Hellingen, A Road Cyclist’s Guide To Belgium’s Greatest Cycling Climbs, Simon Warren (2013)

The high points of the Low Countries – who knew?

Frances Lincoln 9780711234024 16cm x 11cm 143pp £9.99

Big Chief I-Spy is one of publishing’s unsung genius. He recognised that, for a certain type of boy, there was no greater pleasure than ticking things off lists. Long before anyone had heard of ‘the spectrum’, the interminable family car journeys of the 1970s were made tolerable by the awarding of points for road signs, varieties of car, or species of tree ‘spotted’ – all meticulously registered in a little book bearing the Big Chief’s stamp.

Real aficionados could even find encoded messages from the Chiefy himself, in a weekly, postage-stamp sized column towards the back of a downmarket newspaper. From memory, these communiqués rarely exceeded the length or profundity of a fortune cookie motto, but true believers were not deterred. I-Spy books reputedly sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Considering the latest in Simon Warren’s marvelous series of tiny gazetteers devoted to hills up which one can cycle, it is hard not to wonder whether his mother and Big Chief I-Spy might have been ‘friendly’ in the years preceding his birth? By whatever means it got there, the Chiefy’s DNA surely runs through these A5 digests of places where you can pedal in pursuit of transcendental pain?

School-boy geography might not alert you to the considerable undulations of Flanders and Wallonia. Anyone with a taste for cycling’s spring classics, however, will know that the country’s hills might be short – but they are famously brutal. Warren guides readers through 50 côtes and kops, providing detailed instructions for finding them and notes on the road surfaces and steepness. His book is lavishly illustrated, if that is the word for endless photographs of stretches of empty road surface. Along the way he provides a potted guide to beer, cobbles and the fractious Kingdom’s painfully split identity.

It is a brilliant addition to his little franchise and had me reaching for the Harwich ferry timetable long before the half-way point. My plan is to notch them all up before ‘The Highs and Lows Of Holland’ hits the shops.

TD Apr 13

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