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