Gold, by Chris Cleave
From the jacket: “Kate and Zoe met at nineteen when they both made the cut for the national training program in track cycling — a sport that demands intense focus, blinding exertion, and unwavering commitment. They are built to exploit the barest physical and psychological edge over equally skilled rivals, all of whom are fighting for the last one tenth of a second that separates triumph from despair. Now at thirty-two, the women are facing their last and biggest race: the 2012 Olympics. Each wants desperately to win gold, and each has more than a medal to lose.”
My take: It only seems appropriate that as I sat down to write this review, NBC began showing the Olympic track cycling heats.
It is spring 2012 and Zoe and Kate, who have known each other for thirteen years, are preparing for the London Olympics. The two women have spent nearly half their lives competing against one another on and off the track, and they expect their careers to culminate on their home turf in one final Olympic event.
Guiding them toward this goal is Tom, the Australian septuagenarian who has coached the pair for more than a decade after recognizing their potential so many years ago. He knows the two women nearly as well as they know themselves.
Kate has loads of natural talent and is willing to force her legs to do the work necessary to win. But her home life is complicated, as she and her husband, Jack, a fellow Olympic track cyclist are nursing their eight-year-old, Star Wars-obsessed daughter, Sophie, through a relapse of leukemia. Their lives are dictated by her treatment and needs and filled in with training schedules for the two of them.
Zoe, on the other hand, has no such complications in her personal life. Besides a handful of modeling gigs and more than a handful of one-night stands, her life is as empty as the sparse new luxury flat she just rented. For her it has always been about the cycling and about winning at all costs. She might not have Kate’s natural talent, but her head is always in the game and she’s willing to leverage any psychological advantage she can find or create. But with the natural course of her racing career starting to wind down, Zoe is starting to feel the emptiness in her life catching up at last.
When a new rule change jeopardizes their chance of a face-off during the Games, it throws both women into a panic. Will the strength of their relationship carry them through this challenge, too? Or will the stress of it all cause each of them them to tear away at her favorite opponent’s best known weaknesses? Can their friendship and their lives survive their quest for gold?
A book about the 2012 Olympics to read during the 2012 Olympics? What could be better, right? Well, take the author of the much lauded Little Bee and offer him track cycling as a vehicle for his novel.
Track cycling, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, takes place indoors in a velodrome, where competitors face off in a variety of situations. The race that Kate and Zoe are competing in is the sprint, which should operate exactly as you’d think it would. However, there are two things that make it a little different: One, the track is uneven, which means that the outside lane is tilted up. And, two, the rider in the front of a group creates a slipstream. This means that a following rider can conserve energy and surge past the leader with mere yards to go to win the race. And it means that a rider who opts to ride up the side of a race track can use the speed caused by the descent to their advantage. So what this means is that sprint track cycling involves a lot of head games. You’ll see riders barely moving their bikes, propelling them only as much as is necessary to remain upright. The rider in the front spends as much time looking back at their pursuer as they do surveying the course before them.
It’s a fascinating event and Cleave created two drastically different women to race it on the pages of his novel. Each of them is a little too one-dimensional (Kate is too self-sacrificing and Zoe is too manipulative) for my tastes, yet I found it really didn’t matter. Cleave is deft with his prose:
“It was a patient business, talking comets down to the speed of life.”
Or “… sometimes — in the rare moments when she wasn’t causing quite serious mental discomfort — being friends with Zoe was like being knocked dizzy by grace.”
And he neatly avoids the obvious plot traps that he lays and that a lazier writer might opt to fall into.
So despite your best intentions, you find yourself up at 3 a.m. compulsively turning page after page, desperate to find out how the story — and the characters’ lives — will turn out. Just like you get sucked into watching judo between two countries you might be hard-pressed to find on a globe in less than a minute, finding yourself glued to an event you don’t fully understand. Sometimes it’s just exquisitely compelling.