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