Title: Racing Bicycles – The Illustrated Story of Road Cycling
Author: Nick Higgins
Publisher: Lawrence King
Order: Lawrence King
What it is: An illustrated cycling miscellany
Weaknesses: The text
If the title of Nick Higgins’s Racing Bicycles suggests to you another techs-mechs book of cycling porn – stripped frames and polished spoke nipples – then try reading it with racing as a verb instead of part of a compound noun. Less the story of bikes upon which people race, Racing Bicycles is the story of people racing bicycles, as well as the story of the bikes upon which they have raced. Or, as its subtitle puts it, it’s “the illustrated story of road cycling.”
Being the story of road cycling I’ll quickly toss out a standard question of all such books: why the inclusion of stories from track cycling? Maybe you can get away with Chris Boardman, famous for his Olympic and Hour performances on the track, who also had a bit of a name as a prologue specialist at the Tour de France. But about the only link to road racing I can think of for Major Taylor is that he was once a celebrity guest of honour at the start of one edition of Bordeaux-Paris. And Arthur Zimmerman? I may have noted somewhere earlier this year how often he is overlooked in cycling histories, but should that excuse squeezing a track star into the story of road cycling? About the only way I can think of getting away with that is bigging-up the myth that Arthur Zimmerman really was the grandfather of Urs Zimmerman. Or maybe the great-uncle of Bob Dylan.
As I’m on the subject of standard quibbles with cycling miscellanies, let me quickly run through some of the checklist of things to get wrong:
- Marie Marvingt shadow-riding the 1908 Tour de France? Check.
- Alfonsina Strada pulling the wool over the eyes of the organisers of the 1924 Giro d’Italia by entering the race as a man? Check.
- The Célérifère? Check.
- Kirkpatrick McMillan? Check.
- Some newly invented nonsense about Choppy Warburton? Check.
- Henri Desgrange conceiving the idea for the Tour, inventing stage racing, and believing in an ideal Tour with just one finisher? Check. Check. Check.
- Me with my head in my hands, sobbing softly? Check.
As with so many of these books, the text of Racing Bicycles feels less like the considered history of road cycling and more a bit of a brain dump of a load of things the author read about somewhere once and couldn’t be arsed checking the truth of.
Thankfully, setting Racing Bicycles apart from all the other books repeating the same lies, legends and lore is the art of London-based painter and illustrator Nick Higgins, 130 of whose images fill the book.
Higgins style is somewhat distinctive – for which read you’ll either get it or you won’t – and is largely inspired by the London School of painters that included the likes of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.
A key difference between Higgins and those who have influenced his style is that while they painted from life, many of Higgins’s images are clearly based on photographs. This is something odd you see a lot among cycling artists, to the point where something like photographer Stephan Vanfleteren’s iconic portrait of Eddy Merckx is copied wholesale in a way one would not think of copying it if, say, the original had been painted with oils instead of light. Most of Higgins source images aren’t really what you would call iconic, but many of them are pretty recognisable and can quickly be Googled.
This, for me, raises all sorts of questions. For instance, if you’re telling the story of road cycling, why illustrate the stories of Hélène Dutrieu and Marie Marvingt with pictures of them as aviators? If sourcing pictures of them on bikes is difficult (for the latter, this is true, but not the former), why not just use some imagination instead of using well known photographs?
The other question raised for me is that while the paintings of Bacon and Freud have a psychological depth to them, can the same be said of Higgins’s art? Is Higgins’s point something to do with modernity and the Raphafication of cycling history with an Instagram ‘Freud’ filter? Or is he actually saying something about the subjects of his pictures?