The second book published by premium cycling brand Rapha Editions has scooped the 29th William Hill Sport Book of the Year for its “startlingly intimate portrait” of Tour de France trailblazer Tom Simpson.
Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire by 29-year-old London-based cycling journalist Andy McGrath was revealed as the winner of the £29,000 prize on Tuesday afternoon (November 28th) at BAFTA’s offices in London, with Rapha's title beating those on the list from corporates such as Simon & Schuster and Transworld on the seven-strong shortlist.
The 224-page hardback, which retails at £36, is the fourth cycling title to win the world’s richest and longest-running prize for sports writing and the first win for specialist imprint Rapha Editions. It provides an “intimate insight” into the life of Simpson, the first Briton to wear a Tour de France Yellow Jersey, an “iconic figure in the world of cycling” who died aged 29.
Published 50 years after Simpson’s death, Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire features 130 photographs, many never seen before, and previously untold stories from his family, friends and fellow cyclists along with a foreward from Sir Bradley Wiggins. McGrath aimed to celebrate Simpson’s “achievements, rock n’ roll racing style and magnetic character” moving focus away from the “complicated immortality” suggested by the discovery of drugs and alcohol in his system following his death.
Graham Hutson, PR manager at Rapha, described the win as “totally unexpected” but said it would mean the company's publishing arm would be significantly bolstered. He told The Bookseller: “It’s going to be bigger now. This will definitely be a boost. There is a pipeline of books and it will be this sort of thing, the type of book you would appreciate the photography as well as the words.”
He added: “We’ve always been about more than clothing… it’s been about the heritage of cycling and we’ve cared about the words and romance of cycling and why we love it.”
McGrath also revealed that the deal was done directly with Rapha Editions, without a literary agent, and was inspired by a conversation he had with Guy Andrews, founder of Rouleur magazine.
McGrath told The Bookseller: “[Andrews] mentioned this idea and I’d been thinking of something similar. I immediately thought, ‘I can bring something new to this story even though he’d been dead 50 years.
“[The deal] was done directly with Rapha as they’d just started making their own books and bringing their own aesthetic because they’re a massive player in the cycling industry. I think the photographic element was important to them, to marry the untold stories to the photos.”
He added: “Maybe they’ll be inspired to make more books next year after this and more companies like them will see [their publishing arms] as an inspiration, who knows.”
McGrath also revealed that he is currently considering other sports books to write and that there is “nothing in the pipeline as yet, one thing fell through but maybe I’ll be a man in demand now”.
Andy McGrath and John Inverdale
The book beat two Bloomsbury titles, Ian Herbert’s Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager and Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth, on the indie-strong shortlist revealed last month. Biteback Publishing was also in the running with The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory by David Bolchover along with Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology edited by Neville Gabie, Alan Ward and Jason Wood (Axis Projects). Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (S&S) was also shortlisted alongside Ami Rao and Declan Murphy’s debut book, Centaur, published by Transworld imprint Doubleday. Herbet's Quiet Genius has been the biggest seller according to Nielsen BookScan at 4,070 copies sold followed by Centaur with 3,000 copies sold. Landreth's Swell has shifted 1,300 copies while Ali: A Life has sold 1,160 and The Greatest Comeback has shifted 935. The winning title and Breaking Ground have not yet charted.
The shortlistees received a leather-bound copy of the book, a £3,000 cheque and free £1,000 bet, to be split between their authors.
The judging panel for this year’s award included journalist and broadcaster Mark Lawson, retired professional footballer and former chairman of the Professional Footballer’s Association, Clarke Carlisle, broadcaster and writer John Inverdale, broadcaster Danny Kelly, journalist Hugh McIlvanney as well as the Times columnist and author, Alyson Rudd.
The chair of judges is Graham Sharpe, co-creator of the award alongside John Gaustad, founder of the Sportspages bookshop, who retired following the 2015 Award and died last year.
Sharpe praised McGrath’s “outstanding” portrait. He said: “Rarely does a book meet its aim so perfectly. Innovative design, scrupulous research and stunning photography complement each other superbly to produce Andy McGrath's outstanding and startlingly intimate portrait of a British sporting icon.”
He added: “Like another former Bookie Prize winner, Lance Armstrong, Tom Simpson was hugely talented and single-minded, but flawed. Tom Simpson's tragic morality tale inspires awe and respect, yet also unease amongst those who have seen domestic cycling reach international heights he could only have guessed at.”
Inverdale described the title as “not only a fantastic read, but also a highly covetable object”. He said: “With its combination of an extraordinary subject matter paired with beautifully written prose, bold design and imagery, it offers the ultimate reading experience.”
McGrath is the managing editor of Rouleur Magazine, dedicated to British cycling and has previously worked for a number of other publications. He is the co-author of Official Treasures of the Tour de France (Carlton Books) and has contributed chapters to several volumes of The Cycling Anthology (Yellow Jersey).
London-based Rapha was formed as a clothing company in 2004 by Simon Mottram but has expanded into a number of areas, including books through its Rapha Editions department.
Last year, surfing memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by journalist William Finnegan (Corsair) took the award for its "account of the physical and psychological drive to achieve athletic perfection".
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