I’m never sure about posts which are basically lists, but I have been mulling this one over for a few months now, and there will never be a better moment than this year’s Tour de France ‘Grand Depart’ in Monaco to share them. So here it is:
Best introduction to the Tour de France: Inside the Peloton by Graeme Fife. Fife – a prolific cycling writer – manages to combine both the sense of the sport and how it works, as well as the history of the race and most of the ‘grands’, the riders who have dominated it.
Best inside account by a professional: Paul Kimmage’s book A Rough Ride. Kimmage, now a sports journalist, was a successful amateur who never won a race as a professional. His book, published in 1990, was the first to break ranks on the sport’s drugs culture in the ’80s, and he was ostracised for most of the ’90s. But the book does more than this; it gives a feel for the life of the journeyman pro (in the same way, say as Eamonn Dunphy’s Only A Game did for football in the ’70s).
Best Insight Into being a team domestique: Domestiques are the team riders who can’t win for themselves, but ride for their leaders, preventing breakaways, chasing them down, keeping the pace high in the mountains, and so on. A Significant Other by Matt Rendell (based on Victor de la Pena’s diaries of the 2003 Tour) catches this better than any other. There’s a splendidly geeky section on the physics of the peloton, and a fine chapter in which de la Pena explains his team role in detail on one particular stage.
Best fictional account: Tim Krabbe’s The Rider – a novella about an amateur race, seen from the perspective of one of the riders. Almost existential.
Best book written by an insider about a pro team: A tie here, and both are about professional British cycling teams, about fifteen years apart. In Wide Eyed and Legless, Jeff Connor (a former fell-running champion-turned-journalist) is sent to ride the Tour stages ahead of the race and also report on the ill-fated ANC-Halfords team, under-prepared and under-financed, as it falls apart during the race. Team on the Run is written by John Deering, the press guy of the Linda McCartney team, funded by the vegetarian food company, and by Paul, who comes out of the story well. There are some highs – an unexpected win in the Giro d’Italia, for example – before the money goes astray.
Best book about racing as an amateur – or maybe just the best book about racing: The Escape Artist by Matt Seaton, a wonderful account of the slightly obsessive nature of the amateur rider. It sets the tone with a well-judged description of a tricky but exhilarating part of a favourite training run, and also of his first experience of riding fixed wheel at the Herne Hill velodrome (which ends calamitously). This is about cycling as a way of life – which comes up hard, later, against his wife’s illness and early death. I’d say it’s the best of all of these books.
Other cycling posts:
Reaching the heights, touching the void