Category: Book Reviews

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.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.

There are a large number of books targeting new commuters…some good, some bad. A few months ago, the publishers of The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2011) offered to send us a review copy. Authored by James Rubin, an L.A. based journalist, and Scott Rowan, a Chicago-area commuter and writer, the book intends to be a primer on the ins and outs of bicycle commuting…hoping to attract new riders to try this two-wheeled transportation thing.

It’s not a rosy picture, however. Start with the cover:

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If a book wants to attract people on the fence or new to the bicycle commuting world, why on EARTH would the authors/publishers choose such a disturbing image for the cover? My hackles were already up, and I’d barely cracked the spine of this book.

The book is divided into the chapters one might expect from such a guide: clothing, choosing a bike, safety issues, accessories, repairs and more. Nothing new here, but there is a good overview of the main issues and logistics in starting to commute by bike. Where this book really falls off the tracks is the authors’ insistence on circling back to the many possible negatives — theft, angry/dangerous motorists, breakdowns on the road, more angry/dangerous motorists, common collision scenarios and the like. I tried to read the book as if I was brand-new to the idea of riding a bike for transportation (a difficult mindset to put myself in, I know), and I was left with a feeling of dread: “man, this bike commuting thing sounds like a genuinely dangerous pain in the ass!” To be fair, many of the concerns and issues raised in the book are important for new (and seasoned) commuters to understand, if nothing more than to avoid such scenarios. But, the tone of the book is very off-putting. Yes, it can be hectic out there on the streets of the U.S. Yes, motorists and cyclists historically have had some issues getting along together. Yes, collisions can happen despite caution and preparation. Repeatedly harping on and on about it, though, drives away those people who might have considered bikes but are still making up their minds. As such, this book is a failure when it comes to providing that last bit of encouragement to a new commuter.

And that’s a shame, really, because the book DOES have a lot of good information, tips and resources contained within it.

One personal pet peeve is the authors’ use of the plural “we” and “our” to describe the events of a single person. During the authors’ visits to several L.A.-based bike shops, they were trying to determine how shops went about getting a rider on an appropriate bike. In one, a FitKit was used:

“For the FitKit, we stood on a nice piece of polished wood that looked like a shoe measure. The board had two holes at one end, and Carretero inserted a roughly 18″ aluminum tube that connected vertically to another piece of wood. The device resembled a surgical cane. Carretero unfastened a lock, and the wooden top rose steadily until it pressing firmly but not painfully into the bottom part of our crotch. We were 55 1/2 centimeters, which he dutifully wrote on a piece of paper.”

See what they’re doing there? I have no idea if this is grammatically correct (somehow I strongly doubt it), but it’s annoying as hell.

In all, the book fails on a few levels for me. As I mentioned earlier, there is a host of useful information in The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide, but too much time and effort is spent on the perils and fears that the “good message” comes through dimly. As it stands, I have a very difficult time recommending this book to anyone. There are a number of similar books on the market that are better suited to giving new commuters the tools they need to hit the streets. In fact, it’s ironic in that in this book’s resource guide, the authors call out MY personal favorite for a similar guide — The Practical Cyclist — by my friend Chip Haynes.

The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide retails for $14.95, but it is available on a certain online bookseller for as low as $10.00. If you’re trying to bulk up your cycling library, by all means, snap up a cheap copy. Otherwise, hang onto your money and spend it wisely elsewhere.

Please click here to read our review disclaimer as required by the Federal Trade Commission.