There’s been an explosion of interest in cycling history in the UK recently. This is fuelled in part by greater coverage of the sport and, I suspect, by the Rapha phenomenon; but it’s mainly, I think, down to the influence of two very fine biographers who have proved there is a ready market for books about Coppi or Pantani or even the astonishing Jose Beyaert. Matt Rendell and William Fotheringham are each compiling a formidable body of work. Richard Moore, meawhile, is emerging as a rival to these two contemporary giants – he’s another gifted writer with a great feeling for his subject, and his Rob Millar biography is an excellent read.
Beyond these three we’re also seeing the emergence – or the re-emergence in the case of Beryl Burton and Eileen Sheridan – of autobiographies by past and present British greats. There are countless books about the Tour, of course (though little specifically about the Giro or the Classics that I know of), and idiosyncracies such as the marvellous One More Kilometre And We’re In The Showers by the art historian Tim Hilton.
Where once you might have been lucky to find a couple of Armstrong books, a training manual and history of the Tour in your local Waterstones, the shelves are now jammed withworks about cycling. Translations of foreign language books are becoming more freely available, meaning we can enjoy the warm insights of Jean Bobet, brother of the great Louison. And there’s a complete sub-genre of books about doping, kicked off by the ex-soigneur Willy Voet and the pro-racer turned journalist Paul Kimmage.
There are gaps, of course (where is the great Merckx biography in English?) and many stories waiting to be told – not least the scandal unfolding around us right now in flame-ridden forums, knowing news stories and confidential emails between the protagonists. I’ve no doubt David Walsh is already sharpening his pencil at the prospect of a third foray into the shady world of Lance Armstrong; only this time it’ll be a story to rank alongside The Godfather as a tale of loyalty, corruption, omerta and betrayal.
I think it’s fair to say we’re living in a golden age of English language cycling writing (not to mention works in translation) and there are plenty to choose from in this flourishing genre. But which are the best? That’s a matter of debate, of course – besides, the list will have to be reconsidered every time Rendell, Fotheringham or Moore publish a fresh work. For what it’s worth, these are my 11 favourites, with brief reasons why (not really in order of preference, though I do love Olympic Gangster); I’d love to know yours.
1. Olympic Gangster by Matt Rendell
1948 Olympic gold medallist Jose Beyaert forsook the European peloton for a more adventurous life as a cycling coach, illegal logger, probable drug runner and possible assassin in the wilder regions of South America. His extraordinary story is vividly told by Matt Rendell as he follows the trail from London to Paris and the wild depths of the rainforest. In so doing, he displays the same deep commitment to research and unflinching desire for truth that marked out his Life and Death of Marco Pantani. A brilliant book.
2. Fallen Angel: the Passion of Fausto Coppi by William Fotheringham
Coppi’s my hero – largely as a result of this book. Fotheringham tells his story with a great feeling for time, place and the unerring trajectory towards greatness of the man who really deserves the title of Il Campionissimo. The details of Coppi’s savagely poor upbringing, the discovery of his prowess on a simple butcher’s bike, his rivalry with Bartali, his scandalous affair with the notorious ‘Lady in White’ and his wasteful death as a result of misdiagnosed malaria (the real scandal of his life) are beautifully realised. Even so, Coppi himself remains an enigmatic, untouchable figure.
3. In Search of Robert Millar by Richard Moore
Another complicated character who has deliberately erected a screen around himself. Yet Moore picks away at the layers of his history and his character with care and persistence until he achieves his reward – an interview with Millar himself. An ambitious, confident and distinguished first biography that suggests a serious talent is emerging.
4. Master Jacques: The Enigma of Jacques Anquetil by Richard Yates
I’m not sure whether it’s me or the subjects biographers choose, but here is another awkward, thoroughly singleminded and utterly fascinating character. This was published around the same time as the appallingly-titled and much better known Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape, which focused rather more on Anquetil’s peculiar sex life than his tyrannous – and majestic – cycling talent. Yates is particularly good on the Anquetil/Poulidor rivalry. Not as weighty as the books above, but a good read nevertheless.
5. Tomorrow, we ride by Jean Bobet
Jean Bobet was the brother of the great Louison, a triple Tour winner in the 50s. Jean himself was no mean cyclist and rode alongside his brother through each of his victories. This is as much a story about Jean as it is about Louison, but it’s also a fine account of the mores and characters of the peloton during the ‘Golden Age’ of cycle racing. Bobet writes chivalrously, compassionately and with great respect for his brother, his fellow riders and for the sport itself.
6. Lapize… now there was an ace by Jean Bobet
Another Bobet, another wonderful evocation of cycle sport during one of its most fascinating periods. The characters are unforgettable – the ox-like Francois Faber whose training rides lasted for days and took him halfway across France and Italy (he would have spanked Cancellara); the fantastically barmy Henri Desgrange, the founder of the Tour whose semi-crazed rhetoric fuelled the glorious tales that have come down to us through the century; the unfortunate Eugene Christophe, whose broken fork cost him Tour victory not once but perhaps even twice. But the hero is Octave Lapize, the 1910 Tour winner and a magnificent rider with the mind of a shopkeeper and a habit of climbing off his bike in the middle of races if he didn’t think he was going to win. Just brilliant.
7. A Dog in a Hat by Joe Parkin
The very readable autobiography of an ambitious, wide-eyed American who journeyed to Europe in the wake of Lemond to break into the European peloton. Parkin relays the strife and struggles of the lesser lights with honesty, humour and intelligence. An excellent read if you want to know what it’s like to race in a Belgian kermesse.
8. The Rider by Tim Krabbe
A highly-concentrated first-person account of a single race that blends both fact and fiction into something almost poetic. Krabbe is a writer, a chess fanatic and was a useful rider in his day. This semi-fictionalised description of one of his own races is generally considered the coolest of cycling books and reads at times like a cross between Hemingway and Sartre.
9. Bad Blood: The Secret Life of the Tour de France by Jeremy Whittle
There are a number of good books about doping, mostly written by people who were actually involved in the sport itself as riders, soigneurs and so on. Whittle, however, is a former editor of procycling and so largely detached from the inner life of the peloton. This is an informed outsider’s view of cycling’s EPO-driven descent into corruption and farce and its impact on someone who wants to love the sport but just knows far too much. In describing his disenchantment, he gives a voice to the feelings of thousands of cycling fans.
10. One More Kilometre and We’re in the Showers by Tim Hilton
Art critic Tim Hilton brings a very literate and literary sensibility to this warm reminiscence of his life as a British clubman. Along the way he reveals a deep knowledge of the development of cycling in Britain and the great characters it has produced – his potted biography of the marvellous Eileen Sheridan is particularly memorable. This is a lovely, meandering book that is rather like going on a long bike ride with a particularly intelligent and loquacious friend. One of my favourites.
11. The Offical Tour de France History
I think this book generally comes as part of a package with a DVD that’s sold every year around Tour time – I got my copy as a raffle prize. It’s not as critical or as piercing as many of the Tour books available, but this is the most comprehensive and informative. Apart from its overview of every Tour, it includes contemporary newspaper accounts which add real depth and colour to the story, year by year. I felt I knew a great deal more after reading this than I did after reading any of the other Tour books.
So there you have it – 11 excellent cycling books as chosen by me. What are your favourites?