Hallucinations in a yellow jersey

One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers by Tim Hilton
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The Independent Culture

This is just the book for anyone who, shooting past a traffic jam on the way to work, imagines himself wearing the winner's yellow jersey at the head of the Tour de France pack whizzing into Paris. For lady pedallers, the role model would be Eileen Sheridan, who in 1953 broke the Land's End to John O'Groats record. Staying in the saddle to make it a round 1000 miles, she began to hallucinate, seeing a polar bear and ghosts.

Tim Hilton never took part in the kind of epic cycle rides he describes in One More Kilometre and We're in the Showers, but he brings them to vivid and sometimes horrific life. The showers are the welcome warm ones in the changing-room, but they could easily refer to the rain which splashes over the unprotected body of a cyclist. Sometimes it is snow; in one race in Belgium, only 20 out of 170 competitors reached the finishing-line. The winner's hands were frozen to his handlebars so hard that he never quite recovered all sensation in his fingers.

Hilton first thought about the possibilities of both writing and cycling when, staying with his grandparents, he came across the books in their library and a bike in their garage. On the one hand he was to become an art critic and, on the other hand (or handlebar), he was to devote his spare time to bum-numbing contests with fellow club cyclists. Now he brings together the two interests, or obsessions, in an exhilarating work about "the real goal of cycling, which is happiness".

For me, the happiest moment came when I read how Beckett derived Godot's name: it was from professional cyclist Roger Godeau, for whose arrival fans would, yes, wait in order to get his signature. Godeau was an ace at the demi-fond, cycling's noisiest event, in which the competitors are paced by men on a motorbikes.

Also on a literary note, Hilton pays tribute to those pedalling poets who gave us, for example, "Lines written after a chance encounter with a charming member of the Merseyside Ladies' Cycling Association". Then there was Frank Patterson, the pedalling Picasso, whose sketches graced the pages of Cycling magazine; oddly, he gave up his bike and his wife took his drawings to the post on horseback.

Less happily, Roger Rivière crashed under the influence of drugs in the 1960 Tour de France and never recovered. Worse, in 1967 Britain's Tom Simpson took amphetamines and died on the 13th stage of the same gruelling race.

I took the occasional short cut through some of Hilton's lengthier Tour de France accounts and accelerated to the sections on British races and two-wheeled social history. By contrast, the somewhat inconsequential ending of this otherwise smoothly gliding book (Hilton chats with a fellow-spectator, a trainee postman) took me by surprise. I went, metaphorically, straight over the handlebars.

Jonathan Sale