Cycling Books That Have Inspired MeJan Heine
I recently thought about my favorite books. There are many, and they span a wide range of topics, from Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince to The Art of the Motorcycle. Here are six of my favorite cycling books, in no particular order. This is not a “recommended reading” list; it’s a personal list of books that have inspired me. In any case, many of these books are difficult to find or written in French or Japanese.
From Repack to Rwanda was a gift from Jacquie Phelan. It’s a catalogue for an exhibit by the SFO Museum at the San Francisco International Airport. From Repack to Rwanda chronicles the development of the mountain bike and shows great studio photos of dozens of pioneering machines. It starts with the Schwinn Klunkers, then the first Breezers and Ritcheys, Cunninghams, the 1981 Specialized Stumpjumper, as well as wonderful machines like the Ibis Bow-Tie with its pivot-less Sweet Spot suspension. It’s by far the best book on the subject, and the fact that it was given to me by a mountain bike pioneer makes it all the more special. Thank you, Jacquie!
Bernard Déon’s Paris-Brest Et Retour really turned me on to the history of French randonneurs and their wonderful machines. I met Déon at the finish of my first PBP in 1999 and ordered the book shortly thereafter. The book’s reports from the early races and later randonneur events were fascinating, but I was equally impressed by the bikes. I realized that if riders like Roger Baumann had completed PBP in 50 hours through rain and wind in 1956 on René Herses, then the bikes must have been very good, and not mere show-pieces, as many assumed at the time.
I became determined to learn more about this event and these bikes. In a big way, this book was at the start of Bicycle Quarterly, Compass Bicycles and even my own randonneuring. Unfortunately, this book was printed only in a small run, so it’s almost impossible to find. And Déon’s style requires greater-than-average proficiency in French.
The Japanese have been excited about French cyclotouring bikes much longer than I have even been alive. They have published many wonderful books on the subject. My favorite is this gorgeous tome about Toei, the famous builders from Tokyo. Unfortunately, I cannot read the Japanese text, but the photos alone make this a favorite. It shows in great detail how Toei’s style developed over the years, until it reached close to perfection in recent decades. This book still is in print, and we may be able to import it and offer it in the Bicycle Quarterly Bookstore.
Simon Burney’s Cyclo-Cross is a great how-to guide for aspiring ‘cross racers. It was strongly recommended by a friend in the 1990s, who was the Master’s Women national champion. I tried to absorb every line of it, and if I had any success in cyclocross, it was thanks to Burney’s clear advice. Mine is the first edition, with Graham Watson’s action shots that add to the appeal of this excellent little book.
My copy of Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike doesn’t have a jacket, so there is no photo here. Originally given to me by its English translator (and Bicycle Quarterly reader) Allan Stoekl, I greatly enjoyed this little book. Fournel is a philosopher, who writes about why we ride. On every page, I smiled and nodded my head. For example, Fournel writes about a spring on a descent. He’s never seen it, but he knows it’s there because he feels the cool air as he rides past it. This sustains him for miles afterward.
I lent my copy to a friend who was very ill and never got it back. I finally managed to track down a hardcover copy from a library sale. Need for the Bike is the only book on this list that is currently available in the U.S. (paperback).
Routes, Risques, Rencontres translates to “Roads, Risks, Encounters”. Its author, Lily Serguéiew, was an artist who decided to ride from Paris to Saigon in 1938, on her aluminum Caminargent bike. She took her time, learning the language in every country she traversed, drawing, and meeting the local people. Her adventures are both breathtaking and sweet.
In the former category is her trip through the desert of Turkey, despite being denied a visa, which led to her being chased by the police for several days. The sweet moments included being invited to participate in a wedding in Greece. Her trip ended prematurely when World War II started while she was in Aleppo (Syria). She returned to France, where her book was published in 1943. If you read French – the language is less complex than in Déon’s book above – I recommend trying to find a copy.
The final book here is Hilary Stone’s Ease with Elegance. This story of Thanet Cycles, the makers of the famous Silverlight machines, lives up to its name. Different from so much “cycling history”, it’s a well-researched yet engaging read. The “guv’nor” (Les Cassell) must have been quite a character! It’s a truly charming book that had me dream of a Thanet for years. I got my book directly from the author, Hilary Stone, and I believe he has some copies left.
What are your favorite cycling books?