One More Kilometre And We're In The Showers by Tim Hilton<br></br>Significant Other by Matt Rendell

The loneliness of the long-distance cyclist
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The Independent Culture

Long-time readers of The Independent on Sunday will know that Tim Hilton used to be the paper's art critic. Something of a Renaissance man is our Tim - if that's the way to describe an authority on the Pre-Raphaelites. At the same time as he has poured his considerable intellectual energies into studying the likes of Ruskin and Alma-Tadema, he has nurtured a passion no less deep for cycling. The doing it he takes care of by riding 10,000 miles a year and keeping 12 bikes in the garden shed at his home in Suffolk. The thinking about it he has turned into a lordly memoir which opens up an arcane world and makes it utterly compelling.

One More Kilometre and We're In the Showers - the title is something Hilton's son said to him when they were coming to the end of a long ride - honours cycling and cyclists without ever sentimentalising them. Idiosyncratic and opinionated, but vastly know- ledgeable, Hilton is primarily concerned with figures and events from the sport's 1950s golden age, when British cycling began to move away from its provincial roots and look to the Continent for inspiration.

There are portraits of the great Italians Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, and vivid recreations of epic races, but Hilton is no less interested in finding the poetry in the seemingly humdrum domestic scene, and in elevating to the pantheon such British stalwarts as Beryl Burton, our best ever woman cyclist.

Hilton weighs up cycling's essential paradox - that it is a sport for lonely obsessives for whom the group ethic is all. Its politics are complicated, but as the child of a Communist household, Hilton is well placed to get to grips with both its socialism-on-two-wheels aspect and its function as the athletic pursuit of choice for those who feel they are on the outside. That real cyclists aren't much interested in other sports is just one of the many insights that make this wise and charming book so memorable.

Matt Rendell isn't an art critic, but there is a scholarly quality to A Significant Other, a short but powerful book that uses the diary of a domestique in the 2003 Tour de France as the counterpoint to the author's exploration of the true nature of top-class competitive cycling. The domestique - the term refers to a journeyman rider who has to sacrifice himself in the cause of helping the team leader - is a Colombian called Victor Hugo Pena. The team he rode for was US Postal, its leader Lance Armstrong, then on his way to his fifth successive Tour victory.

From the title of the book, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was about Armstrong. In fact he hardly features. It is enough just to have the soulful Pena's own story, which begins in one of the most volatile countries in the world and takes him to the pinnacle of the sport when he finds himself somewhat improbably wearing the Tour leader's yellow jersey.

This is really two books in one - Rendell's geo-political history of the Tour and travelling in Pena's slipstream. It works not just because of the way the theory complements the practice but because of the strain of melancholy that runs through both accounts. Rendell's description of the critical moment of last year's Tour - when a spectator inadvertently sent Armstrong crashing during a climb in the Pyrenees - has a thrilling intensity worthy of Nicholson Baker. And you won't find a better analysis of the extraordinary collective feat that is a team of cyclists working together at speed.

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