Published by Andrew on 13 December 2022
Bob Zeller reviews Travels With A Brompton by Sue Birley, a book that reflects the simple pleasures of cycle touring.
In the second-to-last paragraph of Travels With A Brompton by Sue Birley, and after describing the relationship she and her husband David have with their non-electric Bromptons, Sue suggested that one day they will have to use electric bikes. But in the meantime, "Although we travel more slowly than of yore and therefore get through fewer kilometres, we are still happy about using our own power to get up hills. whether cycling or pushing. There's little to beat the feeling of achievement at cresting a hill or mountain and the satisfaction of freewheeling down. The ride down Mont Ventoux was out of this world, and knowing we had a bed and that there were several places for dinner added to the perfection."
What a wonderful attitude to bring to cycle touring.
There are any number of books being published these days about someone's ride from Dieppe to Nice or similar places. In them, you get all the details about the hammering out of countless miles on difficult roads. Of the determination to get to the top before anyone else in the tour party. But Travels with a Brompton in the Cevennes and Other Regions is most definitely not one of those. Nowhere will you learn about the details of tyre degradation in excessive heat, the saving of grams using one type water bottle instead of another or the minutia of gear ratios.
In fact, had the book been written in the sixties and published in California, it would more likely be described as dealing with the Zen of touring. And that's why I enjoyed it so much. Two people spend years taking their holidays with a couple of bikes (which they seem to think of as their children) riding in France. That's it! Other than a few squiggly lines connecting a few towns, there are no maps. Instead, what you get are lovely Impressionist-type descriptions of villages, towns, some of the hotels, meals and people these two have come across over the almost 30 years that they have been cycle touring.
You won't get any advice about the hows of touring, or perhaps even the whys. What you will get is a compilation of all the trip diaries kept by Birley on the countless holiday excursions. Many involve returning to places they have been before. But for many tourists (or at least me), returning to familiar spots simply provides an opportunity to relive wonderful previous experiences but with a slightly different focus. It's not really different from re-reading a well-loved poem.
I found the Birleys' relationships with their Bromptons particularly interesting. They have traditional non-folding bikes as well, but they always use the Bromptons when their conventional bikes, which they call "big bikes", might present problems with the trains they might have to use to get to their starting points or to cover more area on tour. In some ways, they seem to treat their Bromptons as children. Sue has actually named hers Modestine after Robert Louis Stevenson's donkey, which features in Louis Stevenson's book Travels with a Donkey. Most certainly, the bikes seem to have their own personalities – childlike or otherwise.
That really sums up the Birleys. Enjoy the 'poetry' of the tour. Ignore what others might see as conventional wisdom if indeed it helps you connect to the gentle satisfactions of touring. If others disagree or don't understand, that's too bad. But cycle touring is about the tour, not the process.
About our contributor
Bob Zeller, a now-retired UK-based Canadian journalist, spent much of his professional life covering major European and North American professional cycle racing for the (Toronto) Globe & Mail, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Winning Magazine and others. His beat included the spring and autumn Classics, the Tour de France and 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 most of all.