Cycling: The reads, rides and retailers that will put you on the right track
Sunday 27 June 2010
The internet, naturally, is the best place for a grounding in current cycling mores. Mikael Colville-Andersen's blog copenhagencyclechic.com began life as a record of Copenhagen's photogenic (and frequently female) cyclists, but now encompasses two-wheeled traffic around the city in its entirety. Tags for blog posts range from "fashionable gloves" and "bicycles and high heels" to "cargo bike culture" and "elderly cyclists". Colville-Andersen's mission is to demystify cycling and champion the bicycle as transport solution. The sooner we move beyond labelling cyclists as Lycra-clad terrorists, skinny-jean-clad fixie (fixed-wheel bike) riders or middle-class mountain bikers, he argues, the closer cycling will get to mainstream acceptance as simply a rather fun way of getting from A to B. It's an admirable stance and one widely shared, judging by the cycle-chic imitators his blog has spawned from Dublin to Moscow.
A 36-year-old amateur bike racer who worked in publishing for a decade, New York's Bikesnob is the Mr Hyde to Colville-Andersen's Dr Jekyll. Where Colville-Andersen's blog exudes a feel-good positivity, Eben Weiss, the newly unmasked blogger behind bikesnobnyc.blogspot.com, has been slicing and dicing cycling faux pas in the Big Apple since 2007 (and had his first book published last month). Ever wondered about the dress codes of single-speed-riding hipsters? Or in what context it is acceptable to fit bar ends to your handlebars? It's all here, mercilessly skewered. Among the "fetishistically detailed" blog posts lie helpful entries such as his illustration of the passage of cycling epochs as the "dachshund of time", where the nose is "Right About Now", the midriff "Old School" and the tail "Stone Age". Weiss also devotes a lot of time to lampooning the pro racing scene, particularly the pointy-fingered Spaniard Alberto Contador – although, as a new friend and sometime riding partner of Lance Armstrong, that's not unexpected.
A less vituperative introduction to the arcane world of professional bike racing can be found in 'The Yellow Jersey Companion to the Tour de France' edited by Les Woodland (£10.99, Yellow Jersey Press). Organised alphabetically, from Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, the Russian sprinter nicknamed the Tashkent Tornado and the Tashkent Terror on account of his fearless manoeuvres in a 50mph bunch sprint, to Joop Zoetemelk, the solid Dutch rider who had the misfortune to have been competing during Eddy Merckx's reign, a more accessible and enjoyable companion to the Tour can't be imagined. As well as the riders, their hamster-wheel lives fleshed out with personal anecdotes (such as Fausto Coppi's disastrous and adulterous affair), the book explains who wears the maillot jaune (the leader) and who carries the lanterne rouge (the competitor in last place). It was Coppi who had the infamous exchange with a journalist about doping in cycling: "Did you take drugs?" he was asked. "Only when necessary," he replied. And how often was that? "Practically all the time."
Several books, such as 'Rough Ride' (£8.99, Yellow Jersey Press) by Paul Kimmage, a former domestique – a racer who works for the benefit of his team's leader by creating a slipstream in front of him – detail cycling's drug problem. (Why does cycling get such scrutiny? What about football, rugby, tennis? Perhaps because cycling at least is facing its demons.) But, for me, only two books about bike racing get to the heart of what compels someone to suffer for hours at a time on a bicycle. Those books are Matt Seaton's 'The Escape Artist' (£6.99, Fourth Estate), a moving account of the Guardian writer's amateur racing career set against his wife's battle with cancer, and 'The Rider' (£8.99, Bloomsbury), a short novel by Tim Krabbé, Dutch author of The Vanishing.
The Rider is the story of one race, the 1977 edition of the Tour de Mont Aigoual, a 137km dash through the Cévennes for amateurs. It captures perfectly the stillness and introspection that are inescapable when grinding out hard miles, and the time-stretched moments when decisions are made, dice cast: "I come up out of the saddle, I shift and jump, Barthélemy on my wheel. I bite in the hard air, I rip down the left side of the road, I bridge the gap at a single tug. Now what to do with my velocity? I could always use it to make my brake pads nice and toasty: little shavings will go flying off them, my bike another thousandth of a gram lighter. In a flash I size up the openings on both sides of the bunch, I choose the smallest one, give it a few extra pushes and hiss through. Maybe Barthélemy will have to hit his brakes. 'Ho, hey, ho, hey,' Reilhan shouts but his voice isn't a lasso, I'm flying into open space."
It's curious that cycle racing, a sport with as compelling a mythology as, say, boxing, complete with heroes, villains and dramatic mountain-top denouements, hasn't produced any other great literature. The same is true of cycling in the cinema. Where boxing has Raging Bull and When We Were Kings, cycling has just one film that gets it: the mesmerising 1976 documentary 'A Sunday in Hell'. The opening scene, of a beautiful, steel-framed, Campagnolo-equipped racing bike being dusted with what looks like an expensive paint brush, expresses the obsessiveness to which many cyclists seem to be just a hair's breadth from succumbing. The film follows the action, with matter-of-fact narration, of the 1974 Paris-Roubaix, one of the annual Spring Classics that open the cycling season.
As the name suggests, the 250km race crosses northern France, pounding over the narrow cobbled avenues through dark forests and over windswept farmland. Year by year, racers may be blinded by dust or caked in mud and grit, but they can be sure of a bone-jarring ride – not for nothing is it known as the Hell of the North. Races such as Paris-Roubaix are the source of cycling's cult of the "hard man". This is why those cyclists blooded into the racing scene sneer at Permatanned footballers who writhe in agony when brushed by a defender. Riders from Eddy "the Cannibal" Merckx – the "Tamburlaine of the pedals" as the author Graeme Fife describes him – to the now-disgraced Tyler Hamilton, who rode the Tour with a broken collar bone, grinding his molars to stumps in the process, epitomise the glory of suffering.
The glory of suffering is the motif of 'Rouleur', the cycling magazine published by Rapha, London's own purveyor of fine bikewear (www.rapha.cc). That's what buyers of Rapha's black merino wool jerseys are buying into: a spartan French hotel room, a 1,000-yard, glucose-starved stare, jelly legs, and a tiredness so profound you can't rinse your bibshorts in the basin. Of course, Rapha-wearing cyclists are more commonly found in Fulham. Or San Francisco. Or Sydney. But the magazine does convey the majestic, solitary achievement of pushing yourself for 150 miles over Alpine passes. Helpfully, Rapha publishes two guides to riding the great climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees, both written by Graeme Fife and beautifully photographed. And the firm's sumptuous hardback 'Rouleur Photography Annual'(£35) contains the inspiring work of Gerard Brown, Timm Kölln, Ben Ingham and others. Graham Watson's photography is also worth seeking out.
While Rouleur's readers would no doubt flinch psychically on being confronted with a knobbly tyre or, God forbid, a BMX, the editors of 'The Ride' embrace all cycling's tribes. The Ride is an occasional, much sought-after journal (available from select stores or from theridejournal.com) founded and edited by brothers Philip and Andrew Diprose. Where Rouler's often moody black-and-white photography suggests asceticism and Audi estate cars, The Ride seethes with life: colourful illustrations, collages and, in the current fourth issue, more than 50 short features, including Grayson Perry on being a mountain-bike racer and Charlie Porter on riding a Brompton folding bike. A labour of love rather than get-rich-quick scheme, all profits from The Ride go to charity, and it appears when the Diproses find time between their day jobs.
The local bike shop (LBS) is fighting off cut-price competition from internet retailers and chain stores but some, usually those staffed by bike lovers, still thrive. They are a sanctuary from the hurly-burly of the high street, where you can lose yourself in contemplation of a Dura-Ace chainset before being made to feel stupid by a 16-year-old with their trousers falling halfway down. A recent exchange I had in my excellent LBS, ' Owens Cycles (owenscycles.co.uk) went: "So, what was that clicking sound when I pedalled?" "Your pedal was loose."
Shops such as Eighteen Bikes in Hope, north Derbyshire ( 18bikes.co.uk), and Head for the Hills in Dorking on the North Downs ( head-for-the-hills.co.uk) are at the heart of their mountain-biking communities. They're the sort of places to go to find out about local trails or discuss a custom-build. Clearly, business for the best LBSs has been boosted by the surge of interest in cycling, because Dan Webb, owner of Head for the Hills, has extended his shop to include road bikes.
Velorution in London ( velorution.biz) has also benefited, since it stocks London's most stylish range of town bikes, including Retrovelo and Pashley, plus Christiania cargo bikes from Copenhagen and Like-a-Bike wooden bikes for children.
Something Mikael Colville-Andersen loves about cycling is its communal aspect – sharing your ride with like-minded souls – although he'd no doubt disapprove of actually entering a special event simply to ride your bike with others. But the calendar is full of rides and races that are part of the bedrock of road-riding culture. Cyclosportives are epic group rides on closed roads. The best-known are the annual L'Etape du Tour, which follows a mountain stage of the Tour de France, and La Marmotte, which climbs the Cols du Telegraphe, Galibier and Glandon before finishing, if you make it, at the top of Alpe d'Huez. But L'Eroica is a cyclosportive with a difference: all bikes ridden on this excursion around the strade bianche (white gravel roads) of Tuscany must date from before 1987. You won't find a tastier selection of vintage bikes in one place; although if you visit New York's Museum of Arts and Design (madmuseum.org) before mid-August, you'll catch Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle exhibition, where art, craft and design come together in the contemporary shape of work by bike builders such as Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from viewing bicycles in an art gallery is watching them being raced, especially in Belgium. Nowhere is the crowd more passionate, fired up on beer and frites, than at Belgium's early-season races. At Spring Classics such as Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the season's first road race, and La Flèche Wallonne, the sport's working-class roots are obvious. This is free, boisterous entertainment where fans are within touching distance of their heroes.
Other events prize style over podium places: Rapha stages the Gentleman's Race in the US. As an unofficial race, riders on the road are described as "a coincidence of cyclists". In the UK, Brompton hosts the World Folding Bike Championships at Blenheim Palace. Competitors must be attired, appropriately, in a suit. Quirkier still is the Dunwich Dynamo, an annual, free-to-enter, 120-mile overnight ride, lit by a full moon, from Hackney to the Suffolk coast in time for sunrise. This year it's on 24 July. It's not a race, there are no support vehicles and no rush; only the spiritual (and mechanical) support of fellow cyclists, the unpredictability of the open road and the self-sufficient freedom of the bicycle. What better expression of cycling culture could there be?
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