I'm ashamed to confess that I only have Issue 2 of Rouleur - so all of Paul Fournel's essays on cycling were new to me when his book Veló dropped through the letterbox.
Split into six chapters with loose esoteric titles such as 'Need for Air' and 'Going Around' I was dreading a limp collection of odes to cycling for the new wannabe generation - a diluted Tom Krabbe re-thought by Sir Andrew Motion. Happily, Fournel is as French as his name suggests, lives in both Paris and what sounds like a particularly nice part of the Haute-Loire, and has distilled 60 years of cycling obsession into Veló.
Instead of yet more tales from Surrey Hills - or Hemingwayesque battles with the cogs and the Id over the Cols - Fournel presents a set of pitch perfect reflections on all aspects of cycling and pulls off the most difficult trick in cycle writing: delivering profundity with no pretensions.
A healthy dose of self deprecation always helps: from taking cover after realising that the line you've taken descending - that was wrong and took you into a ditch - is being followed by everyone behind you... to falling backwards off a spin bike in a California gym after fiddling with the saddle.
Veló is also advice and memories written as prose but feeling like poetry. Here's Fournel talking about maps.
"If I know the area, every centimetre of the map is a landscape laid out before me. If I don't know it yet, every centimetre is an imagined landscape that I will explore.... It's my storeroom, my wine cellar. It's the masterpiece that you have in your library and which you still haven't read."
It's a book for all those who've crested a hill on a summer's day and found themselves alone on a moorland road with just the sound of a passing bee for company; for those of you always waiting at a separate carousel for the bike box on family holidays - eager to get out next morning at dawn to explore what you've imagined on Google maps.
"I spent a long weekend in The Penedes in September 2009; the foothills to the foothills of the Pyrenees outside Barcelona, allegedly the training ground of Juan Antonio Flecha. A few of the beautiful roads seemed to have a diesel spill trail down the centre line - but after inadvertently running across a spillage on a corner I heard it crackle under the wheels and realised it was crystallised grape juice dripping from the grape harvest trailers I'd been seeing all morning."
Every page of Veló offers up similar treasures. Little moments of the road that Fournel offers up from a lifetime of riding experience:
"Summer has a very strong smell. You pass through pockets of sweet-smelling heat when the field cuts through a field of wheat or of rye, when you go out of a forest to enter a clearing."
In 'La Reprise' Fournel and his father poignantly revisit a favourite hill that his father is now too old to climb on his own.
"At this point, the road climbs into the meadow. It is full of sun. There is not a cloud on the horizon and we can see the bends above which hug the curve of the mountain. Far away, we can make out the deep valley of the Loire... ...But now that we have gone back out on the road together I know that it cannot last and that, soon, he will go on ahead of me."
When I'd finished reading I was trying to get a handle on what makes Vélo such a joy. It isn't just the writing and the gentle sensibility of the author. It's that the stories are nothing but positive - there isn't a single angry story in the whole book. Even when run off the road in California or when a car door is opened on him, Fournel picks himself up and is comforted by the apologetic motorist. In these days of ranting and bitching in an overpopulated country with motorists who resent sharing the road it's a treat to read about the emptier roads of France and dream of future trips.
The illustrations by road.cc's Jo Burt are Belleville Rendezvous meets Terry Gilliam. There is a lovely one of a spin group in a gym facing a floor to ceiling picture window with a beautiful landscape beyond. One rider is out a few bike lengths ahead of the rest - his spin bike pressed against the glass...
Fournel says in his introduction: "To ride is, for me, an enchantment - in the true sense of the term." Veló is an enchantment as well. It is destined to become a classic.
Joyous. Destined to become a classic.
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Vélo Paul Fournel
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes.
Would you consider buying the product? Yes.
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes.
I usually ride: Dolan Prefissio - winter bike My best bike is: Condor Moda Ti - summer bike
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Most days I would class myself as: Experienced
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, commuting, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding, Dabble in Triathlon
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