Friday, 23 May 2008

In Search of Robert Millar, Richard Moore (2007)

HarperSport 978 0 00 723501 360pp £15.99
A readable and stimulating biography of Britain's most sucessful stage race rider

Robert Millar is arguably the greatest stage race cyclist that Britain has every produced – and by virtue of his post-career behaviour, no small enigma. Given the current enthusiasm for cycling-related books, it seems surprising that a biography of Millar took so long to appear. The only thing keeping would be hagiographists back, presumably, was the near certainty that Millar would not co-operate. Moore, however, offers a great deal more that the standard sports-biog. First he was a cyclist himself – good enough to represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games. Second, he knew Millar slightly; albeit as a bit-part player in a Scottish cycling team that Millar managed. It is the quality of Moore's research and writing, however, that really mark out this book.

He movingly evokes Millar’s ascent up cycling’s greasy pole from a working-class neighbourhood in Glasgow. And, he lifts a bit of the lid on the weirdness of being a professional cyclist in the mid-1980s. Twenty years on, it is easy to forget just what a phenomenon Millar was, or how he achieved his success almost entirely alone. To read this book is to rediscover the joy of seeing Millar shoot out from a group on one of the great French climbs. It is also good to learn that he had friends and admirers in the peleton - even if most of his professional colleagues remained wary of him.

Moore even goes some way to get to the bottom of the persistent stories that Millar has now had a sex change. However jaded you feel with cycling biographies, this one still has something to give.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The Man Who Loved Bicycles, Daniel Behrman (1973)

Harper's Magazine Press 0-060120350-5 130pp $6.95
A series of essays an recolections about life and the culture of cycling as a form of transport by a perceptive US writer, living in France in the early 1970s

"The bicycle is a vehicle for revolution. It can destroy the tyranny of the automobile as effectively as the printing press brought down despots of flesh and blood. The revolution will be spontaneous, the sum total of individual revolts like my own. It may have already begun." So writes Behrman, an American scientific writer "existing in Paris and living in Brittany" in the early 1970s. The book contains far more than pro-cycling invective, however. It is a catalogue of intelligent reflections and ruminations on France in that period. He is a fine writer with moral fibre and an eclectic ear for scientific snippets. The treatise is laced with personal stories and remissness.

Reading the book today, however, (I read it in around 2004) the book does throw up some questions. Where did these pieces of writing come from - they read as though they might have been magazine articles, and who was Behrman?

That the book itself does not answer them however, does not make it any less enjoyable a read.

Major Taylor, Andrew Ritchie (1988)

John Hopkins University Press 1988
0-8018-5303-6 303 pp $15.95

An important readable biography of one of the most historically important stars of late nineteenth century US cycling

Major Taylor was one of the first black athletes to become world champion in any sport. Between 1898 and the early 1900s he was one of the biggest names in track cycling – at that time a massive spectator sport. Few names from that age are recognisable today, but Taylor’s, if any, deserves to be celebrated. He overcame massive obstacles – not least the huge institutional and unofficial bars to non-whites competing at the top level. As a result, he became an international superstar. Ritchie has done a fabulous job in both teasing his story from the fragments of evidence that remain, and bringing to life the golden age of track cycling as a spectator sport. Economic and racial history are intertwined with with sporting triumph and fascinating crumbs from cycling's past. It is peripheral to the tale, but the story of 'Mile-a-minute Murphy' has long stuck in my mind. He constructed a timber track between railway lines, so that he could draught behind a railway train and pedal his bike at the remarkable speed of 60mph.

Breakaway, Samuel Abt (1985)

Random House 0-394-54679-2 178pp $16.95

Sameul Abt is a long-time follower of the Tour de France and the continential racing scene, mostly in his capacity as deputy editor of the International Herald Tribune. His books are year-long pieces of reportage that tell the tale of the great French race through dozens of individual narratives – of mechanics, riders, managers, sponsors and reporters. This book takes as its subject the 1984 tour – the year that Laurent Fignon got one over on Bernard Hinault. It was also Robert Millar’s best ever tour – he came forth in the general classification and won the King of the Mountains. Abt is a brilliant journalist, with a fine ear for a story and an ability to pluck out telling details. There are really no books to touch his for evoking the glamour, oddity and daily grind of a great cycling tour. Indeed, the value of his books increases as time goes by, as they allow the reader to reimmerse themselves – or immerse themselves, in may cases, in a bygone age.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Rider, by Tim Krabbe (1978)

(trans Sam Garrett)
pub: Bloomsbury (2002) 0 7475 5941 4 148 pages cover price £6.99

A exploration of the experience of racing a bicycle written as an account of a fictional race

The Rider is the best book on the experience of cycle racing ever written. Indeed, by any margin, it is a great book; and an exemplar to any who would set out to imortalise the guts of an experience in such a way that a reader might momentarily inhabit the soul of the protagonist.

First published in Dutch, the book is a fictionalised account of the Tour de Mont Aigoual. It draws heavily on Krabbe’s own career as an amateur cycle racer and is at its best describing the effort required to compete at this level. There is plenty of insight into the preparations that he makes for a race and the curious tactical melange that is mass-start racing.

The race narrative – set out kilometre by kilometre – draws readers along like a peleton with the wind on its back. It is interspersed with an account of the rider’s sporting career, and a more general discourse on professional cycle racing. For a reader unfamiliar with cycle racing, this provides useful context. Anyone immersed in the sport might find it distracting.

Nonetheless, it is not surprising that since its English translation, the book, and its author, has become as lauded among British cyclists as it is on the continent. Indeed, some have even gone so far as to produce cycle jerseys in the colours of the fictional teams against whom Krabbe’s rider races. There can’t be many books whose fans feel so passionately about them that they create tribute t-shirts.