted his own way: the rider had only to pedal and keep his mouth shut. He gave orders but no explanations. In my case, it all went in one ear and out of the other. I tended to do whatever seemed right to me and, as time went by, I found his attitude less and less acceptable. He treated us like naughty children and it had to stop.” So he ultimately fell out with Guimard, and went on to start his own team.
Through faulty memory, I took matters of truth—Hinault’s pugnacious spirit and his support of riders’ rights (revolutionary at that time)—and illustrated them concisely through a dramatic narrative, which is exactly what fiction should do. The only trouble was, I wasn’t aware of my own fictionalizing and presented my fanciful account as fact.
Perhaps the “Hinault by Hinault” writer, far short of the manipulative propagandist I had taken him for, was similarly misled by his own faulty memory. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine a non-nationalistic motive for Hinault to persevere in such conditions. (I doubt, though, that Hinault was actually very nationalistic; in his book he reports that, even after his famous rift with Greg LeMond in 1986, “We agreed that, in the world championship, neither of us would work if the other got away.” This is significant because at the world championship, riders race are supposed for their countries, not for their trade teams, and not for their friends.)
I thought my brother Geoff had taken this photo, but he couldn’t have because he’s in it (on the right, no shirt, high white socks, cast on his wrist).
Gauchos win national TTT championship
Some years ago, I wrote a story for the Daily Peloton about the 1990 National Collegiate Cycling Championships, where the UC Santa Barbara team I was on won the team time trial. It had been over a decade since the race when I wrote my story, and I had to rely heavily on memory. I seemed to recall that only one team started their race after we did, and that was CU Boulder. We’d beaten all the other teams, and CU’s time needed to be forty seconds slower than ours if we were to hang on for the win. But looking back, I wasn’t sure about CU having raced last: I also remembered having been really nervous about the Cal Poly team from San Luis Obispo, who had won the collegiate national TTT the year before.
I didn’t want to get this detail wrong, so I asked three of my former UCSB teammates how they remembered the race. Without any prompting or leading questions from me, all three of them recalled, very assuredly, that it was Cal Poly who was the last team on the road. Figuring that three matching accounts couldn’t be wrong, I wrote up my story accordingly:
Ah, the torment! Cal Poly still had four riders together, and they looked a lot faster than we’d felt coming up the home stretch. We looked at the clock. Then at Cal Poly. Clock. Poly. Clock. And then a shocking thing happened: their paceline broke in two. Several seconds went by before the front two noticed. A huge gap opened, fifty meters. The gap never closed. Their third guy finally crossed the line but was six seconds too late. Such a close margin—and suddenly, doubt set in. Could Steve’s [timing] number have been inaccurate? Or approximate? Trevor grilled him. Are you absolutely positively sure? Steve was. No doubt whatsoever. We’d won. Gold.
Pretty specific description, eh? Well, I had the benefit of a photo my brother snapped of Cal Poly’s finish. Once I found that photo, I vividly remembered how the Cal Poly paceline had fallen apart at the end. I remembered this as clearly as if I’d seen it with my own eyes—but actually I hadn’t. I came across another photo years after my Daily Peloton story was published:
Zoom in. See the dude in the background on the far left with the red and white helmet? That’s me. To my left you can just make out my teammate Trevor. Our other teammates are obscured by the guys who have just released the Cal Poly riders (in the green and white). Sure enough, Cal Poly went before we did. The last team on the road was indeed CU Boulder, as I’d originally remembered. Dang it!
So why did three of my teammates all remember it wrong? It’s hard to say, but one explanation comes immediately to mind: it’s a lot better story if Cal Poly goes last. That sets up the gut-wrenching suspense at the end. More likely than not, my teammates had simply remembered things how they’d wanted to. Unintentional fiction.
How much time is involved in creating such fiction? If you’d asked my teammates and me about this race a week, a month, or six months after it happened, we’d surely have remembered it right. But a decade later, such details have faded, and the brain fills them back in as well as it can—which in this case meant that accuracy succumbed to drama.
Mount Evans and the Stelvio
Memory is not the only culprit when it comes to such inaccuracy. There’s also our fallible interpretation of real-time events. With simple matters (e.g., is that traffic light red or green?) we do just fine, but with more complicated matters our interpretations are best-effort. When we make sense of unfolding events, we’re really telling a story to ourselves about what we are seeing. We do this automatically whenever we imagine another person’s perspective; researchers call this “theory of mind.” (One test for autism demonstrates that severely autistic children cannot employ a theory of mind, while the rest of us take it for granted.)
As an example of inaccurate interpretation of events, I offer a tale of the 1986 Mount Evans hill climb. Just after the halfway point of the race, the peloton exploded and I found myself in the company of just two other riders: my teammate Peter Stubenrauch and our friend (and rival) John Cotton. Pete was the best climber of the three, and normally John was much stronger than I. On this day, though, we seemed well matched and climbed together for many miles. I was having the best race of my life, despite a bizarre mechanical problem: my front hub, a wacky Dura-Ace AX, had these big plastic dust caps and one of them was catching on the fork tip and grinding against the rotating hub. This made an intermittent but relentless noise, somewhere between a whine and a shriek. Eventually Pete rode up next to me and asked what the hell the noise was.
Mount Evans is a really long race—27 miles, climbing almost 7,000 feet—so our pace allowed for some light conversation, and after discussing the hub a bit Pete and I somehow got on the topic of my new aero brake levers (among the first type to have unexposed cable housing). At about this time John was suddenly dropped, and by the finish Pete and I had taken something like five minutes out of him. A little while after the race, John came over and congratulated us: “You guys really did some good teamwork there. I overheard you discussing tactics but I couldn’t make out what you were saying. Then you timed your attack and counterattack to perfection. What can I say … there was nothing I could do!”
We of course had no idea what he was talking about. There had been no tactics in that race except to pace ourselves carefully. The only thing we’d talked about was my bike. John imagined that we beaten him through teamwork—which must have been preferable to admitting that he was just slower that day.
A more recent example: the Giro d’Italia, which just wrapped up last weekend. I watched the penultimate stage twice: once on Saturday morning via a live Internet feed, and again that evening on TV. The morning coverage was from Eurosport so the announcers were David Harmon and the veteran cycling champion Sean Kelly. As the racers tackled the brutal Stelvio pass, Kelly talked about how this late in a grand tour, on a course this difficult, often the tactics cease to be that important: either the racers have it in their legs or they don’t. The evening coverage was from Universal Sports so the announcers were Steve Schlanger and the former American pro Todd Gogulski. Schlanger made a predictable comment about this being a “chess game on wheels” or some such thing. Gogulski agreed, citing the importance of teamwork and tactics in the race.
I had to laugh. These announcers seemed to be saying opposite things. Who was right and who was wrong? Well, it’s complicated. Tactics certainly were in play. For example, Christian Vande Velde dropped back from a breakaway to help his teammate, Ryder Hesjedal, who was in contention for the overall Giro d’Italia victory. Damiano Cunego should have done the same for his leader, Michele Scarponi, but unaccountably didn’t. Overall race leader Joaquim Rodriguez needed to attack Hesjedal but waited too long (setting himself up to lose the Giro in the last stage the following day). Was it tactics that ultimately determined the outcome? Probably not—to Kelly’s point, many riders just didn’t have the legs to carry out tactical moves. (If this was a poker game, former Giro champ Ivan Basso couldn’t even afford the ante.)
There was no single “accurate” way to narrate that race. No two racers had the same experience, and announcers can only speculate on each racer’s story. Perhaps we’ll know cycling has truly come of age in America when we have talk shows where sports pundits argue onscreen for hours at a time about this stuff.
The Stelvio and the Mini Zinger
Unintentional fiction also results when, aware that others are telling themselves stories about us, we try to control or influence those stories. On the Stelvio, Vande Velde led the group of overall contenders kilometer after kilometer, grinding out a grueling pace designed to paralyze and shrink the group, and yet he wore a perfect poker face. Looking at him, you’d be tempted to think this was easy for him—but it obviously wasn’t. After he finally completed his job and dropped from the lead group, he lost over seven minutes in just a few kilometers.
It’s a good bet Vande Velde was deliberately looking as unfazed as possible so he could psych out his opponents. Even though they were behind him, their team directors, following the race in their cars, had access to the same video feed we viewers did, and could talk to their racers via radios. If Vande Velde showed how much he was suffering, he might have given comfort, however indirectly, to the enemy. (Hesjedal, meanwhile, looked like he was really suffering, but then he always does—so his mask of suffering told his opponents nothing. Maybe his lack of poker face, given with his routinely tireless performances, carries out a mind game of its own.)
In my own humble races I sometimes told misleading stories through my actions. In the 1985 Red Zinger Mini Classic, an 8- or 9-day stage race, I got in several breakaways with my friend Peter, who won every stage. Being much stronger, and a way better sprinter, he was content to do most of the work in the breakaway. But in the criteriums I was always sure to take my pulls as we went through the start/finish stretch, where there was a higher concentration of spectators. Here I am on a back-stretch, preparing to once again get Pete’s wheel:
Meanwhile, Pete would often let me beat him in the primes, because he know I wanted to get the sprint leader jersey away from another kid whom neither of us liked. Pete made it look close: I’d throw my bike at the line and just barely win the prime.
What were we up to? Well, I led through the start/finish area because I wanted to glean all the glory I could from a race I wasn’t capable of winning. Meanwhile, I wanted to make the race look good by seeming to give Pete a run for his money. He must have also had the race’s image in mind when he pretended to almost win the primes: if the spectators had known how totally dominant he was, they’d probably have gotten bored. Not that we thought all this through or discussed it, of course. We just followed our impulses.
After one of these criteriums, a spectator took me aside. He was a grown-up and spoke with authority: “Look, you can beat this guy, but you have to be smart about it! You can’t be dragging him around the course all the time—he’s taking advantage of you! You’re almost as fast in the sprint—if you just conserved your energy for the end I’ll bet you could beat him!” I could have told the guy it was all smoke and mirrors, but I didn’t. I just mumbled something noncommittal. I wasn’t telling any stories, per se: just trying to influence the ones people told to themselves and each other.
Unintentional fiction vs. artifice
The chief difference between unintentional fiction and real fiction is artifice: that is, intent. The true fiction writer is aiming for a specific effect, conveying a certain idea, and has at his or her disposal anything imagination can conjure. The essayist, biographer, or journalist must stick to the facts. And yet, the truths the essayist conveys are still a matter of insight and intent. Choices are made, a perspective is advanced, and best-effort interpretations still abound. Fiction, in its various guises, has us all surrounded.
Perhaps what feels so “honest” and forthright about “Memories of the Peloton” is Hinault’s apparent absence of artifice. He’s a retired bike champ, not a writer. The translator, in his preface, suggests “that Hinault dictated his memoirs into a tape recorder and then had them transcribed exactly as he had spoken them. The result was original and created a very immediate impression of the man and his character, but it lacked the logical structure you are entitled to expect in a book.” Indeed, Hinault breezes from one topic to another, and one passage that has really stuck with me concerns the training rides he did with local riders during his late teens:
We used to set off on Thursday afternoons … and ride 100 or 120 kilometres. We used to amuse ourselves by sprinting for all the signs. We’d go to a grocer’s to buy yoghurt and sometimes the grocer would lend us little spoons.
I absolutely love that those little spoons made it into the book. Perhaps this shows how important those early, carefree training rides were to him. The 1979 Tour de France, which Hinault won, isn’t even mentioned.