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The Independent Culture
Bad to the Bone, by James Waddington, Dedalus pounds 7.99. There have been reports in recent weeks of graffiti going up in French towns advising the populace to "Exploit an Idiot - Rent a room to a World Cup fan". Football is for the unrefined, the aesthetically challenged (ie the English). What really qualifies as a spectator sport in France are the stroboscopic flashes of scores of cyclists passing your garden gate once a year: the Tour de France.

A keen cyclist himself, Waddington clearly loves the sport and much of this novel is a hymn to his passion. 260 kilometres a day. Climbing five mountains in one stint on the saddle. The muscle. The diet. The personality required to perform for hours while on the edge of physical collapse. His amazed enthusiasm for what these guys manage to achieve never wanes. But thankfully this is not a list of statistics and heroics: the world of professional cycle racing that Waddington describes is more intriguing than that.

It's the story of a serial killer, a mephistophelean team doctor who creates greatness in riders by exploiting their desire to be the best - then literally sucks that ability from them. Waddington raises questions about the corrupted heroism that makes already brilliant athletes pop pills, or in this case, resort to more mysterious means, in search of that extra kilometre per hour.

Waddington employs a cheerful surrealism to convey the superhuman stature of his cyclists and the designer violence of his killer. The encounters with death are funny rather than frightening and the narrator is omnipotent, stylish and amused. Waddington's descriptions of racing, and they are many and enthralling, have the rhythm and intensity of poetry. Always aware of the possible comparison between the novel and a prolonged race (he calls his chapters stages), Waddington carries the tempo of the Tour over into the prose. You're riding with your wheel an inch from the author's, carried along by the surge of the pack, normal life and normal people no more than a muted clamour on the roadside.

It's exhilarating stuff. But when your feet eventually touch ground Waddington still doesn't let you relax. His dialogue is quick, rude and restless and his women are just as fast. The detective on the case spends more time being braless and strongly perfumed than she does being a detective. Perlita de Zubia, wife of Akil Saenz, the novel's god of cycling, drives a Lambourghini and enjoys sex in the open air. Nothing wrong with any of that of course, you just feel you've met these women before. Thousands of times.

Throughout the novel there's a purposefully reckless energy that pushes the pace along. Riders are killed, races are won and lost, Perlita has a baby. It doesn't seem to matter that much. It's competition and the psychology of ambition that count - everything else is swallowed up like tarmac beneath a tyre.