Sol and Liz are a couple on the cusp. He’s a professional cyclist in the Tour de France, a workhorse but not yet a star. She’s a geneticist on the brink of a major discovery, either that or a loss of funding. They’ve just welcomed their first child into the world, and their bright future lies just before them—if only they can reach out and grab it.
But as Liz’s research slows, as Sol starts doping, their dreams grow murkier and the risks graver. Over the whirlwind course of the Tour, they enter the orbit of an extraordinary cast of conmen and aspirants, who draw the young family ineluctably into the depths of an illegal drug smuggling operation. As Liz and Sol flounder to discern right from wrong, up from down, they are forced to decide: What is it we’re striving for? And what is it worth?
Netgalley provided me with a free copy in exchange for an honest review. As the daughter of an avid lover of cycling, I’ve grown up with bicycles and live broadcasts of professional cycling competitions like the Tour de France. In recent years I have really grown to love the sport on a deeper level. This is the main reason why I decided to pick up We Begin Our Ascent, the other being that I was really curious how the author would tackle the controversial topic of doping. I can safely say that the book has exceeded my expectations as it provides a beautifully written, nuanced account of the world of professional cycling and everything that surrounds it.
First and foremost, I do believe that this book caters to a very specific audience. If you’re not into sports at all, there is a chance that you will not enjoy We Begin Our Ascent, as it focuses heavily on professional cycling. That being said, I believe that the book is a great read for lovers of cycling or sports in general. Throughout the book I got the feeling that the author really knows what he is talking about. He explores the attraction to cycling and juxtaposes it with the views of a general public that don’t really get it (i.e. friends and family in the book). There’s attention for every part of professional cycling that ordinary people are usually not privy to, such as the functioning of a peloton or time spend before and after races.
In addition, a large part of the story examines the balance between a cycling career and everything else in life, like having a family. The main character often muses about the relationships in his life, focusing mostly on his wife and son. Beyond cycling, the book is an exploration of human behavior and the choices and sacrifices made, which I thought was really interesting.
I think one of my favorite things about We Begin Our Ascent is how it deals with the topic of doping. Obviously, doping is a controversial topic that has been discussed again and again in relation to professional cycling, to the point where the two are irrevocably intertwined in the mind of the public. The sentiment that the use of doping is not as black and white as it is made out to be, is often forgotten or ignored. However, the author handles the issue perfectly. He gives a nuanced account with actual insight into the mechanisms that are at work. How it is not just about ethics or a personal choice, but more about a faulty system. The story conveys how a harmful, common culture of doping and the general idea of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ exists. It conveys the incredible pressure that is put on individual cyclists to partake in doping because it will hurt the team otherwise (as was the case with the US Postal Team). It describes the pressure to please the sponsors and the blurred lines of how far a rider will go once he has agreed to doping. It was refreshing to read a nuanced account on doping.
I did feel that, because so much attention is given to the above mentioned aspects, less attention was given to characterization. As a result, many characters felt one-dimensional and I didn’t really feel a connection to them. However, the author does have a wonderful writing style with prose that is sophisticated and flows well.
So all in all, if you’re into sports or cycling I really recommend reading We Begin Our Ascent. Character-wise it could have some improvements, but the story is beautifully written and gives a deeper insight into the inner workings of professional cycling, doping and human behavior.