Sunday in Hell by William Fotheringham – Review

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By Karl Hornsey

Cycling seems to lend itself to sports writing more than any other sport, with the possible exception of cricket, where the length of the game allows the writer the time to muse on off-field topics, as well as those on it. Cycling is similar.

While the result makes the initial headlines, it’s often what happens around a race, the elements and the characters involved that are of more interest, and there a few finer scribes on the subject in this country than William Fotheringham. Having read several of his previous releases, including In Search of Tom Simpson, Roule Britannia and the wonderful Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike, I was intrigued to get his take on one of the iconic moments in cycling history.


sunday in hell william fotheringham book review coverSunday in Hell tells the story behind the making of the film of the same name – Jorgen Leth’s documentary chronicling the 1976 Paris-Roubaix from the point of view of riders, spectators and organisers. The annual one-day race, one of the Monuments of the sport and a Classic in every sense of the word, has a mystique to it, partly due to its challenging and lengthy cobbled sections that create a huge sense of danger and uncertainty for all of the riders, and that was even more the case over 40 years ago in a cycling world that was a far cry from the professional machine it is today.

The film itself is truly evocative and engrossing, and Fotheringham’s account of its making is just as intoxicating. Fortunately, many of the participants are still alive, and Fotheringham has spent many hours in their company, including, crucially, Danish director Leth.

The book really gets under the skin of how the film came about, especially in the sections where Leth describes his negotiations with the race’s commercial kingpin Felix Levitan, and how a mix of audacity, luck, planning and sheer opportunism helped it takes its place as one of the key moments in the history of cycling on film.

“Forensic detail”

There is something for everyone in this book. The amateur enthusiast can learn much about the world of cycling that still holds true today, while engulfing oneself in a time past, one that will never be again, and one that, I suspect, Fotheringham wishes would somehow re-emerge. There is also plenty for the anorak. Huge depth and importance is given to the work of the cameramen, some of it being innovative for the time, and of how the cobbled sections that are so integral to the Paris-Roubaix were nearly obliterated due to their sheer impracticality for the 364 days of the year when the race isn’t taking place.

Dissecting both the race and the film in forensic detail is exactly what I hoped for and expected from Fotheringham, and he delivers once again. With access to key competitors Roger de Vlaeminck, Hennie Kuiper and Freddy Maertens, who, even more than 40 years after the event, have both vivid memories and differing opinions on the race, it’s hard to fault this work, which deserves to become a staple of any sports fan’s library.

‘Sunday in Hell’ by William Fotheringham is published by Yellow Jersey, £16.99 hardback


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