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With the sun on our right: Tim Moss

sun-right-3D-300Unlike 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.

A journey round the world: David Sore

David SoreDavid 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

1232534_BradleyMyTime_yjp_jktThose 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 literaryRob hayles easy rider 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.

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.

Andrew SykesHowever, 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.

On the road bike by Ned Boulting

After the first few chapters, I was about to relegate this tome from the ITV presenter, Ned Boulting, to the league of light and inconsequential literature, and I found my attention wandering and (even worse) I began to skip pages. Bad sign……

Ned BoultingHowever, I persevered, found a couple of chapters that caught my attention (particularly the story of the two Tommy Godwins), and slowly began to see some of the merit in his media-style interviews with largely unknown (or forgotten) national cycling stars of yesteryear. He is a self-proclaimed ‘rookie’ in the world of cycling, even though he has been one of the presenters of the ITV4 Tour de France coverage for many years.

His perspective on the world of cycling is as the outsider looking inside. He knows just enough about the sport to get himself into trouble (as evidenced by the title of his first book How I won the yellow jumper, when he once naively referred to the yellow jersey of the TdeF as the ‘yellow jumper’).

The merit of this volume is that it takes us behind the scenes of British cycling, to meet the people of the past, those who made a difference in the world of cycling before the days of mass media coverage and silly incomes, and who were the fundamental influence on the lives of the Wiggos, Froomeys and Cavs of the modern era.

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.Life Cycles

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.

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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.

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…….

at-speed-mark-cavendish-coverThis 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.

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.

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