I am a cyclist. I am female. While I enjoy hills (going both up and down them,) I don’t necessarily want to read books about the 50 greatest hill climbs, or competitions, or hard men in lycra who perform masochistic cycling feats. Don't get me wrong, I can get nerdy about components, and I've cycled the last four Dunwich Dynamos. On one long cycle tour I was asked the eternal existential question, ‘why are you doing this?’ by a French guy in a campsite, watching us load our rear panniers with tent, sleeping bag, camping stove etc and make our way uphill, and at times, I kind of agreed with him. But cycling for me is less a sport and more an experience. I'm in it for the way it makes you think differently, the perspective, the peacefulness, the constantly changing visual landscape and the way the humility of a bike enables you to connect with the people in the places you cycle through, something you just don’t get from being in a car or on a train. So while there’s of course nothing wrong with books about races and hill climbs, I’m personally looking for a more inclusive, non-competitive and more thoughtful read. And with that in mind, here are a few of those.
Lost Lanes by Jack Thurston
Wild Things Publishing, 2015
This is probably one of the most frequently used books on my shelf. It contains 36 rides in the countryside surrounding London and the South East, mainly on B roads and lanes, with rides that vary in distance and elevation so you can choose one to suit your mood. Every ride includes a pub stop halfway and sometimes a wild swim. Jack Thurston’s thoughtfully chosen rides include a narrative description containing hidden places of interest such as a tree cathedral, the Dengie marsh in Essex (technically classed as a desert) the atmospheric pebbled peninsula of Dungeness and Derek Jarman’s house, the London stone at the mouth of the estuary, stone circles, Roman forts and a bike jumble. The beauty of this book is that each ride gives you (via a download code) narrative instructions if you don’t like maps e.g.'turn left at the church', which folds down into a quarter A4 and can fit in your pocket or you can choose to follow the GPX map on your phone. This book will bring you joy.
This ad-free magazine, founded by a passionate grassroots Bristol collective, takes as they put it, a sideways look at cycling. Of all the bike magazines out there, it’s one of the few that balances the gender bias, giving equal column space to the experiences of women who cycle, while showcasing fresh young illustrators in every issue. The latest issue (number 19) explores, for example, the new wave of bike collectives across Europe, the healing power of inclines, the alchemy of the frame builder’s fire and the eerie in the English landscape. Above all, it’s a celebration of the human side of cycling.
I Follow the Wind by Louise Sutherland
Southern Cross Press, 1962
Second hand, prices vary.
I'm amazed at how few books have been published about cycle touring, so when my eagled eyed charity shopping friend found a signed copy of this book written in the fifties, I was so excited. It’s an account of a young female New Zealander Louise Sutherland who cycled around the world on her own in 1949 on a bike costing 2 shillings and a small trailer full of her belongings. When she returned 7 years later, she printed and bound the book herself. The book begins; ‘I realised that in front of me there were thousands of miles through many contrasting countries, that I had money enough for food and the cycle for transport, that in fact the whole world was my oyster and I was on the brink of opening it.’ which is enough to make you want to start packing your panniers. Sadly no longer in print, but available second hand.
Messengers by Julian Sayarer
Arcadia Press, 2016
So there are quite a few London cycle courier books out there, but this is certainly the most passionate among them. If you've ever wondered what it's like to cycle 70 miles a day every day of the week on minimum wage delivering to some of the richest addresses in London, this book is for you. It covers Julian Sayarer's time working as a cycle courier in London and gives not only an insight into the sub-culture of the courier community but also one of the best blow-by-blow accounts of the physical act of cycling, interwoven with meditations on politics and social inequality. This year Julian won the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year award for his first non-bike related book, Interstate, a timely hitchhike across the States exploring politics from the roadside before the election. In the spirit of John Berger (who in 1972 donated half of his Booker Prize winnings to the Black Panthers), Julian donated half his prize money to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction Stories by Elly Blue (ed.)
This is the fourth volume of the successful Bikes in Space series of feminist science fiction stories about cycling, funded by Kickstarter and published by Microcosm in Portland, Oregan. This is a fresh collection of dystopian and utopian stories from twelve writers about love, community, resistance, futuristic cycling utopias, technology, what thrives under state control, gender norms and always bikes.
How to Build a Bike by Jenni Gwiazdowski
Frances Lincoln, 2017
The author Jenni is the founder of London Bike Kitchen, a drop-in DIY bike workshop in Hoxton whose aim is to empower customers with the knowledge and tools to fix their own bikes. LBK also offers classes on cycle touring, map reading and has a Woman and Gender Variant night twice a month. Jenni's first book was also created to empower cyclists with the know-how to build a complete single speed bike with help on everything from choosing the right components to teaching you how to dismantle an existing vintage bike for its frame and parts. It's fully illustrated and is released next week, check out the launch here - with bikeoke!
Mind is the Ride by Jet McDonald
To address the lack of non-competitive cycling books that are published, two years ago I teamed up with Jet McDonald, lead writer at Boneshaker Magazine, to find a publisher for his book Mind is the Ride, a book that addressed all the things I found lacking in cycling writing and more. It's a book about cycling and philosophy that uses the components of a bike as metaphors for philosophical ideas. Woven into the narrative is Jet's own cycle tour from Bristol to the southern tip of India, each chapter and each component of the bike fitting together to make a kind of rolling jigsaw from Western to Eastern philosophy, helping us to understand the pleasures and pains of cycling, and somehow also the pleasures and pains of life. We went with the crowdfunding publisher Unbound in the end and fully funded the project with hundreds of pre-orders. The book is coming out via Cornerstone, part of Penguin Randomhouse in 2018 so watch this space!
Cycling the 6 by Stephen Fabes
Stephen Fabes, an intensive care doctor working at St Guys Hospital recently returned from cycling around the world for SIX years. As we speak, he’s writing a book about the experience, in which he describes the kaleidoscope of crazy things that happened to him on his journeys out to the hinterlands of, for example, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Alaska, Bolivia, the list goes on. But Stephen also writes about his experiences visiting tiny medical projects who are serving people on the edge of society in slums, shanty towns, refugee camps in a quest to understand more about inequalities in health. In doing so he pushes himself to his own limits of exhaustion, illness, loneliness and, as he puts it ‘uncomfortable self-reflection.’ He’s a brilliant writer; funny, self-deprecating (see this blog post about his mum being obsessed with a more famous adventurer) and a natural storyteller, so I’ve got a bookseller’s hunch that he’s about to be snapped up by a keen-eyed publisher. In the meantime just read any of his blog posts.