The Bicycle Book, Bella Bathurst (2011)

An entertaining collection of stories and reflections made all the more enjoyable by the deftness of the writing

HarperPress 9780007305889 306pp Quarto £16.99

The pretext of Bathurst’s book is simple – she set out to write the kind of book about bicycles that she would have liked to read herself. An enthusiastic, long-time cyclist, as well as a fine, well-established author, she has assembled a collection of stories, interviews and experiences that arise from her feeling that ‘there is no lovelier form of transport’.

She meditates on professional cycling, via an extended interview with Charly Wegelius, builds a frame under the tutelage of Dave Yates, breaks bread with cycle couriers, marvels at Danny MacAskill and much, much more. To all of this she brings a keen understanding of cycling and an ability to turn neat sentences.

Cycle racing pros “Live like monks and dope like fiends”, she observes. Graeme Obree has “got a face like a Jesuit – lean, furrowed, with those thousand-mile-eyes and a weird kind of beauty”. And while the second world war Special Operation’s Executive’s exploding horse shit is slightly off-subject, in Bathurst’s hands, its comedy and tragedy is deftly handled.

She also uncovers some little-known tales from the world of two wheels. There is Zetta Hills the Edwardian ironwoman who cycled across the English Channel on a bike-driven raft; Vinod Punmiya, an Indian businessman who races against the sub-continent’s fastest trains on his bike, and WM Robinson whose celebrated mid-winter assault on the Berwin mountains inspired the rough-stuff cult.

Enjoyable though the book is, it is not without faults. It reads rather like a collection of pieces that were commissioned separately. There are also moments when she falls back on easy generalisations, when some genuine enquiry would have been more illuminating. The decline of utility cycling in the UK – blamed partly on the CTC’s resistance to separate cycle lanes during the 1930s – is given a flip treatment, where some fastidious research might have turned up something genuinely new.

There are also a depressing number of minor factual errors that will hopefully have been addressed when the inevitable paperback edition appears.

Neither should deter would-be buyers. That the market for cycling books with literary ambitions is attracting successful authors with pre-existing track records can only be a good thing. Bathurst marries obvious personal enthusiasm with masterful skills as an author to deliver a book as enjoyable as it is enriching.

TD May 11

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