by Our Bicycle Lives
Trust a blog never quite attuned to the various events of the calendar (the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee, the festive season) to publish a post that sounds like a shopping list three weeks after Christmas! I wonder how many of you received a bike book as a present this year? Blogs on cycling abound but they have not superseded a healthy publishing niche. It seems a lot of cyclists out there can’t wait to read about . . . cycling. Or so our nearest and dearest believe. But reading cycling books and poring over photos of bicycles certainly encouraged me to experience it. The first stirring of an inkling happened while I was reading a feature article about commuter bikes: I was mesmerised by a yellow Airnimal bicycle, so much so that I designed a Christmas card around it that year. I also used to scrutinise the Guardian‘s guide to cycling with as much longing as an estate agent’s window. More than facts and information, I was seeking a cycling ideal – freedom, the great outdoors, beautiful machines – that would meet my aspirations and inspire me. For the same reason, I still remember vividly the evocative drawing of a little girl and her grandfather cycling home at dusk through quiet country lanes, in a book I read as a child.
Since I started cycling though, I would rather be out on a bike than curl up on the sofa with a book about bikes. As with chocolate or films, I prefer the real thing. I like full-page colour photos and so-called bike porn but how much more thrilling to come across a beautiful bike in the flesh and to experience the joy of cycling for real. If I’ve had many cycling books passing through my hands – I used to work in a book warehouse – only a few remain on my minimalist bookshelf. These days I favour practical books. Travelogues and ‘life in the saddle’ biographies make for interesting reading but, like many other things, I don’t necessarily want to own them. Feats of endurance, memoirs, personal accounts, it seems that one can’t cycle without writing about it (touché!). In Mythologies, philosopher Roland Barthes wrote an essay on ‘The Tour de France As Epic’: cycling as something worth telling, or that someone feels the need to tell, which is altogether different. But a book going that bit deeper, touching, through cycling, on life, catches my attention. Humour is a winner too, especially tongue-in-cheek internet humour, since a lot of reading is not done in books nowadays. It was a joy to come across BikeReader and its hilarious A-Z recently!
But, unless you’re this young man in Milton Keynes or an actor in a New Wave film wobbling his way through a book and the streets of Paris with the refreshing spontaneity of youth, cycling is not particularly conducive to reading. In fact, you’re missing out on all the public transport reading and an avid reader may look upon a puncture as a chance to catch up with it. If the advent of e-books has made it a lot easier to take enough books with you on a cycle tour, reading and riding at the same time remains a challenge (and the Reading Cycling Club is not what you think). Which is why I love the idea of the Bicycle Library bus in London which combines both and lends bikes and books about bikes.
Ever wondered why authors who are also cycling enthusiasts are such a common occurrence – H.G. Wells and Thomas Hardy come to mind – that in French it has given rise to the expression ‘écrivains-cyclistes’? I do think there is a deep connection between cycling and words, the ability of thoughts to freely enter my mind appearing linked to the movement of the pedals. For me, both reading and cycling are about getting into a comfortable, spacious rhythm. I would find cycling while reading text messages, for example, not only hazardous but completely antinomic. On the other hand, were I endowed with an extra pair of eyes, I could perfectly well imagine reading Anna Karenina on my way to town in one-hour chunks. I find cycling and reading so attractive because they both appeal to my imagination. With a book and on the bike, I have the power to create my own imaginary world: words conjure up images, just like city scenes conjure up thoughts. There is a similarity of process, a kinship in attitude, that availability and openness of mind which welcomes ideas and makes me feel incredibly alive.