Firstly, a disclaimer. This is far from a definitive ‘best of’ cycling books list for the year. The rate of literature arriving on my desk reached a peak in the weeks preceding the Tour and I struggled to get on top of the pile after that. Slack, I know.
It became a matter of picking out what looked like interesting subject matter, written by trusted authors and without gaudy yellow covers.
Here, in no particular order, are the books I enjoyed most.
Land of Second Chances – Tim Lewis
As editor of the excellent Observer Sport Monthly, Lewis commissioned an article in 2008 by Steve Bloomfield on the unlikely-sounding Team Rwanda. Just 14 years after the genocide that claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, Bloomfield learned of plans for a Rwandan cycling team following a chance meeting with former US professional Jock Boyer in Nairobi, and Lewis has followed the developing story ever since.
Our own Tom Southam and Ben Ingham covered the Tour of Rwanda back in 2010 and Lewis was there, and has returned since, to record the team’s progress from rocky beginnings to Adrien Niyonshuti’s appearance at the London Olympics.
Lack of equipment, lack of nutrition and culture shock are the obvious starting points, but it goes much deeper: US Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee Tom Ritchey’s attempts to design and distribute cargo bikes to coffee growers; frustration as riders with great potential fall by the wayside; the cast of Westerners – Boyer and Ritchey especially – seeking some kind of redemption in Africa.
A cycling team seems a trifling matter when put up against recent history in Rwanda. Yet the efforts of Boyer and Ritchey somehow reflect the ‘truth and reconciliation’ process post-genocide. There is no happy ending, just an ongoing attempt to make things better, with no guarantees and the distinct impression that it could all go belly-up at any moment.
As the author told us: “It is not a straightforward story of success and hope and triumph over adversity. It is complicated, both for the team and the country.”
The Race Against Time – Edward Pickering
The Hour Record remains the true test of a great rider. Two riders gatecrashed the party in the 1990s and created a media storm in Britain at a time when cycling rarely troubled the sports pages of national papers: Chris Boardman, with his hi-tech Lotus bike and scientific approach, versus Graeme Obree and his homemade machine and offbeat training methods.
Pickering identifies two men seemingly worlds apart yet strikingly similar in their approaches to being the best in the world: embracing short, intensive training sessions when mile-munching was the norm; the ‘marginal gains’, in both equipment and fitness levels, that became the buzzwords of Team GB under Dave Brailsford; and (not immediately obvious) the fear of failure that drove both Obree and Boardman to become record breakers.
For anyone wanting to understand the roots of British cycling’s recent triumphs, The Race Against Time is essential reading, and it is Pickering’s thorough research that makes it so.
On The Road Bike – Ned Boulting
Boulting’s self-deprecating humour and ability to recount stories and elicit interesting anecdotes from everyone he encounters on his road trip won me over just as his How I Won The Yellow Jumper had previously.
The author’s ‘search for a nation’s cycling soul’, as the subtitle alludes, takes Boulting around the country trying to work out how Britain went from a nation of indifferent also-rans to cycling obsessives and world-beaters.
Particularly engaging, for me at least, were the chapters on Tour of Britain organiser Mick Bennett, former Six Day rider Mo Burton and the cast of the New Romantics’ ride in Regent’s Park – the gentle ribbing of Gary Kemp and his Rapha-clad pals is a hoot, although I’m not sure they were amused…
And if you haven’t met soigneur and race organiser Garry Beckett, this line is perfect: “His gruff south London voice, at least two octaves lower than is audible to most humans, was unmistakable.”
Spot on, Ned.
Mountain Higher – Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding
The sequel to Friebe and Goding’s Mountain High could so easily have been a damp squib cash in. Thankfully, having covered most of the great climbs in the first edition, the duo dug deeper to uncover lesser-known but equally fabulous mountains, many in locations rarely considered by the cycling fan.
Beastly but beautiful ascents in the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, even Scotland, feature alongside the usual destinations in the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites. Friebe’s accompanying text mixes race history with well-researched local anecdotes to good effect, while Goding’s images of deserted roads winding into the distance are gorgeous.
Mountain Higher is a book that will have you reaching for a map, checking out flights and planning next summer’s cycling trip. Inspiring.
The Cycling Anthology: Volume III – edited by Ellis Bacon and Lionel Birnie
Hats off to Bacon and Birnie for another collection of fine features from many of the best cycling writers in the business. Standouts for me are Owen Slot’s examination of Corsica’s welcome – or lack thereof – for the Grand Départ and Klaus Bellon Gaitán’s piece on scepticism in the modern cycling era.
And special mention goes to Simon Scarbrook’s wonderful (as always) cover illustration. Plenty of publishers could learn a thing or two about marketing from this self-published team.
Domestique – Charly Wegelius
Stories from the back of the bunch are, on the face of it, less appealing and certainly a harder sell than a champion’s autobiography. Winners make for good book sales, understandably. But if the life of a professional cyclist is largely about suffering, who better to recount tales of hardship and woe than the humble domestique?
Michael Barry’s Le Métier is one of the best reads around on the subject and this excellent book by Wegelius – written in conjunction with Tom Southam – makes a very welcome companion piece.
Wegelius worked away off the radar of British cycling fans and press alike, certainly until the infamous 2005 World Championships incident that resulted in both himself and Southam being banned from Team GB for life. Wegelius gives his version of events – he was simply doing what most professionals do and earning a few quid on the side by pulling on the front for the Italians. Hardcore patriots may baulk at the very idea of riding for another team, but that is reality. Wegelius was a very good and highly valued domestique. A bit of ducking and diving in a precarious profession is par for the course and Charly did his fair share, but on this occasion was caught out and – he argues and I tend to agree – was unfairly punished and criticised.
There are plenty more interesting insights and anecdotes from his time riding for Danilo Di Luca and Cadel Evans, not to mention failing a haematocrit test in 2003. The only criticism I passed on to Wegelius at this year’s Tour was I found the liberal sprinkling of swear words a bit tiresome – they lose their effect and become irritating. “You should have seen the first draft before the edit!” he replied, without swearing.
Scary thought. Still a f***ing good read, though.
Rouleur Centenary Tour de France
Is it too self-indulgent to slip one of our own books in the mix? Probably, but what the heck. I include this not for my own paltry contribution, but for those of the photographers, writers and designers who did such a tremendous job with what was a mammoth project. Here’s to you, Rouleurs.