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A new novel about cycling probes the toll of a medal quest

Next month in London thousands of athletes whose resting heart rates more resemble a corpse's than yours will convene for two weeks in the Olympic spotlight. But what have they endured to get there? And what happens to them after the last medal has been awarded? These issues concern Chris Cleave in his emotionally arresting (and exquisitely timed) third novel, Gold.

Cleave's protagonists are two British cyclists whose rivalry runs as deep as their friendship: the beautiful, troubled Zoe and the sweet, caring Kate. Readers may object to the contrivances that propel the two 32-year-olds to the cusp of their final Olympics, crises that seem to strike, neatly, every four summers. But Cleave shines when he focuses on the cyclists' sacrifices, including training sessions in which they push themselves to the brink of blacking out. Their lives outside the velodrome are even more grueling, as they must give up most foods, alcohol, relationships—all for the sake of their ambition. "It was the ordinary days now that frightened her," Cleave writes of Zoe. "The endless Tuesday mornings and Wednesday afternoons of real life."

Cleave's fine novel will give you an appreciation for all that London's Olympians have gone through as you watch them contort their bodies, leap for the heavens or pedal round and round and round.