The Cycling Anthology – great writing, a volume at a time

Judging by the groaning, overflowing bookshelves of myself and my cycling friends, it’s safe to say that cycling, and reading about cycling, go together pretty well. I would suggest this is partly for the same reason that there are lots of great books about polar exploration, mountaineering and jungle expeditions – we enjoy a spot of armchair suffering – and partly because the sport has it’s fair share of gossip, innuendo and shady dealings; all useful ingredients for a good story.

I recently heard about the Cycling Anthology series and thought ‘well, that sounds great, but do I really need more reading material about the thing I spend most of my time thinking about anyway?’ But wandering around my local branch of a certain national book chain last week with a lunch hour to kill, I picked up a copy of volume 1 and flicked through it absent-mindedly.

Cycling Anthology
Cycling Anthology

Some minutes later (5, 10, 20?), I flinched and looked up…while the bookshop was getting on with it’s business around me I’d finished a chapter on Thomas Voeckler (without having made a conscious decision to start it), and was now half-way through a fantastic short piece about the one and only Mario Cipollini.

I took this instant absorption as my own ringing endorsement, bought volume’s 1 and 2 on the spot, and made plans for a new bookcase.

I don’t go in for book reviews and I tend to avoid even recommending books to others (it’s too subjective), but you can take this piece as my dazzlingly positive review of the Cycling Anthology series, and a recommendation for you to beg, borrow…or buy these books and discover some fantastic and original journalistic writing on cycling. They really are very good.

The books are made up of a chapter per topic written by some great cycling writers and journalists (including a couple of current, and former, pro-cyclists), who really know their stuff. Each contributor seems to have been given a free hand to explore a very specific area within the sport.

So, for example, in volume 1:

We get a piece on Aussie rider Adam Hansen and his achievement of completing his own grand slam; all three Grand Tours in one calendar year 2012 – only 31 other riders have done that. In one memorable passage we are reminded that Hansen is not a star of the sport but a domestique, there to fetch and carry for his team leader…yet still has ‘a talent that would make club cyclists gasp.’

In ‘Gone Biking’ David Millar talks poignantly about the text message he receives each morning from his friend, fellow Girona resident and now ex-pro Michael Barry, asking simply…’biking?’ They meet and ride their local roads like many of us do, but their conversations on the bike reflect on their parallel careers (Millar is soon to retire), and their own personal entanglements with the darker side of cycling.

On meeting up for one ride Barry says wistfully to his good friend, ‘it’s odd to think this is all cycling will ever be for me from now on’….meaning, a social ride. Millar reminds him that back in his home town of Toronto, at least ‘there aren’t many people who’ll be able to drop you.’

Owen Slot gives us the inside story of the Pendleton-Meares rivalry in women’s track cycling, describing the contrast between the muscular Aussie Anna Meares, and ‘girly’ Pendleton in her mini-skirts and sparkly sandals, horrified in her early years about the prospect of developing the masculine physique of an eastern European track cyclist. ‘She saw girls with mullet haircuts and big, muscular powerful body-frames…the Russian riders would even smack her on the bum in a patronising way, to let he know she was small, and not really in the right place.’

Which, quite frankly, sounds terrifying

Pendleton v Meares (Photo: Marc - Flickr CC)
Pendleton v Meares
(Photo: Marc – Flickr CC)

We also get, among other things, a fascinating chapter on ‘Project Wiggins’ by William Fotheringham, which manages to tell the story of the rise of Sir Brad with fresh and original insight; a piece on three time world champion Oscar Freire, recently retired and un-appreciated in his home country of Spain; and an appraisal of the singular and individual talent of Robert Millar – until recent years, Britain’s most successful Tour de France rider.

And the tie that binds all these chapters together?

Proper journalism; devoid of cliché, sound-bites or lazy assumptions. The Cycling Anthology series is a great antidote to our modern media culture of endless dissection, comment, snap judgement and sniping.

If you are interested in intelligent and original writing about cycling, and you can do without hyperbole and melodrama, my advice would be to buy volume 1 (for what costs, lets be honest, not much more than most glossy monthly magazines). If you don’t then find yourself making space on your shelves for volumes 2, 3 and beyond, I’d be very surprised.

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