Monday, 29 December 2008

Bicycle Mechanics In Workshop And Competition, Steve Snowling (1993)

Springfield Books 1 85688 037 0 160pp £11.95

An accessible manual of cycle preparation and maintenance aimed at serious road racers and those who seek to be professional race mechanics

Snowling’s book first appeared in 1986 and has been through several editions since then (some subsequent to the issue I read). That there has been demand for so many revisions is as cheery as it is mysterious. Snowling announces that ‘I am the only full-time race mechanic from the UK and I am probably the only one there has ever been’. That might suggest a rather limited market for this tome, but, clearly, that has not been the publishers’ experience.

It is a good thing too, because this book has both a charm and a scope that goes significantly beyond the usual fare. The appeal comes from the determinedly personal nature of the text. Not only is the book illustrated by dozens of black-and-white photos of Snowling in action – with his race-day tools, adjusting a cone nut and preparing a tubular rim, but much of the detail is drawn from his own life.

After a racing career as an amateur, and a brief spell as a cycle-cross pro, Snowling found himself at Tony Doyle’s side as he conquered Europe’s velodromes. Later came appointments with several national squads and the 7-Eleven Team, among other professional outfits.

Included in the topics he deals with, that you will not find elsewhere, are such simple things as bicycle cleaning . He suggests a systematic, and very sensible system. He also advises on significantly more complex projects, such as how to check whether a frame is true, and the use of frame-truing bars in the event that it is not.

There are some oddments. He devotes a good deal of space to the lost art of fitting toe straps, before announcing near the end of the book that clipped pedals are ‘a thing of the past’. A chapter detailing his own professional story is interesting, but rather curiously placed in the book. Nonetheless, for those for those seriously interested in working on racing bikes, he has guidance to offer that I have not seen elsewhere.

PS Dec 08

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Richard’s 21st Century Bicycle Book, Richard Ballantine (2000)

Macmillan 0 330 37717 5 376pp £16.99

A comprehensive introduction to all things cycling argued with a excitingly intense moral power

Reopening Richard’s Bicycle Book a quarter of a century after I first bought a copy is to step inside the tent of a charismatic, revivalist preacher. From page one, Ballantine’s argument booms from the page. Bicycles are best. They are the most efficient, economical, health promoting, environmentally sound transport of delight ever invented.

He broaches no doubt, never measures his positions nor nuances his arguments. His text bristles with a pulsating certainty.

I might not proslesyse in quite the manner of Ballantine, nor have his talent for enthusiastic bombast. My cycling world view, however, has remained remarkably similar to his since, in a bookhop in Bradford, I mistook a 1983 edition of the book for a simple manual on cycle maintenance.

The book has had an extraordinary publishing history. It first appeared in 1972 and has gone through several significant revisions since then. In 1987 it was retitled ‘Richard’s New Bicycle Book’, and then in 2000 came the title above. Comparing editions, it is clear that the rewrites were pretty comprehensive. The chapter listings, for example, change completely between editions, and evidence of cut and paste is hard to find. The voice, though, is constant.

The one concession to the conventional world is in the cover. Ballantine himself appears on the cover of the 1983 edition. Heavily bearded and wearing a Christmas jumper, he is adjusting a bicycle brake on the front cover. A woman and child join him on a tricycle tandem on the back cover. They could be in search of an Amish community in need of reinvigoration.

An attractive young lady pedalling a recumbent bike adorns more recent editions. Its a commercially savvy repackaging, but it does little to prepare readers for the uniqueness of the text.

The content mirrors Ballantines own interests and prejudices. He is very strong on unusual bicycles, cycling history and human powered vehicles. Competitive cycling is dispensed with in ten pages. In earlier editions nearly half the book was devoted to cycle maintenance. Today that section takes up little more than 20 pages.

His hatred of dogs, in particular, is legendary – indeed the section of the book they occupy has grown with each edition. Arm yourself with pepper spray, or prepare yourself to ram a bicycle pump down ‘Towser’s’ throat, is his advice for dealing with the canine menace.

Just occasionally his extremism becomes comical – kickstands aren’t really the devil’s work, as he insists. And the large format of the latest version does look a bit sparsely illustrated. For the most part, though, Ballantine is sound in his advice and engaging in his intensity.

I bought the book in anticipation of a cycle journey from Bradford to Vienna, thinking that a manual on cycle care should form part of my luggage. Indeed, the counterfoils from the traveller’s cheques I took on that journey are still taped in the back of my copy. Happily Ballantine’s guidance on matters mechanical was unnecessary. The rest of his text did much to enliven our evenings, however.

Tim Dawson December 2008

Complete Bike Book, Chris Sidwells (2003)

Dorling Kindersley 0 7513 6445 2 249pp £16.99

A colourful introduction to all things cycling – probably aimed at younger teenagers

DK’s style might be formulaic, but it is a formula that clearly works. And the big colour pictures, interspersed with gobbits of text rubric is one that lends itself well to an introduction to a pastime to rich in visual opportunities.

Chapters follow a predictable course – different types of cycling, different types of bikes, ways to improve you cycling, promoting you health and fitness on a bike, starting competitive cycling and a basic guide to maintenance.

There are no great surprises in the content, nor is this the places for left-field cycling options. But across the range of subjects, the book has a winning élan. Page after page looks like fun, and all are rich in well-considered detail.

Give this to a teenager at the right stage of their interest and they will pore over its pages for hours on end. My only caution would be to ensure that you buy the most up-to-date edition that you can find. Bike technology, and fashion, moves fast. It would be a shame to lose someone’s interest in two-wheeled fun by expecting them to obsess about last year’s model.

PS December 2008

The Racing Bike Book (3rd edition 2007)

Haynes Publishing, 978 1 84425 341 8 168pp £17.99

A general introduction to all things connected with racing bikes, aimed at novices and lavishly illustrated with colour photographs

It is hard not to view Haynes publishing as an anachronism. For sure, in the ‘60s and ‘70s every man who bought an older car soon sought out the appropriate Haynes manual. The exploded diagrams and black-and-white, step-by-step photos showing you how to change the carburettor or check the shock absorbers were part of the wallpaper of the age. It was Photo Love for the boys with oil under their nails.

In the era of motors that require specialist computers to complete a simple service and most marques comfortably clocking up 100,000 miles and more with little difficulty, the iconic Haynes manual must surely be going the way of Jackie and Smash Hits?

The company is still largely managed by people whose surname is Haynes, despite it being a plc. No doubt recognising the changes in the motor market, the company decided to diversify. They have applied soubriquet ‘Haynes Manual’ to all manner improbable topics: Sex, Parenting, Teenagers and even Cancer. How disturbing would it be to see that on your oncologist’s shelf?

Opening the Racing Bike variant, it is immediately clear that it is not a Haynes manual in the conventional sense of the term. There is not a line diagram nor a grainy workshop photo to be found.

It is a perfectly serviceable book that introduces road racing, to potential participants and spectators. Authored by writers, most of whom will be familiar to readers of Cycling Plus, it is sound in content and fairly comprehensive in its scope.

It does, however, look a bit dated (perhaps a new publication is imminent) and it makes nothing of the scope for mirth and wit that the Haynes tag might present. Indeed, there is little to make this the first choice for such a general book, save for its exclusive focus on road racing. Possibly anyone who is already certain that this, in particular, is their interest, will already know that ‘The Tour de France is the greatest bike race on earth’, or that ‘groupset is the collective name for the gearing, braking and bearing components on a bike’.

PS December 2008

The Bicycle Book, various contributors (2006)

Weidenfield and Nicolson 1 841882 633 2 144pp £12.99

A general introduction to cycling for leisure and transport, illustrated with colour photographs in a magazine style and aimed at adult readers

I am guessing that most sales of this book are made to gift purchasers. Your husband, wife, teenager or whatever, has shown a sudden interest in cycling and this volume solves the present problem come Christmas time. If I am right, lets hope that this is not the third cycle-related tome that they unwrap on the big day.

It takes readers through much of what they will need to know to buy a bike that meets their needs, to start making journeys, and have the know-how to undertake basic repairs. The chapters on carrying children by bicycle and transporting bikes on the back of cars are possibly the clearest signal that the target audience probably grew out of BMX riding some time ago.

The spread of photos, and the design of the book make it an attractive thing a which to look. And the content is all good, sound stuff, expressed with the professional lightness of touch that the authors bring from their magazine background.

There is little here, however, to get the blood pumping. It would have been easy to add panels on some of the wilder aspects of bike culture that might have really stimulated the imagination of an interested innocent. If you want a book for which the recipient will really thank you, consider alternatives.

PS December 2008

Cycle Maintainance, Richard Hallett (2002)

Hamlyn 0 600 60676 7 112pp £9.99

A nicely illustrated and easy to follow entry-level manual on bicycle maintenance

Producing a manual of this kind is a balancing act. What level of knowledge to assume? How esoteric a level of equipment is it necessary to cover. How much detail to go in to? On all of these Hallett seems to have got it about right.

He covers modern road and mountain bikes in sufficient detail to make most jobs reasonably straightforward. And the spread of topics is impressive. Hub gears and brakes feature, as well as disk brakes and full suspension.

Of course, it won’t stop you facing apparently intractable problems on a bikes that are past the first flushes, have not been well-maintained and do not quite correspond to the photos in this book. But then, noting will. There is, however, here, enough to get you going on cycle mechanics from the basic to the pretty complex.

The photography and its reproduction is a really strong feature of this book. It looks attractive, uses masses of colour and allows you to see components in sufficient clarity and detail to get a clear understanding of what it is on which you will be working.

PS December 2008

Cycling To Work, A Beginners Guide, Rory McMullan (2007)

Green Books 978 1 900322 12 6 96pp £4.95

A useful primer for those who have not cycled to work before

A regular cyclist might well wonder why such a book were needed. Surely the great thing about a bike is that, for short journeys at least, you simply jump on, and off you go?

All true – save that one should perhaps consider how one might feel about making such a journey having not touched a bike for 20 years, say. Indeed, one senses that this publication might well be intended for employers, to buy in bulk and distribute among staff who they were trying to help make different travel-to-work decisions.

As such, its advice is generally sound. It makes the case for cycling on the grounds of health, wealth, environmental concern and coolness. It provides sufficient information to make an intelligent choice of bike, and makes clear that while, for example, specialist clothing has its place, it is certainly not essential to two-wheeled travel.

The book is attractively laid out and illustrated and is peppered with useful real-life case studies – particularly of employers such as Pfizer and Glasosmithkline, that have invested heavily in cycle promotion.

Perhaps cyclists should buy up copies of this book and distribute them about workplaces in the style of Gideon bibles. Most would who picked up the volume would put it to one side pretty quickly. But even a tiny trickle of converts would make the investment worthwhile.

PS December 2008

How Is A Bicycle Made? Angela Royston (2007)

Heinermann 0 431 05054 6 32pp £6.50

Aimed at 5-6 year old children, this book tells a simplified story of how raw materials become a bicycle that is retailed

Initiatives to encourage children back on to bicycles come and go, but few educationalists seem to grasp the possibilities of the bicycle as an integrated teaching aid. By exploring the science and maths of a bicycle there is much scope to demystify a complex manufactured product. Such a process might also start encourage the idea that with a spanner and an hex key it is possible to adjust, modify and repair your mount. Bicycles remain a popular Christmas present – but as anyone who has taught children cycle proficiency will tell you – a shocking number of these gifts will languish unused in garages before making their final journey in the back of a car to the municipal tip.

Royston’s book is a series of captioned photographs, each focussing on a stage of production. In most cases it will be used for guided reading, and as a prompt for wider discussion. As such it would make an ideal companion to gift to a bicycle itself. Not only can the wheels provide a thrilling entrée into the world of fast, self-managed travel, but also offer an introduction to design, manufacture and marketing.

PS December 2008

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Bicycles And Tricycles Of The Year 1886, Harry Hewitt Griffin – facsimile introduced by Noel Marsham

Olicana Books 200pp

A late Victorian bicycle buyers guide providing descriptions and illustrations of nearly 200 wheeled machines, including penny farthings, faciles, tricycles and quadricycles, republished as a facsimile

How dull are modern equivalents of this publication if you are in search of variety and invention? Even enthusiasts for Velo Vision’s diet of paradigm-changing bicycle designs don’t have such a rich selection upon which to feast.

This was the age before the world had settled upon the brilliant simplicity of the safety cycle. Here are described an astonishing set of variations of the high ordinary, through cycles propelled by cranks and levers and at least 90 tricycle variants. Most of these huge contraptions had one or more giant wheels, some with a diameter of as much as 60 inches, few smaller than 36 inches. The ‘Manchester Express Tandem Quadricycle Roadster’ is described as having a length of 89 inches and being 38 inches wide (2.2 meters long, just shy of a meter wide).

This was the ninth edition of this guide and clearly, by this time, penny farthings had passed their high-water mark. Safety bicycles had been built, but their design was in its infancy. Indeed, more ‘dwarf’ ordinaries that use some kind of drive set are listed here. There are machines from around 20 manufacturers and clearly their work represents the fruits of an extraordinary surge of invention.

Marshman, who oversaw the republication of this catalogue, incidentally, was a doctor in general practice in Otley, West Yorkshire – and is described elsewhere as a ‘stalwart of the Veteran Car Club’.

Prices for two wheeled bicycles are listed in advertisements at a shade under £20. Larger machines rise in price to £40. It is interesting to reflect on how much of a commitment this represented for readers of the original of this guide.

A skilled worker in the 1880s earned around £62 per year – so a penny farthing would have cost around four months wages. In Britain today a worker in a similar position would earn about £10,000 over the same period. Put the values into and the result is about the same. That is about the cost of a new, small family car: no small purchase for someone on average earnings, but within reach of a determined would-be cyclist.

On the other hand, even with the dramatic inflation that has occurred at the top of the bicycle market in recent years, it would take a truly determined shopper to drop £10,000 in a bike shop and emerge with a single machine. In fact, 5% of the average cost of a bike in 1886 will buy you a really good new bike today. Whether you consider that progress will depend on how much you enjoy sharing the road with the multitudes who can buy a clapped out cars for much the same money.

PS December 2008

A Canterbury Pilgrimage, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell (1885)

Seeley and Company 79pp 1 shilling

An illustrated account of a ride on an early tandem tricycle journey made by an American couple whose cycling travelogues did much to make wheeled touring respectable in Victorian Britain

In August 1884 the Pennell’s recreated the journey made famous by Chaucer’s pilgrims on what, I suspect, was a Humber Club Cycle Quadricycle Roadster. These extraordinary conveyances from the penny-farthing era are now completely unknown. Clearly, however, at the time of their manufacture, they made possible travel of a kind that had hitherto required a horse and trap.

This was the first volume penned by the Pennells – over the following decade they would traverse Europe and produce written and sketched accounts of their adventures. He drew, she wrote. That said, in this edition, there are two quite separate styles of illustration. One is naturalistic, the other a cartoonish take on Chauceresque emblams.

The Kentish jaunt is the basis for a charming, gentle account of the garden of England. They seek out the pilgrim’s milestones – the Tabard Inn, Boughton Hill and, of course, the shrine at their journey’s end.

They can have had no idea how completely the county would change in the century that followed. To read them now is to visit an almost unknown world. Deptford and Blackheath are villages separated by countryside. In places, the roadsides are thronged with tramps. And, the Thames is crowded with barges and commercial sailing ships.

There were clearly enough cyclists on this route for their wheels not to cause shrieks of amazement, although several people reacted with concern at the sight of Joseph trying to catch their likeness in his sketch pad.

The book is of the size and style of a school exercise book with a stitched seam. According to Irving Leonard, writing in Bicycling in 1967, this, and the Pennell’s other publications, sold in large numbers from railway bookstands. And their import to cycling history, was the role that they playing in making cycle touring respectable.

Unused to wheeled travellers without horses, some sections of Victorian society viewed bicyclists with alarm. The Pennell’s, by taking their travel cues from such respectable guides as Chaucer, and later John Bunyan, showed that were a conveyance suitable for gentle folk. And by painting such an attractive picture of their tours, they did their bit to fuel the ensuing cycling boom. Today, this account of a cross-county pilgrimage delivers readers an evocative transport in time.
Incidentally, Kessinger publishing are currently republishing this book, and much of the rest of the Pennell's work. Given that you can still pick up originalls for less than £20 (and sometimes less than £5), it might be worth holding out for an original.

PS December 2008

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Ride issue one, ed Philip Diprose (2008)

Own It! Publishing 146pp £8.50

An entertaining anthology of short pieces of writing and collections of photographs or other graphic images from all kinds of cyclists

Whether The Ride is a magazine or a book is an open question. Its card cover and perfect binding give it the feel of a book, the fact that it announces that it is ‘the first issue’ and its design suggest more of a magazine. Its pretext is to bring together writing by people who love all types of cycling: road racers. BMXers, commuters, campaigners and collectors. There are 50 chapters in all, each by a different author, including interviews with Greg Lemond, Victoria Pendleton, Sir Paul Smith (written up as first person pieces).

Poetical renaissances about childhood family cycle rides are juxtaposed with edgy photo essays on BMX gangs on the Lower East Side and reflections on circumnavigating Islay. Quality photographs and illustrations intersperse the pieces throughout.

For the most part The Ride is a joy – and for a range of reasons. Cyclists should share their joy of riding, whatever wheels they prefer. And as nearly all the contributors to The Ride were unfamiliar to me, it suggests that a whole new cohort of writers have decided to put pen to paper. One or two of these pieces are a bit thin, but given the quantity on offer, that is hardly surprising.

According to The Ride’s website, issue one has now sold out. Lets hope that is successor is not too far from the stands. Incidentally, the most dependable place to find The Ride is at Condor Cycles in London.

PS December 08

17 Dec 08 The editor tells me that issue two is 80% complete

The Death Of Marco Pantani, Matt Rendell (2006)

Phoenix 978 0 7538 2203 6 324pp £7.99

A biography of the meteoric star of 1990s cycling that is readable and thought-provoking; if ultimately depressing.

At the prologue of the 1998 Tour de France I had an unexpected encounter with Marco Pantani. After the last rider started the stage, everyone – myself among them - who had crowded around the start ramp started to walk in the direction of the end of the course. Momentarily separated from my friends, I realised that I was walking beside Pantani, who was wheeling his bike back towards his team bus.

Although he had won the Giro a month earlier, and was famed for his impulsive, thrilling riding in the mountains, he moved through the Dublin crowd without an entourage or commotion. Pushed together more by the surrounding mêlée than anything else, we must have walked side-by-side for 100 meters. I nodded and smiled at him, he appeared to reciprocate.

Sixteen days later Pantani rode audaciously to win the stage that ended 1650 meters above sea level at Les Deux Alpes. Doing so he sealed victory in the Tour and completed one of the most amazing seasons enjoyed by any professional cyclist. It made him one of Europe’s biggest sporting celebrities of the late 1990s.

At the time, the juxtaposition of my accidental brush with Pantani, and his subsequent stellar performance seemed to encapsulate the appeal of cycle racing. Intimate, albeit fleeting, access to the action and its stars is easy and uncomplicated in a way far removed from, say, professional football. And the televised action provides sporting narratives of almost unparalleled drama.

Sadly Matt Rendell’s meticulous researched and brilliantly written book systematically strips away any illusions one might have maintained about top-level cycle racing. He has pieced together the details of the mountain climber’s life, from his childhood on the Italian Riviera to his crazed death after a cocaine binge.

Pantani was involved in a great deal of legal cases because of his doping. As a result, the level of information on which Rendell has been able to draw is spectacular. Half a dozen measures of the state of his blood at nearly every stage of his career paint a picture of an athlete who used doping products throughout, and possibly even before, his professional career. Such data might make for a dull read, but the story fairly trips along to its tragic conclusion – even if the constant focus on blood gave me a few queasy moments.

Rendell concludes that Pantani was ‘cycling’s greatest cheat’. But he casts illumination on more than simply a single, flawed, individual. Pantani was a gift to his sponsors and to Italian broadcasters and the millions who enjoyed his reckless, erratic style of riding. All of us bare some responsibility for what has happened to cycle sport. Nearly five years after Pantani’s demise it seems far from certain that we will find ways to row the sport back from the abyss into which the little man from Romagna disappeared.

PS December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

A Century Of Cycling, William Fotheringham (2003)

A coffee-table-sized book containing a good history of the major races in professional road cycling.

Photo-rich tomes of this size frequently deliver little in elucidation. Indeed, this has the appearance of precisely that kind of volume that one is presented with as a gift by a non-cycling family member who has ‘spotted it in a bookshop’.

Happily, however, Fotheringham is a high-quality journalist (he writes for The Guardian) who has covered the world of cycle racing for more than a decade. As a result there is something in this book for all but the most obsessive cycle racing enthusiast. The book is divided into nine chapters with one each on the major tours, and the rest on the classic one-day races, such as Paris-Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Each chapter covers the history of the race, the most notable contests and is illustrated with a map of a recent course. Throughout the text there are single page profiles of 37 of the greatest cyclists, from Coppi to Lance Armstrong. The book ends with a useful list of all the winners of all the races covered in the book.

My edition is now five years out of date, and may well have come from some kind of discounter. Nonetheless, it is a great companion to the cycling year – one to be got out on the morning of each race to contextualise and deepen your viewing pleasure.

PS Dec 08

Monday, 1 December 2008

Full Tilt – Ireland To India With a Bicycle, Dervla Murphy (1965)

The Reprint Society 238pp

An account of a cycle journey made in the first half of 1963 covering precisely the journey described in the title, by an Irish woman in her early 30s. Most of the book concentrates on the portion of her ride that took her through Afghanistan and Pakistan where she made some truly remarkable rides, including cycling the length of the Khyber Pass and a hair-raising journey through the Babusar Pass.

How fabulous it must have been to have been so brave, determined and carefree as was Murphy to make such an epic journey. At nearly every stage of her progress wise heads tried to persuade her of the foolishness of her ambitions. And time and again she ignored them. Quite possibly much of what she did was rash – but it is justified by the testimony that she was able to bear.

The early stages of her journey pass in something of a blur – so much so that readers might be persuaded that the book is not for them. She actually sets off from Dunkirk and in less than a page has reached the Yugoslav border – despite cycling through one of the worst winters Europe has ever recorded. Indeed, the only matters of incident before the Persian border are those that involve her automatic pistol.

Within a few days she had used it to shoot dead a Croatian wolf as it made to attack her, shot it over the head of an amorous Kurd whose advances she thought would not be slowed by mere exhortation and narrowly resisted plugging a Turkish policeman, whose amour was doused with a knee to the nether regions instead. The pistol makes no further appearance – possibly because she admits to having packed just four rounds of ammunition.

It is well worth hanging in till Tehran, because that is where her narrative takes off.
For the most part, the book is culled from letters she sent home to friends as she rode. Entries frequently end with fatigue forcing her to sign off. She is enviably lucky with the people she meets along the way, who offer her extraordinary kindness – senior army officers, a Pakistani Prince and endless diplomats put her up and help her along their way.

The section of this book that make it really worth reading are those that cover her wanderings across Afghanistan and Pakistan. By this time she has become ‘Afghanatical’, and her sympathies are clearly with the people among whom she lives. She writes, almost obsessively about the food she eats, for example. Here she is in Galapur on 6 June: “The food situation here is very grim – an acute scarcity of flour and no tea, sugar or sale left after the winter. Most people are living on goats’ milk, eggs and mulberries – not my favourite when served simultaneously, but this evening I was too starved to fuss.”

Murphy's greatest quality is that while sharing the living conditions of those among whom she lives, and acutely recounting some of the minutiae of life in the region, she is never so arrogant as to lose sight of her essentially alien quality in relation to those around her.

Indeed, despite the privations, she worries increasingly about ‘modernisation’ in this part of the world. In Kabul she writes: “I feel have been privileged to see Man at his best – still in possession of the sort of liberty and dignity that we (in the west) have exchanged for ‘progress’.” She even worries about the western enthusiasm for easily moving around the world: “Progress has deprived (the western travelling public) of the incentive to live fully”.

Despite this, Full Tilt was to be the first of a great many travel books from this author - some by bicycle, others on foot. Indeed, her latest offering The Island That Dared (at the time of writing she has just turned 77), about a recent journey in Cuba, was published earlier this year. There is an interview with her about that book here.

PS December 2008

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Designing and Building Your Own Frameset, Richard P Talbot (1979)

The Manet Guild 0 9602418 1 7 161 pp

A thorough technical guide to building a steel bicycle frame, including the design, cutting, brazing and finishing of the frame. There are many step-by-step photographs and tables of technical information.

At the time this book appeared, little had changed in the fabrication of bicycle frames for a good 50 years. Reynolds tubing was the preferred raw material; different schools of cycling favoured different variations on the tube angles; and, braze-on fittings were added to suit the use to which a frame would be put.

The book gives every impression of being comprehensive and easy-to-follow, with a strong section on design, as well as guidance on how a technically proficient person, with access to the right tools, can create a bicycle frame that is the equal of that offered by a specialist builder. Fashions in frame design have moved on a good deal in the 30 years since this book was written – but the types of frame on whose construction Talbot advises are every bit as good now as they have ever been.

This I can assert for sure, because I am still riding a bike built a quarter of a century ago by following the advice of this volume.

My brother, Adam Dawson, bought the book in the mid-1980s, when in his late teens. Having already befriended Johnny Mapplebeck and Geoff Whitaker the owners of Bradford’s Pennine Cycles, he persuaded them to let him use their frame-building workshop to undertake the work.

Its design is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. My brother was a very enthusiastic cycle tourist. He rode a good 150 miles a week to work and back and did double that most weekends, mainly with other cyclists from Bradford. Although he had commissioned a touring bicycle from Pennine some years earlier, the more immersed he became in cycle culture, the more he developed his own ideas about what would make the ideal touring cycle.

First off, it is build for a fixed wheel, with rear-facing drop outs. Fixies at this time were the preserve of hardened road racers who used them for winter training. In a hilly city like Bradford they made for a punishing ride indeed – but their lightness, simplicity, and possibly their eccentricity appealed to Adam.

It also has a built in rack. This was designed to support a custom-made saddle bag, created by my other brother Ben, who manufactured tents and bags for a living. The design of the saddle bag was such that it could be used either as a saddle bag, or as a rucksack and sat perfectly on the mini-rack.

A committed user of Sturmey Archer Dynohubs, Adam also specced the bike for the lighting system that he had in mind. To the front fork, he brazed a light bracket, and along the length of the frame, he created a series of nicked out loops to carry the wires necessitated by a dynamo - up the front fork and to the rear of the bike.

He added a unique set of pre-threaded water-bottle nuts. Two were in the conventional position to carry a water bottle carrier. A further two were in the inside angle of the top tube and the down tube. These were to attach a strap that made the bike more comfortable to carry over the shoulder – a significant feature of the rough-stuff riding that Adam enjoyed.

Finally he brazed on a raised impression of his initials – realised as a swirling logo. Beneath the enamel it has the role of the frame’s crest. Pennine were kind enough to add their badging to the frame – although it has little in common with the fine racing bikes on which their reputation is based. It also bears its own name – Adamant.

Adam completed thousands of miles on the bike – the length and breadth of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, many times over. And, unusually for a bike built before the invention of ‘mountain bikes’, it also went up some pretty considerable mountains, most notably in the Cairngorms.

Its most noteworthy journey came when Adam and a friend rode from Bradford to London (approximately 200 miles) in a single day. The photograph of him with the bike was taken by the local newspaper a few days after the ride (I have yet to add this to the site). Shortly after they got to London, Adam climbed back on his bike. “Where are you going now”, asked his friend, who had a train ticket for his return journey.. “Home”, replied Adam. And without further ado, he was off – scarcely stopping until he was back in West Yorkshire.

The bike came into my possession after Adam’s unexpected, and substantially unexplained death shortly after his 40th birthday. By that time he was an infrequent cyclist and Adamant fulfilled the role of a trusty, but little-cared-for hack. Happily, however, Pennine Cycles took the frame under their wing, and brushed it up pretty well. It is still set up as a ‘fixed’, and provide a light responsive ride. I go out on it a couple of times a week as an honour to my brother’s memory.

Is this a recommendation for the book? I think so. Of course, I would much sooner have my brother still with us, than have his bike. But with this bike he tried to give shape to his dreams and then fashioned something with his own hands. That I can use to this day is an enormously potent act of remembrance. If a few more of us followed Talbot’s advice and tried to distil our ideas about bicycles into brazed steel tubing, we would surely develop a deeper, more profound relationship with our mounts and their underlying materials. Cycling is its own reward – but that is no reason not to try and make it more rewarding.

Tim Dawson 29 November 2008

Adam Dawson, a couple of days after his return from the Bradford-London-Bradford ride.

Adamant today

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Ultimate Scottish Cycling Book, Paul Lamarra (2003)

Mainstream 1 84018 617 8 207pp £14.99

An area-by-area guide to cycle touring in Scotland, based on a tour made in 2002, including extensive ‘how to’ information.

So many guides to cycle touring in the UK have been written that the job of squeezing some new juice from the format is a challenge. Of course, roads change and attractions come and go. (Only 20 years ago, I cycled the length of the A74 and the A9, something that would be neither fun, legal nor necessary today). Nonetheless, finding something new to say, or a new way to say requires considerable initiative.

And that is just what Lamarra has brought to this book. There may be precedents for the format he has adopted, but I am not aware of them.

Nine chapters each concentrate on different areas of Scotland. It is a pretty good spread – from the Western Isles to Galloway and the Borders. Inevitably, he does not cover everything. But he does go where many guides have avoided – rural Aberdeenshire, for example, which provides some of the best cycling country in the UK.

Each section recounts a carefully planned tour or several days made, I am guessing, in 2002. Lamarra is particularly good on capturing the flavour of places – he has the excitement of Oban to a tee, likewise the transition of wild Perthshire into the tourist attractions of Pitlochry. There are also some great route tips – anyone could miss the private, but easily accessible, roads built for hydro-scheme workers that allow one to get into the head of Glen Lyon, without cycling its length, for example.

His accounts are peppered with his own wry observations. He recounts the experience of the weather on the day that he made the rides and the difficulty or otherwise he had in finding accommodation, as well as entertaining historical asides. Each chapter then ends with a diagrammatic route map, map references, directions, accommodation and food stop suggestions and other important transport information such as ferry timetables. This information is particularly strong and he has clearly gone to some lengths to put himself in the position of a travelling on wholly unfamiliar territory.

As Lamarra suggests in his introduction, this is not a volume for the saddle bag. Rather, it is a primer to be enjoyed over the winter, while planning one’s own tours in Scotland. There is much of this routes that you may wish to copy turn by turn. But the real value of his book is in firing the imagination, and giving you the wherewithal to plan. Despite having read dozens of cycling books about Scotland and ridden quite extensively in many of the areas he covers, by the end of the book, I was back with my maps, dreaming of a fresh Caledonian campaign.

If I have a beef, it would be with the title. Such a grand promise is never going to be deliverable. However, books are published to be sold, and doubtless Mainstream were keen on something that they hoped would jump off the self. “An account of nine cycle tours in North Britain, with accompanying notes for wheelmen hoping to emulate the author’s progress”, might well have been the title had it been published in the 1880s. More accurate it might have been – but it would hardly be the stuff to tempt the armchair cyclists of today.

PS November 2008

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Fifty Years of Road Racing – The History of the North Road Cycling Club, S H Moxham (1935)

Diemer and Reynolds 178pp

This solid little tome takes the story of one of England’s most venerable cycling clubs from its inception in 1885 to its Golden Jubilee. And its very physical manifestation gives some indication of how seriously the Club took this anniversary. It has a beautiful mid-blue, grained hardback cover and the text is printed on handsome, grained paper with more than a dozen photographic plates.

Little wonder. The date of publication must surely be close to the high point of voluntary clubs in Britain. Cycling, walking, hostelling, running, model railways and every other pastime you can think of spawned seriously marshalled organisations in every town, village and city. Many, like the Scouts, for example, were Edwardian inventions. But the North Road Club, like a good many other cycling clubs, traces its origins into the glory days of Victoria’s reign.

The book is organised in a year-by-year narrative, which could make for dry picking. But the author – it is credited to Moxham (president of the club from 1933) ‘and others’ – provides a fascinating picture of the early days of amateur racing in this country.

At the outset, the very shape of cycle racing has yet to emerge. Time trials are run on ordinaries (penny farthings), faciles (a hybrid that looks like a penny farthing – albeit without the really dramatic difference in wheel size), tricycles and safety bicycles. Manufacturers promoted events for competitors riding only their own machines. And place-to-place records were in their infancy. In 1882, for example, H R Reynolds recorded the first recorded London to York attempt – managing the journey in 21 hours and 43 minutes.

There are plenty more delicious details. “This season (1890) witnessed the first appearance of the pneumatic tyre in the Club’s races and the commencement of the gradual elimination of the sold tyre…The contrast in appearance between the narrow solid tyres then in common use and the 2in. pneumatic was so extraordinary that the man in the street received the latter with jeers and ridicule”.

The club played a critical role in the development of time trailing – organising, among other things – the first 24 hour event. Indeed, it championed longer time trails. For many years, it would consider no distance of less that 50 miles being worth the effort of organising an event.

As the narrative gets closer to the time of publication, the detail does get thinner. Once or twice the author mentions that there is little point in dwelling too much of detail from only a few years ago. This is a shame, as the age of cycling that is now only just within living memory seems every bit as interesting as the late Victorian golden days.

Happily, the club continues to thrive – albeit now centred on Hertfordshire, rather than north London. It is enormously heartening to learn that a second volume of history was produced in 1985 to mark the club’s centenary. At the time of writing, however, there are half a dozen copies of the 1935 book available on – but not a single copy of the account of the club’s second half century. That in itself probably tells you something of the changing size, status and enthusiasm for official histories that occured in the ensuing period.

PS September 2008

Daisy, Daisy Christian Miller (1980)

Routledge & Kegan Paul 0 7100 0709 4 180pp £5.99

Miller is the mother of grown up children who sets off to cross the United States on a Bickerton. The date is never specified, but at a guess it is 1978 or 1979.

Her account is amiable enough. She carries a tent, accepts lifts where they are offered and gets into enough scrapes to make this an entertaining read. By the close of the account she has journeyed from Yorktown, Virginnia to Portland, Oregon, via Kansas, Denver, Salt Lake City and the Rockys. More than anything it paints a picture of the USA beyond the major costal cities – much of it small town, agricultural and frequently with very little money.

Perhaps the most intriguing things about the book is that it was published at all. For sure, Miller is a more than competent writer. But today, it is rare for someone to undertake an epic adventure on a whim, and then write it up. Books that bare any comparison to this one published today tend to be by time-served professional writers, who start with a clear plan to generate sufficient material for a book.

To the extent that this does not appear to be a contrivance, and that a major publishing house chose to take it on, it is refreshing. Whether it captures enough of the time and place that it charts to merit a continuing readership is a more open question.

PS Sep 08

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Sweat of the Gods, Benjo Maso (2005) trans Michiel Horn

Mousehold Press 1 875 739 37 4 165pp £9.95

What is it that makes an athletic hero? The rules of any sport would appear to suggest that winning alone should be sufficient. It takes little historical perspective, however, to see that the consistent, effortless victories are rarely rewarded with much affection by the spectating public, save for nationalistic fervour. Just ask Lance Armstrong or Miguel Indurain

The trick to being a hero, of course, is to win heroically – in the teeth of impossible odds, against a bitter opponent, with an unexpected flash of brilliance.

All sports are, of course, human contrivances, with a particular end in mind – with professional spectator sports, thrilling the viewing public. In this book, Dutch sociologies, Benjo Masso attempts to unpick the forces and fancies that have shaped modern road races, and in particular, the Tour de France.

What rich pickings there are! Masso traces the Tour, though its early genesis, as a spectacle designed to sell newspapers, to the drug scandals of today. And it is the early years that are particularly interesting. Henri Desgrange, editor of a French sports newspaper and founder of the Tour, endlessly tweaked the format of the race to maximise benefit for his paper – and to fend off the influence of other interested commercial parties, such as the bicycle manufactures.

So, at various times: teams were outlawed, then later introduced as national squads, before being replaced by trade teams. Riders were required to ride identical bicycles, carry enough spares to equip them from start to finish and ride on courses deliberately strewn with tacks (to demonstrate how quickly Michelin tyres could be repaired).

The pressures on the race vary over time. In the early years, Desgrange watched his circulation rise and fall depending on how interesting was the race. Sure-fire start-to-finish winners were a disaster. For much of the time, the journalists had little real knowledge of how the race progressed, so for the most part, made up the heroics. Indeed, some of the best loved characters of the race are entirely the result of such ingenuity.

In 1934, for example, team members were, for the first time, allowed to give each other components when the need arose. So it was that rookie rider, and formidable climber, Rene Vietto found himself at the foot of the Pyrenees. His team mate, race leader Antonin Magne, broke his front wheel in a descent. Vietto offered his own wheel, only to find that it did not fit his leader’s bicycle – who instead accepted one from another rider.

However, the tale, retold by Tour director Jacques Goddet in the column he wrote for L’Auto, accompanied by a doctored picture of a wheel-less Vietto, sobbing after having sacrificed his own chances, made a hero of the first-year rider. Indeed, ‘King Rene’ was hailed as the Tour’s moral winner in Paris, and earned a decent living on his resulting reputation for the rest of his career.

At times Sweat of the Gods reads like a kind of Peloton Babylon, so relentlessly does it unearth the sports seamier side. And certainly in translation, there are no references, leaving the reader with little opportunity to double check any of the authors claims.

Nevertheless, this is a tremendous read for anyone with a serious-minded interest in professional cycle sport – so long as you don’t harbour too many illusions about la Grand Boucle’s Athenian ideals.

MOUSEHOLD Press, a small, Norwich based imprint publishes an impressive range of off-beat cycling books.

PS Sep 08

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Flying Scotsman, Graeme Obree (2003)

Birlinn 1 84158 283 2 246pp £9.99

Obree’s story is well-known – much of it is told on another article on this site. He was a maverick time trailist from Ayrshire, who built his own bike using some discarded components, and went on to take the world hour record and twice win the world pursuit championship.

There is certainly some interest in the detail of how this happened – his lonely childhood, failed business ventures and inability to settle down to a college course. The genesis and execution of the bicycles that he made, and the development of his unique ski-tuck and superman riding positions too merit a close look.

What really makes this book fascinating, however, is the picture Obree conjures up of his mental health problems – severe depression that have caused him to make several attempts at suicide. Flying Scotsman reads as though he hid under his duvet for days, pounding out, with searing honesty, what it is to live with such a condition and then thrust the manuscript into the hands of its publishers before there was any chance of alteration of embellishment. For anyone trying to understand such problems – whether they find the cycling aspect of his treatise interesting or not – this makes it an extraordinary, and, at times, revelatory, read.

He is desperately poor on the ‘Daily Mail’ aspects of his story. His wife has clearly been a massively nurturing and steadying influence since they got together. Yet quite how they did get together does not make the pages of this autobiography. But then accounts of boy meets girl are ten-a-penny. The distilled experiences of a suicidal depressive are rather rarer.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Heroes, Villains and Veoldromes, Chris Hoy and the Track Cycling Revolution, Richard Moore (2008)

HarperSport 13 978 0 00 726531-2 Quarto 310pp £15.99
A well-written and enjoyable biog of Sir Chris taking in the evolution of the entire track cycling phenomenon that came out of the east of Scotland in the 1990s

Just how do you explain Britain’s emergence is as the pre-eminent force in world track cycling? It is an important question, now that Hoy has brought back three gold medals from the Beijing Olympics?

And who better to answer the question than Richard Moore – and ex team mate of Hoy’s, and now a writer who has already shown his talents as a biographer?

This book came out on the eve of the Beijing games, so takes the story up to the British team’s crushing performance at the world track championships in Manchester 2008. So complete was their demolition of the opposition, that Moore confidently concludes with a promise that there will be much, much more from Hoy. How right he proved to be. You can expect an updated version of this book with a new final chapter any day now, I would guess.

Moore is a diligent journalist who is successful at rooting out the early twists and turns in Hoy’s life: his attitude to BMX racing; the emergence of a dedicated track cycling team in Edinburgh (City of Edinburgh Race Team) in the early 1980s; and, his relationship with his trainers. This is a book that is rich in interviews – with Peter Keen, Chris Boardman, David Brailsford as well as fellow competitors from the UK and beyond.

Moore certainly appears to come close to nailing what makes Hoy special – a fantastic raw talent, married to an obsessive zeal for training. In one of the most interesting passages, a despondent Hoy seeks out Chris Boardman for advice. The Wirral rider’s suggestion is that Hoy needs to devise a training programme that really excites him, rather than one that he simply feels that he has to follow. Given that the Scottish rider apparently always trains on Christmas day – because none of his competitors will be doing so – this was just the kind of advice to help him turn the corner.

Along the way there are plenty of colourful diversions – particularly Hoy’s unsuccessful attempt at the kilometre record, at altitude in Bolivia, and a fascinating chapter on Japanese kerin racing.

Does Moore answer the central question, however? Obliquely, yes – but readers are left to fish for conclusions.

The disappearance of East Germany in 1990 removed from the scene the long dominant presence in track cycling. Like other Warsaw pact countries, the GDR: invested very heavily in facilities (Moore paints a vivid picture of the vast Cottbus complex of training facilities and velodromes); developed talent from a very young age; allowed mature athletes to effectively be professionals by employing them as soldiers; and, utilise a systematic doping programme.

Since then, track cycling has been relatively open. Most success has gone to those countries with the best infrastructure, generally the traditional European cycling nations, or Australia. (The Australian Institute of Sport was founded in 1981 to prevent further national embarrassment after the Montreal Games where the Aussies won no golds.)

The arrival of the Manchester velodrome in 1994 is clearly the springboard from which much of this success took flight. Just as important, however has been the investment in track cycling that the National Lottery has allowed. In 1996, British cycling received just £22,750 in state funding. This had grown to £2.5m in 1999, and now stands at about £4m per annum.

Britain’s home grown back room team is clearly exceptional – Brailsford, Keen and Boardman in particular. But they have also recruited specialist coaches and others from abroad, most notably Australia.

Also largely absent from Moore’s book are any real villains. Yes, the UCI dropped the kilo from the Olympics, but quite why never becomes clear, nor who, exactly are the shadowy forces behind the move. In the context of Hoy’s success in other disciplines, it also appears that they did the Edinburgh rider a huge favour.

Nevertheless, this is a hugely enjoyable book – particularly to those who, like me, have been watching Hoy since his early days at Meadowbank in the mid 1990s. Given his success, it will doubtless sell to a far, far wider audience than would otherwise have been the case. In doing so it will play its part in bringing this most spectacular sport to a much wider audience.

PS August 2008

Breakaway, Samual Abt (1985)

Random House, 0-394-54679-2 178pp $16.95

This is the story of the 1984 Tour, told in the in the style with which Abt’s many fans will be familiar. He is the consummate reporter – providing a vivid account of the racing, and peppering his account with dozens of incidental tales.

This was the year when Laurent Fignon was dominant, beating Hinault be a whacking 10 minutes, 32 seconds. It is also the edition of Robert Millar’s forth place and King of the Mountains crown. You can certainly find DVDs that will allow you to relive that great race – but they can’t match Abt for providing a joyful reimersion in that era.

PS August 2008

101 Mountain-bike routes in Scotland Harry Henniker (1998)

Mainstream Publishing 1 85158 936 8 223pp £14.99

There are any number of guides to various kinds of cycling in locations various. Henniker’s stand out for a number of reasons. His knowledge is that of a life-long enthusiast who runs Bike Bus – a service providing transport for cyclists. He packs all of Scotland into a single volume. And, his routes are straightforward to follow.

Given the size of Scotland, covering it all in only 200 or so pages is no mean feat, but he manages it. There are routes described from Dunnet Head to Maidenkirk – or very nearly. There are also immensely varied – including both modest circular routes and some of the more ambitious journeys that are possible in Scotland.

Henniker’s kind of rides are the tracks and trails that were once the preserve of the Rough Suff Fellowship. Glentress does get a mention, but his main interest is not really the high octane thrills and spills of downhilling.

Each chapter is accompanied by rudimentary maps, and is described. In all probability, you would need a set of OS maps to actually take to the hills and follow most of these routes. Indeed, one wonders how long it will be before volumes such as Henniker’s are offered with CDs containing sat nav files that riders can download to their own handlebar guiding devices.

The author maintains that Scotland is the best country in the world for mountain biking. That remains a matter of contention – but he certainly provides more than enough evidence for someone to make a comprehensive evaluation of the quality of Caledonia’s potential for aficionados of the knobbly tyre.

PS august 2008

Building Bicycle Wheels, Robert Wright (1977)

Macmillan 0-02-028260-5 46pp £3.95

This slender volume does exactly what it promises on the cover – provides enough information to allow you to build you own wheels.

Like so many, complicated technical processes, this was one that I fancied mastering. Indeed, I imagined that, once I had acquired the knack, I would build any number of clever variations on the simple bicycle wheel.

Wright’s instructions are clear and easy to follow. And he goes a good way towards explaining how wheels work, and the possible variations on the regular patterns. Notwithstanding the ease with which the author presents the instructions, though, the spokes that I tried to deploy were infuriating.

I did eventually manage to knit them together, and tighten them into reasonably true wheels. The end results even managed a decade’s service on my daily rides. That was more than 20 years ago, however. But in fairness, I don’t think my failure to repeat the exercise can be laid at Wright’s door.

PS August 2008

The Yellow Jersey, Ralph Hurne (1973)

Breakaway Books 1-55821-452-6 285pp $14.95

This novel comes with the recommendation on its cover that it is “The greatest cycling novel ever written”, courtesy of Bicycling magazine. It is, of course, impossible to know how accurately that sentence reflects the magazine’s review of this book, nor of how qualified was the originator of the phrase.

At the time of writing, however, I can think of only a dozen or so ‘cycling novels’ in the English language. Even assuming that I have missed a great many others, can there be more than 50 ‘cycling novels’? If this is the case, being the best in such a small field, is not quite the recommendation that it first appears.

Most cycling novels – and this is no exception – take professional racing as their backdrop. Hurne’s story is of Terry Davenport, a washed up, end-of-career pro, who is down on his luck competitively and unhappy in his personal life.

It is an engaging tale, with plenty of edge-of-the-seat thrills to keep the pages turning. And, as Hurne clearly has a considerable knowledge of, and a love for, professional racing, there is plenty of insider insight to impart.

What it does not do, however, is to transcend its backdrop – in the way, for example, that The Rider does. For a cyclist with a long-haul flight to pass away, it is thoroughly enjoyable diversion. Its is not, however, the volume to persuade anyone else that cycling has produced a rich literature.

PS August 2008

Rough Ride, Paul Kimmage (1990)

Yellow Jersey Press 0224 051 458 £8 261pp

There are bookshelves and bookshelves of biographies and autobiographies of enormously successful sports people. The testimonies of those who came close to the top of the game, but did not quite make the highest echelons of their sports, however, are few and far between.

When someone with the journalistic skills of Irishman Paul Kimmage does so, therefore, he does those with a serious interest in what it is to compete, a genuine service.

Kimmage was a professional cyclist, riding for a major European team, in the late 1980s. It was a golden age for Irish cycling – Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche were at the pinnacle of their powers, and they were by no means the only compatriots in the peleton. Nonetheless, Kimmage came up the hard way. After a successful amateur career in Ireland, he joined ACCB in Paris as so many had before him. From there he clawed his way to a professional contract – and then rode with enough success to stay in Europe for four seasons.

It is a painful picture that he paints – insufficient money to eat and a lonely life in miserable, shared flats. Even when success comes, life seems to be so hard that he rightly questions why on earth he is carrying on.

Part of his reason for writing the book is to expose the drugs culture in the sport – and to do this, he made himself a persona no grata with many of his former colleagues. In truth, the drug taking that he exposes is small, small beer compared with what has come to light since then. Indeed, given that there is no reason to suppose that Kimmage trimmed his facts, his testimony is arguably evidence that drugs were far less rife that one might have imagined in the 1980s.

During the monstrous Bordeaux-Paris, he is offered ‘something’. On a few other occasions he took some kind of amphetamine ‘charge’ before a small town crit. He was also put under pressure to ‘charge up’ on days in stage races when his team had a lot of work to do to protect their leader.

Lifting the lid on this level of abuse, and the conviction that runs through this book that such drug use is wrong, make Rough Ride valuable. More interesting, though, is the light that Kimmage shines on the lifestyle of the journeyman professional sportsman. His experience is probably similar to the majority of the peleton – not to mention the leagues of young men who labour in the lower reaches of the football divisions, or try to break in to the big time boxing ring.

PS August 2008

Round Ireland in Low Gear, Eric Newby (1987)

Collins 0 00 217639/4 308pp £12.95

Newby is a titan of travel writing. A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush and The Big Red Train Ride, among many others, are rightly considered classics of the genre. He was in his late 60s, however, when he and his wife Wanda took to these island’s rainiest land mass on heavily laden mountain bikes.

The Newbys are returners to cycling – having both clocked up a few clicks during the second world war, but few since. Perhaps because of this, their bicycles only play a small part in the narrative. Of course, there are terrible headwinds, unnerving hills and, more than anything, rain (hardly surprising given that they start their tour in December). But Newby is far more interested in, and interesting on, the countryside though which he is passing, rather than his means of transport – and the book is much the better for that.

For years, British visitors to Ireland have found aspects of life preserved there had apparently been consigned to GB’s history books long ago. Perhaps the 1980s was the last point at which this was true. That is certainly Newby’s finding, in the pubs, boarding houses and shops that he visits. Here he is in a pub in Waterford.

“We found it (food and drink) in T and H Doolan’s old snug and dark pub which contained no one but a very old man wearing a huge uniform overcoat who was drinking tea and a very grown-up young woman who was into the Irish Paddy and hot water, which seemed like a good idea in the circumstances. The old man told us to bang on the bar to summon attention, something that I am always loath to do in case the publican is on the bottle and comes rushing out to hit me over the head with it.”

There is nothing nostalgic about Newby’s book, however. He documents what he sees meticulously and is brilliant at setting it in historical and cultural context. Indeed, it is at doing this that he is almost without peer. Certainly anyone seeking to write a cycling travelogue of this kind would do well to start here.

His skill and care make this a fascinating document of Ireland just before everything changed – before the tide of migration turned, before money flushed though every corner of the country, before the substantial settlement of the ‘constitutional question’. It is an engaging, infuriating, beguiling place – now hard to find. But at least you can reach for Newby and pay it a fond visit from your armchair.

PS August

French Revolutions, Tim Moore (2001)

Yellow Jersey Press 0-224-06095-3 277 pp £12

A humerous account of the authors attempt to cycle the route of the Tour despite his lack of experience on a bicycle

This is a good – if obvious – idea for a travel book. Follow the route of the Tour de France, in this case the tour of 2000, at a touring speed. As a non-cyclist, this gives Moore a framework around which to hang a travelogue, meditation on cycle racing and a chance to marvel at those who complete the route at a rather less leisurely pace than the author achieves.

Moore is undoubtedly an amusing writer. Here he is teeing up his assault on Ventoux.

“The trouble with cycling up mountains is that – panniers or, as today, no panniers – after about four minutes, as soon as that first metallic-tasting, lactic gasp rasps inward at the back of your throat, any thoughts of appreciating your surroundings, contemplating the Continental way of life, or otherwise entertaining an appropriate holiday mentality have been booted out of your brain by an all-encompassing him-or-you struggle to the death with the force of gravity.”

Were someone who knew nothing about cycling looking for a light-hearted introduction to the Tour, this book would serve well.

To anyone who starts the book with a deeper knowledge of cycling and cycle sport than Moore, however, it is impossible to shake a feeling of irritation with him. He is an able writer, for sure, although the efforts of his wise-cracking show. He has read up on the great race, and can rehash many of its curious tales with some élan. But at the end of the day, he has little that is actually new to add. You can’t help feeling that he alighted upon the idea of a Tour-based book as a commercial opportunity, rather than anything fired by passion. As a result, he steadily creates a feeling that, at heart, he is mocking cyclists and cycling for the amusement of others.

PS August 2008

Bad To The Bone, James Waddington (1998)

Dedalus 1 873982 68 2 194pp

During the late 1990s, two stories recurred in the mainstream media coverage of professional cycling in the UK. One described how five-times Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain was in some way a physiological superman. With each year that he started favourite to win the race, there would be more discussion of his unnaturally capacious lungs, or his giant heart’s ability to pump blood faster than those of mere mortals.

The other story – and I am not suggesting that these things were related – was the rise of EPO as the peleton’s drug of choice. Evidence of the effect of this was easy to see – the average speed of la grande boucle rose year after year. And 1996 winner Bjarne Riis was widely known as ‘Mr 60%’ because of his ability to maintain an illegally high haemocrit level. There were also deaths. EPO caused the blood of those who took it to turn to the consistency of jam, causing some to have heart attacks as they slept.

These are the issues that Waddington takes as the themes of this novel. We demand of athletes ever more gladiatorial displays of endeavour, but throw up our hands in horror when they are revealed to be ‘drug cheats’. These are fantastic moral conundrums for a fiction to consider, and Waddington very largely does them justice.

His tale is of a five-times Tour winner, Akil Saenz, his wife Perlita, and a messianic ‘sports physician’ Mikkel Fleishman. It starts with an account of cycle racing which will be recognisable to aficionados, but becomes increasingly disturbed.

Waddington knows his cycle racing and has things to say to even the most trainspottery of enthusiasts. He also has an important point to make about professional sports in general – but to get to that, you should read the book. The end in not as neat as the rest of the book, which undermines its overall quality – but the journey to that point is sufficient to make this an enjoyable and stimulating read.

PS August 2008

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Bicycle, Pryor Dodge (1996)

Flammarion, 2-08013-650-X 225 pp £20

A lavishly illustrated history of bicycles

This is a truly sumptuous book, based on the author’s extraordinary collection of bicycles and cycle-related ephemera. There are hundreds of pictures – from the early velocipedes and Draisnes, to the promotional material to period shots of them in use. Every page is illustrated, mostly in colour and entire double page spreads are devoted to almost pornographic depictions of, among other things, pedals from the 1860s.

Accompanying the photographers are a scholarly account of cycling from earliest times, including the social developments that accompanied the first cycling boom, cycling organisations and the industrial backstory to the Victorian and Edwardian bike craze.

Dodge’s collection is fabulous, and this, luscious book does it proud. If I have one beef it is that it makes a claim to bring things up to the present day, with a brief mention of mountain bikes, human powered vehicles and other recent innovations. In truth, the period up to about 1920 is lavishly covered. Thereafter, the coverage is so slight as to have been better left out. Hopefully, some collector of cycle-related matter will do a job on the second half of the twentieth century will produce a volume that is the equal of this.

PS August 08

Ride And Be Damned, Chas Messenger (1998)

Pedal Publishing £24.95 0 9534096 0 0 151pp

Writing at the age of 84, Messenger tells the tumultuous tale of the British League of Racing Cyclists. These were the hardy band of roadmen who, by grit, guile and grim determination brought mass-start road racing to Britain in the years immediately after the second world war.

The author’s perspective is essentially that of a protagonist – he served for many years as an office holder with the BLRC and was subsequently involved in everything from organising the Milk Race, to working with Britain’s Olympic team.

At this distance, the rift that divided British cycling in the late 1940s and 1950s is difficult to comprehend. The sport’s governing body at that time was the conservative British Cycling Union. As cycling boomed in the 1880s, the Police started to prosecute competitive cyclists for ‘furious cycling’. The governing body wanted to ensure that bicycling remained respectable and, in 1888 that had adopted a resolution stating that: “(We) desire to discourage road racing and calls upon clubs to assist it by refusing to hold races upon the road”.

It was this decision – and the maintenance of that position for more than half a century - that prevented mass start road races from becoming the huge spectator sport in the British isles that it is in most of continental Europe. Racers on these shores had to satisfy themselves with secretively organised time trials, and track cycling.

At the end of the 1930s, however, Percy Stallard, a Wolverhampton cyclist, was one of a growing band who wanted the chance to race as they did on the other side of the Channel. His enthusiasm, and that of those who gathered around him, led to a new organisation – the League of Racing Cyclists, and a furious break with the British Cycling Union. Both sides entrenched, cycling clubs split, and there was much bad blood. As a result, however, big, road races were introduced to the UK, even if they were too late to become the mainstays of the sporting calendar that the European races became.

The joy of this book its two-fold. It is a story that is, otherwise, without a historian, and Messenger does his subject great service by setting down these tales for posterity. It is also fabulously illustrated, with flyers, programmes and photographs. There is scarcely a page without some kind of graphic – and seeing the originals really evoke the age from which they came.

The downside is that Messenger makes a somewhat confused historian. Often he seems uncertain whether he is setting down a dispassionate record, writing a polemic in favour of his own views, or writing a personal memoir. In the end, for anyone interested in the development of British cycling, it is a forgivable fault.

PS August 08

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Trial By Tandem, Alan McCulloch (1951)

George Allen & Unwin 236pp

The author and his wife, Ellen are killing time between jobs. At this point, in late 1940s, he is old enough (probably about 40), to have progressed from life working in a bank, to that of a professional art critic. Indeed, later in life, he and his wife become some of the most eminent figures in art curation in their native Australia.

In Paris for a conference, the couple buy a tandem on a whim and set off on an Odyssey through France and Italy. This is a book about cycling only in the sense that the tandem exists and a generally unwelcome gooseberry in their relationship. Indeed, McCulloch insists that despite her time pedalling behind him, his wife never properly learns to ride a bicycle. Certainly, the experience of cycling and travelling on a two wheels take up very little of the story.

Their journey, and his writing style, are gentle - although the prose is shot through with perceptive observation and taut writing. "A curious feature of bicycle travel is that, although you are whistling along, utterly unprotected, through the atmosphere as it were, you have a strong sense of privacy, the feeling of being unobserved. Consequently one soon develops a lack of self consciousness about clothes, and quickly sheds all items superfluous to the job in hand". Thus, McCulloch introduces his being barred from entrance to the casino at Monte Carlo because he resembled a tramp.

They stay at rowdy youth hostels, enjoy the hospitality of a Vicomte, search for signs that Van Gogh is remembered in Arles and eventually return the tandem to the dealer from whom they procured it in Paris. The book has a witty observation about all of them - even his wife being with child by the end of their travels.

Throughout, McCulloch brings the sensibilities of an artist to his account, and the book is illustrated with pen and ink drawings that he did en route. It is a charming book, and a record of post-war Europe that seems a million miles from France and Italy today. There are moments when he appears to be spinning out his tales, to fill the pages and there is not much in the way of narrative drive to keep the pages turning. But the book has considerable charm and provides a more than pleasant means to pass away and afternoon.

PS July 2008

Ellen, by this point is with child

From the pen of J B Wadley, ed Adrian Bell (2002)

Mousehold Press 1 874739 22 6 £12.95 206pp

A collection of articles about competitive cycling by one of Britain's most celebrated cycle journalists

Jock Wadley was a towering presence in British cycle journalism in the middle years of the twentieth century. True, you might say, with few practitioners in this particular corner of reporting during that period, even one of short stature might appear as a giant. But Wadley's qualities as an observer and recorder of bicycle sport would have shone out, whatever the competition.

Born in 1914, Wadley reported on the domestic and continental scene from 1933, pretty nearly until he died in 1981, writing for Cycling and The Bicycle, as well as editing Coureur and International Cycle Sport. That this publication was issued over 20 years after his demise shows the regard in which he was held by his readers.

The pieces here cover topics as diverse as the intense competition to take the 'Bath and Back' record (from London - of course); Frederico Bahamontes assault on the 1959 Tour and a Randonneur in the Alps. His tone is almost conversational - he frequently explains the difficulties of following a race from a press car. "When the journalist is equipped with a helicopter he might be able to cover all four races at once" he laments at one stage - speaking of an age before most commentators watched the race on the box.

Here he is on Shay Elliot's progress in 1958's edition of Ghent-Wevelgem: "What I dared to hope was the Elliot was still strong enough not only to win the Messines prime, but to get away on his own to keep clear of the other chasers all the way to Wevelgem. But although he was still strong, one man was stronger. He was Noel Fore, and Fore Flung himself into a powerful sprint on a modest hill".

He is partisan, but when the English-speaking riders do not triumph, he is quick to applaud the winners.

Often the style is more that of a letter to a friend than what we would today recognise as journalism. But what a correspondent to have! These dispatches from the past are so full of colour, incident and detail that they transcend their style.

PS 24 July

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Cycling Is Such Fun, Ragged Staff (late 1940s)

Skeffington & Sons no price shown 131pp

A series of fictional sketches and tales featuring a 'clubman' and his family traversing the countryside in the forties and fifties

Ragged Staff is the pen name of Rex Coley, a journalist on Cycling (which became Cycling Weekly) in the 1940s and 1950s. The pieces collected here are, I believe, ones that had already appeared in The Comic, and they offer an glimpse into a world that now seems impossible remote.

Each article is an entertainment - a short tale or scene from the life of a keen cyclist, who is never happier than when traversing the country on two wheels. There are endless social mishaps, with boarding house land ladies who have a low opinion of cyclists; hotel porters who insist on carrying saddle bags like the baggage of grandees; and station masters who don't approve of means of transport that do not require the purchase of tickets.

Much of the time Ragged is accompanied by his wife, Ann, his foil and frequent debunker. On occasion, the son, and even the pet dog join them awheel.

Coley was an accomplished writer. These are simple little tales with no pretensions to literature, but Coley makes them a pleasure to read. Each is alive with incident and dialogue. In the hands of a lesser wordsmith, an account of an ill-conceived cycle ride from south east London to Nuneaton simply to return a milk bottle would be stogy fare. Coley's deftness of touch and feel for the absurd make it a pleasure.

It is a period piece in every sense of the word. The roads are empty, the clothing woolen and the enjoyment of simple pleasures after the privations of war is palpable. Not everything rose-tinted, however. Even if there are still vicar's wives alive who would badger passing cycle tourists into 'blacking up'; to play Sambo in their husband's dramatic productions ('you merely have to act in an ignorant and absurd manner', she advises), it is unlikely that they would be celebrated as they are here.

Nonetheless, this is book is a considerable pleasure - even for those of us for whom this era seems impossibly distant.

PS July 08

Incidentally, I would be fascinated if anyone has any further information about Coley. There are other books of his Ragged Staff pieces, I know, but any other information would be great.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Grame Obree profile, Tim Dawson

First published Scotsman 28 February 1998

Graeme Obree circles Manchester’s velodrome with the easy precision of a watch movement. Around and around the huge, empty bowl of pine boards he spins - a vision of mechanical efficiency in his metallic skinsuit - his speed apparently diminished by the vastness of the track. So regular and effortless is the motion that he might easily be a clock’s second hand awaiting installation of its slower partners.

Riding his first trials for a fresh attempt on the world hour record in Manchester this week might have made the going look easy. But all is not as it seems.

‘Cycling at that intensity for an hour is like being on a rack, and winding the screw to tighten it up yourself,’ he says. ‘There are people who can tolerate agony, but very few who can inflict it on themselves over a sustained period.’

Warming to the theme, he says that pulling your own teeth out would be easy by comparison. ‘After about twenty minutes the pain becomes intense and there is no respite. It seems like another three or four hours before you stop. To keep going, I tell myself that the each lap is the last, and visualise my wife and family in tears because I have failed.’

How the forthcoming feature film of the Ayrshire cyclist’s rollercoaster career will deal with the terrible suffering to which he is willing to subject his body remains to be seen. As does its potrayal of the fiery independence that has exasperated so many of the people who have tried to help him along the way.

His single-minded unwillingness to be anything other than his own man is legendary. According to one of cycling’s professional officials, the sport’s ruling bodies would love to help him. ‘All we ask is that he occasionally puts in a competitive performance to demonstrate that he is still riding at international level. But he won’t co-operate and insists on doing everything in private. He would only have to give a little and by doing so, a very substantial pot of money would become available to him, but he makes it impossible for us.’

Graeme Obree first started pedalling around Scotland’s roads as a teenager. He made numerous friends at schoolboy cycle races and on hosteling weekends, but many considered him to be wild. Even, slightly weird. He seemed to be on the edge; willing to sanction in himself physical, mental and mechanical extremes that few others would contemplate. And he has a stubbornness about getting what he wants which, while it is the bedrock of his success, has also lost him plenty of friends along the way.

The signs of his eccentricity are legion. Even now, at 32, he still has plans to conquer the world on ‘Old Faithful’ the original bike he built from scrap parts and fitted with the bearings of an old washing machine. The only professional cycling team to have signed him, sacked him within days. And in the last few months he has turned down lottery funding available to him as an elite athlete, preferring his independence even if it means poverty.

In person, he is engaging, enthusiastic and likeable. He talks ten to the dozen on any subject, and is naturally friendly. But the intensity of his inner belief in his ability to push his body would be considered madness were it not for what he has achieved - and says he can achieve again.

In May or June of this year, Obree will once more try to ride further in one hour than any cyclist has before. He can’t promise to beat the record again - the current holder Chris Boardman has taken it into the ‘twilight zone’ of human capabilities, the Scot concedes. But, says Obree, the conditions for his two successful bids for the record were far from perfect.

‘I am stronger now than I ever have been,’ he says. ‘I can produce more power and I am now taking more account of nutrition, which will give me a few more meters. I won’t be able ride in a position quite so aerodynamic as Chris used because of new rule changes, but I am sure that I can at least get up to his distance.’

Even sympathetic commentators consider his chances slim. But Obree has succeeded against all expectations so many times before that no one will completely discount what he says.

To put his put his accomplishments to date in context, a brief detour into European cycling is necessary. On the continent, cycling is a major professional sport. It is as extensively televised as football and, attracts the cream of athletic talent who if successful can earn millions of pounds each season. Wealthy teams invest lavishly in the minutely monitored training of their stables: some have even built substantial research institutions dedicated to perfecting their riders’ bodies and equipment.

When Graeme Obree achieved international fame, all he knew of this world had been gleaned from television and magazines. Aged 27, he was a highly-rated British amateur. This put him in a group of 20 or 30 people who would thrash it out each weekend for meagre prize money. He and his competitors were as far from international success as Sunday-league footballers are from sudden elevation to the Permiership.

Unemployed after his bike shop had folded, Obree was all for giving up. The training time necessary to compete as a cyclist made it difficult to provide for his young family. But he still had a towering ambition - or perhaps more a crazy dream.

‘Francesco Moser’s hour record in 1984 had always inspired me,’ says Obree. ‘I liked the purity and daringness of one man going out alone with no hiding place against the clock. It seemed like cycling’s glittering prize and Moser’s aerodynamic style and radical bike brought an Italian glamour and panache to his ride. And he broke a record widely considered to be unbeatable.’

It is a record that cyclists have been contesting since 1876 when FD Doods managed to cover 25.508 kilometres in an hour on a track in Cambridge. In subsequent years, many world-class champions have added their names to those who have pushed the record further. Fausto Coppi - arguably the most gifted rider of this century - covered 45.848 kilometres in 1942; five times Tour winner Jacques Anquetil managed 47.493 kilometres in 1967 and the Belgian Eddy Merckx, who notched up more professional cycling wins than any rider before or since, stunned the world in 1972 with a ride of 49.432 kilometres.

Like most others who have tried for the hour record, Merckx completed his successful assault with a vow never to try again - such was the mental and physical stress of the effort.

Obree came to the specialist discipline of track cycling relativly late. Once he did, however, he decided that it was here that he could make his mark.

For all the jokes about his home-made bike, and his training methods, it is impossible to discount the achievement of his first successful hour record bid in 1993. True, the bike did contain some components that came from unorthodox sources. But what he devised in the workshop behind his home in Irvine has been more successful than bikes and positions developed at a cost of hundreds of thousands of pounds in America and Italy.

Both Obree’s successful assaults on the record were made in his own self-devised chest-on-handlebars ‘ski-tuck’ position. By keeping his back flat, he improved his aerodynamics. And by eliminating the bike’s top tube and narrowing the distance between the pedals he was able to imitate the action of a runner, drawing his legs across his body, rather than simply up and down, therby developing greater power.

In the context of world cycling, Obree’s experimentation seems curious. Even among those professional riders with a technical interest in their equipment, none have begun to match his brilliant inventiveness. But then Obree is the product of the peculiar, semi-detached world of British time trialling.

When the modern bicycle emerged, in the 1880s - before cars or planes - it was a sensation whose competitive potential was quickly recognised. The tours of France and Italy started in the early years of this century, as did the other great ‘mass start’ races from city to city that are still the mainstay of professional racing. Similar developments here stalled, however, because, from the 1890s onwards, cyclists caught racing on British roads were prosecuted under a law that prohibits ‘furious cycling’.

Rather than give up, British cyclists turned to clandestinely organised time trials. These were extraordinary events. Secret route guides were mailed to participants along with their start time. At five minute intervals, each competitor would arrive at a deserted lamp post or drain cover. Dressed as inconspicuously as possible, they would belt round the course while a hidden timekeeper recorded their effort. Only when the results sheet arrived in the next day’s post, would competitors know their time and placing.

Not until 1960 was road racing brought within the law and, although much has changed in the sport since then, time trailing continues to be the backbone of British competitive road cycling. The country is criss-crossed with courses that retain coded names and are measured from lamp posts and road signs. And the very nature of these events breeds an obsessive, almost trainspottery, interest in tweaking bikes and employing obscure bits of kit.

That someone from this background could take the hour record shocked the world of cycle racing. Not only was Obree’s bike an oddity, but he eschewed traditional training methods and professed to consume a diet of conflakes and marmalade sandwiches ahead of major events.

As a result, his success rekindled greater interest in the hour record than there had been for years. First Chris Boardman bettered the Scot by 600 meters. Obree extended his record again to 52.713 kilometres in April of 1994, and then the big boys moved in. Miguel Indurain - five times Tour de France winner - put his name in the record books, only to be displaced a few weeks later by the rider ranked world number one, Tony Rominger.

Meanwhile Obree’s extraordinary career continued. He won the world track pursuit title, but was prevented from defending it because his ‘ski tuck’ was banned by cycling’s ruling body. A professional French team offered him a contract, but he was dismissed within the first week when he failed to turn up for training.

Most assumed that his fifteen minutes of fame were over. But, undaunted, he arrived at the 1995 world championships with another new and equally revolutionary cycling style - ‘the superman’. Not only did he storm to victory, but within months, many top professionals had copied the position. Since then, however, a virus wrecked his chance of Olympic glory in Atlanta and shortly afterwards he ‘retired’ because he lacked the money to continue.

Among those who copied ‘the Superman’ was Chris Boardman. After struggling to finish the 1996 Tour de France, the Englishman, who now ranks in the world’s top 20, hit the most blistering form of his career. Before a packed crowd in Manchester he covered 56.375 kilometres - an average speed of more than 35 miles per hour. To beat this mark, Obree must ride more than four kilometres further in the hour than he ever has before.

In pursuit of this he has made some concessions to convention. For the first time since he was a junior, he is working with a professional trainer. He has submitted to a regime similar to those used by other world-class cyclists and is using standard devices like a heart-rate monitor that, until recently, he disdained in place of his own ‘feel factor’.

He even planned to ride a professionally made bike, until another change in the regulations forced him back on Old Faithful. Fortunately, he says, this is still the fastest bike he has ever ridden.

But has Obree has joined the mainstream of cycling? By no means. There will be more novel technical additions and adaptations to his bike. He won’t let anyone see this at the moment - or even enter his workshop - but, among other things, it is possible that he will be using a chain lubricating device adapted from a motorbike.

There will be no public trails until late March. At these, he must demonstrate, for his own purposes, and to impress potential backers of his seriousness, that he can at least mount a credible challenge. Doing this requires him to output between 450 and 470 watts for 20 minutes - as hard as most fit cyclists can manage for two minutes. If he can do this then believes, his training programme will bring him to a peak and by early summer he will be able to sustain the effort for an hour.

But if this happens, it will be nothing to do with gifts from nature, he says. ‘I am insulted when people complement my natural ability. Its not natural - I made myself like this. Most people assume that they have reached their natural limit when really they have reached the level at which they are satisfied. I am never satisfied and play mind games to keep pushing myself to the next level and the next again. The only thing that really makes a difference is what is in your head.’

Nevertheless, Obree says that he will only get close to the record if everything goes exactly as planned. If it does though, he believes he can do it, which at least until now seems to have been enough. And if he is right, his world will once again open up. As holder of the record, he will command decent appearance fees at track meetings around Europe. He has already been pre-selected for Scotland’s Commonwealth Games squad later this year and is even dreaming of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

What failure would mean is impossible to say. For the moment it is an eventuallity he refuses to contemplate - another mind game. All he can focus on is a mental image. The circling stops and Obree climbs off his bike: a new world record under his belt.