After a year which has already seen William Fotheringham's biography of Fausto Coppi, Fallen Angel, be published in paperback and Roule Britannia, his history of the Brits in the Tour, get the publishing equivalent of some nip'n'tuck - and his translation of Laurent Fignon's autobiography, We Were Young And Carefree, hit the bookshops - the Guardian's chief cycling correspondent seems to have become a one-man publishing industry. How he finds the time to even remember half the things he knows is beyond me. Maybe that's why he had to put so many of them between the covers of a book. This book. Cyclopedia.
Title: Cyclopedia: It's All About The Bike
Author: William Fotheringham
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press (US: Chicago Review Press)
Year: 2010 (US: 2011)
Order: HERE (US: HERE)
What it is: A compendium of cycling facts, factoids and trivia, put together by the Guardian's chief cycling correspondent.
Strengths: A book fetishist's delight - it's almost worth owning just for its design elements - and brimming with the sort of trivia that'll have you dipping in and out of it for yonks.
Weaknesses: One design quibble: yellow text on a white background doesn't always work. Oh, and it doesn't have an entry for hotitude.
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)
Set out as an A to Z - Audax to Zimmerman - Cyclopedia is a compendium of cycling facts, factoids and trivia. Entries covering the careers of riders like Robert Millar and Francesco Moser sit side-by-side with capsule histories of races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège, brief biographies of people like Alex Moulton (who dreamed up the city-gents' fave folding bike) or the photographer Graham Watson, and a cleverly presented history of the hour record. Elsewhere you'll find a brief history of mountain biking, a discussion of cycling and sex (I imagine it's alright to mix the two so long as you don't fall off) and an entry explaining what Sustrans does.
You can delight in Fotheringham's entry for the End to End (Land's End to John O' Groats). You can scratch your head over the table of six unbreakable eggs (a nod to Danny Coyle's Lance Armstrong's War, in which Coyle suggested that the Eastern European approach to coaching was to throw a carton of eggs against the wall and see which ones don't break). And you can smile at the entry for mile-a-minute Murphy, who broke the sixty-miles an hour record on a bike by being paced behind a train, only to slam into the back of the train when it slowed down and he didn't.
Fotheringham doesn't make any false claims about Cyclopedia's completeness. Rather the book is a trawl through facts, figures and funny bits which have lodged in his brain over a thirty-odd year career in cycling journalism. It's a hodge-podge collection that points out things you might want to learn more about or nicely sums up things you do know about. As Fotheringham himself puts it: "The aim of this book is simply to offer some signposts towards what cycling has to offer, and some guidance though a world of never ending possibilities. If after reading, you want to go to a race or buy a book or DVD that you might not have known about, it will have served its purpose."
Trying to pick a typical entry isn't easy. Some run on for only a few lines, others sprawl out over pages and pages. RAAM (the Race Across America) gets a whole page. Cycle ball and artistic cycling (two obscure cycling disciplines championed by the blazers in Aigle) are explained in a paragraph. Who the blazers in Aigle are is explained in a page. The entry for Flanders runs the thick end of four pages, and along the way you learn where it is, how come it's a cycling Mecca in Spring and why you shouldn't confuse it with Wallonia. And in a Tour-centric world the grande boucle gets ten pages, while the Giro and the Vuelta together are summed up in about seven pages.
A not untypical entry (seeing as I can't think of a typical one) is Alfonsina Strada's. Strada is the only woman ever to compete in one of the Grand Tours, riding the 1924 Giro d'Italia. She entered the race as Alfonsin Strada and lasted four days before being eliminated after breaking her handlebars and finishing outside the day's time limit. Despite this, the organisers - having sussed that he's a she (not much gets past Italians) - invited her to ride the rest of the race anyway, which she did, finishing twenty-eight hours behind the winner, Giuseppe Enrici. Strada also rode a couple of Giri di Lombardia, which I'd love to learn more about. (Damn, but Fotheringham wins!)
Design-wise, Cyclopedia is a thing of beauty, almost bringing out my inner book-fetishist. Normally I don't fetishise books - I don't mind broken spines though I do object to turned pack pages - but with this one I almost wanted to fondle it and take it to bed with me. Not that Cyclopedia is a one-night stand. My usual approach to books is to get 'em home, dim the lights, crack open a bottle of red, stick on some music - maybe some Tom Waits, maybe some Gavin Bryars - and then whip off the dust jacket and try my best to have 'em out of the way by morning. Cyclopedia's been in my bag for most of the last month, and I've been dipping in and out of it over coffee, whenever I have to brave public transport or whenever I have a few minutes when I'd otherwise be doing nothing. Maybe if I hadn't been such a gadfly, just jumping in and out of the entries at random - one moment reading about ghost bikes the next Major Taylor - I'd know whether I've read the whole thing yet. But maybe that's one of the joys of a book like this. In six months' time I'll take it down off the shelf, flip it open at random and discover an entry I haven't read yet.
I do have one quibble with the design, which is to do with the use of yellow text to highlight some elements. Either I need to get my eyes lasered or it just isn't as great an idea as it must have seemed. But frankly, that's a quibble. Consider some of the design elements that do work, like the happiness graphs. He does these for Fausto Coppi and Greg LeMond. They're totally and utterly pointless and make me want to whack all stattos upside the head with a rolled up newspaper. And yet they're wonderfully silly and beautifully presented and I can't help but smile when I look at them and want to congratulate the design geeks who dreamed them up. Or check out the graphic accompanying the entry looking at road racing. Here the history of the sport is presented almost like a race route, snaking this way and that with the milestone years picked out.
Whether you've been a cycling fan since Fausto Coppi were a lad or are a recent blow-in on the back of Boris' bikes, Cyclopdeia probably has something in it for you. Although it does rather let itself down by not having an entry for hotitude.
* * * * *
You'll find an interview with William Fotheringham, along with reviews of Fallen Angel and We Were Young And Carefree on the Cafe Bookshelf.