After something in the region of sixty or seventy reviews over the course of 2017 let’s take a look back at the year in cycling books and highlight the ones that stood out from the crowd.
Over the last ten years or so Herbie Sykes has produced some eye wateringly good books, from his biography of Giro d’Italia winner Franco Balmamion (The Eagle of the Canavese) through his history of the Giro d’Italia (Maglia Rossa) and his book of tales about Il Campionissimo (Coppi) and on to his award-winning biography of Dieter Wiedemann (The Race Against the Stasi). With the The Giro 100 - one of a trio of books celebrating the Giro’s hundredth edition, after unimaginative efforts from Colin O’Brien (Giro d’Italia) and Brendan Gallagher (Corsa Rosa) - Sykes tops the lot of them, telling tales about the corsa rosa that range from the outrageously funny to the tragically sad, humanising the race for us and showing without telling why the Giro matters.
Jeremy Whittle’s first book was born in a storm: Yellow Fever - The Dark Heart of the Tour de France was going to be the story of one edition of the Tour with a bit of a travelogue thrown in, but instead told the tale of the Festina Tour (the one that started in Dublin and ended in tears). For a book written in the immediate aftermath of events, and lawyered to within an inch of its life, it stands up well to the test of time (better, in fact, than the more recent offering on that race). He followed that up with Bad Blood - The Secret Life of the Tour de France, the story of a journalist (Whittle) torn between the Force of Paul Kimmage’s convictions and the Dark Side of Planet Armstrong. Ventoux sees him offering an even more personal tale, a beautifully told story of a mountain and some of the people who have scaled it, along with a story about grief over the loss of parents, both his own story and that of Tom Simpson’s daughter, Joanne. A book that is both touching and informative.
Barry Ryan could easily have followed the formula of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche’s ghostwriters and produced a book that simply retold the legend, and the legend being what it is he’d have probably got away with it too. Instead, The Ascent takes a wire brush to the gilt and places the story of the nouvelle Éire within the context of its time - and the stories of the others at the forefront of Irish cycling’s revival in the eighties - and refuses to spare the reader the realities of that time, from the doping through to the disagreements. And yet, somehow, at the end of it all, what was achieved seems even more impressive, even more beautiful, knowing the circumstances of its achievement.
Max Leonard could have made this list twice, with his The Men of Paris-Roubaix also reviewed on the Café Bookshelf in 2017 but let’s limit him to just the one entry. Reviewed by Will Davies the digressions on diverse topics were the true delight of Higher Calling, Leonard taking the reader through stories that run from the personal through to the historical. As with Paul Maunder’s Rainbows in the Mud, Leonard is showing that, with a bit of thought, there’s a lot more to our passion for professional cycling than just race reports and biographical data.
A book that ought be course material for every commissaire, every DCO, every DS, every wrench monkey, everybody involved in cycling, not to see where Dekker failed himself but to see where the sport failed him. And to learn how not to let it fail others. While Dekker comes across as brutally honest and doesn’t do as so many have done and blame others for what happened to him, it is clear that the responsibility for the ruin he made of such a promising career is not his alone.
It’s been a bit of a quiet year for photo books, with just this, Andy McGrath’s illustrated Tom Simpson biography, Karen M Edwards’s Gods, Rockstars & the Cobbles and Balint Hamvas’s 2016/17 ‘cross annual catching my attention. What sets Kamps apart from other photography collections is that she is telling a story in Alfonsina, using recreated scenes from the life and legend of Alfonsina Strada - who in 1917 and 1918 rode Il Lombardia and in 1924 became the only woman ever to start one the Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia - not to depict a life, but to evoke elements of it. Kamps tells only a part of the story, the rest you have to tell yourself, making a book that, for each of us, is different.
Paul Fournel, like Jørgen Leth, is a cycling fan as loved and respected as those he talks about. Some look at what both do and try to ape it but fail to get past the macho surface layer (step forward Wilfried de Jong, whose The Man and His Bike would fail the testosterone test). Strip away the surface, though, and what Fournel is showing is what cycling meant to him, poetically weaving together tales from his own life and the lives of his heroes, with that hero here being maître Jacques, the first man to win the Tour de France five times. Simple biography or complex allegory, Anquetil, Alone is - like Fournel’s previous cycling books Need for the Bike and its non-identical twin Vélo - some of the most thoughtful writing about cycling you will find published today in English.
Given the manner in which we celebrate the mythical in cycling, given the manner in which we elevate lies and half-truths to legendary status, you’d think there’d be a lot more cycling novels out there. But while I make efforts to find and review cycling fiction - in 2017 there was Emily June Street’s The Velocipede Races, Kevin Haylett’s The Cyclists Tale and Other Stories, the Bikes in Space collections of cycling sci-fi stories, and Frank Dickens’s reissued A Curl Up and Die Day and Three Cheers for the Good Guys - they are few and far between. Which, in a way, makes books like Short Ride on a Fast Machine all the more enjoyable: I’d probably get bored reading cycling novels every other week. Telling the story of a London cycle courier who goes to Norway to pick up a stuffed owl this is a lively little crime caper that’s more scrambled than hard-boiled. So, pull up a slice of toast and enjoy it.
The Brooks Compendium is a celebration of a cycling brand that, even the cynic has to admit, deserves to be celebrated. Brooks was a once innovative business that sank slowly into the anonymity of a household brand, something taken for granted until, right at the moment when its demise seemed assured, it was rescued and transformed, turning its traditional and utilitarian appeal into something aspirational not just in terms of luxury and expense, but also in terms of ideals. With contributions from Martin Parr (photography), Bella Bathurst, Amy Sherlock, Jack Thurston, Laura Quick (illustrations) and more this is a collection that puts the T into eroica,
Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep - The Tale of the First Tour de France (aka The First Tour de France - Sixty Cyclists and Nineteen Days of Daring on the Road to Paris)
Peter Cossins - Yellow Jersey Press (UK), Velo Press (US)
The first Tour de France is one of those things that you think you know all about, one of those things whose story you assume you must have heard dozens of times by now. Yet this is the first time English-speaking cycling fans have had a chance to discover the story in book length (Jean-Paul Vespini and Paolo Facchinetti have previously told the story in French and Italian) and so the first time we can really lay to rest myths like the role played by the Dreyfus affaire in the birth of the Tour. Rather than damaging the Tour, having its foundation myths challenged in the way Cossins does in his history of the race’s birth only adds to the appeal of the grande boucle.
Cartoons used to be a staple of the cycling press. Okay, so that was away back in the days before colour photography could be so easily reproduced on newsprint, but it’s still a fact: cycling and illustrators used to have a good relationship. Today, illustrators are expected to produce nothing more than infographics. But every now and again … well every now and again you get a book like Eleanor Davis’s account of her solo ride through America’s southern states, You & A Bike & A Road and every now and again you get a book like The Cycling Cartoonist. It just happens that both arrived in 2017. Davis’s is the more touching - even heart-warming - of the two, but it’s Walker who’ll leave you giggling quietly to yourself with his gentle pokes at some of the absurdities of modern cycling. Here’s to more like this in the future.
Those are the best. What of the rest? The usual mixed bag (some of which I’ve still to get to writing about). We’ve seen biographies and autobiographies (Fabian Cancellara, Lizzie Deignan, Miguel Indurain, Danny MacAskill, Joanna Rowsell-Shand). The Café Bookshelf has finally found space for paracycling (Stumps & Cranks, Cycle of Hope). There’s an awful lot of stocking filler fodder (A Ride Through the Greatest Cycling Stories, Crapper Cycle Lanes, Ask A Pro, The Hardmen, The Splendid Book of the Bicycle, Velopedia, Re:Cyclists, Words to Ride By, A History of Cycling in 100 Objects). We’ve also seen more and more academics including cycling in their books (Sport Philosophy Now, Knowing the Score, Game Changer, The Edge, The War of the Wheels, Understanding the Magic of the Bicycle) as well as interesting contributions to the bike advocacy debate (Bike Nation, Bike Boom, Velotopia). There’s been books specifically about the world championships (Cycling’s World Championships and Chasing the Rainbow) and the Tour (Three Weeks Eight Seconds) and guides on where to ride (Britain by Bike, Cycling Climbs of South-West England, Cycling Kerry) and self-help guides (The Haywire Heart, The Brave Athlete). There’s even been time for a little tech-mechs (From Bicycle to Superbike) and time to pay a bit more attention to long-distance cycling, both today and in the past (Joining the Dots, The Lost Cyclist). In other words: quite a lot of books. Some good. Some lamentably bad. And a lot in that middle ground occupied by most books. And out of those 60 or 70 books read and reviewed last year, just over a dozen were written by women, which probably tells you too much about modern cycling publishing.
So what’s to look forward to in 2018? Another bumper crop of books, by the look of it.
Procycling magazine’s editor Edward Pickering will be along with The Ronde - Inside the World’s Toughest Bike Race, a history of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (review), while t̶h̶e̶ ̶G̶u̶a̶r̶d̶i̶a̶n̶’̶s̶ ̶H̶a̶r̶r̶y̶ ̶P̶e̶a̶r̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶w̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶s̶t̶o̶r̶i̶e̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶m̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶F̶l̶a̶n̶d̶r̶i̶a̶n̶s̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶T̶h̶e̶ ̶B̶e̶a̶s̶t̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶E̶m̶p̶e̶r̶o̶r̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶M̶i̶l̶k̶m̶a̶n̶ ̶-̶ ̶A̶ ̶B̶o̶n̶e̶-̶s̶h̶a̶k̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶T̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶t̶h̶r̶o̶u̶g̶h̶ ̶C̶y̶c̶l̶i̶n̶g̶’̶s̶ ̶H̶e̶a̶r̶t̶l̶a̶n̶d̶s̶ (delayed until February 2019). Winning magazine’s former editor Kenny Pryde will be casting a cold eye on the history of British Cycling in The Medal Factory - British Cycling and the Cost of Gold. Former Washington Post journalist Daniel de Visé will be telling the story of Greg LeMond in The Comeback - Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France.
In what looks like a quiet year for chamoirs, former Hour record holder Bridie O’Donnell will be along with Life and Death - A Cycling Memoir.
It’s not all going to be about racing. Jools Walker will be Back in the Frame, Paul Maunder will have The Wind at My Back - A Cycling Life, Kat Jungnickel will be looking at Bikes and Bloomers - Victorian Women Inventors and their Extraordinary Cycle Wear, globe-girdler Mark Beaumont will have the self-explanatory Around the World in 80 Days, Margaret Guroff will have the story of The Mechanical Horse - How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life and Jack Thurston will be back with Lost Lanes West Country - 36 Glorious bike rides in Devon, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire.
The Guardian’s William Fotheringham will be serving up a whole book about Jørgen Leth’s Paris-Roubaix documentary, A Sunday in Hell - Behind the Lens of the Greatest Cycling Film of All Time (review). Peter Cossins will be going Full Gas - A History of Cycling Tactics, the Cycling Podcast boys will be doing an anthology of The Cycling Year (review)and Jamie Smith will have American Pro - The True Story of Bike Racing in America.
And if all of that is a bit too much for you, Linda Stratmann will be along with a dose of Murder at the Bayswater Bicycle Club - A Frances Doughty Mystery.