Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A Wheel Within A Wheel, Frances E Willard (1895)

Fleming H Revel 1 55707 449 7 Paberback 75pp republished by Applewood Books

How a 53-year-old American suffragette learned to ride a bicycle against her own and societies’ expectations on the eve of the twentieth century

The idea today that learning to ride a bicycle is an improbable challenge – even for those in advanced middle aged – is hard to appreciate. In this modest tome, however, Williard explains, in near pedal-by-pedal detail – how she accomplished the task, over three months, practicing for quarter of an hour a day.

She clearly intended the book to serve as an inspiration to other women to follow her wheels: for their health; for the adventure cycling brings; and, for the joy of mastering a difficult process. At this distance, however, much more is evident from her words.

Women’s clothing was clearly an issue – she described the impracticality of crinoline, hoops and restrictive corsets; as well as describing her own cycling uniform, ‘a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception’.

There was prejudice, too. Many men, according to Willard, clearly thought that acquiring the skill of cycling was beyond the mental and physical wit of a woman. Her satisfaction as dispelling such ideas – particularly given her age – is considerable.

This is not a shrill polemic that finds men responsible for all the world’s woes, however. More than anything, it is a paean in praise of pedalpushing. Consider the inherent democracy of cycling, for example: ‘Happily there is now another locomotive contrivance which is no flatterer, and which peasant and prince must master if they do this at all, by the democratic route of honest hard work’. Or, the bicycles’ role in promoting a good state of mind: ‘When the wheel of the mind went well, then the rubber wheel hummed merrily’.

Grainy, black-and-white pictures of Willard bestriding ‘Gladys’, her bicycle provide an added dimension to her tale.

The prose style is from an age when writers were expected to serve readers up with a decently filling dish, no matter how stodgy that made the narrative. But the unfamiliar flavours and textures of this treatise are worth chewing over, if only for a fleeting flavour of the unprecedented liberation that bicycles brought in their infancy.

PS Mar 09

A Wheel Within A Wheel, Frances E Willard (1895)

Fleming H Revel 1 55707 449 7 Paberback 75pp republished by Applewood Books

How a 53-year-old American suffragette learned to ride a bicycle against her own and societies’ expectations on the eve of the twentieth century

The idea today that learning to ride a bicycle is an improbable challenge – even for those in advanced middle aged – is hard to appreciate. In this modest tome, however, Williard explains, in near pedal-by-pedal detail – how she accomplished the task, over three months, practicing for quarter of an hour a day.

She clearly intended the book to serve as an inspiration to other women to follow her wheels: for their health; for the adventure cycling brings; and, for the joy of mastering a difficult process. At this distance, however, much more is evident from her words.

Women’s clothing was clearly an issue – she described the impracticality of crinoline, hoops and restrictive corsets; as well as describing her own cycling uniform, ‘a simple, modest suit, to which no person of common sense could take exception’.

There was prejudice, too. Many men, according to Willard, clearly thought that acquiring the skill of cycling was beyond the mental and physical wit of a woman. Her satisfaction as dispelling such ideas – particularly given her age – is considerable.

This is not a shrill polemic that finds men responsible for all the world’s woes, however. More than anything, it is a paean in praise of pedalpushing. Consider the inherent democracy of cycling, for example: ‘Happily there is now another locomotive contrivance which is no flatterer, and which peasant and prince must master if they do this at all, by the democratic route of honest hard work’. Or, the bicycles’ role in promoting a good state of mind: ‘When the wheel of the mind went well, then the rubber wheel hummed merrily’.

Grainy, black-and-white pictures of Willard bestriding ‘Gladys’, her bicycle provide an added dimension to her tale.

The prose style is from an age when writers were expected to serve readers up with a decently filling dish, no matter how stodgy that made the narrative. But the unfamiliar flavours and textures of this treatise are worth chewing over, if only for a fleeting flavour of the unprecedented liberation that bicycles brought in their infancy.

PS Mar 09

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Its Not About The Tapas, Polly Evans (2003)

Bantam Books 0 553 81556 3 Paperback 301pp £6.99

An enjoyable account of a solo bicycle journey made around parts of Spain made (probably) in 2002. It would serve as a good primer to Spain but also have something for those who know the country well

Burned out and brassed off in Hong Kong, Evans decides to cycle around Spain. It is a familiar, if not downright unpromising pretext. But Evans is a good writer with a genuine knowledge of and love for Spain. Examining the map at the start of the book, it is clear that her tour did not really take in much of Spain at all – she rides from San Sebastian to Barcelona, tours a little in Andalucía and Extremadura, and crosses to Madrid.

However, her grasp of Spain is sufficient for this to provide a framework on which to paint a convincing picture of the country in the early years of the twenty first century. She deals confidently, if light-heartedly with both historical context and the recent dash for modernity. Here she is introducing an explanation of Spain’s monarchy.

‘When Louis XIV of France said: “There are no more Pyrenees”, he was clearly misinformed. He had blatantly not bundled his freshly powdered wig under a cycling helmet, stuffed his spare velvet knickerbockers in to a very tiny pannier and tried cycling from Versailles down to Spain.”
Dealing with everything from Iberian food, to the fashion sense of elderly Spainish women, she maintains a similarly well-informed, but jocular tone.

Her excursion into Extremadura also marks out this book. This huge area is thinly populated, little know and infrequently visited by outsiders. For those reasons it is far more like ‘old’ Spain that any of those areas served by low-cost airlines. Evans enthusiasm for the area is reason enough for more people to venture north of Jerez.

PS Mar 09

Put Me Back On My Bike – In Search Of Tom Simpson, William Fotheringham (2002)

Yellow Jersey Press 978 0224 08018 7 Paperback 254pp £8.99

An account of the life of the British star of 1960s cycling that raises the bar for cycling biography
It is curious to reflect now on what an enigma Tom Simpson was during the 35 years after his demise as he raced up Ventoux in the 1967 Tour de France. Fotheringham opens with a screening of Ray Pascoe’s film Something To Aim At. For most of us, this was the only source of biographical information about the man widely described as ‘Britain’s greatest cyclist’.

By the late 1990s, when Fotheringham started work on this book, the precise details of Simpson’s demise had entered space of part knowledge, part rumour. Even his fans would assert that ‘it was drugs that killed him’, but it was rare to meet anyone who could recite the details with any kind of accuracy. The surprise is that it took as long as it did for someone of Fothingham’s talent to apply themselves to this subject. But then in the past decade, British cycling has been unusually blessed with high quality writers applying themselves to a whole range of bicycle-related subject matter. Of them, Fotheringham is among the best.

The book traces Simpson from the Nottinghamshire mining village, where he grew up to the top of the European cycle racing scene, drawing on dozens of interviews with friends, family members and professional colleagues. Along the way, he paints evocative pictures of everything from the amateur cycling scene in northern England in the mid-1950s to the experience of moving to and living in Europe.

There is much in this book from which Simpson’s humour and humanity shines out. He was clearly a gifted athlete and an engaging personality. It is in his account of the sometime world champion’s demise, however, that Fotheringham excels himself. His analysis is forensic and his evidence far too weighty for his conclusion to be in doubt – a massive dose of amphetamines caused Simpson’s body to fatally overheat. Indeed, the shock of the revised edition of 2007 is the revelation that Simpson experience a drug-induced collapse during the Vuelta earlier in 1967, that saw him zig sagging across the road in what was pretty much a rehearsal for the more famous incident.

That this book so successfully nails the drug issue is reason enough to commend it, but it is, nonetheless, a hugely enjoyable read. At the end, however, it is impossible to argue with Fotheringham’s conclusion:

“Simpson should be remembered as an impulsive, intelligent, articulate and supremely charismatic man who had a single blind spot: his need to win at any cost. He was not a bad man, nor a foolish one, nor was he unprofessional in his approach to his sport, but he chose to join others in cheating and got caught in the most dramatic way imaginable.”

PS Mar 09

Monday, 9 March 2009

The Hour, Michael Hutchinson (2006)

Yellow Jersey 9780224075190 paperback 278pp £11.99

An engaging account of Hutchinson’s preparation for, and attempt on, the hour record, taking in much of the history and mythology of the record along the way

Bookshop shelves groan under the weight of accounts of contrived ‘quests’. It is an effective, if well-worn format. Picking this up casually one might assume that it was another such outing. It takes precious few pages to dispel such misapprehensions.

Hutchinson still is a top flight British tester (technically he is from Northern Ireland, but he has been based in England during the entirety of his cycling career). His decision to attack Chris Boardman’s ‘athletes’ hour’ record was far from the goofy pie-in-the sky ambition that he occasionally implies. Nonetheless, his account of how he went about trying to put his name in the record books is a rich, well-researched and revelatory page turner.

Interspersing in his account of his own efforts, Hutch tells a lot of cycling’s less-well-known tales: the NCU/BLRC split, Francesco Moser’s many, many attempts at hour titles (and Mick Jagger’s witnessing of at least one of them), and Roger Riviere’s drug fuelled trip around the track.
The book – and indeed, his attempt on the record – work because of the curious place that ‘the hour’ occupies in the cycling firmament. For long periods of its history, the record has been ignored. Both the Mercyx and the Moser records of 1972 and 1984 endured for close on a decade, or longer. At other times there has been frenetic activity in pursuit of the prize – most notably the Oscar Egg/Marcel Berthet rivalry in the 1910s and the many successful challenges to the record during the mid 1990s.

Since the establishment of the ‘athlete’s hour’ in 2000, however, cycling’s blue ribbon has been all but forgotten. So, its a real record, that has been contested by many of cycling’s biggest names, but it is not quite outside the bounds of possibility that a hapless unknown, as Hutch paints himself, could be seriously in contention.

His narrative is aided significantly by the extraordinary behaviour of the UCI towards those interested in trying to add their names to the record books. Making up rules on the hoof is patently unfair, and did much to hamper our have-a-go hero – but they provide the story with a comedy subtext that it would otherwise lack.

Those who don’t read the British cycling press might not know how this story concludes, so I won’t spoil the ending. If I have one complaint, however, it is that there is not rather more Nick Hornbyesque self-discovery – particularly at the end of the book. Did the endeavour change him? Is his girlfriend still at his side? Is he now applying himself to some more mundane challenge? Having wheeled along beside him from the byways of Antrim to the Manchester velodrome, I would have enjoyed a little more narrative resolution.

PS Mar 09

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Roule Britannia, William Fotheringham (2005)

Yellow Jersey Press 0 224 074253 290pp Octo £15.99

A highly readable history of British participation in the Tour de France 1955 – 2004

It is a curious thing being a British cycling fan. Bicycle sport can’t be claimed as an underground interest any longer – Channel Four used to attract audiences of 5 million in the hey day of their tour coverage, and London could scarcely have made a greater spectacle of hosting the Tour’s depart in 2007. But, because there are sports that are so, so much bigger - sports that are woven thick through the national culture - there is still something of the outsider about us bikies.

Only our perception of our marginal place in the country’s grand scheme can have made heroes out of the nation’s rosta of professional bicycle racers. Taken together and subjected to objective scrutiny, they do not amount to a hill of beans. In the entire history of the tour, as a nation, we have not produced a single top three finish, have only one won a jersey of any kind (Robert Millar’s 1984 Mountain’s prize), and have won fewer stages than countries with one tenth of our population.

And yet, I for one, have hung on the performance of every British tour rider, at least since Barry Hoban. I have willed Robert Millar out of the pack; saluted Sean Yates sturdy performance of duty; thrilled to Chris Boardman’s electrifying prologues, and; spent five hours in a baking sun just to watch Max Sciandri pluck defeat from the jaws of victory. It has been a meagre diet of victories. But, perhaps as studies of the health those brought up on WW2 rations have shown, thin pickings can be the most nutritionally beneficial.

William Fotheringham’s account of this history is masterful and frequently touching. Even where riders have been the subject of quality biographies – say like Millar - he finds new angles. He may not touch Jeff Connor’s account of the ANC/Halfords 1987 debacle for laughs – but he provides enough make a good case for seeking out Wide Eyed and Legless. And in the case of David Millar, the rider with whom Fotheringham’s book closes, he has done the best job of explaining his troubled persona that I have yet read.

Roule Britannia is actually at its most affecting when Fotheringham touches on his own cycling back story. It is used to provide only the most occasional linking fibre to the narrative, but I would happily have read a whole lot more.

Of course this is a story that has now moved on. In the 2008 Tour Mark Cavendish served up four stage victories – as much to digest in one race as British fans had to contend with in the preceding decade. And, Team GB’s cycling Golds at the Beijing Olympics provided a further eight course feast of success. So much triumphal fois gras after a century of gruel may prove a challenge to our constitutions. But, hey, who can blame someone who has walked through the desert for gorging themselves now that they have reached the waterhole?

PS February 09

Friday, 20 February 2009

Mountain Bike Maintenance, Rob Van Der Plas (2007)

Cycle Publishing/Van Der Plas Publications 1 892495 53 8 Octo 176pp $16.95/£10.95

Lavishly illustrated in colour, this is a very competently written and assembled guide to fixing most things on most bikes, as well as such mountain-bike specific jobs, such as servicing your suspension

There is a tension at the heart of cycle culture. On the one hand, part of the appeal of cycling is that it stands apart from late-period capitalism. Bicycles span more than a century – scarcely changed as a piece of technology. One can be had for peanuts, and riding it costs not a groat. So, by doing so you enter a real, wind-in-your-hair world, that stands apart from the oil-guzzling simulacra of majority culture.

On the other hand, without effectively making and selling things, there would be no bicycles. Cycling requires the on-going invigoration provided by new techniques in production, sales and marketing . Modern groupsets, for example, are fantastically better than their 1970s counterparts – but keeping up with Campagnolo and Shimano’s planned obsolescence and Chinese-menu marketing methods is endlessly frustrating.

This book is a product of that tension. It is a simple, effective guide to cycle maintenance that should allow all but the mechanically dyslexic to keep their cycles on the road. By doing so, those wielding spanners and hex wrenches will be taking their own little stand against the ‘buy it, don’t use it, chuck-it-away’ current that flows the modern world.

But one can’t help but wish that a single book should serve for all bicycle maintenance needs. Of the 18 chapters in this book, only three (disk brakes, front suspension and rear suspension) are mountain-bike specific. True, for someone who simply wants to maintain their mountain bike, they will purchase no needless chapters on brake-lever-control gears, for example. Such guidance doesn’t take up much of more general guides, however.

Van Der Plas is a titan of cycle maintenance publishing, and clearly need to make a living to keep his company afloat. And any business school will tell you that they more products you can create from the same stock of intellectual capital, the more you will sell.

Part of me admires him for rebottling his ideas with such verve. Part of me wishes that it was possible for someone of his standing to commit all his best ideas to a single volume and sit back happy in knowledge that such a publication was in the spirit of cycling.

Pedalspinner Feb 09

Friday, 13 February 2009

Into The Remote Places, Ian Hibell (1984)

Robson Books 0 86051 253 X Octo 204pp £8.95

An episodic account of cycle journeys made in the early 1970s across the Darien gap, south through Africa (including the Sahara) and west-east across South America from Lima to Recife in Brazil

Hibell is accorded a high plinth indeed among adventurous cycle tourists. He is cited approvingly by everyone from Josie Dew to Bernard Magnaloux and copies of this book are now reputed to change hands for hundreds of pounds. It is a deserved reputation. Into The Remote Places recounts adventures of spectacular audacity – most notably crossing the Darien Gap and the Sahara.

Since his untimely death, obiturists have adopted a kind of short hand to describe his most extraordinary moments: ‘rescued from certain death in the desert by Tuareg tribesmen, chased by spear wielding Turkana in northern Kenya and savaged by soldier ants in South America’. Taken alone, the Boys Own adventures would make this book worth reading. But its really special quality is Hibell’s self-effacing, humble attitude to himself. He paints himself as a very ordinary man, doing extraordinary things, without his modesty ever seeming false. Possibly it is this that makes it easy to project yourself into his cycle shoes – even if you are never actually going to pedal further than the shops.

He paints some vivid pictures of the scenes that he has encountered too. Here he is when he found himself amid a herd of elephants:

“Now there were currents of elephants; streams that flowed this way that that. I was a rowing boat in the midst of a regatta, a wheelchair patient negotiating the M1 on a bank holiday weekend. I sought and found the protection of another tree and pressing myself up against its rough bark, closed my eyes.”

Or, having a hard time of it in the Sahara:

“Three days. 147 kilometres. The afternoons were interminable. Dullness overpowered me. I might have been walking on the moon; for all I knew the day’s journey took ten years. Only at the ransom of my other faculties could I put one foot out before the other. And even then I would count, very slowly to one hundred. By that time my
dizziness would have disappeared and I would get to my feet and stagger on.”

There are also interesting reflections from an age now long passed. His sympathies for general set up in Rhodesia, as it then was, are illuminating given his liberal instincts and his long immersion in the rest of Africa.

The book is not without its curiosities. Hibell makes his final journey with ‘Jean’, a young woman he met at a lecture he was giving in the UK between his journeys in Africa and Peru. Love blossoms between them, but when ‘Jean’ returns to Britain early, Hibell starts to pine. And before he has reached, the Atlantic she has written to him to let him know that she was pregnant. Hibell is delighted and happily starts to fantasise about family life, marriage and a simple cottage with a door framed by rambling roses.

This does give the end of his narrative a very strong, human conclusion. But it also sits rather oddly in a travel book of this kind. Indeed, in the age of the internet it is almost impossible not to seek out further instalments. This turns up any number of gems – not least Hibell’s appearance of Blue Peter.

It also becomes clear, however, that the relationship did not thrive and the author was soon in search of yet more remote places.

It is a bittersweet revelation. The human desire for a happy ending is unfulfilled; but, hero Hibell, the unassuming global circumnavigator, emerges intact from the clutches of domesticity.

PS February 09

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Sex, Lies And Handlebar Tape, Paul Howard (2008)

Mainstream 9781845963019 Quarto 317pp £17.99

A biography of Jacques Anquetil, the dominant racing cyclist of the late 50s and early 60s, including his highly unconventional post-career family life

Forty years after Anquetil hung up his wheels, he continues to be a fascinating character. The first of the five-time Tour de France winners, he is one of the most famous examples of a sportsman who won races but not hearts. Despite his glittering palmares, the French public always preferred his great rival, Raymond Poulidor – the eternal second, as he was know.

More recently, Anquetil has returned to the headlines after the curious twists and turns of his relationships came to light. In 2004, his grand daughter, Sophie, wrote Pour l’Amour De Jacques (Editions Grasset) in which she explained all. Anquetil had an affair with, and subsequently married, his doctor’s wife, Jeanine. Together they brought up her two children – until, Anquetil started an affair with his wife’s then 18 year old daughter, who he also impregnated. They lived as a ménage a trios, with daughter/grand daughter Sophie, for 12 years, until the retired cyclist took up with his stepson’s wife.

The inspiration for this book was clearly this latter aspect of the star’s life. To get to that, however, you must work your way through a long and illustrious competitive career.

Howard has done a creditable job of this, citing numerous team mates, childhood friends and journalists who knew Anquetil while his star was in the ascendant. There is an enduring fascination in such a sporting phenomenon. On some important issues, Howard is wanting, however. Anquetil openly admitted taking performance-enhancing drugs, for example. Several recent books – such as William Fotheringham’s biography of Tom Simpson - have taken an almost forensic approach to this issue. Howard mentions it, but does not nail it satisfactorily.

Nor is there enough, beyond the basics of a rider biography, to make this book seem worth the effort. More of a flavour of France at that time, and the place that cycle racing enjoyed within it, would have better justified publication – but there is precious little of that kind of detail between its covers.

There is the sex – the subject of 20 pages at the end of the book. It is a pretty stomach-churning tale, but Howard can’t really make up his mind whether his subject is a reprobate or a hero whose ‘superior powers’ placed him above conventional morality. Perhaps he simply didn’t want to offend those of his family and fans who continue to be forgiving of this side of the ‘Viking of Quancampoix’. I found myself mentally bracketing Anquetil with the Fred Wests and the Josef Fritzls of this world.

PS February 09

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Travels With Rosinante, Bernard Magnouloux (1988)

Grafton Books 0 586 20828 3 paperback 252pp £5.99

A compelling account of a five-year, minimal-budget, round-the-world cycle journey starting in 1980. The author took in: Europe; the length of Africa, travelling south; the length of south America, travelling north; the USA travelling east though the southern states and then crossing to California; China to Nepal and some major excursions in India and Pakistan

To judge from his picture on the book’s cover, Magnoloux is the sort of person who might cause your heart to drop if he joined you in a railway carriage. He is using sacks for panniers, has a filthy suitcase strapped to his rack and is dressed as though from a charity shop he visited several thousand kilometres ago. But suspend your prejudices, for he has a compelling tale to tell and a considerable gift for expression – particularly given that his first language is French.

He cycled about 48,000 miles (76,988 kilometers), lived on an average of £2 per day and did most of the trip on a bicycle for which he paid just £15. Given the scope of his experiences, this is actually a very slender book, each of the 30 chapters recounting his highlights in some of the 45 countries through which he journeyed.

What plans he had, he appears to have made from maps copied down by chance at frontier posts and in airports. He lived among the people whose countries he visited – sometimes working as a labourer to raise funds, elsewhere, giving lectures on his journey. In some respects his experiences might seem like the boilerplate expectations of such a passage – robbed at gun point, fleeced at borders, shown enormous kindness by some of the poorest people, and the opposite from a few of the richest. But he tells his tales with a compassionate authenticity that gives them all - even his few amorous encounters – the stimulating grit of quality reportage.

It would be interesting to know more about Magnoloux himself. He describes himself variously as a stonemason (at which he is clearly skilled) and an author. Throughout the book he demonstrates his ability with languages. He is able to immerse himself sufficiently to pick up some native words nearly everywhere he visits, and he provides snapshots of dialogue and their translations in half a dozen tongues. And, as no translator is mentioned, one has to assume he wrote this book in English. What he has done since then, I have been unable to discover – but would be fascinated to know, if anyone can shed some light.

He also provides only a hint at what propelled him pedalling on this lonely, frequently hungry, quest. In Tibet he found himself contemplating the motivations of the pilgrims to Lhasa.

“I wondered if, under the surface, there is such a difference between the Tibetan pilgrim who prostrates himself every three steps for 2,000 miles on his way to Lhasa and the European cyclist pushing his pedals every couple of yards for 4,000 miles around the world.

“Is religious piety the real motivation for the Tibetan? Isn’t it more general – a kind of social pressure, or the force of tradition? And isn’t it exactly the same for the European?

“To go around the world has become, for young Westerners, the social and cultural equivalent of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for medieval Christians, to Mecca for present-day Muslims and to Lhasa for Tibetans. This thirst for travel, it seems to me, is a new form of initiation, a new set of atheistic rituals...”

The resultof his initiation is a fascinating picture of the world during the time of Magnoulox’ adventuring. It would also be a useful primer for anyone contemplating a similar venture. His broad brush impressions might well help with general route planning – Muslim countries are friendly, Africa is friendly, south America unfriendly, the US friendly, but full of cars; and in India, the village crowds who mob a western cyclist make progress near impossible.

The appendices, which aim to give more practical advice to would-be travelers, clearly cannot be depended upon given that the book was published 20 years ago – but in many of the less developed countries they are probably still as useful as ever.

For those of us less adventurous, his book provides a transport far beyond the railway carriage.

PS February 09

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Bicycling Illustrated Bicycle Maintenance, Todd Downs (2005)

Rodale 1 4050 8788 9 Quarto 320pp £17.99

A comprehensive repair manual that is rich in step-by-step photos and exploded diagrams aimed at the most serious end of the consumer market

This venerable publishing institution has been in production – in various guises – for more than 20 years. Nonetheless, this edition is up-to-date in its coverage and modern in its presentation. From brake-lever gear controls, to sealed bearing headsets and servicing SPD pedals, it has everything that a modern bicycle owner could need. It goes well beyond routine servicing and maintenance jobs, and includes such puzzlers as removing and replacing cottered cranks and disassembling a cassette. It does not include wheel building or realigning frames – in other words it covers everything that a home mechanic might contemplate undertaking with only a book for instruction.

If I have one criticism it is that the book is a bit wordy and dense. A manual of this kind does not promise to be a laugh a minute, but there does seem to be an awful lot of text for the amount of information that it actually imparts.

It also throws up a question. Just how do you gain the experience that you need to start really taking bicycles apart?

Bicycling’s guide tries hard to cover all the bases. Gear systems from Campagnolo and Shimano, components old and new. But everyone knows that as soon as the printing presses roll, new components will appear whose servicing the book does not describe. And yet, millions of home mechanics will capably dismantle and revitalise such components without recourse to any kind of manual. Most of them will probably have started off in adolescence with a book such as this one. It is the repeated pulling apart of mechanisms and then reversing that process from which they have really acquired the skills to make bikes work, however, as well as the occasional steer from someone more experienced than themselves.

To put it another way, Illustrated Bicycle Maintenance is arguably the most comprehensive cycle maintenance manual available in bookshops today – but it won’t make a bicycle mechanic of you until your copy has oily marks on at least half the pages.

PS January 09

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Cycling In The French Alps, Paul Henderson (2005)

Cicerone 1 85284 445 0 Paperback 217pp £14

A detailed guide to eight, multi-day cycle tours in the Alps including numerous colour photographs, route itineraries and ride profiles

Had this book been written by a life-long cyclist, then chances are its impressions of the Alps would have been framed by the routes and riders of the great tours. But it was not. Cicerone are an ambitious publisher with a good many cycling titles in their catalogue – but whose starting point is mountaineering.

In many respects this is refreshing. Far more awesome than the spectacle of, say, the Tour de France, are the mountains themselves and it is good to focus on them without the second hand perspective of the feats of Bahamontes or Pantani.

The ‘eight classic cycle tours’ through which Henderson guides us are each multi-day excursions. He envisages in his Tour of the Ain, for example, spending six days, covering between 46 and 77 kilometers a day. Daily height gain varies from 500 to 1197 meters per day.

This would certainly be a fabulous way to spend a week – although for many cyclists the schedule is perhaps a little unambitious. You don’t have to be a Category 1 racer to be able to comfortably contemplate double the daily distance and a height gain of 2000 meters over that period. Still, there is no reason why one should not cover Henderson’s routes in half the number of days.

For each route, the book provides detailed directions, showing each turn that you should take over the course of the route. Such information is critical in the mountains, as the roads are generally few and wrong turns can prove disastrous. These pages would be easy to copy and keep in your back pocket – or simpler still, programe into your GPS.

There is also a lot of good general information and some spectacular illustration. I would certainly consult this if I were planning a summer trip to the Alps. I would find it hard not to cross reference it with a guide to the climbs of the Tour before completely settling my plans

PS January 09

Simple Bicycle Repair, Rob Van Der Plas (2004)

Cycle Publishing 1 892495 43 0 Paperback 96pp £5.95 $9.95

A pocket-sized, colour-illustrated guide to all basic aspects of cycle maintenance that could usefully be kept in most tool boxes

Another handy publication from the Van Der Plas publishing empire. The small size of this volume is actually an advantages as it makes it easier to keep to hand where you actually work on your bike, or keep it in your pannier if you are touring, just in case you a struck by a breakdown that is beyond your experience.

There is both line and photographic illustration on every page – but there is less than in the larger volumes. Nonetheless, most jobs should be easy to follow and complete with the author’s guidance. My only beef with all such books is that they, understandably, illustrate them using brand-new bicycles, in spotless workshops. My experience is that the bike that breaks down is both filthy and pretty worn, by the time I start to pull it apart in my messy yard. Still, perhaps that is the argument for following Steve Snowling’s advice on bicycle cleaning.

PS January 09

Bicycles – read and learn, Lola Schaefer (2003)

Raintree 1 844 21383 8 Quarto 24pp £4.99

A colourful paperback aimed at young readers, probably in the first years of primary school
A nice, simple book from a series based on means of transport (the others are busses, cars and trains). Each spread has a couple of pictures and four easy sentences explaining about different kinds of bicycle – from BMX, to track bikes and mountain bikes.
It would a fun book to give to and read with a child that you were hoping to interest in cycling. Ideally, it might be used to tee up the arrival of that child’s first bicycle.

PS Jan 09

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

The Wind In My Wheels, Josie Dew (1992)

Warner 0 7515 0249 9 paperback 368pp £6.99

An account of journeys made in the late 1980s including most of Europe, the UK, Ireland, North Africa, Canada, India and Romania

This was Dew’s first book (she has written seven at the time of 2009). An enthusiastic cyclist since her childhood in the south of England, she started touring more ambitiously in her mid teens. The cover promises that, at the time of this publication, she has covered ‘four continents, 36 countries and 80,000 miles’, and her accounts of most of them are contained in this book. Whereas her subsequent books are based on journeys that appear to have been devised to deliver books, this is the summation of her travels up to this point.

She makes little of her courage or her eccentricity – although both are there in charming spade fulls. Precious few young women dedicate themselves to adventuring by bicycle, and yet Dew makes it sound like the most normal, natural thing imaginable. Not only that, but she fashioned her working life around her desire for regular long cycle adventures – she runs a catering service, towing ingredients around London on a trailer behind her bike.

Her approach is impressionistic and humorous. There is occasional cultural contextualisation – Granada is the ‘city that Lorca loved’, but he was shot close by early in Spain’s civil war, she explains. But for the most part, she is more interested in shopkeepers, bed and breakfast proprietors and encounters with passers by, than culture, architecture or topography. Much space is also devoted to the challenges of cycling in countries where a lone female on a bicycle is a rare visitor.

Here she is, for example, toward the end of a lengthy passage on the difficulties she had with a routine bodily function in Morocco.

“I sprang full-bladdered from my cycle to retire safely behind a rock, which promptly came to life. It turned out to be a big and startled Arab who had been peacefully snoozing among the genuine rocks in the landscape”. Thereafter Dew developed a technique whereby a cycling cape doubled as a portaloo.

At times her prose is pedestrian – her nose was ‘red as Rudolph’s’, Poland was ‘poverty stricken’ and Finland was ‘flat’. But the quick fire jump from country to country keeps the pages turning.
At this distance, the one thing missing from the books is some more precise dates (which may have been sorted out in more recent editions, or might perhaps in editions to come). For example, her travels in Ireland are nearly always troubled by fears of the IRA – an interesting indicator of how the Provisionals got into the British psyche during their 30 years of active campaigning. Dew crosses into Hungary ‘after the collapse of the Cold War’. But if we know precisely when this was, her observations would have greater value today.

Nonetheless, the journal bowls along pleasurably over an enormous number of miles – and provides a very reassuring proof that whatever is the addictive magic of cycling, both sexes are susceptible.

PS January 09

News from Tartary – a journey from Peking to Kashmir, Peter Fleming (1936)

Jonathan Cape Quarto 384pp

An account of a famous 3,500 trek through China and into India

This is clearly not a book about cycling. However, Fleming’s journey, and the means by which he accomplished it have a good deal in common with some of the ‘epic trip’ cycling books, and for that reason I have included it here.

Fleming made the 3,500 mile exploration in 1935. At that time neither was there a road or railway that covered this route. There had also been civil wars and violent skirmishing between local chieftains, Soviet Russia and nationalist China. It was an Odyssey so outlandish and dangerous that it is hard to conceive of its modern equivalent. Even so, in his introduction Fleming dryly notes that: “The trouble with journeys nowadays is that they are easy to make but difficult to justify” (an epithet that has more resonance with each passing day).

His ostensible reason for making the trip is that few outside the region – save for those seeking to make inroads in the area, such as Moscow – had any reliable idea of what was going on there. Fleming was acting as special correspondent for The Times (of London). So, two thirds of the way through his account, he pauses to offer his assessment of what was the political situation at that time. Broadly speaking, the Russians were seeking to expand their area of influence, for no real reason than a feeling that it was their destiny.

He made the journey in the company of Elia Maillart, (known as Kini) but was otherwise unsupported and was out of touch with any part of his own world from March to August that year. The journey involved travel by horse, camel, rough lorry, and for many, many miles, foot. They hired guides and joined traders’ caravans, and endured countless attempts by local bigwigs halt them as a result of their having ‘incorrect documentation’.

Much of their food – or at least the protein – Fleming shot with a ‘rook rifle’, whose usefulness prompted a lengthy correspondence on The Times’ letter pages. And every now and then their progress was enlivened by surprise encounters with people of the same class and background as themselves.

At his best, Fleming was a dazzling writer – but there is little in the way of writerly show in this book. It was written after the conclusion of their journey, but the tone is very matter of fact. In part this seems to be because the journey itself was so outrageous in its ambition, and so extraordinary in the terrain that it covered, that literary embellishment seemed unnecessary.

At times this can make its 180,000 words slightly heavy going. By the end of the book, however, the down-beat style probably a fair reflection of the experience of walking, making camp, eating what little food they could forage and sleeping, day after day.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary nature of Fleming and Kini’s achievement provide enough to keep you reading. And by the book’s conclusion you are left in no doubt that their feat was remarkable and one that is worth sharing with them at first hand. Indeed, it is clear from some of his exploits why Fleming’s brother Ian would draw on his elder sibling’s attributes when he was crafting the character of James Bond.

PS January 09

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Cycle Repair Step By Step, Rob Van Der Plas (1993)

Springfield 1 85688 027 3 Quarto 127pp

A comprehensive and well-explained guide to cycle repair, with extensive colour illustration

Having something repaired, much less repairing something yourself has become a subversive in recent years. The modern way is to throw away manufactured goods rather than entertain any idea that they might be coaxed back from mechanical breakdown.

You might think that the reason for this is that we now so goo d at making things that repair is no longer necessary. It is certainly true of cars that most marques of car can now be expected to deliver nearly double the trouble-free miles than the vehicles offered by the same companies thirty years ago.

Perhaps the same is true of bicycles – but I doubt it. Indeed, I would lay a hefty wager that the average distance that any bicycle sold today will travel will be a third of that which might have been achieved by a similar model sold in the mid-1970s. Nonetheless, the torrent of new products that manufacturers bring to market is dizzying – intentionally so, I suspect. Every year, Shimano and Camapgnolo issue new versions of their vast range of groupsets, for example – thereby rendering all that went before as ‘not the latest’.

All of which makes the repair of bicycles increasingly difficult. Once, servicing one derailleur gear system was much the same as working on an another. Now they grow more complex by the year. Once there were only one or two different patterns of frame mounted brakes. Today there are half a dozen.

Nonetheless, maintenance and repair of your bicycle is still within the grasp of anyone willing to try. And anyone who is game would do well to have Van Der Plas to Hand. The goatee-bearded engineer is a publishing phenomenon. He has sliced and diced cycle repair into a whole shelf-full of books, of varying specialism, but of generally clear, easy-to-use quality.

Road bikes are the main focus of this book, but he does detour to such esoteric areas as coaster brakes, hub gears and side-pull brakes. I might be a bit wary of taking apart a Sturmey Archer five speed hub with only his words to guide me – it is a challenging job to which he devotes just half a page. But if you aim is to get your gears to index again as they did when you left the bike shop, Van Der Plas is your man.

He even has the occasional tip for the experienced cycle engineer. I did not know that the control cables used on bicycle gears and brakes were known as ‘Bowden’ cables, despite 30 years of cutting my fingers on their ends. I do now.

For anyone venturing very far beyond their home on two wheels, some basic competence in bicycle upkeep is a wise precaution. But there is a deeper value in becoming proficient in the repair and adjustment of your bicycle. You may sometimes choose to have someone else repair your mount, or even to replace it once its lustre is gone. But by becoming proficient in cycle repair you are increasing your control of the world around you – an act that brings benefits both practical and spiritual.

PS January 2009

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Great Bicycle Expedition, William C Anderson (1973)

Crown 0 517 505975 Quarto 208pp $5.95

The light-hearted account of a journey made by a new-to-cycling couple in their fifties and their young adult children from Copenhagen to Calais in the summer of 1972

In the early 1970s cycling had a renaissance in the United States. The ‘oil crisis’ of October 1973 is frequently cited as the motive force for this rediscovery of self propulsion by Americans – but Anderson’s testimony suggests that there was something in the air long before OPEC intervened.

He was a career airforce officer turned professional writer who enjoyed success with a series of amusing, easy-to-read accounts of his family’s adventures. By 1972 they had traversed their own continent with a caravan, built for themselves and moved into an eco-home and explored the Mississippi on a houseboat – each of which had been turned into a book.

As Anderson tells it, he was take aback by his wife’s agreeable reaction to his proposal for fresh adventure. More surprising still – but rather less explained – was the acquiescence of his college-age son and daughter. None had ridden a bike since childhood, the author explains – a good four decades distant, in the case of half of the party. In the Danish capital they buy new touring bicycles, and then hit a predictably steep learning curve.

It is all told in an enjoyable enough way. Dialogue drives much of his account, and at times his vignettes read like a script for the Cunningham family of Happy Days fame to proceed a-wheel from Scandinavia.

Here is Anderson trying to get his leg over for the other kind of ride.

“You are in great shape,” I said to her (variously, the wife, the distaff, Big Red or my soulmate), plucking a dandelion and handing it to her. “If you were in any better shape I couldn’t stand it. In fact,” I waggled my brows at her. “What say you and take your great shape over to yon haystack? Play a little kissy-face?”

She looked at me out of the corner of her eye and gave me the dandelion back. “Honestly! If you don’t think of the darnedest thing at the darnedest times.”

“Correction. I think about it all the time. I just mention it at the darnedest times.”

“Just address yourself to your map, hotlips.”

The author’s main endeavour is in squeezing humour from their situation – at which he is good, even if it is very warm and gentle, by modern standards. There is not much by way of observational reporting, although where there is, he catches the tone well. His write-up of the in-your-face sale of hard-core pornography that was so noticeable in Sweden in the mid-1970s, for example, is consistent with my memories of the country a few years later. And the Swedish maitre d’ who parries Anderson’s surprise that his country had an army with the retort “We have a very neutral army” also rang true.

Anderson also records the names and prices of hotels and restaurants, which are of historical rather than practical interest at this remove. He does, however, provide some insight into how poor Americans felt abroad in the years after their currency came off the gold standard in 1971. Anderson carries “Europe On $5 A Day” with him, but concludes by saying that even with cheap hotels and modest restaurants, the per-person cost of trip has been more like double that. He doesn’t mind however, and records that it was ‘one of the most memorable experiences of my life’.

In fact, it is a recommendation of the inexpensive delights of cycle touring in times of economic turbulence, that has unexpected resonance today. Perhaps we should be reflecting anew on the role that the bicycle might play in transporting us from today’s credit crisis.

PS January 09

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Classic American Bicycles, Jay Pridmore (1999)

MBI Publishing 1 58068 001 1 Quarto 96pp £9.99

A quick spin through the history of US cycle manufacture, lavishly illustrated in colour

At first glance this appears to be as much a picture book as anything else. On nearly every page is a sumptuous photograph of a bicycle – the most interesting being those from the 1930s balloon tyre craze to the post war ‘muscle bikes’ like the Schwinn ‘Krate’ series of bicycles. Interweaving the illustrations, however is a short narrative that contains much to interest those of us steeped in British, or European cycling.

The rhythm of US cycle development is unique – and has much to tell us about the development of manufactured goods in advanced capitalism. During the first cycling boom of the 1880s, Colonel Alexander Pope of Hartford Connecticut manufactured the countries’ first bicycles – high ordinaries, as penny farthings were known. But even then, Pope demonstrated some of the attributes that would define US manufacturing. He was an early enthusiast for mechanized mass production – boasting to a magazine in 1882, of ‘158 machines that perform automatic labor’. He invested heavily in publicity, founding the magazine Bicycling World and sponsoring Englishman Thomas Stevens on a round-the-world journey by bike. And Pope was an enthusiast for patents and litigation – he tried to claim ownership of nearly every aspect of the steeds he created.

It was one of Pope’s protégés, Charles Pratt, who started to pay attention to cycling clubs. These he organized under the umbrella of the League of American Wheelman, which by the mid 1890s has over 100,000 members. Little wonder then that Pratt, in his book The American Bicycler, was able to claim that ‘the bicycle is the most democratic of all vehicles’.
Technological development, however, was all coming from the other side of the Atlantic – the diamond frame of the safety bicycle and the pneumatic tyres, most notably.

Then came the first world war. From this point the bicycle industry’s greatest spin out venture – the Wright brothers aeroplanes – really took off. But bicycles in the US fell from fashion, as the internal combustion engine appeared to sweep all before it.

In Europe during the 1930s the bicycle was still a logistical necessity for millions of people. In the US, however, it was the development of a wholly new take on the two wheeled transport that revived the sector. Rather than focus on their function, Frank Schwinn concentrated on creating bikes that would capture childrens’ imaginations. Suddenly bikes had fat tyres, chrome mudguards, headlights, and all the other trappings of the automotive age.

He created a sensation, and found many imitators. Indeed, the planned obsolescence of products that were given a new spin each year, powered the bicycle industry for decades to come. And the next big phase of US cycle development – muscle bikes – was really just more of the same. In 1963 a Schwinn employee noticed that children were customizing small wheeled frames with banana seats and ape-hanger handle bars. With a couple of tweaks back in the Chicago factory, the Krate series was born.

The story of the 1970s lightweight boom, BMXs and mountain bikes is touched on at the end of the book, but its real focus is the period up to 1980. If there is one message to draw from the book it is that the drivers of success in the cycle trade, or indeed any other, are as complex as they are varied. A quality product can easily be trumped by a well-developed dealer network, or an innovative means to re-imagine how bikes are sold.

PS January 2009

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Crap Cycle Lanes, Warrington Cycle Campaign (2007)

Eye Books 1 903 070 589 113pp £4.99

A stocking-filler book cataloguing the failings of UK cycle-lane construction

Designed for consumption in the house’s smallest room, this book was spun out of a web site’s gallery of shame. The source material was plentiful. Here are cycle lanes so short that a unicyclist would struggle to set off, before leaving the dedicated road space; routes that are rendered impassable by street furniture and, junctions so hazardous that the motivations of the respective local authorities are open to question.

It is a well-deserved and effective send up, even if the accompanying text follows a rather curious formula. Reading the book, it is impossible not to muse on how such facilities can have been created? Cycle lane construction is not cheap, and most of these facilities were designed and installed by highly qualified and well-meaning staff. Perhaps the problem is that while there exists some will to establish cycle lanes, there are neither the funds, determination nor specific skill base to make them anything other than a sticking-plaster remedy. This book demonstrates that, this being the case, in many cases, it is a sticking plaster that we would be better without.

Is that something about which cyclists can do anything? Perhaps one step would be to start celebrating really good cycle lane creation – particularly where challenging problems in dense urban environments have been effectively solved. If we did, it might do a bit to shake our reputation as ingrates, who demand the world and then mock those unwise enough to pay us any heed.

PS January 2009