The rise of the cycling book by James Spackman
Cycling books are booming, and it’s no surprise; British domination of the velodrome at the London Olympics in 2012, successive winners of the Tour de France and the ongoing exploits of Mark Cavendish have all kept the sport in the public gaze and furnished us with a crop of national heroes. And each of these heroes has told their story to thousands in book form: Bradley Wiggins’ My Time, Chris Froome’s The Climb, Cavendish’s At Speed and many others have spent time on the bestseller lists.
But there is more to this boom than superstar biographies. The dark secrets of cycling’s doping era, which fans nervously hope they’ve seen the back of, nonetheless hold an enduring fascination. Many who subscribed to the Cult of Lance and devoured his first book It’s Not About the Bike are now turning to David Walsh’s Armstrong take-down Seven Deadly Sins to find out exactly how he fooled them. Other uncompromising, agenda-setting works like Paul Kimmage’s Rough Ride, along with David Millar and Tyler Hamilton’s confessional memoirs, have become essential reading for those determined not to be fooled again.
At the lighter end of the spectrum, eccentric travel memoirs – a long-established feature of the British book landscape – have a two-wheeled champion in Tim Moore, whose account of riding the whole Tour de France route – French Revolutions – blazed a saddle-sore trail back in 2001. His most recent book does the same for the Giro d’Italia but with the added depth of his retelling of the story of the “Very Terrible” 1914 Giro, contested on wooden-wheeled and cork-brake-padded machinery. A version of which Moore himself masochistically adopts for his own trip. Moore’s sharp wit and deep research result in a superbly told story sprinkled with classic lines like “I dismounted, like a dalek at a rodeo”.
Tim Moore’s journey into the past highlights an important aspect of our surging interest in cycling books. There’s a natural progression from watching stars winning medals, to trying the sport yourself, to becoming curious about its culture and heritage. But whereas football, cricket and rugby have had a strong presence our society and media for decades, cycling has been comparatively obscure and foreign, so new fans haven’t had the same volume of good domestic writing to delve into. Road cycling’s fundamentally continental history and culture are of course part of its appeal. It has an exotic, arcane nature that encourages you to immerse yourself and discover its secret rules, like a baby-boomer Brit studying the Blues or a wine enthusiast, zealously absorbing every nuance of vintage and terroir.
Recent converts want books to help them catch up on their cycling heritage; the icons of the sport, their mythical deeds and the rich, overlapping histories of racing in the historical power-centres of continental cycling. Tour stages pass into legend like battles in epic poems; the newbie cycling obsessive can now discover them in the pages of retrospectives like Richard Moore’s Etape and the wonderful graphic novel-style Legends of the Tour.
Of the iconic riders who form the cast of these epics, Eddy Merckx has received the closest attention of all, with two outstanding biographies in recent years (by William Fotheringham and Daniel Friebe). Fausto Coppi, Luis Ocana and others have also come under the microscope. Ironically it is often through the lives and exploits of continental stars that we discover home-grown heroes for the first time, and many of those British contenders are now being written about. Thousands now know the story of Tom Simpson and his tragic death on Mont Ventoux, body full of amphetamines, alcohol and will to win, thanks to Put Me Back on My Bike by William Fotheringham. Graeme Obree’s duel with Chris Boardman for the Hour record, superbly described in Michael Hutchinson’s book The Hour, gave him a brief flash of fame but to read Flying Scotsman is to come even closer to understanding a fascinating, enigmatic man. And Robert Millar who, until Wiggins, was the most successful British Tour de France rider, emerges charismatically from behind his spiky reputation in the pages of Richard Moore’s excellent biography, which invites us to recognise his worth after years of comparative obscurity.
For many cycling fans, particularly the 2012 generation, this explosion of cycling literature offers a chance to understand the sport they’ve fallen in love with, in all its complicated glory. And this year’s Cross British Sport’s Book Award cycling shortlist features six superb new examples.
Felix Lowe’s Climbs and Punishment is a witty and illuminating travelogue, tracing Hannibal’s journey across the alps and meditating on the madness that makes us cycle up hills we could perfectly easily avoid. A madness that certainly afflicts Tim Moore also, as he recreates the almost inhuman ordeals of that 1914 Giro d’Italia, in Gironimo. Ned Boulting’s wit and insight are brought to bear on the 2014 Tour in 101 Damnations, though fortunately his historical obsessions – notably the story of Roger Riviere – are also much in evidence.
Richard Moore’s Etape provides a kind of primer on iconic Tour stages, combining elegant, prose with unusually insightful perspectives from current and past riders. Ellis Bacon reminds us of the sometimes forgotten depths of the domestic scene in Great British Cycling and Herbie Sykes uncovers a remarkable story from behind the Iron Curtain. The Race Against the Stasi portrays the extraordinary clash of cultures that occurred when an East German star of the Peace Race defected to the West.
All in all, a thrillingly diverse, passionate and fascinating collection of books. We owe their authors a rousing chapeau! (or, as Ned Boulting would insist: “hat!”).
James Spackman is a publisher and cyclist. He is @blackpooltower on twitter, despite never having been to Blackpool. It’s a long story.