Category: Book Reviews

The Tour de France kicks off in a few short days…what better time than to present a review of Graeme Fife’s stellar Tour de France: The History…The Legend…The Riders…14th ed. (London: Mainstream Publishing, 2012)!

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Originally published in 1999, this edition of Tour de France was revised to include the Tours through 2012, where Bradley Wiggins became the first Briton to win the coveted yellow jersey. This book is a thrilling and weighty look at the lore, the triumphs, the challenges and the defeats of the greatest cycling event we know. Compiled from exhaustive research, interviews with riders and anecdotes from historical accounts, Tour de France is dense and satisfying like a fine meal. The book is of two major parts: the first section divided into chapters named after the famous Alpine and Pyrenean summits that feature so prominently in the Tour. The second part is a series of chapters, starting in 1998 and finishing with 2012, that give the highlights and lowlights, the victories and the scandals that accompanied those years. Interspersed throughout the first part of the book are Fife’s own cyclotouriste efforts up the celebrated cols where so many legends were made (and broken).

The word “epic” has been used overmuch in the world of cycling, but that word suits this book just fine. Fife’s writing has an almost lyrical quality to it; his descriptions of events as they happened is breathtaking. Here’s an example, where he is describing the scene of a mountain stage:

The riders plough on through a cacophony of klaxons yodelling like a jamboree of deranged Tyroleans, exhaust pipes snorting plumes of carbon monoxide, the whole circus parade of team cars, service cars, official race cars, motorbikes with and without cameramen perched on the pillion seat, broom wagon snaking up the mountain — as fast as the leader at the front, as slow as the stragglers at the tail — through a jungle of spectators crammed so deep by the road’s edge they leave no more than a single file path down their middle and then bulge shut over the riders as they pass, like a python consuming its lunch.

The entire book is like that — and sometimes those vivid descriptions require re-reading a time or two for them to sink in. This is not “light reading” in any sense of the word, and at 518 pages, this isn’t a quick weekend read either. The book is meant to be savored, and in fact that is the only way to survive this dense tale: read, absorb…read, absorb…repeat until finished.

Fife references many photographs of the Tour as he writes, and while he thoughtfully includes a small handful for the readers, I was left wanting more. There are so many references to scenes from the past that a companion photo album would not be out of the question. Perhaps a future edition may address that one shortcoming?

If you are a fan of the Tour, a cycling historian or anyone who loves learning about professional cycling, this is a fantastic book to read. It can be an uphill slog at times to get through this massive volume…but the view from the top is worth it!

Thanks to our friends at the Independent Publishers Group for furnishing a complimentary review copy to us.

The Spring Classics are over, and we’re getting close to the Grand Tour season in pro cycling…in this era of “specialists” who train for particular races, what better time than to present a review of a book about a man who could (and just about DID) win everything he entered — stage races, track events, one-day classics, kermises?

As many of you know, I’m a fan of the professional racing scene…and have been since the early 80s, when I dabbled in some racing of my own. Anyone who knows anything about professional cycling knows the name Eddy Merckx — a true legend in pro circles. Merckx’s many records may never be eclipsed and the utter dominance he displayed in his racing career is the stuff of dreams for most other pros.

When our friend Jen at the Independent Publishers Group offered to send me a copy of William Fotheringham’s Half Man, Half Bike: The Life of Eddy Merckx, Cycling’s Greatest Champion (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2012), I eagerly accepted! This is the second Fotheringham book we’ve reviewed, the first being Cyclopedia: It’s All About the Bike, and the third of his books I’ve read (his biography of Fausto Coppi is fantastic).

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Let me just get this out of the way right up front: Fotheringham delivers once again! It is fair to say that he is my favorite cycling author…his combination of painstaking research and his ability to capture some very intimate human elements of his subjects makes his books a joy to read. As you might imagine, there are many dozens of books written about Merckx’s exploits during his racing career. Fotheringham thoughtfully distills much of this information into an easy-to-read and gripping tale.

As much as I love the post-war exploits of Coppi, Bartali and others, Merckx’s years in the peloton are my favorite “golden age” — when he and Van Springel, Anquetil, Gimondi, Godefroot, Ocana, Fuentes, de Vlaeminck, Sercu, Van Looy and many other notables duked it out on the roads and circuits throughout Europe.

Half Man, Half Bike begins as World War II is winding down and as Edouard Merckx is born in war-ravaged Kiezegem, Belgium. The author illustrates the difficult childhood Eddy had — including a stern, somewhat tyrannical father and a gentle mother who didn’t initially appreciate her son’s interest in racing. Merckx began his junior career in 1961, and found success quickly; his mother reluctantly agreeing to let him race rather than finishing his schooling. After winning the Belgian junior champion’s jersey in 1962, it wasn’t long before he made the jump to the pro ranks. And the rest, as they say, is history — with nearly 500 wins as a professional, including five wins each of the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, dozens of spring classics, and three World Roadracing Championships, his career was unparalled.

Fotheringham paints a vivid picture of Merckx’s quick rise to glory. He describes many of Merckx’s innermost thoughts about why he raced the way he did…the catalysts that drove him to dominate his rivals. The entire book is riveting — while I’ve heard many of the stories of Merckx’s wins on fabled Tour stages, the details Fotheringham presents truly capture the essence of the tactics, mindset and spirit of this champion. The author caught up with Merckx in the 90s and describes his post-racing business ventures and activities, but points out that:

What Merckx has given the sport can be seen in the way bike racing on the road has been perceived since his retirement. La course en tête as Merckx forged it remains the benchmark for the entire sport. The way he raced is the gold standard to which all professional cyclists and all their victories are compared.

If you like racing even half as much as I do, I cannot recommend this book enough. You’ll have a hard time putting it down. It’s readily available on the major online book retailers…so what are you waiting for?

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I missed a chance to meet Eddy Merckx at Interbike 2010. I got wrapped up talking to one of our advertisers and missed the “window of opportunity”. Luckily, my pal Moe had me covered — braving a long line to get me an autograph (being signed in the photo below):

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Over the past three or four years, there have been a number of “practical cycling” books to hit the market — following along with the resurgence in the U.S. of the bicycle as a sensible form of daily transportation. We’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to review a number of them right here on Bikecommuters.com.

If you’ve read any of them, you’ll notice that many of them tend to cover the same ground, for the same audience, with the same (or very similar) message. That’s fine, of course…most of them are worth the read even for the most jaded cyclist. But how can a book really stand out when there are so many other similar titles on bookshelves? It’s a quandary that even I have struggled with: I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a cycling book for a bunch of years…but how would mine be substantially different from those that came before me?

Holy Spokes: A Biking Bible for Everyone by Rob Coppolillo (San Francisco, CA: Zest Books, 2013) seems to have cracked that riddle handily: write a book aimed at TEENS! After all, teens and young adults are our next generation of cyclists…why not tailor a book to them and help develop interest in this very practical and wonderful mode of transportation that is also a pretty great recreational vehicle?

Holy Spokes

Holy Spokes covers a lot of the same territory as many other books on the market, but it is truly aimed at a younger, less-experienced audience. Coppolillo goes to great lengths to simplify the information presented for teen readers…at no point does the book get bogged down in technical jargon.

The author covers basic details on the full range of cycling experiences, from choosing that first bike to putting on a race number to bicycle touring and at-home maintenance. It’s all here, and it’s all written in a very accessible way. Throughout the book, Coppolillo injects some personal stories of his own cycling experiences as both a rider and writer (having written for VeloNews and other publications).

Coppolillo thoughtfully includes a handy resource guide at the end of the book. Sadly, our humble site was once again overlooked, but there are a number of other good ones listed. There’s even a pretty solid book list to encourage readers to track down more information on their new pastime.

The book is light-hearted and enjoyable to read. The more seasoned cyclists among us aren’t going to come away with any revelations from having read Holy Spokes, but hey: it’s not for us after all. If you have a young friend or family member, though, who has expressed an interest in two wheels, do them a huge favor and put a copy of this book into their hands. This might be just the information they need to start off on a lifetime of cycling love!

A few weeks before the kickoff to the 2012 London Olympics, I received an Olympic-themed novel in the mail: Gold: A Novel by Chris Cleave (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012). It is the story of Zoe Castle and Kate Argall, two track cyclists from Team GB who are friends off the track and fierce rivals on it.

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Character development is the make-or-break of any novel, and Chris Cleave delivers in Gold. He reveals each character slowly…Zoe’s eagerness to win at all costs and the demons in her past; Kate’s conflict between training for the Olympics and caring for her sick daughter Sophie. And conflict is the underlying theme here: Cleave captures the dynamic of two women who have a rich backstory together — they are each others’ arch rival, yet hold onto the most tenuous of close friendships. Their coach, Tom, is also conflicted — he wants both women to succeed as a redemption for his own failures as an athlete, yet he is forced to make choices between them. And then there’s Sophie…an unabashed Star Wars fan who wants nothing more to be healthy and to have her mother win in London.

Zoe, perhaps, is the most interesting character — she only knows how to win and is fairly helpless at anything else. The conflict and drama of her life off the track, her history, and her relationship with Kate, Kate’s husband Jack, and her coach is nothing short of epic. Will she find glory, or redemption, or a way to live with herself when all is said and done? The answer is right here in Gold.

Cleave also captures the essence of the athletes’ preparations without getting bogged down with technical details…most competitive cyclists will find parallels with their own routines (and laugh about some of them). Through the book, the author convincingly illustrates what it means to make sacrifices and to juggle family life, training, and caring for a very sick child.The book is fast-paced; one of those you just don’t want to put down.

Want to keep that Olympic spirit alive for a few more days? This book is a great way to do it…I thoroughly enjoyed it and am recommending it to all my fiction-reading friends.

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