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