This Friday Triple Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and former US international competitor Bill Humphreys will meet the public at a book signing held at the Battenkill weekend of racing in Cambridge, NY.
Humphreys was part of a team of riders who broke new ground for US cycling when they travelled across the Atlantic to compete in the 1973 Tour of Ireland. The pioneering journey paved the way for others to head to Europe to race, and in turn led on to the careers of riders such as Jock Boyer, the first American to ride the Tour de France, and LeMond, the first American to win it.
Together with the younger riders they will meet on Friday, several generations of USA cycling will be present at the signing. That range of ages and experience syncs perfectly with the theme of the book being highlighted, Humphreys’ The Jersey Project, as the work is focused on documenting the evolution of the sport and the many riders who have competed at a high level over the past decades. It's all about generations, in other words.
A simple premise, but a very effective one:
The Jersey Project came about after Humphreys met his longtime Dutch friend Rini Wagtmans at the 2010 Tour de France, and was shown a copy of a new book called Koerstrui. It featured hundreds of photographs of cycling jerseys from sixty years of racing, and was a collaboration by John Van Ierland, its author, and Henk Theuns, the owner of a massive collection of jerseys.
Fascinated by the book, Humphries instantly saw the potential to add American jerseys, history and detail to the collection, and to translate it into English; at that moment, with that germination of an idea, The Jersey Project was born.
Looking at the project from a distance, the idea seems simple; collect photos of jerseys of a range of standards from a range of pro teams, and include some details about the riders who had worn them in competition. But thanks to this unusual angle, a perfect device has been found to imbue some of the history of the sport while simultaneously providing a snapshot to eras past; not only do the jerseys in question tie in with the teams and riders in question at that point in time, but they also reflect the printing techniques, commercial backing and even the cultural influences at that moment.
The very first jersey in the book exemplifies this: the 1964 jersey of John Allis Princeton is a simple affair, comprising a rust-orange tunic striped across the chest with a thick black band. Basic printing, no name sponsors, pockets across the chest. Looking at it evokes historical times in Europe, but without the big backing. That was all yet to happen.
Jump forward six pages and there’s Humphries and three team-mates, namely John Howard, John Allis and Stan Swaim, clad in plain Raleigh team kit and ready to line out in the 1973 Tour of Ireland. The sponsorship has increased and, with it, the opportunity to race further afield has become possible.
It was, as Humphreys points out, a pivotal moment for US cycling. “This was the first time the top racing official, chief commissaire Phil Liggett, had seen an American team compete in Europe and I am sure he was pleased with the results,” he writes. “The Raleigh team performed wonderfully well, with John Howard placing third and John Allis taking fifth place, securing a solid overall team result.
“Phil Liggett invited a U.S. team to compete in his prestigious Milk Race in England the following year, and the gates were wide open.”
It took some time for the big results to come. Before then, there was a lot of suffering and toil, both on and off the bike.
Double US national championship runner-up Tom Officer speaks about one aspect of his 1976 season with the Cycles Lecoulant Gitane team. “I’m still amazed by what we were willing to put up with to follow the dream,” he states in the book. “That first season in France I lived in a rooming house, a hot plate in my room, a dry sink, a shared toilet down the hall, no shower, had a faucet out in the hall for cold water. I’d fill up 2 pitchers with water, go outside, dump one over myself, soap up and then dump the other one over me to rinse off and then run inside and get in bed to get warm!”
It’s hard to imagine any of the current breed of rider tolerating the same conditions. Time has moved on, but what snippets like that show is the extent of the suffering those original pioneers had to put up with to forge the trail.
Humphries went from being an international competitor to the junior national road coach. As a photo in the book shows, he worked alongside Eddy Borysewicz at the US Olympic training centre, guiding the young US stars such as Greg LeMond, Thurlow Rogers and Ron Kiefel. They in turn went on to race at a higher level than ever before, with LeMond going on to win the 1983 word championships, the 1986 Tour de France and, after returning from hunting accident, to take both the 1989 and 1990 Tours plus the 1989 worlds.
Lance Armstrong came later and would land his own collection of worlds and Tour successes. Now cycling in the USA has two WorldTour teams, numerous Pro Continental and Continental outfits, national teams competing in many races abroad and young talents coming through which will keep the country at the top of the podiums for many years.
Things have clearly moved a long way forward from the days that small Raleigh squad took its first nervous steps in Europe.
The book is however far more than just being one about US cycling. The former is dealt with in the first 51 pages; after that, there remains 140 more pages packed with jersey images from Europe and elsewhere, plus rider profiles, curious statistics, quirky anecdotes and more. It’s a straightforward idea, but a gripping one; there’s something wonderful about the jerseys, the eras, the styles, the colours, the scrawled signatures across the garments, the sense of history.
The book isn’t a document; it’s a homage. It also something which works extremely well, and is a recommended addition to any cycling library.
Booksigning details: Bill Humphreys and Greg LeMond will appear at Battenkill Books, 15 East Main Street, Cambridge at 11am this Friday, April 13th. Copies of The Jersey Project will be available there, and can be also ordered from www.thejerseyproject.com.