The Full Cycle is the autobiography of British cyclist Vin Denson and it is one of the most charming cycling books I've ever read. It overflows with youthfulness, innocence and old-world determination. Vin Denson isn't famous but he was certainly an excellent cyclist, possibly even great. Amongst others, he won stages of the Giro and the Dunkirk 4-Days race and the overall in the 1965 Tour of Luxembourg. He was also the super-domestique for riders such as Rik Van Looy, Jacques Anquetil and Tom Simpson.
But while his story is one of great cyclists, great mountains and great feats, it also features plenty of endearing little vignettes about life and bicycles. In one, he recalls the time as a teenager when he completed a club '25' (a 25-mile time-trial). The time-keeper noticed that the flicker was missing from Denson's bell. So, he said, 'You haven't got a bell.' Denson responded, 'What do you mean I haven't got a bell? There it is.' 'That's not a bell; it doesn't ring.' Denson responded, 'It does', while pulling out the spanner from his pocket and dinging it. Later, when Denson crossed the line, he shouted, 'Number ten, ding, dong,' to which the timekeeper responded, 'Cheeky young bastard.' Sure, it's not edgy stuff or anything, but it's cute and charming and you feel like Denson would be a nice person to call a friend.
On the racing side of things, Denson sounds like a rider made from the same mould as Cancellera. He was an excellent time-triallest, and used that skill both to help his leader and to win races. On winning, he says, 'For me there is only one way...You make it as hard as you can, you wear the others down, and then you beat them to the line.' He would have been an exciting rider to watch; always trying to get in the break and full of panache. While he sometimes won, it was more common for him to come second or worse as a member of the successful break, often the one having done most of the work.
The difficulty of being a a British pro is also highlighted by Denson. 'It was not sufficient to be as good as, or even better than a Frenchman or a Belgian rider; an Englishman had to be streets better and work twice as hard to get a place. Then, when you made the team, you had to work harder than anyone else to be among those picked for the big events.' The difficulty was compounded by rules at the time which stated that a team had to be comprised of mainly riders from the country in which it was registered.
Denson also has some great tales from the bunch. In one episode, Anquetil had an omelette in his back pocket but insisted he couldn't eat it without some white wine. So Denson and a teammate got permission from the bunch to drop back and raid a café. All went well until they were spotted on the way back through the team cars by their Directeur Sportif, Raphaël Gémiani, who stopped them and asked, 'Where are you going with that?' Denson responded that Jacques needed a bottle of wine to swill down his hard omelette. 'He's not drinking wine today. It's 92 degrees.' While Géminiani and the team mechanic drank the wine, Denson was forced to return to the bunch and this time get permission to go off the front to do another café raid. That way, he could deliver the wine to Anquetil without being spotted.
|Denson shares beers with his teammates during the '65 Tour|
The book is full of such tales and leaves the reader with a sense of knowing and liking Denson. He comes across as a good person who took risks and lived his dream. And while mostly an uplifting and life-affirming story, it also has melancholy aspects. Denson discusses the death of Tom Simpson, with whom he was great friends, that occurred when they were riding for Great Britain during the '67 Tour. And while not dying in such dramatic circumstances, the passing of his wife, Vi, marks another poignant point in the book. At the age of 60, after her death, Denson rode a '25' in 59'41". Not bad for an old fella. He writes that he felt he had done it in honour of Vi.
The Full Cycle is not the most well-written cycling book you'll ever read but that doesn't really matter as what it lacks in style it more than makes up for in substance. If you are a fan with an interest in the golden age of cycling, you will really enjoy this book.