Is there a “canon” of cycling literature? A group of books that all who ride must read?
If there is, then I think we can agree it contains Tim Krabbe’s The Rider - a selection as automatic as Eddy Merckx in your all-time fantasy cycling team - but the other picks are more debatable. The Escape Artist, Tomorrow we Ride, The Rules, French Revolutions, The Hour, In Search of Robert Millar ... all stake good claims.
The only book other than The Rider I would insist upon is Vélo. Or Need for the Bike if you want an earlier edition of the same book, with a worse cover and a less polished translation. Or Besoin de Velo if you’re into that whole reading-it-in-the-original-French thing.
Paul Fournel, the author of the original, is an acclaimed French novelist and ex cultural attache in London. More importantly, he has loved cycling since childhood. Velo is his collection of miniature essays and vignettes on topics of universal relevance to us, his cycling confreres.
He imagines Anquetil thinking “I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It will pay the price.”
He begins at the beginning, learning to ride a bike (“I’ve never got over this miracle”), riding with and eventually in front of his father, as he gets stronger “the gentlest way of carrying out some Freudian ritual”.
He covers some familiar cycling topics like famous riders and climbs. He imagines Anquetil thinking “I don’t love the bike, the bike loves me. It will pay the price.” Mont Ventoux “has command over no valley, it leads nowhere. Its only purpose is to be climbed” (surely cycling’s version of George Mallory’s famous Everestsplanation “because it’s there”).
But the bulk of Velo - though bulk is the wrong term for a text so sleek and elegant - is devoted to everyday insight, as Fournel gives words to the vague thoughts we’ve all had about cycling. For instance, its physical effects, like “thigh memory”, and bonking:
“... you’d offer your bike to the first passerby so as not to see it again”
“The bike is in itself a form of doping, which complicates things. It is the tool of natural speed it’s the shortest route towards the doubling of yourself. Twice as fast, two times less tired, twice as much wind in your face.”
“You buy a bike because it is beautiful; you choose it carefully, and then you sit on it and you don’t see it any more.”
“I ride to do myself good and to do myself harm”
On one subject, Fournel is peerless; that of crashing. He is the Proust of the chute. He even falls off a static bike in a spin class, to give us a laugh at his expense. The crash he contrives while attempting to push a weaker rider up a hill has a delightful touch of Del Boy at the bar and raises both a wince and a snigger.
I don’t personally love the Jo Burt illustrations that accompany this edition, but I know others adore them. In any case, it’s a beautifully produced hardback that you absolutely need on the shelf nearest your loo. Last time I checked, the lovely people at Rouleur, who commissioned this edition and its re-translation by Claire Read, had it on sale for the price of a couple of gels. Do yourself a favour.
And, if you like it (of course you’ll like it), you can look out for another Fournel masterpiece, because I’m proud to say that my new book imprint, Pursuit, is publishing his wonderful Anquetil, Alone next year. Can’t wait.
Publisher, agent and cyclist and co-developer of Velominati - The Rules, James has a unique insight in to cycling. He rides, quite badly, with London Dynamo and occasionally troubles the tarmac at Herne Hill. For Svelte, James reviews literature and details on the stranger events he encounters in the cycling world.