A new wave of books document the growing popularity of cycling as a genre, as well as the pure joy of its participants.
From pedal-pushing to pen-pushing: the flourishing art of bike-writing
Over the next three weeks, 190 professional cyclists take on one of the toughest challenges in sport. The gruelling mountain climbs and high-speed sprint finishes in the 3,430km Tour de France are, says the writer Bella Bathurst, the most intensely self-punishing experience she's come across. One of those riders, David Millar, vividly describes last year's tour as a "personal journey through suffering", in his new book Racing Through the Dark. After one stage, he weeps.
Bathurst and Millar are inheritors of a fine tradition of cycling literature, from the painful (ex-pro Paul Kimmage's award-winning Rough Ride) to the hilarious (Tim Moore's travelogue French Revolutions). The offerings lately, however, suggest an emerging golden age for the form. Bathurst is a novelist and author of intriguing non-fiction books about shipwrecks and lighthouses, rather than a typical sports journalist. Millar lists JG Ballard, Bret Easton Ellis and Cormac McCarthy among his literary influences. There's the sense, then, that as cycling continues its dramatic rise in popularity in many countries - as both a spectator and a participatory sport - its literature is not only more broadly read, but significantly more interesting and better written.
"There was nothing for people like me, who really loved cycling but wanted to know more about its history, the stories and the different types of tribes that are involved in it - from couriers to mountain bikers, to pro bike-riders and bespoke frame makers. So that was what I set out to write," says Bathurst. Her journey to understand cycling takes her around the world - indeed, one chapter on India has its genesis in a travel piece she wrote for The National. It's a fascinating piece of social history, because, although the cities are clogged with traffic, to ride a bicycle is to be seen as backward and poor.
"In the existential pecking order, it's down there with the goats," Bathurst jokes.
It's interesting that she should mention existentialism. Just as the novelist Haruki Murakami fashioned a meditative discourse in his 2008 non-fiction book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, the often solitary pursuit of cycling lends itself to thoughtful writing. In 200 Lance Armstrong, the seven-times Tour winner, wrote an account of his battle with cancer called It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. But he failed to convince the documentary-maker and writer Robert Penn, whose new paperback is called It's All About the Bike and has the subtitle The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels. In the book, happiness is a perfectly fashioned saddle as Penn documents his travels around the world to build his perfect bike. But it's also about something more fundamental. Cycling, he writes quite beautifully, allows him to take the "flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels. The bicycle saves my life every day".
"And I genuinely believe that learning to ride a bike is one of the handful of universal experiences that the majority of the planet can share. It's up there with childbirth!" he laughs, happily exhausted after one of his daily rides in the Welsh mountains. "It encapsulates our first experience of independence and freedom. And going fast! Whizzing down a hill on a bicycle. Wow! Everyone knows what that feels like."
Bathurst's and Penn's achievement in their books is that they play to the inclusive, elemental joy of cycling. Investigating the bicycle's long history while he's at it, Penn makes building one's own bicycle seem like the most natural, obvious and enjoyable thing to do. The book never declines into a dull, niche, "how to" guide. And yet, both writers say they would have struggled to get such books published in the past due to lack of interest.
"I used to know the first name of every cyclist on my commute," Penn laughs. "Now, in London, there are - honestly - bike jams."
So what's changed?
"Many things," says Bathurst. "Environmental issues, financial reasons in times of recession and health concerns have all got people on to their bikes in recent years. But what I think's interesting is that unless you love it, you're not going to stay on it. And people do realise that they have fallen in love with a bike in the same way they did when they first learned. Anybody can stay upright on two wheels and enjoy it."
Ned Boulting, a television reporter on the Tour de France who has just published his first, hugely entertaining book about his experiences on Le Tour, thinks that's why thousands of people line the route of each stage, camp on mountains to see a fleeting glimpse of their heroes, and watch in their millions across the world on television.
"This is one of cycling's great paradoxes," he says, packing his stuff for another one of the three-week jaunts around France so memorably deconstructed in How I Won the Yellow Jumper. "On the one hand Le Tour requires inhuman suffering. As a physical test, I would say, it's almost grotesque. But when you and I get on our bikes and ride five miles we are in effect doing exactly what they are doing. In our pathetic imaginations, we feel a bit like them, because if you look at the way you, me or [last year's winner] Alberto Contador pedals a bike, there isn't much difference. So you can lose yourself in this world where you think you are that person on the television. I can't do that with football, and I can't pretend I'm Roger Federer. But I can get on a bike. We can all do that."
How I Won the Yellow Jumper also skilfully makes it seem that we could all report on it too; refreshingly, Boulting isn't a grizzled ex-pro who has embarked on a media career. In fact, when he was first asked to cover Le Tour in 2003 he was so unaware of what cycle racing entailed, he was astonished to learn that the riders were grouped in teams. But the book isn't just a voyage of discovery about what Boulting calls this "mysterious, alien world of European bike racing". It also functions as an account of how, once we spin the pedals, cycling can make devotees of all of us.
Devoted enough to build our own bicycles? Maybe not. But it is striking that both Bathurst and Penn were intrigued enough by their investigations into the history of the bike that they realised it was the logical next step.
There are many famous people in Bathurst's book, from 2011's professional riders to Zetta Hills, who hit the headlines in the 1920s when she tried to "watercycle" across the English Channel. But Bathurst's hero is the man who helped her to make her bike frame.
"Seeing Dave Yates in action," she pauses, almost lost in the moment, "... well, there's a joy in watching anyone do something really, really well. But it was like pure alchemy. He is somebody who, genuinely, builds people's dreams."
And Penn's dream, built by Brian Rourke in the English Midlands using components gathered from across the world, is now also a reality.
"It's a total delight to ride, and I do so a lot," he says. "Is it a better bike in terms of performance than any other bike I've owned? I don't know. But do I get more pleasure from it? Absolutely."
The new wave of cycling literature suggests that there's just as much pleasure in reading about it, too.
• Follow the Tour de France until July 24 at www.letour.fr.