On your motorcycle: the best volumes about cycling

With the Tour de France in full swing, saddle up and check out the greatest volumes on two wheels

In Mythologies , Roland Barthes argued that the Tour de Francewas an epic rite as much as it was a sporting event. For Barthes the race, which set off from the village of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile in north-west France last Saturday, traversed” a veritable Homeric geography”, a way to map a nation and celebrate the heroic perseverance of those who cycled through it.

Books about racing have tended to focus of the physical agony endured by the long-distance road cyclist( and often on their chemical aids ). As early as 1902 the experimental playwright and novelist Alfred Jarry, who scandalised French literary society by wearing his cycling outfit to the poet Stephane Mallarme‘s funeral, described the way in which competitive cycling reduced riders to machines. His absurdist, whimsical novella The Supermale describes a race between a group of cyclists and a develop. The riders are fuelled by a cocktail of drugs and one dies during the race but, being legally contracted to finish it, his body is obliged to carry on cycling.

Team Sky during the team time trial stage, 9 July 2018, in Cholet. Photograph: Tim de Waele/ Getty Images

The finest account of the introverted agony of bicycle racing- and one of the greatest sporting fictions ever written- is the Dutch novelist Tim Krabbe’s The Rider , a first-person description of a semi-professional, one-day race, recounted kilometre by kilometre. Krabbe is a cyclist and also a championship chess player, and he’s exceptionally good on the tactics and mind games involved. In The Rider the race becomes a duel between the narrator and another rider. It’s also a volume about preoccupation. “Non-racers,” the narrator believes, as he surveys the crowd of race spectators.” The emptiness of those lives shocks me .”

Dervla Murphy in India.

At its best cycling, like bicycle writing, provides a style of encountering familiar places available in new and surprising ways.” It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best ,” wrote Ernest Hemingway,” since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them .” Two of the best books to celebrate this kind of discovery are Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt : Ireland to India With a Bicycle , her classic account of a ride was carried out in 1963, armed with her bicycle, named Roz, and a pistol; and Emily Chappell’s What Goes Around .

Chappell’s volume is a memoir of the years she worked as a bicycle messenger, a difficult and dangerous job often thought to be dominated by humen. She writes beautifully about the freedom provided by cycling and the way in which riding a motorcycle allowed her to rediscover both the London she thought she knew, and also herself.

While not a athletics novelist, the historian Graham Robb conducts much of his research from the saddle. His Cols and Passes of the British Isles is a loving, obsessive almanac of the 2,002 true cols( the lowest point between two mountains) and 105 passes in the UK. In The Discovery of France he pedalled across “l’Hexagone”, sticking to the backstreets and cobbled country roads that he would have missed had he driven.” A bicycle ,” he writes in his warm, rich and fascinating book,” unrolls a 360 – degree panorama of the land, allows the rider to register its gradual alterations … and induces it hard to miss a single inch of it, from the tyre lacerating suburbs of Paris to the Mistral-blasted plains of Provence .” If only the riders of the Tour have time to notice.

* Jon Day’s Cyclogeography : Journeys of a London Bicycle Courier is published by Notting Hill Editions .

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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