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Interview: Bella Bathurst

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Bicyclebook_mediumThe Bicycle Book author Bella Bathurst pops into the Cafe to talk about bikes, books and the darkness at the heart of cycling.

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PdC: When did you get into life on two wheels and what keeps you rolling?

Bella Bathurst: We all cycled when we were young, but the trouble with cycling in Lanarkshire was that there was nowhere to go.

We could cycle up and down the track, but beyond the gate was the A702, the main trunk road between Edinburgh and Carlisle. Aged seven or eight, the backdraft from the lorries was enough to knock you into the verge.

Now, of course, there's brilliant mountain biking up there - Glentress etc - but there wasn't then.

So it wasn't until about seven or eight years ago in London that I took it up again. I'd always walked everywhere before then.

What keeps me rolling? The sheer joy of it.

PdC: In writing The Bicycle Book, you spent a week learning the art of frame-building with David Yates, even built your own frame. Before you built that frame, what had you seen when you looked at a bike: form or function?

BB: Dunno. Both. Either.

I just like a good straightforward pared-down classic bike.

But then again, I like a good straightforward hardtail MTB too.

Usual rule of thumb is that if it don't look nice, it won't ride nice neither.

PdC: You still riding that frame?

BB: Yes. Love it. I take it as a prop to bike events.

Riding it is a genuinely extraordinary experience - it feels like it's got some sort of magic accelerator fitted to it.

PdC: Cycling in the UK appears to be finally taking off. Perhaps it's the trickle-down effect of all that lottery funding spent on the Olympic gold diggers. Or maybe it's all to do with spiralling transport costs. Or maybe Boris and Dave have just lead by example and the public have taken to their bikes in emulation of them. Whatever it is, it's got that whole Cool Britannia vibe to it. Is the bike in Britain just another fashion fad, this year's look, or do you think it's there to stay?

BB: Here to stay. Definitely.

People may take it up for practical reasons - health, environment, dislike of public transport, mid-life crisis, money - but they stick to it because they love it.

The thing about cycling is that people really feel passionate about it, even if it's just the daily womble down the Cromwell Rd. That's what will keep people cycling, not fashion or - God forbid - government approval.

PdC: When you were researching The Bicycle Book which surprised you more: the role of the bike in nineteenth century feminism or the role of the bike in twentieth century warfare?

BB: Not sure I was surprised by either - intrigued, definitely, and entertained, but not surprised.

I loved the stories I found - the Swiss Army Cyclists, the stories of SOE and booby-trapped bicycle pumps, the attempts to get cyclists to haul cannons and heavy artillery around. And I loved the fact that bikes somehow always manage to transcend warfare.

But I also loved the stories in the women's chapter - the fabuluous Zetta Hills watercycling down the Thames wearing a full-length frock and eating a sandwich, the indefagitable Rational Dressers.

I hope both chapters give some sense of the span of cycling and its life-enhancing charms.

PdC: A theme running through The Bicycle Book is how cycling attracts a particular type of person, often a loner, an outsider, usually with the symptoms of a mental illness. It's an interesting theory and you could look at people like Marco Pantani and David Millar and go 'Bingo! Perfectly explains the whole thing!' But it's not just about the bike. A lot of people say the same about writing. There's that whole cliché about tortured artist types, toiling alone through the dark hours and even darker depressions, all in the quest to produce great literature. As both a cyclist and a writer, do you identify with either of those stereotypes?

BB: I suppose cycling attracts a certain type of extremity, and because I kept coming up against it whilst researching the bike book I became interested in it.

Cycling doesn't take me that way - I love it and get huge pleasure from it, but I don't cycle competitively and I don't really respond to all that very full-on triathlon-Iron-Man-Etape stuff.

But because it doesn't take me that way I found the sore-of-spirit who use it as a form of self-medication all the more interesting. Hence devoting a chapter to the physical and physiological aspects of cycling, and another to Graeme Obree. He's a legend, and he also talks hugely articulately and thoughtfully about the many compulsions of cycling. A lovely man.

PdC: Podium Café is a site primarily about racing. So I have to ask you about your depiction of bike racing in The Bicycle Book. Do you really think it's just about pain, pain ever forever, that it's just about suffering and doping, that there's no hope and no joy? It's a rather ... I dunno, I thought it was a rather macho take on the sport, missed the romanticism.

BB: Absolutely. Because I'm an outsider and not part of that world I exaggerated to make a point.

I found the extremity of it all - the great big gothic Henri Desgrange self-mythologising aspect of racing - wonderful, tawdry and astounding all at the same time. I loved the drama of it and the way it's so completely built into the psyches of so many European countries.

I was fascinated by the pro-racers and what they do to themselves physically and emotionally.

And the truth is that anyone standing outside that world is going to be struck by the more cartoonish aspects of it. That's part of its allure.

But clearly, if those who participate in it - the riders, the teams, the supporters and the backup - did not also love it and feel passionate about it, then it wouldn't last another ten minutes.

PdC: The cycling bookshelves are full of books about Lance Armstrong and the stars of the peloton. You only occasionally get to hear the stories of the spear carriers, and then usually from the past, guys like Vin Denson and Allan Peiper. You interviewed one of the spear carriers of the present, Charly Wegelius. The interview is pretty impressive, he's very open about the way he sees himself. What's even more amazing is you did it just a few hours after the 2009 Tour de France had ended. What's your secret?

BB: I wanted to speak to Charly because he seemed an intelligent, thoughtful guy with something really interesting to say about the pro-racing life, and because he'd been doing it for a long while, so he had a very broad range of experience.

And there's plenty of stuff elsewhere on what it's like to be a star.

What was interesting to me was what it's like racing as a job - doing the circuit day in, day out, week after week, serving a team, living on a bike. That's not something I've read about elsewhere.

PdC: You talk a little about Lance Armstrong in The Bicycle Book, quite positively. I'd like to put a question to you I've been asking a few people recently: how would you feel about Armstrong if the current FDA investigation in the US proved he doped?

BB: Don't really care, to be honest.

Those who want to get him will go on until they've finally brought him down.

And as I say, for an outsider, you look at what the pro-racers are expected to do and think, God, if I had to do what they do I'd take every upper, downer, amphetamine, barbituate, opiate, hallucinogen and blood-booster medical science had ever invented just to get through the day.

PdC: In the intro to the book, you talk about the difficulty of pleasing all of the people all of the time with a book like The Bicycle Book, and of how, almost as soon as the book is published, you'll get that Proustian foot-of-the-stairs thing where you go 'D'oh!' as you discover something that you wish had been included, or others insist should have been included. I've looked around at some of the reviews, and notice others bemoaning the lack of electric bikes here or track cycling there. If you had it all to do again, is there any one thing you'd include that you missed first time round?

BB: Not really.

I had to make a decision about what to include and what to exclude in order to produce something readable and entertaining, and though I could have put in a chapter on track cycling or electric bikes or whatever, I didn't feel they were sufficiently mainstream for most readers.

As I said in the introduction, one of the occupational hazards in writing non-fiction is that many of the best stories come to you after the book is published. If I'm lucky, I may be able to include those in future editions, but for the moment, it stands as it is.

PdC: Your first book, The Lighthouse Stevensons, was about the role Robert Louis Stevenson's ancestors played in constructing Scotland's lighthouses. You developed that story a little in The Wreckers, looking at the world of those discommoded by the work of people like the Stevensons: the pirates who profited from luring ships to their doom. What do we have to do to get you to develop the story within The Bicycle Book in a novel set in the world of cycling?

BB: It's a lovely idea, but it's not my book to write - it should be written by someone like Charly Wegelius or Graeme Obree. An insider.

I'm off to research the life of the Glasgow shipyards now - a very different form of transport indeed.

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Bella Bathurst is a contributor to The Weekenders: Adventures In Calcutta (Ebury) and the author of The Lighthouse Stevensons (HarperCollins), Special (Picador), The Wreckers (HarperCollins) and The Bicycle Book (HarperCollins).

You'll find her online at

You'll find a review of The Bicycle Book on the Cafe Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Bella Bathurst for taking the time to participate in this interview.