Bikie, Charlie Woods (2001)

An enjoyable memoir of racing cycling in west London in the 1950s, with some perceptive essays on more recent cycle culture

Mainstream 1 84018 422 1 paperback 186pp £9.99

The point of this book is not to recount Woods’ racing career – it was not much to write home about, as he tells it. His passion for the bike, however, then and now, is a love affair that has carried him through nearly half a century. His exploration of this provides much to stimulate and entertain.

Nervex lugs, GB brakes and the Brighton Roar are evoked by way of a coming-of-age amid intense friendships forged riding through-and-off around the Home Counties. He is also perceptive on such diverse subjects as cycling in film, French cycle journalism and, the revolution that has taken place in British cycling apparel.

Woods is a stylish and thoughtful writer. Here he is on the basic appeal of bicycling.

“Every living mythology is based upon some kind of inner truth finally beyond the reach of words, something which has to be experienced. This is true of cycling insamuch as the simple act of pedalling gives access to a fuller sense of life. Scientific studies show that rhythmic exercise like cycling increases alpha-wave activity in the brain, producing a calming effect similar to meditation. In the saddle, all keen cyclists become more or less unwitting mystics. The love we feel for riding our bikes is a foretaste of that pure life-abundance which is at the end of the mystical quest…That thoroughbred, that trusty old iron, is basically a devotional aid, a prayer wheel.”

Woods’ prejudices are also entertainingly laid bare. Mountain bikers, for example. “Their implements come straight from the farm yards. Like dwarf shire horses bred for squatness and bulk, their mounts are a troll-like deformation of our graceful pure-breds. This overt ugliness is their badge of honour, an article of faith. They are a kind of protestant sect which has risen with Lutheran rectitude to challenge the established Church.”

FT Bidlake, the revered North Road club man of the early years of the twentieth century, also comes in for a roughing up. “Our resident Quisling, was selling out the sport to the motoring lobby by inventing the shifty cult of time-trialling…Decades passed in weekly Remembrance Sundays as black-clad figures gathered at dawn on deserted country roads to expiate this grovelling act of appeasement.”

The book’s only shortcoming is in its editing and general signposting. The first hundred pages see our narrator from boyhood to university. Then, without warning, we are treated to an assessment of cycling artist Anthony Green. The book closes with an intriguing short story, that appears without any kind of announcement. My guess is that the book is actually a collection of pieces that were written, and possibly originally published, separately . Fine, if that is the case. It would have required little to explain this to readers and would have made the book easier to enjoy.

This might also explain various biographical lose ends that the book leaves dangling. There is one mention of a wife, and another of a girlfriend – who falls pregnant. Whether they were one and the same, we never learn. Nor does Woods do more than tantalise readers with his career as a middle-aged model.
These are quibbles, however, and should not detract from a book that is the product of both deep meditation and a rich writing style.

PS Dec 09

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *