Need For The Bike, Paul Fournel (tran Allan Stoekl), (2003)

A selection of 500 – 800 word reflections on the author’s passion for pedalling that forms a poetic and magical journey in to the heart of a cyclist

University of Nebraska Press 0 8032 6909 9 small paperback 150pp $15

Fournel is a sophisticated thinker and, as a writer, is committed to the avant-garde. In this collection of writing, however, he strips down sensory recollections – of falling off, of climbing hills, of knowing roads and of fighting the wind.

Each essay is a self-contained trajectory or thought or a distillation of impressions. They could conceivably have been columns in a cerebral cycling journal, or even writer’s exercises. Their effect, however, is cumulative.

Fournel’s interest is in panning for the fragmentary experiences that make up being a cyclist, but that are generally either too fleeting, or familiar to have been properly defined and celebrated. Enjoying aching legs, for example, or recognising the noises made by different varieties of tyres, are among his unique bicycling pleasures. So too are the experience of riding in a group and the gearing that he requires on oft-climbed hills, by which he defines his level of fitness.

Here he is on the smells of summer.

“You pass through pockets of sweet-smelling heat, when the road cuts through a wheat or rye field, where you come out of a forest and enter a clearing. The heat activates the smell of the resins, and brings out of the road the smell of tar, the profound background to all the summer scents.

A great concert takes place just after a rain, when the road surface is still steaming from the storm and the deep odours of the world ascend from the earth. The sun, just back, dries your jersey and draws out of your own body the aroma of wool and salt. The smell of water gradually dissipates and for quarter of an hour you feel as if you’re riding inside a truffle.”

This is also the memoir of a cyclist who has ridden in a rich, virtual world. Like many of us, much of his cycling universe takes its cues from the world of racing. But Fournier has never actually raced himself – save for sneaking on to the course of the Tour de l’Avernir as the race was in progress. Nonetheless, the lustre of a climb comes, in part, from the epic battles to which it has been witness; a velodrome bears the indelible mark of the champions who have rode its boards.

By the end of the book, Fournel has told readers a lot about himself and his cycling. The effect of reading them, however, is to be conducted on an internal journey. Few who are committed cyclists will not know more about themselves by the time they finish this book, than they did at the outset. It is that process of revelation that makes the book a such rare treat.

It is worth noting too what a fine translation this is – giving both the literal meaning of some cycling-specific French phrases, as well as their English counterparts – thus we learn that a Frenchman who has encountered ‘the witch with the green teeth’, would have ‘bonked’, were he from the other side of the Channel. A French ‘wool eater’ would be an English ‘wheel sucker’.

PS Nov 09

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