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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.