Few activities have as vast a range of literature as cycling. There are books on the bikes themselves, in all their variety; books on where to ride; on riding technique; on the great — and not so great — races; on cyclesport’s heroes and villains; and much more. Here are our picks for the books every cyclist should have in his or her collection.
William Fotheringham's latest book, Sunday in Hell, tells the story behind the making of the famous film of the 1976 edition of the Paris-Roubaix classic of the same name. Along the way he paints fascinating portraits of the professional racing scene of the era and some of the biggest names in cycling, with the bonus of an education in Danish avant-garde film-making to boot.
Fotheringham has made an excellent job of tracking down and interviewing the surviving main players, including cyclists Ole Ritter, Francesco Moser, Freddy Maertins and Roger de Vlaeminck. Jørgen Leth himself makes a substantial contribution to the book.
In the end, it'll make you want to watch the film again, which has to be taken as a sign that Mr Fotheringham has done a great job.
Read our review of Sunday in Hell
Professional cycling photographer Graham Watson has produced several books over his career, focusing on various aspects of the sport, but this one 'is the book that trumps them all for it covers everything under one title'. He makes the bold claim that 'it's the most complete photo-book ever produced by one single cycling photographer', and we certainly can't think of a stronger contender for the title.
Watson put his lens cap on for the final time after the Tour Down Under last year, which meant that he had been photographing the top level of the sport for just a few months short of 40 years. His first job in retirement was to work on this book, with editorial assistance from respected journalist Luke Edwardes-Evans. It is his first foray into self-publishing, which brings with it extra demands and responsibilities, but 'no end of control over my work'.
As well a collection of superb images, 40 Years of Cycling Photography has a strong autobiographical side, well told. Not only is the list of photographers with a large enough body of work to populate a book like this a small one, the number of those who can successfully supply the words to complete the page is even smaller. Watson has proven his ability over previous books and articles: I used to enjoy his 'Life through a lens' column for the now defunct Cycle Sport magazine, as it was as much about his thoughts on the racing scene and the background to his work as it was about showcasing his pictures – a bit like this book.
Juliana Buhring might just be the most remarkable woman cyclist on the planet. Raised in the Children of God religious cult, she escaped that life as a young adult and ended up in Kampala, Uganda doing what she terms "quasi-missionary" work distributing food and medical supplies to orphanages and schools by day and performing as a go-go dancer by night to pay the bills. After her soulmate was killed in a crocodile attack, she again pulled herself out of the darkness, this time by deciding she'd be the fastest woman to circumnavigate the world by bike.
This book is the story of a remarkable 152-day ride that, despite her lack of cycling experience, shot Buhring into the upper echelon of ultra-distance cycling where she continues to amaze and inspire.
The Cycling Jersey is the result of one man's passion for a piece of kit that defines cyclists the world over. Naturally the book has wonderful pictures of cycling jerseys (and lots of them), all presented in large, glossy, and colourful splendour. The book wants to be about more than just the actual jersey, though, and has several related articles and interviews. It may be a niche subject, but there is enough here to convince even the most committed Philistine about the beauty of jerseys and the 'craftsmanship, speed and style' that they represent.
Andy McGrath's Tom Simpson: Bird On The Wire is a beautifully written and designed book that brings a new dimension to a much covered cyclist thanks to some fantastic imagery and insightful writing.
Tom Simpson was one of the most widely respected cyclists in the professional peloton in the early 1960s and became the darling of British racing, arguably becoming the cyclist who paved the way for the likes of Chris Boardman, Bradley Wiggins, and Mark Cavendish to become world beaters. Fifty years after his famous death there has been a huge amount of commemoration, including this book.
'Bikes are booming!'
'Bikes are not booming!'
Both statements are true: it just depends on what you are measuring and over what period. The message from Bike Boom, by Carlton Reid, is that despite appearances, bike usage is not as good as it has been, and is certainly not as good as many of us would like it to be, so what can be learnt from history to help create the conditions that might lead to a genuine bike boom?
Some of you will have been involved in a mini-boom in the bike market, such as when mountain bikes first appeared, or more recently the MAMIL-led growth in road bikes – but in many countries, says Reid, 'there is no bike boom right now, nor has there been one in the United Kingdom or the United States since the early 1970s'.
In Bike Nation, Peter Walker provides invaluable information on every discussion that you are likely to encounter when making the case for cycling, and from the chapter headings you can tell that he gets right to the point: examples include 'The miracle pill: bikes make everyone more healthy', 'Fear and near misses: the battle to feel safe on the roads', 'Why cyclists are hated', and 'If helmets are the answer, you're asking the wrong question'.
That last one questions the idea of making helmets use compulsory, 'or even to overly encourage them as a supposed safety panacea' – and is likely to be the most contentious, even (or should that be especially?) among those who have not read it.
In his latest tale of throwing himself in the deep end on an epic cycling journey, Tim Moore brings his much-loved wry humour to a trek along the Iron Curtain on a £50 shopping bike. The one-liners and the horror stories come thick and fast.
The main reason to buy Zinn & the Art of Road Bike Maintenance is that it's likely to be the most up-to-date, the most comprehensive and the most thorough maintenance manual available for road bikes, and is a worthy successor to previous editions. I am a great fan of the detailed line drawings that are used to such good effect here (perhaps because I used Richard's Bicycle Book in my formative years, which has a similar style); they make any task so much easier to explain and understand.
If you're even casually interested in cyclesport, all six editions of this series of collections from the world's best cycling writers deserve a place on your bookshelf. As we said of volume one:
"The Cycling Anthology is professional pro cycling journalism for grownups. There are no lazy clichés, egotistical pretences to any inner circles; no soundbites or gossip presented as fact for the cheap thrill of basking in all the retweets. 14 of the world's best writers on cycling and David Millar (who apparently knows a fair bit about cycling...) have offered up 15 gems."
That standard continues right through the series to volume six, in which editors Ellis Bacon and Lionel Birnie maintain their record of contributing to every volume so far. Three writers appear for the first time including Felix Lowe who writes the Blazin' Saddles blogs for Eurosport, and recently won 'Blogger of the year' at the Cycling Media Awards. Another new entry is Robert Millar, who is becoming as well known for his writing as his cycling. Finally there is a LeMond, but not the one that you might expect: Kathy LeMond 'writes about what it was like to support her husband during some of his bleakest days'.
Read our review of The Cycling Anthology Volume one
Read our review of The Cycling Anthology Volume two
Read our review of The Cycling Anthology Volume three
Read our review of The Cycling Anthology Volume five
Read our review of The Cycling Anthology Volume six
Chris Boardman has been making headlines for over 30 years, and in that time he has been the subject of numerous articles and interviews. As a result, some of what you read in Triumphs & Turbulence may be familiar – but here you get the full story, told in typical Boardman style with his usual dry humour.
Tim Moore is a glutton for punishment. That's the only conclusion you can reach from the journey at the heart of this book. Moore set out to follow the route of an edition of the Tour of Italy that 90% of the starters didn't complete, and to do it on the rebuilt remains of a 1914 bike, wooden rims and all. Fortunately, Moore is a very funny glutton for punishment; Gironimo! will have you laughing out loud.
'Coffee table book' can have negative overtones, but Michael Blann reclaims it with this 'luxury' (his own word) coffee table collection. To qualify, a book usually needs to include lots of large high quality pictures, and in that respect Mountains delivers. Some coffee table books give the genre a bad name by offering little else, with no reading material of any substance – and that is where Mountains sets itself apart, with several well-known professional cyclists contributing short essays to the book.
"Get off the road!". That angry order some motorists shout at cyclists ought to become the longer, but historically more accurate: "Hey cyclists, thanks for the roads and the cars!" Carlton Reid's Roads Were Not Built For Cars sets out to demonstrate how cyclists led the charge for better roads, and it does so in a very readable and thorough manner.
Not only were roads not built for cars, they were not built for bikes either. Pedestrians were the first to take advantage of the pre-set routes, along with four-legged horse power. However, Reid argues that it is a motoring-centric view that roads are just for transport, and that in the past they have been seen as a public space for other uses. We still see glimpses of that today when roads are closed for sporting events, or when royalty give us an excuse for a street party.
Faster: The Obsession, Science and Luck Behind the World's Fastest Cyclists by Michael Hutchinson — £8.46
Michael 'Dr Hutch' Hutchinson has been one of Britain's most successful time trial riders for the last several years. He's also an amusing, intelligent and analytical writer and in 'Faster' he addresses his own obsession with speed on the bike, examining the ways a rider can improve, and demolishing myths. As our reviewer Dan Kenyon said: "Hutchinson deals with realities not beliefs. It's a list of the incredible diversity of variables that may or may not affect performance and a discussion of how difficult it is to say that what works for one athlete will work for another."
With all the recent high-tech attacks on the Hour Record, this account of Dr Hutch's old-fashioned attempt on the record is an insight into how much things have changed since the mid-2000s, as well as being laugh-out-loud funny.
Spoiler alert: he didn't break the record, run then under the UCI's 'athlete's hour' rules which hobbled riders with 1960s technology, but this book pulls literary and comic success from the jaws of sporting failure.
Before he became a thorn in the side of cycling's governing body and egregious cheats, Paul Kimmage was a domestique for the RMO and Fagor teams in Europe, eventually quitting in disgust at his inability to compete against riders who used performance-enhancing drugs.
Published in 1990, Rough Ride mostly deals with Kimmage's struggle to adapt to the pace of life as a European pro, but it's the sections on doping that caught widespread attention.
We tried to get our fitness expert Dave Smith to choose a book on training and cycling fitness, but there aren't any he felt he could wholeheartedly recommend.
Until Dave gets round to writing The Big Book Of Going Faster On A Bike, he says: "Anyone who wants to race should read Phil Gaimon 'How to be a pro cyclist on a day'. If I had to choose one, that would be it."
Gaimon became a pro rider almost by accident, discovering he had talent after starting riding just to get around, and eventually ending up with a berth at Garmin-Sharp. His story is told with self-deprecating wit, warmth and blunt honesty.
No selection of cycling books would be complete without some incarnation of Richard Ballantine's seminal Bicycle Book. This 2009 guide to urban survival was the spiritual successor to Ballantine's original paperback, which morphed into various coffee table books in the 1990s.
Ballantine tackles cycling from the vantage point of city riding and breaks the book into five different sections. Each flows effortlessly into each other, and doesn’t feel tired or repetitive despite having a very familiar format thanks to his conversational, authoritative and engaging delivery.
The 1986 Tour de France was supposed to see five-time winner Bernard Hinault hand over the leadership of his La Vie Claire team to rising star Greg LeMond, and to help LeMond win his first Tour. It was to be payback for LeMond's loyal support the previous year.
But instead of supporting LeMond, Hinault went on the attack, claiming he was attempting to wear down LeMond's rivals, but looking a lot like he was going for his sixth Tour victory. What was really going on?
If the shiny bits we all ogle, weigh and covet are affectionately termed the generic bike porn, this book is the equivalent of Delta of Venus: erotica for the cycling fan. It's an account of Penn's search for the perfect bits for his perfect bike, but the joy of the way he has written this is that it's not just techie stuff for technoweenies.
Penn's paean to steel and the dying breed of custom frame builders is sung to a Brian Rourke frame. Reynolds and Brooks get their due, so too DT and Royce. A trip to Italy takes in those entertaining chaps at Cinelli as well as the somewhat more straightlaced guys at Campagnolo, and he even manages a quick digression down Repack way en route to picking up some extremely recherché wheels from Gravy in Fairfax, California. Well, why not? If opportunity knocks, let it in.
It's all approachably written, the right mix of enough info without being overpowering, and it zips along happily like a comfortable steel-framed bike powered by the right pair of legs.
Every cycling library should have a history of the Tour de France, and this 352-page slab that covers the race's first 100 editions is the definitive official record. Authored by Tour historian Serge Laget among others, it covers the races from the Tour's early years as a tool in a newspaper circulation battle, through the heroic era of the 1950s to the helicopter-televised modern Tour of triumphs and scandals.
This super little book gives you a heads up on some of the best climbing to be had in Great Britain. With detailed information on each ascent and an I-Spy style table at the back to check them all off, it's a book that's got a long shelf life.
It's a sterling effort and one made much better by the addition of the table for ticking off the climbs and recording your time. That simple addition makes the book much more than the interesting bathroom reading it could have otherwise been. You get something to aim for, as well as something to read.
Since this first book, Simon Warren has added literally a dozen more, covering British regions in more detail and nipping across to Belgium and France to document the classic ascents of road racing legend.
This is a book written entirely by women, mostly about women, but certainly not just for women: the revolution in the title refers to the increasing participation of women in so many aspects of the sport, and this book celebrates that involvement.
The Guardian's Matt Seaton said of Dutch journalist and novelist Tim Krabbé's fourth novel: "Nothing better is ever likely to be written on the subjective experience of cycle-racing."
The Rider tells the fictionalised story of an edition of the Tour du Mont Aigoual race as his protagonist struggles on the tricky descents, and dispatches his rivals on the climbs. It was the first literary success for a writer whose later novels include The Vanishing and The Cave, and draws convincingly on Krabbé's own experience as a racer.
Art illuminates life; life imitates art. The route of the Tour du Mont Aigoual took on a life of its own as riders followed the loop in the hills of France. In 2003 Krabbé attended a sportive on the route, his racing days long past and in no shape to take part. Inspired by the riders tackling 'his' cols, Krabbé trained hard so he could take part the following year and in the process returned to bike racing.
With rare exceptions, today's elite cyclists are dull drones mouthing meaningless platitudes while dodging WADA. Tom Simpson was very different.
The manner of his death dominates any story about Tom Simpson. He succumbed to heat stroke and cardiac failure on the slopes of Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. He had amphetamine in his bloodstream.
But what Will Fotheringham finds as he explores Simpson's life is a trailblazer, a huge talent and a true character. Simpson was as much a victim of the woeful state of sport science at the time and the brutal schedule pro racers endured as of his own burning ambition. His story, affectionately told by Fotheringham, is one every cyclist should read, even if they're not very much interested in racing.
Over to you
Is there an essential book we've missed? Let us know in the comments.
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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.