Son of a peasant, Leon Georget known as the “Brute” was one of the greatest professional cyclists of the turbulent early days of racing in the cradle of France with its wholesale cheating, fights and drug-taking. In a remarkable 20-year career he was christened “father of the Bol d’Or” after winning this classic 24-hour, non-stop track race no less than nine times before such events were banned.
The Brute, also known as “Big Red”, becomes the central figure for a story about France and in particular Paris, hotbed of velodrome racing, in a period of dramatic social and cultural upheaval. He straddled the years before and after the 1914-1918 conflict when track racing was at its height, when courtesans and cabaret artists, gentlemen and Dadaists, came with ordinary working people to admire these supermen, when the bicycle was seen as a technology that liberated millions of people and especially women, and when France was plunged from the heady days of the belle époque into the chaos of war, decimating the ranks of professional cyclists. Thus In Pursuit of the Brute is much more than a book about cycle-racing.
Regularly invited to race the six-day races in New York’s Madison Square Garden in the first few years of the 20th century, Georget also takes readers into the star-spangled atmosphere of “The Garden” with its unruly crowds cheering on their favourites and baying for the blood of “the Frenchies”.
Besides Georget, other strong characters enliven the story. Among others they include rivals such as Hippolyte “The Terrible” Aucouturier and Rodolfo “The Poet” Muller, despotic founder of the Tour de France, Henri Desgrange, velodrome manager and playwright Tristan Bernard, Dadaist cyclist Alfred Jarry, track-cycling fan Toulouse Lautrec, bicycle-lover Emile Zola, beautiful pioneering bicycle racer and aviator Helene Dutrieu, notorious manager and coach Choppy Warburton.
Based on original research of hundreds of French-language archives, the book resonates with the contemporary problems of professional cycling. Georget and his rivals had frequent run-ins with officials over cheating. He staved off the agony of non-stop racing with rough red wine, hence his French name of Le Brutal, while others consumed large quantities of “elixirs” – dangerously powerful and sometimes fatal potions.
Born in New Zealand in 1941, son of a Methodist pastor and a music teacher, Selwyn majored in French and German at the University of Auckland and taught for two years in the remote farming town of Otorohanga in the King Country before relocating to Britain and starting in journalism with the Enfield Weekly Herald. He got his grounding with the news agencies – Reuters in London and Agence France Presse in Paris – before moving into print journalism. Since then he has worked in several countries for such publications as the Sydney Morning Herald, Time Magazine, Newsweek and the Au...
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