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.