April 6, 2011 Leave a comment
Next to riding a bicycle, few activities are more pleasurable than reading about bicycling. Biographies and autobiographies of racers, travel narratives by adventuresome bike tourists, bicycle company histories, club histories, stories of classic races: I love ’em all. American readers have yet to develop a passion for cycling narratives, however. Search for bicycle books on Amazon. Nearly every title that turns up is a how-to book: how to fix your bicycle, how to time trial, how to tour, how to train. Almost the only cycling narrative listed is Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About the Bike. The way for a book about an American cyclist to sell, it seems, is for its title to announce that it is not about bicycling.
Switch over to Amazon-UK and do the same search. Amazon-UK has a subcategory titled “Cycling History and Biography”; Amazon-US has no such category. Look at the wonderful cycling narratives available to British bookbuyers: autobiographies by Mark Cavendish and Laurent Fignon; biographies of Fausto Coppi, Marco Pantani, and Tom Simpson; bicycle touring tales by Mark Beaumont, Anne Mustoe, and Tom Kevill-Davies. American readers are missing out on some great stories.
One reason bicycle narratives have never caught on in the United States has to do with cycling’s heritage. In this post-Lance era, there are more American bicycle racing fans than ever, yet few know the sport’s history. Louison Bobet won the Tour de France three years in a row, but Americans have hardly heard of him. Soon after I became a bicycle mechanic, an old-timer brought a Bobet bicycle into the shop; though I had been actively cycling for three years by then, I had never heard of Louison Bobet. The local man turned out to be a regular customer (and a regular pain); I and my fellows bike mechanics nicknamed him “Monsieur Bobet.” For the longest time, the only Bobet I knew was that annoying customer at the Spoke-n-Pedal.
To encourage people to read more cycling books, let me mention one work published in the UK a few years ago: Tomorrow, We Ride, an English translation of Jean Bobet’s Demain, on roule. In this book, Jean Bobet relates the close relationship between himself and his brother. Jean Bobet was a fine racer in his own right: he won Paris-Nice in 1955. Yet he is also an intellectual. At times, his writing goes beyond memoir to plumb the depths of the cyclist’s psyche. Partway through the book, Jean Bobet defines a feeling he labels la volupté. His definition provides an example of the wonderful little gems you can find while reading books about bicycling: “The voluptuous pleasure that cycling can give you is delicate, intimate and ephemeral. It arrives, it takes hold of you, sweeps you up and then leaves you again. It is for you alone. It is a combination of speed and ease, force and grace. It is pure happiness.”