Matt Seaton’s haunting memoir, The Escape Artist, charts the physical and emotional consequences of his obsession with cycling, and his struggle with his wife’s death from cancer. He has recently gone back to a bit of racing, now as a veteran. At the last count he had six bikes, including a beautiful blue titanium Colnago.
1. The Rider by Tim Krabbé
Krabbé is probably best known in this country as the author of the novel adapted as the film The Vanishing, but in his native Netherlands The Rider is his bestselling book. As a young man, Krabbé’s forte was chess – in his late teens, he was inside the top 20 players in Holland – and he only discovered a talent for cycle-racing relatively late in life, in his 30s. That new-found passion eventually found its way into this autobiographical novella about a bike race in south-west France, but the chess knowledge still figures as Krabbé narrates the intricate battle of tactics and psychology as the race plays itself out against the bleak landscape of les causses. Like much of Krabbé’s oeuvre, The Rider has a strange, dark, philosophical flavour: it is both a paean to pain and a hymn to the fellowship of the road. Nothing better is ever likely to be written on the subjective experience of cycle-racing.
2. Bike Cult: The Ultimate Guide to Human Powered Vehicles by David B Perry
This compendious scrapbook of bike lore is a resource I return to again and again. David Perry is the perfect bicycle enthusiast – a former professional racer but with a metropolitan ‘alternative’ sensibility. Whether you are hunting for references to movies which feature cycling or are merely browsing, Bike Cult is, for all its idiosyncracies and slightly makeshift feel, about the best encyclopaedia there is. Where else would you learn not only about French surrealist Alfred Jarry’s absinthe-inspired cycling fantasies but also about the astonishing mathematical complexity of the physics of balancing on a bicycle? An indispensable companion.
3. On Your Bicycle: An Illustrated History of Cycling by James McGurn
Jim McGurn is an institution in his own right. Few others have done so much to foster the culture of cycling, through entrepreneurialism, publishing and writing. His history of cycling is, for my money, the best in a crowded field. Originally published by John Murray and handsomely and imaginatively illustrated, On Your Bicycle is an elegant and perceptive social history of cycling. Read this and you will realise that merely to swing your leg over the crossbar is to participate in a noble tradition, and that, as Iris Murdoch once observed, the bicycle is the most civilised form of transport known to man.
4 Rough Ride by Paul Kimmage
Now a renowned sports writer, Kimmage first paid his dues as a professional cyclist. His career overlapped with two other, more famous sons of Irish cycling, Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly. Kimmage worked as a domestique – which can be literally translated as servant – one of the workhorses of the team. That alone gives his account of a pitiless sport that chews riders up and spits them out some of its gritty touch, but what made Kimmage’s portrait of the professional peloton famous was his frankness about doping. Compelling stuff.
5. Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham
The Guardian’s own cycling correspondent, William Fotheringham, is one of several prolific cycling writers, and I could nominate any one of a number of his books. This biography of Simpson, arguably the most talented cyclist Britain has ever produced, stands out as exemplary, not least because of the difficulty and sensitivity of the subject. Simpson’s death from heat exhaustion, exacerbated by amphetamine misuse, on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France was a deeply traumatic event for a generation of fans – a tragedy that has subsequently become shrouded in denial and sentiment. Fotheringham navigates his way through this miasma with tact, rigour and intelligence.
6. One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers by Tim Hilton
As cycling memoirs go, it is hard to imagine Hilton’s being improved on. Rich in reminiscences of his own 50s and 60s heyday, but mingling personal history with a deep knowledge of the sport and its history, Tim Hilton makes a congenial and acute companion. An arts correspondent by trade (latterly of the Independent, but formerly of the Guardian), he brings a subtle, nuance-alert mind to such subjects as why both artists and posties have always been over-represented among the ranks of club cyclists.
7. Off to the Races: 25 Years of Cycling Journalism by Samuel Abt
Does what it says on the cover. The point being that Abt, long-time correspondent for the International Herald Tribune and New York Times, is one of the best. However else you follow the Tour, Abt’s columns in the IHT are mandatory reading. For one thing, he gets more space than many British sports editors allow, and his reporting is always spot-on. No spin, no angle, no ego – he just really knows his subject and tells it like it is. No other cycling journalist so consistently enriches what I thought I’d seen on the previous evening’s TV highlights.
8. Flying Scotsman: The Graeme Obree Story by Graeme Obree
Obree, you may remember, was the eccentric but brilliant Scottish cyclist who set a new world hour record on a bike he’d built himself out of, among other things, old washing machine parts. He lost his record to Chris Boardman, and the two entered an extraordinary duel which, symbolically, pitted amateur versus professional and homespun wisdom against cutting-edge sports science. Obree the arch-individualist always made a great story, but something deeper emerged after his career collapsed into depression and mental anguish and he was forced to confront the demons that had been driving him since his miserable childhood. A brave and honest autobiography.
9. A Significant Other: Riding the Centenary Tour De France with Lance Armstrong by Matt Rendell
One of the most fascinating aspects of professional cycling competition is the way teams work – essentially, all for one. Rendell’s book takes as its subject the role of the domestique, the journeyman pro whose job is to shepherd and protect the team leader, to fetch and carry food and drink, to chase down attacks, and, when necessary, to give up a wheel or even his entire bicycle to his master. Rendell captures exactly the poignancy of this role, but the beauty of the book is its access to Colombian rider Victor Hugo Peña, whose daily job was to bury himself for Lance Armstrong. Peña proves a remarkably articulate subject, and Rendell’s transcription of his account of one Tour is a white-knuckle ride.
10. It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life by Lance Armstrong
It slightly goes against the grain to nominate Lance’s bestseller – after all, doesn’t he win enough? But this is just too big a book to ignore. We all now know the story in outline: world-class athlete discovers he has advanced cancer and may be weeks away from death; against the odds and with incredible grit, he makes a full recovery and, astonishingly, rides his way back to winning ways. Whatever you think of Lance, it is an inspirational tale. The title was a stroke of genius: aided by an excellent ghostwriter, Lance achieved that rare thing – a bike book that non-bikies wanted to read.