Thursday, 12 June 2008

The Escape Artist, Matt Seaton (2002)

Forth Estate 1 84115 103 3 £14.99 186pp
Autobiography on two wheels including genuine tragedy and highly perceptive observations

Matt Seaton is possibly the most talented writer chronically cycling today. Widely known for being The Guardian (and Fleet Street's) first cycling columnist, he has a long track record as an intelligent interpreter of modern sporting culture. Indeed, he first came to public notice when he won an essay competition in the late 1980s run by the magazine Marxism Today. In that, he dissected the relationship between gym use and the prevailing Thatcherite spirit.

Detractors might dismiss Escape Artist for being Nick Hornby on two wheels. And, it is true that the male-self-discovery-through-obsessive-activity story has been applied to pretty much every imaginable leisure pursuit. In respect of the genre, this point is valid, but it is a format that Seaton raises to a new level. This is part because of his talent and intelligence, part because the period of his life that he chronicles contains a narrative that is truly heart wrenching. By the end of the book, Seaton's 33 year old wife, the mother of his 18 month old IVF-conceived twins, has died from breast cancer.

Even without that, his lyrical description of his transition from boyhood with his second-hand Raleigh Jubilee, to being a creditable amateur racer, and then finding that he had to devote more time to his family, makes this book an enduring pleasure. His observations are illuminating on dozens of tiny matters of cycling interest: the tactile qualities of tubular tyres; the social dynamics of the club run and; cycle apparel before and after Lycra.

Here he is on a question that has tested all of us who have ever put razor to leg: "For cyclists, the real question of shaving, the one which no one dares to ask, is where to stop. In changing rooms at race controls you would see all sorts of ad hoc solutions to this conundrum. Some would shave to just above the point which their lycra shorts would reach. This was fine as far as it went, but in the changing rooms it looked ridiculous because it created the distinct visual impression that they were wearing a pair of hair shorts. On a particularly hirsute cyclist if could look like a pair of opaque tights cut off above the knee.".

Perhaps most important of all, however, Seaton unpicks the way that, for him at least, his bicycle was so much more than a means of physically travelling from A to B. His two wheeled odyssey is as much about his human growth as his muscular development and for that reason is essential reading for all who seek to explore their own transports of delight.

PS July 2008

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