Title: It's All Downhill
Author: David Ward
Publisher: New Generation
Order: New Generation Publishing
What it is: A cycling novel set on a ride from John O'Groats to Land's End
Strengths: Contains the kernel of a good idea
Weaknesses: That good idea is wrapped around a ludicrous subplot
Haskin are "one of those accounting conglomerates who believe that they rule the world." As proof that they have a social conscience they organise an annual John O'Groats to Land's End bicycle ride. The Haskin Long Britain Ride, "Nine days, nearly a thousand miles - one end of the country to the other on a bike." This attracts five hundred people happy "to 'face a challenge of a lifetime' and test the organisers' evangelical mantra, 'Find Yourself - There's More There.'" In It's All Downill we get to meet a half dozen or so of these people.
Looking for that little bit more is Mark, who's seeking "something to pull me out of the malaise I've drifted into after the divorce." Of indeterminate age - somewhere south of his fifties - Mark's a "race driver without any sponsors who makes a living buying and selling cars."
Mike has just turned seventy. Divorced and twice retired - first from the Force, then from the second life as a guest house landlord - he's out there ticking boxes (Climbed Kilimanjaro? Tick! Done the Jordanian desert? Tick! Taken a crunch out of the Big Apple? Tick!) and getting his leg over ("Sec is brilliant. I've never had so much. That internet is marvellous.")
Lawrence is a lawyer, Bob a corporate clone, Gillian well endowed.
And then there's Sinead. Irish. Nurse. Mixed up in something complicated. And the love interest for Mark.
That something complicated involves "the Trans-Global Cycling Team. Russian. Owned by a guy who's a billionaire. He's trying to do an Abramovich by spending millions setting up a cycling team. He says they'll win the Tour de France in two years." Trans-Global are riding the Haskin Long Britain Ride. As preparation of the Tour.
Hit the pause button right there.
Novels require that the reader agree to the suspension of disbelief. It's such an obvious part of the contract that it doesn't even have to be stated on the flyleaf alongside all the other legal stuff about the characters being makey-uppey no matter how much they might resemble Igor Makarov and his Katusha team. Some novels, your disbelief only requires a little bit of suspension, you could drape it from the lampshade or hang it from the curtain-rail. Others you'll need a helium filled balloon to hoist it aloft. Still others there's no way your disbelief is getting off the ground without the aid of an Atlas booster rocket. It's All Downhill is one of those strange novels that, at different points, requires all three.
First the hard-to-believe-but-easy-to-buy bit. The Mark-and-Sinead lover story. It's Cat for divorcees only without the rumpy pumpy and with only mild swapping of bodily fluids. It's your standard fiction take on love, eyes meeting across a crowded field and declarations thereafter of eternal passion. You don't believe it but you're so used to at this stage that it's easy to park your cynicism and just go with the flow.
Then there's the medium hard bit. The Russian cycling team preparing for the Tour de France by doing a charity end-to-end ride. Ten riders. Nine days. About a hundred fifty kilos a day. Down the length of Britain. And camping at the end of each day? That's a little bit harder to buy into than a bog-standard love story. Actually, it's an awful lot harder to buy into. Round up the helium-filled balloons and see if that makes suspending your disbelief easier.
The part that requires the Atlas rocket booster to lift aloft your disbelief ... well telling you would involve spoilers and some people are spoiler-phobic. So see how far your own imagination can take you bearing in mind that the clues are Russian and Tour de France. It's such an obvious plot that the author has to pull a red herring out of his hat to throw you off the scent. A really stinky red herring (a couple more of them and the book could have been called Red Herring Fishing in the Saddle)..
If you can get you disbelief aloft, the Russians do provide an entertaining finale for It's All Downhill but really the novel would have been better abandoning that whole plot line and just sticking to what it actually does good: poking gentle fun at charity bike rides and the people who do them. The sort of fun which, if you've ever done a charity bike ride, you can actually laugh gently and smile along with.
It's All Downhill is David Ward's first novel, after he took early retirement from a carer as a chartered surveyor. As a first novel, it needs quite a bit of work but there is the kernel of a good idea in there. Most sport-set stories - novels or films - tend to pick the low-hanging fruit at the high end of the game. It's All Downhill is targeting the trickier-to-get-at fruit at the bottom, not unlike - in some respects - Richard Harris did with cricket and Outside Edge. It's about ordinary people bummelling from one end of the country to the other at a gentle pace. It's not all successful, but it does offer some reward to the reader.