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.


Cycling Across Spain, Tim Dawson

First published Cycling Plus c. October 1998

I am squatting on the hard shoulder of the motorway between Toledo and Madrid trying to mend a puncture. The pounding hailstones will cut open my face any second, I am sure, unless one of the full carriageway of speeding lorries hits me first. My head spins with fatigue, after 60 miles into the wind, I am soaked to the skin and, a powerful gust has just toppled my upturned bike down the steep ditch beside the road.

As I gaze down to see my saddlebag lying beside the partially rotted corpse of a German Shepherd dog it is impossible not to wonder, why I am doing this?

The answer is that I wanted instant adventure. I am in my mid 30s, married and do a demanding professional job, so time is limited. Backpacking around the world, crewing a yacht in the Caribbean or hiking in the Himalayas are not feasible. Cycling alone and unsupported across the Spain - from Gibraltar to Bilbao - seemed heroic and just about possible.

Ten days would be enough, I had calculated. Ninety miles a day seemed within the bounds of my capabilities. A few weeks with a pre-recorded cassette provided me with half a dozen words Spanish. But without prior bookings, sag wagons, tour leaders, useful guidebooks or knowledge of the Spanish interior, it felt like a genuine adventure.

And if it was going to be an adventure it was possible that things would go wrong. There would be roads that were not ideal for cycling, punctures and bad weather. Not that this made fishing my bike out of the diesel enriched mud beside the motorway any more fun. But I had achieved one objective.

All that I could think about was my journey. How much further would I have to go before I would find a hotel? Would my strength hold up for the second week of cycling? And would I be able to dry my few clothes before I had to set out tomorrow? After five days riding, the anxieties and pressures of my daily life back home were completely forgotten.

And most the experiences that displaced my work-day worries were ecstatically joyful. The sight of Toledo and Segovia from their best road vantages are high octane experiences when you have made the journey to them alone on two wheels. Spain's roadside blooms - in spring at least - are the most dazzling flower show. And the climb up to the monastery of Escorail easily repaid ten years of dreaming.

The idea of crossing Iberia came from Laurie Lee. Bored of London in the 1930s, he spent two years wandering south from northern Spain to Andalucia. His prose conveys a feeling of poetic wonder and exploration.

And such a journey gives you an incredible - if no doubt unreal - sense of knowing a country and its people. The extent to which the language changes from province to province, for example, is rendered uncomfortably real. My attempts to order sandwiches were perfectly understood in Andalucia, but met with incomprehension as I rode into Old Castile.

The varying approaches to Holy Week celebrations reveal the enormously differing attitudes to religion and display. In Seville, over a million people crowded its labyrinthine medieval streets to watch marching penitents carry elaborately carved floats depicting Christ and the Madonna. Several processions each day for a week encountered equal enthusiasm, I learned.

The same ceremony in Cuidad Real - an ancient city so completely rebuilt it could be a new town - was shambolic. A desultory crowd trailed behind a gaudy modern float without obvious interest or passion. And in Madrid the procession appeared to excite no one but the tourists. Once it had passed though the city's central square providing momentary excitement for the video-camera-touting classes, it marched on uncheered.

My decision to start in Gibraltar was arbitrary, and a few hours looking around seemed sufficient. The view from my hotel, The Rock, was stupendous however. The Bay of Algecerias is massive - I could see over 40 merchant ships as well as the coasts of Spain and Africa. Best of all though, as I sipped my sherry, was the sea, which, if everything went to plan I would not see again until the end of my ride.

I had planned my first day cycling to be among the hardest, and the 212 kilometres from the coast to Seville lived up to expectations. The road climbs though gentle, rocky hills which, during spring at least, are indecently green. Meandering between small lakes, the scenery could have been Alpine. It was not the hills that did for me, though, but the wind. My twisting and turning route set me alternately with and against it. The latter was a real struggle and after seven hours in the saddle powered only by breakfast and a couple of energy bars, I had the worst hunger knock I have ever experienced.

Fortunately I was able to stumble into a roadside bar where enormous Spanish lunches were still being served. To the amused encouragement of half a dozen old men I stuffed my face and allowed my body sugar to work its magic. The next 70 kilometres felt like they were fuelled by adrenaline alone, but without the food, I could scarcely have walked 70 steps.

Reaching Seville felt an epic triumph, but the welcome I received exceeded all expectations. As I neared the city centre I hit huge waves of people dressed up to the nines, taking part if the first perambulation of Holy Week. By the time I reached the cathedral, the streets were too packed to progress at all. Eventually I reconciled myself to retracing my steps to join the ring road en route to the friends with whom I was staying.

The stiff jabs of pain from my legs the next morning were not to disappear until long after I returned to Britain. But sore though they were off the bike, I was never troubled on the road. Nor did my muscle's fatigue affect my ability to pedal - perhaps this is what professional cyclists feel like during the three week tours?

Happily the road from Seville to Cordoba is quiet and, as it follows the course of a river, flat. It was here though that I first encountered the curious Spanish practice with unwanted dogs. Many owners appear take their animals onto a quite stretch of road and slit their throats. I saw the corpses of endless individual dogs an one pair of very fresh Alsations. Those who feel unable to bring their pets lives to a swift end simply leave their unwanted animals to the mercy of speeding traffic - which if you are on two wheels rather then four can be terrifying.

It was also in Cordoba that I realised how difficult it would be finding accommodation during the country's main national holiday. From the grandest hotels to the simplest pensions there was not a room in town. I was forced to cover a few more miles before finding a motel with vacancies.

In the days to come, it was the search for hotels that gave me most cause for concern. Beds in the tourist centres were mostly full. Far more worrying, however, were the long empty roads where there could be 30 miles between villages, not all of which boasted hostelries.

On one day I was fortunate enough to come across a fabulous hunting lodge from which wood smoke puffed in a steep gorge between mountains. The next day I rode on and on, searching villages with ever greater desperation looking for a place to sleep. Long after I wanted to give up, a simple barn of a building, with the word 'camas' (beds) painted on its gable wall, hoved into view. Never have I been happier to break bread with itinerant farm labourers.

My journey into Madrid was also a long, forlorn search for somewhere to sleep. I had planned to miss the capital entirely. In Toledo, one of the big effects of Spanish tourism, there was no chance of a bed. I set off on the motorway feeling sure that there would be a travel lodge on its outskirts. The skies opened and the road rolled on without a sign of anywhere to stay or even a promising looking town to which I could have turned.

The upshot was an unexpected 70 kilometre drag and an unscheduled night on the town. After five days without hearing anyone speaking English, it was as reassuring to hear my native tongue, as it was to be taken for a Spaniard in one of Spain's endless Irish bars.

Until now I had been lucky with roads - no real disasters and only one stretch of motorway. From the Royal monesty of Escorail just north of Madrid - to Segovia, however, proved to be the most sever physical test I have ever endured.

The map showed two possible routes - a flat main road and an obviously hilly minor road. I had this 75 kilometre stage planned as a rest day, and decided that bit of climbing would be fun. From the sunny spring of the plain, however, the road went up and up. Soon there were patches of snow, but I was generating plenty of heat. It rose further until everything was covered in half a meter of white carpet. Cars carrying skis were now passing me en route to the ski station of Navacerrada.

Here two and three meter icicles hung from the gables, snowboarders ran around in day-glo quilted jackets and my spit froze on contact with the ground. I had stopped only twice on the ascent of 2000 meters and was feeling like a polka dot king.

Until I started to descend. By the third hair pin I was wearing every piece of clothing I had with me and still had to stop every kilometre to choke back the tears of pain and try to warm my extremities. By Segovia I felt freeze dried.

Before my departure I had joked that once I reached Spain's centre, the rest of my journey would be down hill. And although not strictly true, the five days after Segovia turned out to be far the easier. My legs were stronger, the wind more accommodating and the towns and villages of La Mancha flew by.

Nevertheless, by Vitoria - the Basque country's second city - I was beginning to tire of my routine. Every day I looked for a hotel, unpacked, handwashed my kit, found somewhere to eat, had a quick look around and then collapsed into a long deep sleep. After nine days, I wanted to stay in one place and to wear ordinary clothes.

Happily, the high of eventually reaching Bilbao kept me going a little longer. Rain poured during my last day on my bike, and the industrial detritus that surrounds the Basque capital is as widespread as it is depressing. But I scarcely noticed.

The appeal of crossing a country is the feeling of achievement. I had come from the shimmering heat of Gibraltar depending on my wits and self propelled. Soaked again from the rain I rode to the shore of the Bay of Biscay, ten kilometres from Bilbao. There I waded in fully clothed and dizzy with joy.


Cycling in cities, Tim Dawson

first published in Cycling Plus cDecember 1996

Cycle touring has an image problem. So set is our view of what bikes are good for, that we are missing out on their most exciting possibilities.

Since the first hearty wheelers emerged into the countryside from Britain's industrial towns and cities more than a century ago, they and their successors have been the pass-time's living embodiment. So much so, that it is impossible to say 'cycle touring' without thinking of hairy-legged, cord-shorted, beardy-weirdies who only stop peddling up hill and down dale to quaff flagons of foaming real ale.

But why is this a problem?

Its simple. The saddle of a bike is a great place from which to see the countryside. It is probably the best way to see the countryside, but it is not the only way. Even a die-hard velocipede would be hard-pressed to deny the pleasures of viewing our open spaces on foot. And, loath though they might be to admit it, there are parts of rural Britain best seen at speed.

The Settle-Carlisle and West Highland Lines both bring a magic to the mountains unsurpassed by other means of transport. And it would be churlish to deny the pleasures of crossing Shap on the M6.

Cities, however - the great engines of human development - are quite a different story.

A bike is the only satisfactory way to explore, and discover a metropolis. By bike you can criss-cross a city, meandering where it interests you, flying though where it does not: seeing its sights, as well as uncovering its underside.

Let me give you a taster.

I spent a fortnight this summer seeing Barcelona by bike. One of Europe's most exciting cities, it has been an important port since Roman times. And each subsequent generation has left its marks on the cityscape.

Early one morning I rode out into the city's southern suburbs beyond Montjuic, the hill that towers over the city. By chance, between two buildings, I caught sight of a huge complex of modern buildings on the side of the hill that faces away from the city.

I thought by this time that I knew Barcelona - I had visited before, I had read all the books. So, as I picked out a route, I raked my mind trying to recall any mention of this city on the hill.

I took it to be a new university, perhaps modelled on Warwick or Bath. From my vantage point on a suburban road, I could see dozen of small regular windows in the sides of the blocks. Student residences, perhaps, or a large administrative centre?

With some difficulty I steered a course though industrial areas and run down housing schemes until I started climbing towards the concrete campus above. Only as I overtook a long black car did I realise my mistake.

Montjuic cemetery is immense. The Spanish place their dead, embalmed in coffins, into custom built blocks. Each body merits a slot into which the coffin is pushed like a peg and then plugged with a grave stone and glassed over. Wreaths, now dried in the hot sun decorated the windows from which I had seen students waving.

The huge white concrete blocks at Montjuic were built in the 1950s. Rising over 30 feet, each is ten courses of coffins high, 30 wide. On the side of the hill, arranged in avenues, streets and parades there are more than 100 blocks, some almost enveloped in a dense, moist, foliage. A handful of old women, wrapped in thick black head scalves and cloaks, climbed precariously high step ladders to commune with their loved ones. And as the morning's heat rose, the air grew heavy with the sweet smell of decaying flowers.

Had I been travelling by any other means I would have never discovered this astonishing place, nor a hundred others in the many other cities I have explored by bike over the years.

Consider first the facts. For the last 200 years cities have been the theatres in which all important human drama has taken place. In them are built the great monuments of our civilisation - churches, factories, offices and houses. And around those, the detritus of past centuries is wove in an elaborate tapestry. The number of us who choose to live in cities increases each year and, in their confines the important events of human existence are enacted a million times each day.

So why are bicycles, that most enduring invention of the modern age, the only way to discover them?

The physical scale of cities makes them inaccessible by foot. One can traipse around an assortment of tourist attractions but to really see any but the smallest cities, walking is just too slow. Spot something that looks interesting at the end of a street, and the pedestrian faces a dilemma. Is it worth the walk just to have a look? It does not take many blind alleys to dull your curisoity

With two-wheeled transport, you can afford to take a chance. The scale of cities is perfectly suited to the bicycle. In a few hours you can cover the main streets and roads of cities like Norwich and Bristol. The mighty connurbations of Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow are within the scope of the modestly fit. And even London, although perhaps best taken in parts, is better seen by bike than by any other means of transport.

By bike you can get pleasantly lost, safe in the knowledge that it will not be unduly taxing to retrace you path. Set off in one direction, double back, dodge down a narrow passage and if it comes to nothing you can be back where you started without losing your breath.

Cars by cotrast are too fast. Driving takes such concentration. Unlike the great outdoors, in the city the sights fly by. A gap between buildings visible for only a few seconds might give unique view or open up a completely new vista. But travel by car and you've missed it. Even if, from the corner of your eye, something catches your attention its usually impossible to stop.

Traffic planning makes car travel in cities a nightmare. Unfamiliar with the roads, no sooner have you set off in one direction than a one-way sign forces you in another. By bike the world is open around you, you can stop, get off, slip down a pavement, or chat with a passer-by.

But bikes can be fast when you need them to be. On foot in New York, I was more interested to see the neighbourhoods I knew from films than the Midtown shops. But as I wandered from the main streets in Harlem, I was repeatedly accosted by more and more threatening young men. By the time I dived back into the subway I was soaking with sweat and shaking with fear.

By contrast, when the residents of a housing estate outside Seville, charmingly named Six Thousand Habitations, appeared unwelcoming, I simply dropped onto my bottom cog and made hastily away. On another occasion, a guard dog took chase in the wilderness of Liverpool's waterfront. Fearing a mauling, I summoned up such a burst of speed that I would have left even Cipollini in the jaws of the hound.

The coutryside is not even that assecible to cycle tourists. Most of us live in cities. Travel by air, rail or road typically starts and ends in cities. But try escaping them by bike. Ribbon development beside roads makes a ride out of even our smaller connurbations a long slog past an endless dreary parade of shops and houses.

And see how much of the countryside you can take in if you set off on a day's circular trip from the centre of Paris or London. Even if you start by train in the south-east of England, it is impossible to escape the car. The roads in Kent, Hertforshire and Buckinghamshire are every bit as car-clogged as the city centre. The only difference is that in the country cars travel faster.

Recent projections of the increase in car travel our rural areas suggest that in the next two decades this can only get worse.

It is an illusion to think that one can escape the rush of every day life in the country - better by far to accept this, and enjoy yourself in the city centre. You'll find far fewer cars in the City of London on a Sunday morning than you will anywhere in the Home Counties.

Which ever city you choose, you will see more of it by bike. Only on two wheels can you quickly understand how a city fits together and get a sense of how its inhabitants lead their daily lives.

But why with so much to see, is cycle touring in cities not more popular? Our bookshops are groaning with tomes detailing rural rides. If you can't find any about seeing cities this way, perhaps it is because of the image problem.

For so long as cyclists head for the hills, they will miss their bike's greatest potential. It is time to reclaim cycle touring from the saddlebag and cape brigade and discover the frontier on our own doorsteps.


Most of us can start city centre touring outside our own front doors, but getting the most out of it requires a little planning.

1 Arterial routes are invariably clogged with cars and, although they are inescapable for some journeys, they are never going to be much fun. Locally produced cycle route maps show designated cycle paths which usually trace routes though quiet streets that are inaccessible to traffic. Even in a city you know, making a familiar journey by a different route can be quite a surprise. If you wonder what London's docklands were like before the developers arrived, for example, take a ride out to the Royal Docks, where it is easy to believe gangland disputes are still resolved.

If you can't get hold of a cycle map, try a street plan. Look for the lines of blocked off roads, designed to stop rat runs. A nightmare for motorists - a warren of quiet, undiscovered roads for cycle touring.

2 Waterways are also the source of endless reclaimable routes though cities. In both Birmingham and Leeds tow paths will take you into canal basins that have, until recently lain undiscovered. Beside the lesser river banks and tow paths in Glasgow and London you canl still see sides of both cities with which few of their natives are familiar. Tow paths can be overgrown and do sometimes end without warning, however, so be prepared to double back, or haul your bike over a fence or two.

3 The lines of old railways provide another set of routes accessible only by bike. Edinburgh closed down a network of suburban railways in the 1950s leaving behind a maze of bridges, junctions and branch lines. They allow access to almost anywhere in the city, but lie unseen from the roads and pavement. Some of these have now been properly converted into cycle paths. But elsewhere you will find the lines of old railways marked on maps. They are occasionally impassable, but more often than not provide unique routes for cyclists.


Any bike will do, but a mountain bike with slick tyres is best - city streets are full of craters. If you are riding a polished titanium frame equipped with this year's groupset borrow a trick from the couriers: cover your frame with insulating tape to disguise it from would-be thieves.

Wear flat soled shoes. You are bound to want to get off fairly frequently - to buy a coffee, get a better view or look around a building.

Avoid too much lycra unless you are supremely self confident. A Banesto team strip is an invitation for those you pass by to call out unfavourable comparisons with Miguel as peadle past.

Attach your map to your handlebars with either on a bar bag or a clip. In an unfamiliar city you will often need to check that you taken the right turn.

Always carry a lock and the necessities of puncture repair - a long unnecessary walk is just as dispiriting in the city as it is in the middle of nowhere.


One More Kilometer And We Are In The Showers, Tim Hilton (2004)

HarperCollins 0 00 257194 3 £16.99 396 pp

A collection of memories, autobiography and lists by a talented writer who provides a treat for anyone who has been touched by cycling culture

Hilton - an art critic and journalist by trade - has assembled a glorious rattle bag of a book of memoires. He opens with his introduction to cycling as an escape from the communist household in which he grew up in the 1940s. So dedicated to the cause were his parents that they named Hilton, their only child, Timoshenko, after the Soviet war hero.

Little wonder then that 'All Spare Parts' bicycle that he found at the bottom of his grandparents' garage provided a welcome relief from party meetings devoted to the desirability of scientific socialism.

This is a book of vignettes and digressions in bike culture. He ranges widely, from the rivalry between Coppi and Bartali, to the history of the socialist Clarion cycling clubs and way that cyclists choose their occupations. An unusually large number of artists, musicians and writers are cyclists, he claims. Many postal workers are cyclists too - it provides long afternoons for training. Also - he claims - cyclists are won't to seek employment a decent training run distant from their homes.

Hilton is also keen on lists - classic steel frame builders of industrial England, the hills of The Tour of Flanders and successful women racing cyclists of the 1950s, to mention just three.

Even to those who have read dozens of books about cycling, Hilton has something fresh to reveal. He is a writer of such easy, professional competence that he is always a pleasure to read. Indeed, to anyone who has stumbled into cycling and is trying to make sense of why clubs style themselves 'VC' or why British cyclists are obsessed with time trialling, this is a great starting point.

PS July 2008