Following this week’s announcement that Domestique had won the first SweetSpot Cycling Book of the Year Award, we spoke to co-author Tom Southam for our latest interview.

FAIR PLAY to Tom Southam, Charly Wegelius and Ebury Press. You would think a cycling book centred on an rider who never won a professional race in his life and has no doping revelations to impart might have been a considered a hard sell as the bow wave created by Lance Armstrong continues to send ripples through the market. But you would be wrong as both the SweetSpot Cycling Book of the Year Award for 2013 announced this week for Domestique proves, along with the general acclaim on publication.

The story of Charly Wegelius – the ‘True Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Pro’ to borrow from Domestique’s subtitle – was one that needed telling and happily the cycling public has recognised that.  British born and reared but with a Finnish father and a very continental racing career spent mainly in France and Italy Wegelius came up the hard way outside of the GB system, way off the radar, and forged an honourable if unheralded career as an invaluable domestique most notably with Liquigas.

“Domestique celebrates other stuff,” says Southam. “As much as doping has been part of cycling it is only a small part of it, the coverage and the books on the subject is totally disproportionate. The majority of riders’ experiences in cycling are much more like Charly’s than Lance Armstrong. There is so much more to cycling. In every race there are as many stories as there are riders and by concentrating on just the big name dopers we miss so much.”

Wegelius was an extremely talented cyclist who could time-trial and climb – he won stacks of races as an amateur in France – but he was honest enough to admit to himself very early in his career that he would always fall short of greatness and he decided therefore to concentrate on forging a career helping others. He loved the sport so much that he couldn’t bear not being involved and this was his outlet, his way of paying the bills

All professional cyclists are to an extent hired hands – they are paid to ride for a team and promote a brand – but Wegelius and others like him then have to supress their egos and ambition to bury themselves in helping somebody else to glory they once dreamt of as their own.   You have to stop being a winner and become a helper. Not everybody can do that, mentally as much as anything.  It is skilful if potentially soul destroying job and only recently have the wider British sporting public fully understood the kudos and respect that should be bestowed upon great domestiques.

That ‘hired hand’ mentality led to the biggest controversy of Wegelius’ career when in 2005, riding for a GB team with little chance of success at the 2005 World Championships in Madrid, he agreed to assist an Italian team full of friends and important camp followers, by helping to chase down inevitable early break.  He had also enlisted a fellow Brit, young professional Tom Southam who was making his way in Italy to help in this humble task. They had a living to make, they were professional cyclists damn it who could do with the €;2,500 payday and the immense goodwill their support would generate in Italy.  Who in the Great Britain setup would pay the bills when the team went their separate ways the following day?

That was the theory anyway although Wegelius (below, wearing Great Britain kit at the 2004 Tour of Britain) now admits it was warped thinking.  British Cycling was changing rapidly and no longer wanted to be seen as fodder for the other nations. Lifelong banishment from the GB set-up followed for both but a lifelong friendship remains between Wegeilus and Southam and it is that degree of understanding and genuine collaboration that gives this ghosted biography a layer that eludes most books of this genre.

Ghost writing has been in the news recently with Paul Kimmage, known to all cycling fans, falling out with Ireland and Lions rugby star Brian O’Driscoll after two years working on the latter’s authorised biography due to be published later this year. Reportedly the book had already reached the first draft stage after 600,000 words of transcription from recorded interviews when the two stopped seeing eye-to-eye. The exact nature of their disagreement has not been disclosed but capturing the ‘voice’ of the subject can be fiendishly difficult as I myself can testify having ghosted two autobiographical books with Sir Bradley Wiggins and indeed an early ‘year in the life’ biography with O’Driscoll. Sometimes it is only when the subject sees their story written down in black and white that the full impact of their words and thoughts hits home.

Southam achieves this supremely well, a process that is helped by cleverly writing an erudite introduction himself. This served two purposes. Rather than lurk anonymously in the shadows as most ghosts do it was probably necessary to ‘declare an interest’ given his own role in one of the pivotal chapters of the book and secondly his own voice and style is very different to that of Wegelius, that his introduction underlines the integrity of the latter.

“I am new to this but I suspect it probably wasn’t a standard ghost writing relationship because I know Charly so well on a personal level and we really did work together on it,” says Southam. “We would have formal interviews and talks but a lot of that was simply going over his life story and stuff we had yarned about endlessly before.  Having got the raw material and then researched all the facts and dates I would then turn it into Charly’s words and then put it back to him read chapter by chapter which felt a bit weird and awkward, at least at the beginning. It was important he signed everything off as we went along rather than get to the end of the process and him not being happy with the product.   We were mates and it was important to us both that we were still mates at the end of the process.  We are!

One of the great fallacies of ghost writing is that all you have to do is transcribe those taped interviews and pick out the best bits. If only it was that easy. The spoken word is hugely different from the written word. Thoughts are often randomly spewed out in no particular order as the speaker recalls events, often in the wrong chronological order.  Ten minutes later on the tape they will probably give a slightly different version and perhaps an hour later, when trying to recap things definitively, you will get a third version. Which one do you work on, especially when all three perhaps contradict in some detail previous accounts by the subject that have been published on an incident or race?

There is also the difficult moment when although the object of the autobiography has given you his or her full and final account on a subject or incident the ghost has to decide whether to point out that there are other versions of that same subject and what are your comments on those? This becomes tricky ground, how much should the ghost intervene journalistically remembering that ultimately this is not the ghost’s book, he is merely the hired hand, the  literary domestique. That is where the degree of friendship and trust comes into play and can either make or break a ghosted biography. Do they trust each other to delve a bit deeper? Does the sporting subject trust the wordsmith to say more eloquently what they are trying and perhaps failing to say.  Or should that process even be allowed – by doing that are you not losing the genuine voice? It can get complicated.

“Eventually it became pretty organic between the two of us. I sort of got inside his head and started looking at things the way he would look at them. I believe that’s the way it has to be. You have to start writing like he is thinking.  Charly is a very good writer of his own accord and although he was busy he would sometimes jot down passages himself which I tried to use whenever possible and of course they also provided a great template if you like for his style. My biggest worry in that respect was that I failed to capture his very dry wit and that readers would miss it. I didn’t want people to think Charly was being bleak all the time when he was actually being very funny.

“The British cycling public is spoiled although not in a bad way.  Our cycling press and magazines are absolutely phenomenal when you compare them to other sports, they are just miles ahead which means that for the book writer the road ahead has already been paved. 

“I had a few different ideas as to how we tackled the Madrid chapter and it was definitely the chapter that we discussed most.  We wanted to make it as accurate as we could possibly make it from all the angles and not just from what we saw ourselves. We wanted to get it right and in a way consign it to history because that is what it now is.  Charly is not necessarily a guy who likes putting himself out there, so he was a bit wary thinking a book dealing with quite intimate area of his life would be set for the general sporting public to read. He was quite nervous for a while but when the book got a great reaction he really enjoyed it.

“I was pretty relieved as well to be honest because when you write a book like this what you actually do is end up sitting in your study for months on end in front of your computer and you have little relationship with the rest of the world and the book’s potential readership.  As you hammer away at the book that link is missing. The reaction has been very gratifying, the only negativity I can recall as that some complained there was not enough about doping but in many ways that’s the point. Charly didn’t dope, his entire focus was having to deal with the reality of riding in a peloton in which some riders were undoubtedly doping.  He just got on with trying to make a living, that’s his story. If you want to read about doping the Secret Race is probably the book for you.”

If you would like to read more from Tom Southam, you can follow him on Twitter here to keep up-to-date with his latest work.

Domestique: The Real Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Prois available now in all good bookshops, and online from Amazon.co.uk.