Some bike books are by naive newcomers. Hooray for that, says Rob Ainsley
An old college friend has just got into cycling. His road bike cost more than I earn, his jersey is more expensive than my bike and he daily Facebook brags about how he’s KOM for his age range on some Strava segment. As an everyday cyclist, I prefer well-pocketed M&S shorts to Lycra ones, being more marsupial than MAMIL. And I’m still the fastest for my age on several segments, if I restrict the range to my precise birthdate.
Another Facebook friend is a different sort of cycling ingénue. She posted a picture of her new town bike and asked her social media cohort what she should call it and 200 people replied. Evidently bike names are more interesting than frame geometry.
Suggestions came in two types: ‘cage fighter name’, usually by men (‘The Beast’, ‘The Green Goddess’ and so on); and ‘Ealing Comedy maiden aunt name’, usually by women (‘Mabel’, ‘Flossie’). She settled on Matilda, after a great-grandparent.
Christening bikes is not my style. Just as well – I don’t know who most of my great-grandparents were. But travelogue writer Andrew P. Sykes has made a series out of it, most recently his amiable Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie. Writing a decent bike travel book like this is hard work. It’s tough to escape the clichés: life in rut, crazy plan in pub, setting off, early doubts, remote-country hospitality, final exhausted triumph.
One problem is that the more enjoyable the adventure, the less there is to write about. I’ve done more big trips than you could shake a selfie stick at, and once cycled to all the places in the world called Bath. (There were 23 of them.) But there was never a book, because they were a predictable succession of comfortable accommodation, good people, interesting food, absorbing culture, thrilling scenery and soul-nourishing contemplation. No hilarious tales of mechanical failure, armed conflict or nearfatal illness.
Like a derailleur, a page-turner needs the right amount of tension, or it doesn’t work. The readable writer contrives a challenge, like the Iron Curtain on a shopping bike in winter (Tim Moore) or taking a cricket bat to the Ashes in Australia (Oli Broom). Or perhaps there’s an all-consuming search for something, and I don’t just mean enough sockets to charge all your devices, like riding to, literally, recover your sanity (Bernie Friend).
Me, I just want a nice holiday. I don’t need to find myself. It’s clear where I am. Usually in a Wetherspoon pub, with a post-ride pint.
Some travel literature can be intimidating, with ferociously driven individuals doing dangerous things. By Kayak to Rockall, Afghanistan on a Skateboard, Around the World Tediously Quickly. Good reads, maybe, but give me a slow-bike travelogue for Christmas any time. Sykes may not be Proust, but A La Recherche du Temps Perdu never made me want to cycle France.
Even give me the clichéd, self-published account of a first-time End-to-Ender, or clumsy web page of a naive charity rider. Such unpretentious – but inspiring – tales remind us all that we can create our own stories. All we need is a bike and a plan, and perhaps a multiway adaptor. We’re not scowling, focused professionals. We’re amateurs, in the true sense: doing it because we love it. We probably couldn’t get a book from it, just a blog for friends and family and the odd serendipitous Googler, or simply a dinner-party yarn. But it’ll be life-enhancing.
Similarly, I won’t snigger at my old college chum for being the caricature allthe-gear arriviste, or roll my eyes at people who name their bike like a pet duck. It’s great to have them both joining us. Maybe soon we’ll be discussing cycle things – compacts versus triples, Cycle Superhighways or the best cafes on the Way of the Roses route and so on. (Possibly Woodies, at Crook o’Lune.) Despite ranting media columnists, terrible infrastructure and car-centric culture, people are still coming to cycling in different ways. Let’s welcome them all. Be their mentor and you never know, you might see yourself mentioned approvingly in some wideeyed, enthusiastic, self-published bike travelogue soon.
Like a derailleur, a page-turner needs the right amount of tension