The bicycle is one of the simplest yet most perfect machines ever invented, imbued with the spirit of the modern world. It has also long been associated with esprit de corps, whether women's rights campaigners in bloomers, working-class Clarion Club members taking a Sunday spin or Truffaut's Jules and Jim freewheeling through the French countryside. It has produced an enthusiasts' culture, at the most extreme end of which is the punishing sport of cycle-racing. It is said that each Tour de France takes a year off the lives of cyclists who ride it – and some have ridden it a dozen times.
Matt Seaton's vivid account of his own obsessional interest starts with a glorious description of a training ride through much-loved downland: the most lyrical piece of writing about the physicality of cycling I've read. But it's not long before clouds gather. This is a book about how enthusiasts maintain a grip on the everyday, and in Seaton's case guilt watermarks almost every page.
His obsession was not shared by his partner, the journalist Ruth Picardie, who was to die of cancer shortly after giving birth to their twins. As Seaton begins to make his mark upon the cycle-racing world, Picardie falls ill. The two compelling dramas are skilfully interwoven; this is a painful book that touches more nerves than most confessional writing.
Escape is the key word. In racing the moment of escape – when the ambitious rider decides to break from the pack – is decisive for the race. Most attempts fail, because the pack has developed a stronger momentum than the lone rider, and the hubris of the escapee is punished by being left to "hang out to dry" – a humiliating act of self-destruction.
What Seaton's book is so good at is the group psychology of team racing: its compulsive mixture of co-operative and competitive behaviour, its disapproval of free riders who give nothing and try to take everything – political economy in miniature. And since there are few winners, cycle-racing, like most sports, is about learning to fail. Or learning to fail better, as Beckett said.
The cycle itself can also become a love object, "a perfect partner which will dance with you when you stand on the pedals". There is an incredible lightness of being about fast cycling, but the same instrument of freedom can also become an instrument of torture. Seaton is in no doubt that the sport is compulsive but unforgiving, and today his two best bikes have been dismantled and packed away, gathering dust.
What he found most difficult was not the punishing world of racing, nor the quieter world of domestic relations, but the transitional hours between the two: the guilt about leaving a marital bed for a dawn race start, the re-entry into workaday life after the intensity of a race abroad. Learning to escape is probably much the same as learning to come home, and few recent memoirs have been quite so unsparingly honest about reconciling the two. One hopes that Seaton, like cyclists who have experienced a terrible crash, will one day get back on his bike.