Confessions first. I came to this book from two angles. I read and loved Bathurst's The Lighthouse Stevensons so I was desperate to get her take on things two-wheeled. On the other hand, I wondered if I was the reader she was aiming for after 30 years pedaling, although, hitting page five, it became clear I qualify on the same grounds as Bathurst herself, who wanted to write something for 'the sort of cyclist who liked cycling, and reading, and stories, and had long ago given up any desire to experiment with exogenous EPO.'
There is much to like here, a lip-smacking amount. First up, at her best, Bathurst is a cracking writer, with just what I had hoped I'd find: takes on bits of cycling I didn't know about, perfectly described, and refreshing visits to areas that are so familiar I need to be reminded of them again. The chapter on frame-building which opens the book is a marvelous description of a world that is slowly disappearing. Getting under the skin of Charly Wegelius, a super-domestique who will never get the recognition he deserves, is a task that needed doing.
Graeme Obree is eternally fascinating, although Bathurst was unlucky that his coming out came took late for her, due to the curse of hardback deadlines. The story of the cycling Atherton family had to be told, because like Wegelius, they deserve to be heard and recognized for their achievements. Similarly, the story of how cycling helped emancipate women is worth writing again, and again; Holland is always worth a visit as the place where riding a bike actually feels normal. And then there's the pure wacko stuff: the bloke in India who raced a train, the lady who watercycled to France in the 1920s.
So much to like, but then again, there's stuff that grates. No track cycling because 'it's out of people's reach'. Hmmm. And why go to the Tour of Flanders and Tour de France yet not even venture near amateur racing? Similarly, if you are looking at cycling and women, women's bike racing has boomed in the UK since the emergence of Nicole Cooke, Vicky Pendleton et al. but you wouldn't know it on reading Bathurst. Stylistically, the random use of the verbatim interview sticks out when set against the quality of writing that Bathurst produces. There is a place for giving full vent to the every word of taxi drivers and cycle couriers and this doesn't feel like it.
Finally I'd take issue with Bathurst's statements that bike racing 'has nothing at all to do with simplicity or joy' and that 'if it's fun, you're doing it wrong.' Great to read but unfortunately not true. I've spoken to enough bike racers over the years, at every level, and watched enough pros at play as well as playing at a lesser level myself, to know for sure that there is all-consuming pleasure amidst the pain, sheer straightforwardness amongst the myriad ramifications of any race. It's not mere masochism: at its best, racing is up there with sex in the simplicity and joy stakes.
But maybe I'm supposed to feel a bit of resentment here and there, a bit of grumpiness among the enjoyment. Bathurst makes it clear from the off that she's not going to please everyone. That's because, as she recognizes, we all have our unique visions of our sport, pastime or obsession. There's going to be stuff here I don't like, that you don't like: that's inevitable when you get someone's personal take on something you love. But the good here by far outweighs the glitches and the book is probably worth the cover price for one joyous sentence alone: 'at its best, what a bike gives you is love, and souplesse.'
William Fotheringham is a cycling journalist and the author of a number of well known cycling books his latest, Cyclopedia, is available at all good book shops
If you're the sort of cyclist who likes cycling, and reading, and stories this is for you
road.cc test report
Make and model: The Bicycle Book Bella Bathurst
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about it?
The author wanted to write something for 'the sort of cyclist who liked cycling, and reading, and stories, and had long ago given up any desire to experiment with exogenous EPO.'
It will certainly bear re-reading
Did you enjoy using the product? Very much so
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
About the tester
Age: 46 Height: 185cm Weight: 82kg
I usually ride: Condor My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, club rides, track racing