William Fotheringham’s top 10 cycling novels

Tour de France
Spoke words … the Tour de France.

William Fotheringham is the Guardian’s cycling columnist and the author of Cyclopedia: It’s All About the Bike, which is published by Yellow Jersey Press.  

“Two-wheeled life has proved a rich vein for publishers in the last 10 years, in tandem with the rapid expansion of the sport throughout the UK. Memoirs and biographies of racers abound, and the quality is generally high, but literature about cycling – whether for sport or pleasure – rarely breaks the surface and doesn’t tend to get into your local shop. Partly that’s because, for all its popularity, cycling stopped being a force for social change a century ago, but the recent dearth of two-wheeled novels may be also be down to the fact tha in recent years, the stuff that has gone on behind the scenes on the great races surpasses mere fiction. It would take a fair stretch of the imagination to come up with more curious stuff than cyclists hiding condoms of someone else’s urine up their behinds to “flick” drugs tests; more unlikely violence than sprinters raining headbutts on the opposition; more gruesome injuries than those unhappily suffered by the occasional crash victim in a major race. 

“The criteria I imposed were deliberately restrictive: the novel has to be centred on the act of cycling, rather than merely including bike riding as a means of transport or in background description. Sadly, this eliminated the short passage in The Sun Also Rises in which Hemingway describes the riders in the Tour of the Basque country, and on the same count I ruled out Alfred Jarry’s chapter on cyclists involved in a perpetual motion race in The Supermale.”

1. The Wheels of Chance by HG Wells

Charming if little-known short romance in which Hoopdriver, a clerk on a cycling holiday, rescues a young lady from a sticky situation and inevitably falls for her. The descriptions of the act of cycling and the mild satire on class distinctions are probably more alluring than the somewhat staid love story.

2. Cat by Freya North

Two-wheeled chick-lit in which the heroine, a journalist, sets out to report the Tour de France, inevitably getting entangled with some shaven legs along the way. Big egos and bigger bulges in the lycra shorts, as North puts it. Perturbingly, Cat’s boss at the Guardian is called William Fotheringham.

3. Bad to the Bone by James Waddington

Racy thriller in which top pros in the Tour de France become ensnared in a Faustian pact with a sports doctor who guarantees success but demands the ultimate price: their lives. Appeared in 1998, the year of the sport’s biggest ever drugs scandal. Twelve years on it still seems grimly apposite.

4. The Rider by Tim Krabbé

Surreal Dutch novel, available in translation, which depicts a bike race from within the mind of one of the racers, back story and all. If thought is the enemy of action, it’s hard to see how the rider ever made the finish. That apart, there are few better fictional descriptions of the process of racing. 

5. The Yellow Jersey by Ralph Hurne

Perhaps the most politically incorrect cycling novel ever, from the big-breasted lady on the cover to the narrator’s habit of calling possible sexual partners “it”. But the tale of washed-up shag-happy pro Terry Davenporting’s one last comeback to ride the Tour is curiously compelling, while the loss of most of the top cyclists after a drugs scandal is prescient for a book written in 1973.

 6. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Magical realist detective story by one of Ireland’s greats, featuring a pair of bike-mad policemen, celebrated for the “atomic theory” according to which bike nuts become half-man, half bike and the machines develop human characteristics. “You can tell a man with a lot of bike in his veins by his walk,” writes O’Brien. Some may question whether this is fiction.

7. Serse e la Bestia by Mauro Gorrino

Short Italian novel in which the protagonist is Serse Coppi, brother of the campionissimo Fausto, in a fictionalised account of his last race, an event in which he died. The beast represents either the voracious pack of cyclists chasing down the Italian, or the grim reaper whose pursuit of Serse is just as ineluctable.

8. The Big Loop by Claire Huchet Bishop

The only venture I’ve found into two-wheeled cycling fiction aimed at teenagers. Depicts the sepia world of the 1950s in which Frenchmen always win their own Tour and heroes are easily distinguished from villains. Sweet but sadly outdated now on both counts.

9. Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome

Eleven years on, the trio from Three Men in a Boat are reunited for a cycle tour through the Black Forest. Like The Wheels of Chance, it depicts cycling in its formative years, but as a series of comic vignettes. It includes the following immortal exchange: “There is a lot of uphill about a bicycle tour,” said George, ” and the wind is against you.” “So there is downhill, and the wind behind,” said Harris.

10. The Adventure of the Priory School by Arthur Conan Doyle

Conan Doyle wrote two Sherlock Holmes stories in which cycling figures prominently, the other one being The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist. In the Adventure of the Priory School, a kidnapping tale, the distinction between the marks left by bikes with different tyres – one with a patch on one wheel – is of great importance.


Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/14/top-10-cycling-novels

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