The Eternals

For the icy, snowy days when you’ve finished staring at your bike in the garage and completed your drills on the turbo there’s plenty of great books about cycling to pass the time till the roads clear (bacon roll accompaniment essential)!

Over the years I’ve collected and read a number of books on cycling. It’s amazing how many books are out there on road cycling. Apart from my bike maintenance book which stays out in the garage for the times when I pluck up the courage to true a wheel or change my brake cables, I enjoy reading about professional cyclists past and present. As I write I see that Bjarne Riis has published his autobiography. Although I’m not a fan of his, I think it will be an intriguing read!

Being a man of a certain age I remember watching some of the legends of cycling on TV as a youngster. Every now and then BBC Grandstand would show some edited highlights of Le Tour and this was the only time I saw Merckx cycle although I was lucky to see him in the flesh many years later in Newcastle presenting a prize to Sean Kelly for a criterium.

Cyclists from that era are fascinating with their steel frames and wooly tops; Zoetemelk, Moser, Van Impe and of course Merckx. I have a book called Kings of the Road (Magowan and Watson) full of their exploits and with great photographs of them, their faces caked in Roubaix mud. Although famous they seemed to live in a time before the ‘cult of the celebrity.’ I can’t imagine them having a facebook page or tweeting.

Van Impe

I suppose Sean Kelly was a bridge between that time and the modern cycling era. Some of his exploits are quite amazing in terms of suffering on a bike. I have read his excellent biography by David Walsh many times. His triumphs in the Paris Nice are especially well covered in the book. It’s inspiring to think of these ordinary lads like Kelly and Roche who were farmers or mechanics not only racing heroically but learning Flemish, French, Spanish, Italian and some German.

The same is true of the enigmatic Robert Millar who went from working at Weir’s in Glasgow to the top of the Galibier. Although his biography is well written by Richard Moore I felt that it could benefitted from the writer being closer to his subject instead of relying so much on old press cuttings and anecdotes.

I have to say I’m not as keen on the modern cyclist biography. Floyd Landis? No thanks. Cavendish? Well maybe in twenty years time but you’re still a young man so live a bit of life first and then I’ll tune in. As for Lemond and Armstrong (now mortal enemies) I would go for Sam Abt’s biography of Lemond whose comeback after his shooting accident, culminating in his 8 second victory over Fignon in Le Tour 1989, defies belief.

Armstrong has several biographies none of which I found compelling. His self dramatizing  and somewhat egotistical views on the modern peleton left me cold except for his titanic battles with Marco Pantani.

Of the modern riders in the current peloton the one biography I would definitely love to read would be Thomas Voeckler’s (if it is ever written that is). What a gutsy performer and entertainer. I think the 2011 Tour was the best I’ve ever followed and he was undoubtedly at the centre of that great race almost from start to finish.

However all these riders aside, my favourite biography is that of Fausto Coppi –  ‘Il Campionissimo’ – which is included in a bigger book I have about the Tour de France. This graceful Italian rode to many victories before the war and through the 1950s. His ability as a cyclist was so devastating that he would blow fields apart winning the Tour, the Giro and the Worlds. His private life was as colourful, joining the Italian army, being held as a POW by the British in North Africa. Then there was his passionate relationship with the mysterious ‘Lady in White’ which effectively ended his career before he contracted malaria. The images of his funeral are stunning as Italy ground to a halt to pay their respects.

There are lots of good reads out there which I didn’t cover (Bicycle Diaries/David Byrne – Vive Le Tour/Nick Brownlee – The Hour/Michael Hutchison and Cyclopedia/William Fotheringham) all good ways of passing time till the thaw!

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