With the sun on our right: Tim Moss
Unlike many memoirs of long journeys, Tim Moss’s narrative of cycling around the world with his wife, Laura, is a real page-turner. Long journeys, by their very nature, provide a lot of material of a repetitive kind, so finding your voice as an author and keeping the reader plugged in is a fine balancing act. The narrative needs momentum, it requires twists and turns, and variations of speed……just like a bicycle ride in fact, except that the really interesting things often happen off the bike, in the variety of vignettes that pepper the journey, giving us an insight into the lives and personalities of the travellers themselves, as well as a flavour of the terrain and people they encounter en route.
Being a long-distance cyclist myself, I know what it’s like to be 8-10 hours a day on the road. During those long lonely hours your mind is filled with inconsequentials like: ‘how far till the next stop, where’s the next foodstore, will this hill never end, should I sleep in this wood or look for the grounds of a temple?’. Your attention, in fact, is entirely focused on survival……which in itself doesn’t make a great story. It’s when you stop thinking about yourself and survival, and turn your attention outwards…..that’s where the real story is, and Tim has created a narrative that keeps you turning the pages.
A great read, for both cyclists and non-cyclists, and a great 5 minute trailer below.
200 years on two wheels
Re: Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson
Michael Hutchinson, a former pro-cyclist-turned-journalist, writes an excellent weekly column in The Comic………more accurately known as Cycling Weekly. His style is to combine well-informed commentary on aspects of the world of cycling, mixed with wry humour and critical insights into whatever is current or in fashion. I know some faithful followers of the magazine turn immediately to his column when they open their current edition.
Re: Cyclists, 200 years on two wheels is his take on (basically) the entire history of cycling, from the ‘draisine’ (hobby horse) invented by Baron von Drais in Germany in 1816 to what we know to today, the bicycle in all its configurations. No matter how sophisticated bicycles become, from the technical metal compounds that go into the frames, to the growing subtlety of the accessories that go on the frames, the design of the bicycle has not fundamentally changed over the years. Two hundred years on we are still taking advantage of that leap of imagination that went into building the early machines, and that will probably never change.
His perambulations take him through the history of Cycling Weekly, a magazine that began simply as Cycling in 1891, bang in the era of the penny farthing (perhaps the most dangerous of the velocipedes to ride), through its brief and disastrous flirt with mopeds, when it was renamed in 1957 as Cycling and Mopeds, to its current incarnation, inspired largely by the world of racing.
Although he dedicates the last chapter to the future of cycling (as most similar tomes do) he is challenged to predict any fundamental changes ahead, given that we have already come through 200 years of history and development without any real departures from the original designs.
A good book and worth reading.
Racing through the dark: David Millar
In recent times, we have got to know much more about ‘David Millar the man’ through his expert TV commentaries on the grand tours, and he certainly comes across as a fine analyst of the interior mechanisms of the peloton and the tactics of stage racing. But his racing career had been beset by the scandal of doping, and this autobiography is his attempt to come to terms with that, and to communicate his side of the whole sad story.
I am always conscious that an autobiographer has complete control of his/her own material, and is likely to give a monochrome version of the events, as they have seen them from their own perspective. Not a bad thing, perhaps, but subject to all kinds of limitations. Millar, however, was very quick to confess to his crimes when discovered (unlike many of his colleagues in the sport), took his punishments ‘on the chin’, and eventually emerged as the mature experienced rouleur that he was with a very different agenda: to be an ambassador to help clean up the sport.
It is notable throughout his book that he is slow to incriminate others (perhaps a failing on his part), but is blunt and straightforward about holding himself up for scrutiny, and as an example of what happens to those who cheat. He was very fortunate to be given a second chance, and to make a come-back. He never expected the kind of support that came from people as eminent a Jean Marie LeBlanc and Dave Brailsford. He had expected to be treated as the outcast that befitted his crimes, but within a couple of seasons, he had reinstated himself and, ironically, found himself racing much better when ‘clean’ than doped.
If you enjoy confessionary autobiographies, this is a worthy read.
It is astonishing how the attention of the long-distance cyclist can be harnessed rigidly to the idea of roaming in far-away places, some exotic, some not quite so, and what lies on or near the doorstep is completely overlooked. I’m ashamed to admit that I have never cycled in Ireland, and doubly ashamed because, on my mother’s side of the family, I have several first cousins in County Limerick, whom I visit only very sporadically. So my decision for 2017 is to right that wrong, and spend three weeks riding the Irish ‘End-to-End’……better know as Mizen Head (in the south west) to Malin Head (in the north)…..or known more familiarly as the Miz-Mal.
It is not a huge distance. The shortest route between the two points is about 550kms but, no doubt, I will wander off route and take in some of the west and north-west coast, and probably notch up about 800kms. The first few days will very handily take me in the direction of my relatives in County Limerick, and it will be a huge added bonus that I will be able to spend a few days visiting, catching up with family matters, and celebrating our mutual advancing years.
As with every journey I do, I spend weeks absorbing information, reading and listening to podcasts, generally immersing myself in the history and culture of the country (or countries) I’m visiting. Ireland, too long seen as a mere appendage to Britain, is a country with its own Celtic vitality, and it has a rich heritage that is uniquely its own. My reading has taken me through the biography of WB Yeats, some of the short stories of James Joyce, the history of the 20th century and its turbulent years fighting for freedom, accompanied by the stark reality of revolution portrayed in Ken Loach’s film The Wind that shakes the barley.
Much still to unearth and anticipate. Watch this space.
A journey round the world: David Sore
David Sore came to my attention during a BBC documentary about the Raleigh Cycle company a few weeks ago. I grabbed my phone as I was watching, logged onto my local library service, and found he had written a book about his cycle journey around the world, on his modified Raleigh bicycle, in the 1960s. At the age of 25, he began a journey of nearly four years, riding 35,000 miles through 21 countries, and his volume A journey round the world: a cycling memoir is his record of that journey.
Though it is a very commendable self-published account of a memorable, life-changing experience, and could be an invaluable guide to anyone wanting to dip their toes in the world of long-distance touring, it does suffer from a few flaws. Published 40 years after the experience, it relies heavily on his diary notes and latter-day research, and fails to ‘bristle’ with the liveliness and enthusiasm of a recent experience, a point I noted elsewhere with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy about his walk to Istanbul in the 1930s.
This ‘chronological detachment’ probably also encouraged a style of narrative that dwells overmuch on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of his journey: food, drink, camping, the gearing on his bike, and the almost mechanical focus on a place-by-place description of everything he encountered. It would have been a much improved narrative had he explored his inner feelings and perceptions more, his reactions to places and, above all, to the people he met. We learn very little of the man himself, what makes him tick, and how people along the way altered his perception of the world.
It is, however, a worthy read, a story that has a beginning, middle and an end and, even through the narrow style of his writing, he does give a flavour of the rigours of the life of the long-distance cyclist.
Bradley Wiggins: My Time
Those who achieve celebrity status through sport have a narrow window of time to make the most of their opportunities in life. In the space of 10-15 years, they have to embark on a precarious road to perfection in their chosen sport, win the titles and trophies available to them, and then tell the world about their experiences through a series of ghost-written autobiographies. In the world of cycling, as in most other sports, there has been a veritable tsunami of publications over the last few years, amongst them a couple covering the fortunes of Bradley Wiggins. This volume, My Time, has a very narrow focus indeed. It is concerned mainly with the key year of his cycling career: 2012.
Although he had experienced success on the track in previous Olympics, his switch to road racing proved to be a challenging change of direction. But it all came together in 2012 when he won a series of early season races (Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie, Dauphiné Liberé), followed by the first ever British win in the Tour de France, then concluded by a truly magnificent performance in the time trial of the London Olympics, where he won a gold medal. 2012 was his golden year, a year where everything went right, and at its conclusion, he was ready to move on……….back to the track for the Rio Olympics.
William Fotheringham, his co-writer, has done a good job of revealing both the talent and character of the man who is known affectionately by his fans as Wiggo.
Rob Hayles: Easy Rider
I’ve read enough early life autobiographies of elite cyclists to be able to predict the format and style of the writing. The success of these books in the marketplace depends on the ‘merchandising’ of a household name, the ‘big book’ format of the hardback edition, and the easy journalistic style of writing employed by the vast majority of ghost writers. To say these books are written by the authors themselves is to overestimate their literary skills. Most such authors probably haven’t read a single book since they left school, let alone written one, so they sit with their chosen ghost writer for a few days being interviewed, and the transcript of the interview will be painstakingly fashioned into the final volume.
Having said that, this volume by Rob Hayles is a worthy read. Not the household name like his latter day successors in the cycling world, Hayles, nevertheless, featured strongly on the track in the years leading up to the mighty explosion of team GB onto the scene. His palmares include gold, silver and bronze medals in the Olympics, as well as successes in the World Championships, and he even partnered a youthful Brad Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the early days of their respective careers.
Unlike most such autobiographies, this has been written at the end of his cycling career, so there is an air of historical narrative about the style, which lends a little more to its gravity and worthiness.
Janapar: love on a bike by Tom Allen
Tom Allen, at the age of 23, set off from his home in Middleton, Northamptonshire, to cycle round the world, in the company of a couple of like-minded friends. With no maps and no guidebooks, this was to be an adventure like no other he had ever experienced. Four years and three continents later, no longer in the company of his cycling companions, but now accompanied by an Armenian-speaking Iranian wife, he arrived back at his parental home in Middleton. So what really happened?
This is the story of both a book and film produced by Tom, the result of a journey that was only sketched out on paper before they set off, but was so subject to change as the days and weeks slipped by, that the original focus (that of cycling round the world) was completely lost. If you read travel diaries to be inspired to follow in the footsteps of others, or simply to be entertained in your armchair, this may not do the trick for you. Tom’s use of the English language is above the normal grade for this type of writing, and he digs deeply into his own inner soul to reveal his innermost feelings, but he loses that lightness of touch that will inspire the hesitant to follow in his footsteps. His prose digs and delves into the darker side of his experience, the loss of friendships as he breaks up with his cycling companions, followed by the tensions posed by his new relationship, whether he should come or go, whether she is able to break the ties of a conservative Iranian family.
By the end, as we read of the final hours riding towards Tom’s parental home in Middleton, along with Tenny, his new Iranian wife, we pick up a sense of optimism about the future, but he seems to acknowledge there will still be many hurdles to overcome.
Along the Med on a bike called Reggie: Andrew Sykes
Before I say anything about this volume, let me tell you where I’m coming from. After more than 35 years of long distance cycling, and with a catalogue of adventure cycling books already read (and some abandoned after only the first chapters), I came to the reading of Andrew Sykes’s Along the Med on a bike called Reggie with a certain hesitation…….indeed, I wasn’t sure about it.
The cover suggested either the author was a menopausal male trying to catch up on missed opportunities in life, or he was one of those ‘born-again’ cyclists who may come across as a ‘fresh-faced cycling evangelical’. And I definitely wasn’t sure about the anthropomorphism of naming the bike……. but this clearly doesn’t rank alongside people who imagine dialogues with their bikes (yes, believe me, they do), or store their bikes in their bedrooms for reasons other than security.
However, this is what I actually found when I read this book. Knowing, as I do, the extended routine of the long distance cyclist, the repetitive timetable from day to day, which focuses around those elemental things like eating, sleeping, re-hydration, riding the bike hour after hour, map reading, staring at the road ahead………I know how difficult it can be for the narrator to keep the reader engaged. The solo traveller is just that…….a solo traveller, on his/her own for many hours every day, frequently disengaged with the world around him/her. Dare I say that even Bill Bryson appears to be disengaged sometimes, and his writing can lose a certain substance from time to time.
Andrew Sykes, on the other hand, does have a voice, a narrative, a story to tell……..and his style is almost conversational. There is a ‘stream of consciousness’ thread throughout his narrative (capturing the thoughts that run through his mind on the bike) that kept me engaged to the end. Yes, a lot of campsites and hotels feature, so do the meals and the drinks he has consumed, as well as the repetitive map reading, accommodation booking, physical aches and pains……..but, fortunately, they all sit comfortably amongst a lot of perceptive comments about his surroundings, witty observations about things he passes, and a little post-ride research fills in the gaps with many interesting details.
Thousands have done, and are doing, transcontinental bike rides just like this one, but not many can tell their stories in quite such an engaging way.
Watch out for his forthcoming volume Heading north on a bike called Reggie.
The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton
Like millions the world over, I had been taken in completely by the Lance Armstrong myth. I willed his discreditors to be proven wrong, and for the reputation of this deserving hero to be established forever in cycling’s hall of fame. After all, he had been dope-tested over 500 times in his career, and never ever been tested positive for banned substances…….or so we were led to believe.
The first few days of the 2015 Tour de France is an appropriate time to remember that all may not be well in what we think is the best of all possible worlds in cycling. If past performances are any guide, out of the 195 starters in the current race, 25-50% could still be cheating. The sophisticated ‘dope doctors’, like Fuentes and Ferrari of the past, are always one step ahead of their profession when it comes to detecting banned substances. The art of ‘micro-dosing’ is going to be a hard one to crack……..
Tyler Hamilton, long-time buddy and domestique for Lance Armstrong, had been at the thick end of doping for over 8 years, helping Armstrong in his bid to wind 7 consecutive Tours. He was guilty like the rest of them, but them he fell out with Armstrong (like some many others), and when the chips were down and the world was turning against Armstrong, Hamilton ended up ‘singing like a canary’, like most of the other members of US Postal.
This account, written by co-writer Daniel Coyle, is Hamilton’s version of events. It appears to be sincere, but then all autobiographies do. Much of what he describes is already in the public domain elsewhere, but what does make fascinating reading is the minute detail of the mechanisms of doping: the what, the how, the where, the who with, the how much and how often…….
The life of a doper was, indeed, very complicated. The trips in private planes, the covert hand-overs, the shabby rooms where transfusions took place…… Much of it is hardly creditable in the context of the world’s most famous cycling event. But it all happened. And Hamilton redeems himself a little by appearing to reveal all. Read it for yourself and see what you think.
Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer
Why is it, when the Tour de France approaches, I find myself burying my nose in cycling books? Well, there’s more to it than just that. A good friend of mine in the cycling world recently handed me a pile of books he had read, and he thought I would enjoy them. I’m currently on my third, but this volume by Julian Sayarer was the first.
Sayarer, a London bike courier, is one of that growing list of aspirants, the most famous of whom was Mark Beaumont, who set off to break the world record by cycling 18,000 miles around the globe. Beaumont had raised the bar by completing it in 194 days, but with the assistance of corporate sponsorship (including the BBC). Sayarer, on the other hand, and without any sponsorship from any quarter, completed the challenge in 169 days…..and this book is his account of that experience.
The curious thing about this record (which currently stands at a staggering 91 days 18 hours, held by Mike Hall) is the vast majority of aspirants are British. Even the one year record of distance cycled is held by a British man, Tommy Godwin, who established his record of 75,065 miles back in 1939 (currently under threat by Steve Abrahams). So, what is so British about these distance records? Is endurance and the feat of conquering long term goals deeply buried in the national psyche?
In my own small way, I understand all of this. If I were to describe my own personal niche in the world of cycling, it would be in the bracket of ‘long-distance endurance’…….but not in the league of some of these super-human velo-maniacs. In the past, when I’ve completed over 200 miles in one day, I’ve had to take a few days off to recover. These guys just do it day after day.
Julian Sayarer is not your usual cycling travel writer. His attention is not monotonously riveted by the repetitive daily routines that are inevitable on these record attempts. He writes more about feelings, opinions, reactions to people and circumstances……he is uncompromisingly scathing of Beaumont’s financially supported venture. To say he is opinionated is an understatement. But it makes interesting reading…….and it alleviates the boredom he must have experienced riding day after day, for 169 days.
Journey to the centre of the earth by Richard and Nicholas Crane.
If you are a fan of Coast on television, you will already be familiar with Nick Crane, one of the presenters. What you may not know is that he comes from a family where adrenalin-fueled competition and adventuring dominated the lives of the majority of siblings and cousins. From running the Himalayas to biking up Kilimanjaro, this bicycle journey was one of a long and exacting series of ultra challenges that would take them to the notional centre of the earth……defined by the Guinness Book of Records as a point on dry land that, in all directions, is the furthest from the sea. And that spot was estimated to be somewhere in the Dzungarian Desert in the North of China, close to the Mongolian border…..but no one knew exactly where.
Their first task was to do the complicated mathematical and cartographic research to determine exactly where that spot was, and then to plan the 5000 km journey from the Ganges delta in Bangladesh, and cycle the distance over the Himalayas and across deserts, to complete the journey in only 50 days. Something that had never been done by anyone…..this was pioneering of an extreme kind.
If you are fascinated by stories of extreme adventuring, whether or not your interests lie in the field of cycling, this will be a compulsive read. It’s fascination lies as much in the physical and mental challenges of endurance riding, as in the the ever-changing dynamics of the relationship between the two cousins. It amounts to an in-depth study of two well matched athletes who push their bodies and minds to the limits of human endurance.
The man who cycled the world by Mark Beaumont
Mark Beaumont came to prominence when he set off to break the world record at circumnavigating the world on a bicycle, covering a minimum of 18,000 miles, going in one direction and cycling in both hemispheres (terms and conditions of the Guinness book of records). But it wasn’t just his record attempt that brought him to our attention. He planned the whole venture to be a mainly self-recorded journey, using all the portable modern technology available to him at the time, so that it could be converted into a documentary series for television.
In other words, he had the wisdom and foresight not only to go for the world record (which, in fact, he only held onto for a matter of weeks), but at the same time to almost virtually pioneer a method of self-recording the attempt, to a level of quality that would attract the attention of the BBC, and thus launch his career as an adventurer, documentary-maker and author.
I am always very tentative when I pick up books that are first accounts of such ventures. Many are poorly written, offer a journal-like description of the journey (eg. we did this, then we did that…..) and frequently give the reader far too much detail of the mile-by-mile experience, bicycle specifications, kit lists, food eaten etc…….. These details may be important to the author, but the general reader quickly tires of the predictable formulaic style of writing.
Beaumont’s book, however, doesn’t fall into that trap. He tells us a lot about the “touchy-feely” aspects of the journey (the saddle sores, the knee problems, the headwinds…..but also many of the joys) but, more importantly, he relishes sharing the details of the people he met along the way, the cultural and linguistic challenges he encountered, the potential threats to his life both from people and the insect world (eg. tarantulas in Australia)…..and much more. His narrative could make much more of some of the tense moments of his journey, but he neatly avoids the danger of over-egging his experiences, where the reader may begin to suspect unnecessary embellishment for effect.
This is a very worthy travel volume from an adventure traveller who pushed himself to extraordinary limits to achieve his goal…..that of cycling around the world unsupported, in the hope of breaking the world record.
At Speed by Mark Cavendish
If you want to really know why Mark Cavendish crashed out of the Tour de France recently……..well, it was my fault, I guess. That very day, I began reading the second instalment of his memoirs entitled At Speed. It’s a bit like those time-honoured superstitions we have of the connectedness of the universe…..you do one thing, and something else automatically happens. Like washing your car or your house windows………it’s a sure-fire way of bringing on the rain.
I had planned the reading of this book to coincide with the ‘surety’ of Cav winning the first and third stages of the Tour here in the UK, both ideal stages for the sprinters and their teams. The only obstacle to that happening was going to be Marcel Kittel, who had stamped his authority on the Tour last year, in 2013 when, amongst other stages, he beat Cav on the iconic last stage on the Champs Elysée. No one had beaten Cav on this last stage in 4 years. How history was changed 12 months ago…….
This book was kindly loaned to me by a cycling friend. I had read the first instalment of his memoirs, Boy Racer, a few years ago, and now (as then) I had some reservations about dedicating valuable reading time to the memoirs of someone who (in autobiographical terms) is only recently ‘out of nappies’. Celebrity memoirs always appear to be just another attempt to create a further source of income for people who are already richly rewarded for their talents. They know that, at the height of their success and fame, there is a ready market out there that will rush to buy the latest volume of their musings.
My other great reservation hinges on the authorship of these volumes. They are invariably written by ghost writers (who don’t always receive the acknowledgement they deserve), using a register of language that is alien to the likes of Mark Cavendish. As Cav himself admits, his most frequently used adjective, both on and off the bike, is the f-word. So, how does he come up with expressions like ‘my raison d’étre as a cyclist’ and ‘doping was de rigeur‘……the language doesn’t seem to match the man.
Despite all this, the book is actually very well written and engaging, thanks to the talents of Daniel Friebe. It may not capture Cavendish’s voice exactly, but we do see the transition of the ‘boy racer’ into the ‘man racer’, someone who self-deprecatingly is coming to recognize his own weaknesses, and beginning to genuinely admire the strengths of his opponents, both on and off the bike. He is learning to bite his tongue, apologise when appropriate and, in general, pour oil on troubled waters as the need arises.
You might have been surprised, as I was, at the speed with which Cavendish admitted liability for the crash at the end of the first stage of the current Tour. That apology would never have come from the ‘boy racer’ just a few years earlier.
So, in three or four years from now, I am sure there will be another instalment, where we might see something of the ‘veteran Cav’ demonstrating to the world that he can become an ambassador for the sport, honing his talents as a pundit and, possibly, as a future team manager or coach.
Into the Remote Places by Ian Hibell
As an adventure cyclist myself, I love to read about the adventures of others, both for inspiration and for the caveats thrown up by some of the more outlandish and, in some cases, death-defying journeys people tackle. After reading Into the Remote Places by Ian Hibell, the journeys I have done to date pale into feeble insignificance compared with the following:
- his full-length trek (south to north) of the American continent, crossing the Darien Gap in the process. The Darien gap had never been crossed by anyone on two wheels before. Why? Because it is a swathe of undeveloped swampland in Panama, measuring 100 x 31 miles, that is impenetrable as an overland route. It is the only gap in the Pan American Highway running the length of the continent. Hibell crossed it (along with two New Zealanders) with their loaded bikes.
- he was the first to cycle from North Cape in Norway, to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. This included nearly losing his life in the desert, being pelted with bottles in Nigeria, and facing up to the dangers (both human and animal) of some of the most remote places in the world.
- he crossed South America from Peru to Brazil, risking his life by crossing the great Atrato Swamp, which is so impassable that not a single road has been built to cross from one side to the other. Animal tracks were the only guide.
This book is now out of print, and existing copies are now changing hands at more than 10 times its original cover price. If you can beg, borrow……or even buy a copy, it is well worth reading. Sadly, after decades of taking calculated risks on his expeditions, Ian met his end unexpectedly on August 23rd 2008, at the hands of a hit-and-run driver in Greece. The world lost a true adventurer.
DISCOVERY OF FRANCE by Graham Robb
What caught my attention about this book was not just the title and its subject matter but, perhaps more importantly, the attributes of the author, Graham Robb. He is not only an academic and writer, but he is also a cyclist! And not just an ordinary cyclist (ie. one who simply jumps on his bike and goes for a ride), he actually used his bike to cycle 14,000 miles around France, over a 4 year period, in pursuit of his research for this book. Unjustifiably, perhaps, I decided the book was worth reading……… and in the end, I was right!
In his introduction to The Discovery of France, Graham Robb makes an important confession. Despite almost a lifetime of academic interest in France and his writing of several serious tomes, he came to the conclusion that he didn’t really know France at all. What he knew of France, over the last couple of centuries, has been a vision of the country seen through the eyes of approximately 300 notable French people: writers, philosophers, artists, thinkers, playwrights, politicians and so on. In other words, a vision of France that had gone through several layers of filtration, had been re-interpreted and re-cast to provide an image that was seen fit to hand down to posterity.
So, like any broad-minded academic, he jumped on his bike and he went out to discover France for himself. Amongst the many fascinating discoveries, we learn that the use of the French language as a national language is a relatively recent thing. Even in the 19th century, communities living only a few kilometres from each other were likely to speak different languages. Which means that the vast majority of people living out in the countryside had no contact with, and were certainly not reflected by, the predominant channels of communication in Paris and the major cities. What Robb gives us is a picture of France through the eyes of the poor and dispossessed, the people who didn’t have a voice, but the very people who made up the majority of the French population.