A comprehensive introduction to all things cycling argued with a excitingly intense moral power
Macmillan 0 330 37717 5 376pp £16.99
Reopening Richard’s Bicycle Book a quarter of a century after I first bought a copy is to step inside the tent of a charismatic, revivalist preacher. From page one, Ballantine’s argument booms from the page. Bicycles are best. They are the most efficient, economical, health-promoting, environmentally-sound transport of delight ever invented.
He broaches no doubt, never measures his positions nor nuances his arguments. His text bristles with a pulsating certainty.
I might not proslesyse in quite the manner of Ballantine, nor have his talent for enthusiastic bombast. My cycling world view, however, has remained remarkably similar to his since, in a bookhop in Bradford, I mistook a 1983 edition of the book for a simple manual on cycle maintenance (its cover is pictured above – not the more recent edition).
The book has had an extraordinary publishing history. It first appeared in 1972 and has gone through several significant revisions since then. In 1987 it was retitled ‘Richard’s New Bicycle Book’, and then in 2000 came the title above. Comparing editions, it is clear that the rewrites were pretty comprehensive. The chapter listings, for example, change completely between editions, and evidence of cut and paste is hard to find. The voice, though, is constant.
The one concession to the conventional world is in the cover. Ballantine himself appears on the cover of the 1983 edition. Heavily bearded and wearing a Christmas jumper, he is adjusting a bicycle brake on the front cover. A woman and child join him on a tricycle tandem on the back cover. They could be in search of an Amish community in need of reinvigoration.
An attractive young lady pedalling a recumbent bike adorns more recent editions. Its a commercially-savvy repackaging, but it does little to prepare readers for the uniqueness of the text.
The content mirrors Ballantine’s own interests and prejudices. He is very strong on unusual bicycles, cycling history and human-powered vehicles. Competitive cycling is dispensed with in ten pages. In earlier editions nearly half the book was devoted to cycle maintenance. Today that section takes up little more than 20 pages.
His hatred of dogs, in particular, is legendary – indeed the section of the book they occupy has grown with each edition. Arm yourself with pepper spray, or prepare yourself to ram a bicycle pump down ‘Towser’s’ throat, is his advice for dealing with the canine menace.
Just occasionally his extremism becomes comical – kickstands aren’t really the devil’s work, as he insists. And the large format of the latest version does look a bit sparsely illustrated. For the most part, though, Ballantine is sound in his advice and engaging in his intensity.
I bought the book in anticipation of a cycle journey from Bradford to Vienna, thinking that a manual on cycle care should form part of my luggage. Indeed, the counterfoils from the traveller’s cheques I took on that journey are still taped in the back of my copy. Happily Ballantine’s guidance on matters mechanical was unnecessary. The rest of his text did much to enliven our evenings, however.
Tim Dawson December 2008
Bannantyne died on 29 May 2013. His obituary in The Daily Telegraph is here.