Published by Andrew on 19 January 2021
A lockdown sort out prompted Bob Zeller to rediscover some of his treasured cycling books and associated memories.
One of my lockdown projects has been to reorganise my bookshelves. It wasn't so I could put all the unread academic and ‘high quality’ literature at the front and appear brighter than I really am on Zoom, but to simply to bring a bit of order to the shelves. To no surprise, the topic that takes up most of the shelves is cycling – and an unexpected benefit of the tidy up was the reminder that I have managed to accumulate some wonderful books.
Of course, cycling is best experienced by being on the bike. Even a ride to the shops can be a delight. You're travelling slowly enough to experience and not just see what’s going on around you. Of course, to cycle gently down a quiet D road to the boulangerie in France is a very much better experience than a quick trip to the Spar in Northern Ireland where I live. But when you can’t be in France, you can still experience at least some of the elements of cycling through the many wonderful books that are available. On my shelves, there are probably four dozen – or more – that in my view are always wonderful reads. It’s hard to determine which of those I enjoy the most, mind you.
In cycle racing, perhaps my favourites are the books written by journalist friends who covered Continental racing when I did in the eighties as so many of them describe experiences that I was there to witness. Sam Abt, John Wilcockson and Geoff Nicholson are the racing writers I enjoy most.
And then, still dealing with cycle racing, but in a very special category, are the magnificent books by Graham Watson, one of the very best cycle racing photographers of any generation. My favourite is Graham Watson: 20 Years of Cycling Photographs, published in 2000 by Yellow Jersey Press. Graham has retired but his pictures of cyclists struggling up the Alpe d’Huez, or attacking on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, or anywhere else for that matter, both illustrate and explain the pain and the joy of bicycle racing better than anything else that I have seen. My favourite Watson picture is perhaps his most famous, the one he took of Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault battling at they reached the top of L’Alpe d’Huez during their epic 1986 Tour de France fight. That picture shows up in three books of mine but there is as well a very large print mounted in our den (you can buy a print from Graham's shop here). More than any other picture, it sums up for me what made cycle racing brilliant in those days: pain, joy and passion. And I'm not alone in loving it:
I have this poster hanging in my hallway. I won it in a competition. Personally signed by Graham Watson. Lemond, Hinault, La Vie Claire and Alpe d'Huez in one photo. Perfect! pic.twitter.com/OOa4zEKj9g— Michael Bellamy (@michaelbellam10) July 6, 2018
But as much as I love stories about the grit and sweat of the Spring Classics or the great Tours or the World Championships, I enjoy books about touring. I have lots of these. Dozens. Far more than any other genre. Some deal primarily with specific routes: the brilliant Cicerone cycle touring guides, for instance. If you were only going to use one book to plan your next tour, and there is a Cicerone book covering that area or specific route, make it the Cicerone book. Cicerone books seem to touch all the bases and they are written by serial tourists who not only love to love to tour but want to fire their readers with the same enthusiasm.
Last year, my regular touring buddy Jim Burke and I decided we wanted to ride some of the Loire cycle route. The official route is exceptionally well signed so we could have ridden it just following the signs, as I am sure many do. Tour books, or even maps, I suppose, are not really necessary to get from one point on the Loire to another. But with the detailed information that the book’s author Jim Wells provides, a first class route became exceptional.
I recommend all Cicerone touring books. I have read them all. And when we return to normal times, I’ll be riding more of their routes. Brilliantly written, they have all the necessary details and maps, and the background information is invaluable for planning. As well, each book comes with access to GPS downloads and Cicerone’s website provides information updates. It’s a first class service for a most moderate price. See here to plan your own adventure.
Some of my other favourite cycling books, in no particular order:
Cycle Touring in France by Robin Neillands and published by Oxford Illustrated Press Ltd 1989. This brilliant book is out of print, although used copies are available online. Some of its information is out of date, but it is worth getting because it is all very interesting and informative. Like the Cicerone books, the first 50 or so pages give an overview to touring in general, which is about as applicable today as it was in 1989. What follows are pages of suggested tours, many of which would be wonderful to do today with just a bit of revision – perhaps with the input from many of the routes that are on Freewheeling France. But the pièces de résistance are the gorgeous pen and ink sketches that are scattered throughout the book. They really do present the essence of the best touring available today, even though they were drawn years ago.
Full Tilt to India With a Bicycle written by Dervla Murphy in 1965 and published by Elland. I first heard about this extraordinary book and even more extraordinary writer at the Great Canadian Bicycle Rally in Woodstock, Ontario in the early seventies. The first event of its sort that I had ever attended, it attracted cyclists of all persuasions from across Canada, the UK and Europe. It was from those folks that I learned about Dervla Murphy and her travels. Dervla wasn’t the first long distance cyclist, many others preceded her. But her ride from Ireland to India, with her bike Rozinante and a rather large pistol (Rozinante was in constant use, the pistol somewhat less), was unlike any of the others I had ever read about. To use the vernacular of today, Dervla was awesome both as a cyclist and a writer, and many of today’s travel writers should study her work carefully. Much of what she sees she describes in detail, but even better is that she describes what she hears and senses. Wonderful stuff!
The CTC Book of Cycling published by David & Charles, 1983, and written well before this once wonderful club dedicated to the enjoyment of classic style cycle touring underwent fundamental change and became a cycling lobby organisation. This book really encapsulates just about everything one needs to know about cycling, but – more importantly – it shows how to enjoy the wonderful world of cycling, no matter what kind of bike you ride or where you ride it.
Cycling Northern France published by Excellent Books and written by Richard Peace, who will be well known to Freewheeling France readers. Richard has produced a number of guides for touring in France. I enjoy all of them, but I particularly enjoy this book because it suggests wonderful routes in the part of France that I tour in the most. As well, it comes with a waterproof oversize map showing all of the routes in the book. I rode one a few years ago and thought his suggestions and descriptions to be spot on. More info here.
Cycling Southern France also by Richard Peace. This too is a first class guide to some routes in southern France. It doesn’t come with the giant map that the northern book does, but there are detailed maps throughout.
The Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy There are lots of general (not cycling specific) guides to parts of France. This one for Brittany and Normandy, where I do much of my touring because it is easy to get to from Northern Ireland, is by far my favourite because the things I am most interested in are almost always covered in this book. I especially like its hotel and restaurant comments and recommendations. I am worried, however, as we come out of COVID rules and return to cycling, that many of those wonderful hotels and restaurants might not have survived.
Cycle Craft by John Franklin and published by TSO. Although originally published in 1997, this brilliant book about the actual technique of cycle riding is still used as the go-to text by many UK cycling instructors. A good read even for experienced riders, it should be seen as required reading for those who haven’t had the opportunity to get formal cycle riding training.
The Badminton Library Book of Sports and Pastimes: Cycling, written in 1887 by The Earl of Albermarle and G. Lacey Hillier. This is one of the most interesting (and charming) books about any subject that I have ever read. And the illustrations are every bit as fascinating. My edition is almost 400 pages, and almost every page has something interesting. In fact, much of the advice given is still pertinent today. Suggestions about how to train for a tour are still quite sensible, for instance. And so are suggestions about route planning. And like many other early books, there are wonderful pen and ink illustrations. Some things never go out of fashion. It’s been out of print for years, of course. But used copies can be found on the web or in antiquarian book shops. If you find one, scoop it up. You’ll never tire of reading it.
Of course there are lots of other books about cycle touring, many of them done very well. For a starting point to building your own library, you can’t do better than these.
About Bob Zeller
Bob Zeller is a retired UK-based Canadian journalist who spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for the (Toronto) Globe & Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and the world championships. While he has enjoyed just about all types of cycling – sportives, audax and just riding his bike to the shops – it's touring that he has always loved the most. And it's touring in France that he enjoys the most.